Monday, August 1, 2016

Photo Book Review: Sin in Soft Focus

I had read several years ago Mark A. Vieira's book Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits and, as a photographer, had found it extremely useful.  Vieira, who is himself a portrait photographer, had actually known Hurrell and was thoroughly familiar with the techniques he had used to create his dazzling black & white portraits of the famous film stars.  Some of these, such as the use of fresnel lighting, were fairly obvious while others, such as the choice of orthochromatic film to lighten skin tones, were not readily apparent.  The book was essential reading for anyone who wanted to create old style glamour photos.

I found Vieira's Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood to be equally absorbing if not quite as informative on a technical level.  The work deals with the roughly five year period from 1930 to 1935 when that era's moral majority laid siege to Hollywood and sought to censor the wild and wicked films issuing from its studios.  As such, the narrative offers a parallel to our own day when rapid technological advances threaten to undermine traditional beliefs.  In opposition to one another are the leaders of a relatively new industry against those who see change as a menace to the status quo.  In a certain sense, the real concern of moral authorities was with the medium itself rather than with its content.

The "highly objectionable" content of 1930's films seems to us now, of course, perfectly tame.  Watching these old films on cable, one wonders what the fuss was about.  Depictions of such subjects as cohabitation, adultery, drug use and homosexuality became acceptable decades ago and are now routinely shown in film and print.  The creation of such an organization as the Legion of Decency in 1933 seems quaint and old fashioned.  But the question of censorship remains as relevant now as it did then.  Who is qualified to determine what material is fit to be seen by the general public?

The book is divided into five chapters each of which deals with a given calendar year and details within that twelve month period the struggles between each of the major studios and the censors who had been put in place to keep watch over them.  The original code, established in 1930 after the introduction of the first talking film, was a more or less voluntary affair and consisted of the implementation of guidance rules.  (Individual states, however, possessed their own censorship boards that were empowered to make cuts to any films they deemed objectionable.)  This obviously provides material for some amusing anecdotes as studio heads attempted by hook or crook to get their films past the keepers of the Code.  But for the studios, the situation was deadly serious.  They had enormous sums of money, at least by Depression standards, riding on each film and needed as large an audience for them as could be found.  To that end, it was imperative that the studios include some controversial material simply to lure movie-goers into the theater.  Having films bowdlerized cut into box office receipts at a time when the poor economy had already reduced audience size.

While most of the actors and directors mentioned in the book are familiar to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of film history, the real players are such studio executives as Irving ThalbergJack Warner and Darryl Zanuck and the Code enforcers such as Will Hays and Joseph Breen.  There are many behind-the-scenes glimpses of a now vanished era when the studios were run by a few strong willed individuals rather than corporate conglomerates .

The real stars of Sin in Soft Focus, though, are the stars themselves.  They look out at us from one film still after another, each photograph a tour de force of technical skill.  Almost every major actor of the period is portrayed here though obviously most attention is paid to those - such as Norma Shearer and Mae West - whose performances were most controversial.  The photographs themselves are lovingly reproduced and form the real heart of the book.  Vieira's genuine love for these masterworks is evident throughout, and he makes it a point to identify the photographer wherever possible and to point out to the reader the qualities of the photograph itself.  Aside from portraits of the actors, there are stills showing scenes from the various films.  Many of these - such as those from Madame Satan or The Black Cat - are electrifying even after the passage of so many years.

While Vieira's book is most useful to photographers, it should be read by anyone with an interest not only in motion picture history but also the history of American censorship.  In both instances it is an invaluable reference.