Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Moral Code? Not in Upperworld!

The Film Forum in New York City recently had a four-week film festival of sorts showcasing Depression-era movies. How appropriate with today’s recession-plagued economy, don’t ya think? Well, being the busy gals that we are, we didn’t learn about this awesome showcase until, uh, it’s final week. Oops. Instead of dwelling on what we missed (It Happened One Night on the big screen! Sigh…), we decided to check out at least one film. So last Thursday we viewed a flick from 1934 that neither of us had heard of: Upperworld. Since it’s not on DVD and probably won’t be anytime soon, I figured I’d offer you a basic recap.

Starring Warren William, Mary Astor and a young Ginger Rogers, the film had all the elements of pre-Production Code goodness. Wealth! Affairs! Murder! Immorality rewarded! It was very much a product of its times, yet it’s still an entertaining ride. (Bonus: it clocks in at a mere 73 minutes.) Here’s the gist: Wealthy railroad tycoon Alexander Stream (William, who was apparently a huge pre-Code star) meets a spunky burlesque performer named Lilly Linda (Rogers, a stand-out even in her pre-Astaire days). He falls for the dame even though he’s married. His wife (Astor) is too preoccupied with social engagements to notice. When Lilly’s manager (other lover?) threatens to extort Alex for his fortune, things turn ugly. Both Lilly and the other dude end up dead, and Alex tries to cover up his involvement. The truth comes out, though, and Alexander ends up in court where the jury finds him…not guilty. Even though he is. And his wife takes him back. Even though he cheated. And they both sail off to Europe. Even though that’s ridiculous.

Had Upperworld been made after the Production Code (which began being enforced in 1934), it would have been a very different film being that the code’s three main principles were:

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

In other words, they tried to make movies squeaky clean. Thank goodness for films like Upperworld which remind us of early Hollywood's true scandalous spirit.

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