Notes for the Tenth Lecture.





1 hour 6 minutes



Two Points from Last Lecture (1) Jolson and Iron Eyes Cody both not what they appear in films were well regarded by the people they impersonated because of their involvement with the causes of the people they impersonated. (2) Sam Warner who spearheaded Warner Brothers move to sound and The Jazz Singer died the day before the premiere of The Jazz Singer. So none of the brothers were able to attend the premiere Comedy is a complicated topic. What strikes people as funny varies from individual from one time to another, from one person to another and from one culture to another. (American Circuses do not bring their clowns to Japan, the Japanese do not find them funny).

There do seem to be different kinds of ways to define some aspects of comedy. For example, there is physical comedy as opposed to verbal comedy. During the silent film era, physical comedy took precedence with "prat falls", "pie in the face" etc. which often resulted from a loss of dignity and perhaps allows the viewer a sense of superiority

One definition of a "pratfall states"

"A pratfall is a type of fall where a person lands on their buttocks. It is often used in comedy to create a humorous effect in plays, movies, and other forms of entertainment. The pratfall effect is a social psychology phenomenon where an individual’s perceived competence changes after they make a mistake. Highly competent individuals tend to become more likeable after committing mistakes, while average-seeming individuals tend to become less likeable even if they commit the same mistake". The Camridge dictionary defines pratfall as
noun [ C ]
mainly US
a fall in which a person lands on their bottom, especially for a humorous effect in a play, film, etc.
an embarrassing defeat or failure

Merriam Webster defines pratfall
Synonyms of pratfall

1: a fall on the buttocks
2: a humiliating mishap or blunder

Slapstick Comedy

Wikipedia gives the following definition of "Slapstick"
Slapstick is a style of humor involving exaggerated physical activity that exceeds the boundaries of normal physical comedy. Slapstick may involve both intentional violence and violence by mishap, often resulting from inept use of props such as saws and ladders.
The term arises from a device developed for use in the broad, physical comedy style known as commedia dell’arte in 16th-century Italy. The "slap stick" consists of two thin slats of wood, which make a "slap" when striking another actor, with little force needed to make a loud "and comical"sound.
The physical slap stick remains a key component of the plot in the traditional and popular Punch and Judy puppet show. More contemporary examples of slapstick humor include The Three Stooges, The Naked Gun and Mr. Bean."

Its characteristics include:
As a noun:

1. actors’ faces, mugging, and obvious farcical situations and jokes.
2. a stick or lath used by harlequins, clowns, etc., as in pantomime, for striking other performers, especially a combination of laths that make a loud, clapping noise without hurting the person struck.
As an adjective 1. using, or marked by the use of, broad farce and horseplay: a slapstick motion picture. (

Often takes what would be bad situations and makes them "funny".

Verbal Humor

Jokes, double entendres etc. puns
Often seen as a more "sophisticated" kind of humor, although "puns" have a reputation for being good if the hearer "groans" at the supposed joke.
Jokes (which when physical are thought of as "pranks") These usually take the form of short stories with a "punch line" at the end.
Double entendres (double meanings) and suggestive forms occur as well when a line can be read with 2 different meanings.

Man: I’ve heard a lot about you.
Mae West: But can you prove it?
Suggestion is of a bad reputation. Some rely on some knowledge,
Jack Benny, a famous comedian whose "persona" rests on his being a cheap skinflint had the record for the longest laugh on radio. He was being robbed and the robber said "Your money or your life". No response. Again the robber asks "Your money or your life" And yet a third time at which point the robber says "Well???? Your money or your life" and Benny replies "I’m thinking, I’m thinking".

Ethnic humor and stereotypic humor which involves taking a perceived characteristic of group and using it for a comic effect.

Scots are "cheap" (frugal?).
American Indians are "taciturn"
Poles ae stupid
Q: How many Polacks does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Three - one to hold the bulb, and two to turn the ladder.
Interestingly enough many of the ethnic jokes can be found I which the ethnicity alone shifts.
Once again, the ethnic joke like that falls can involve a feeling of superiority of the people telling it when they are not of the same ethnic or cultural group.
Mother in law jokes What is an example of ambivalent feelings?
Watching your mother in law drive your brand new car off a cliff.
And so on.


Pre code and early code

Pre-Code Hollywood is the period in American filmmaking between the Silent Era and the institution of the Hays Code (1929-1934). Pre-Code films have become synonymous with progressive ideals and bold subject matter. Many of the topics and themes addressed in Pre-Code movies wouldn’t return to in American filmmaking until the 1960s. The Hays Code was a rulebook established by Will Hays as an attempt for Hollywood studios to "self-censor" to appease the moral majority.

It is the era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound (talkies) in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) censorship guidelines. Although the Code was adopted in 1930, oversight was poor and it did not become effectively enforced until July 1, 1934. Before that date, movie content was restricted more by local laws, negotiations between the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) and the major studios, and popular opinion than strict adherence to the Hays Code, which was often ignored by Hollywood filmmakers.

It is as well, defined as the period in American filmmaking between the Silent Era and the institution of the Hays Code (1929-1934). Pre-Code films have become synonymous with progressive ideals and bold subject matter. Many of the topics and themes addressed in Pre-Code movies wouldn’t return to in American filmmaking until the 1960s. The Hays Code was a rulebook established by Will Hays as an attempt for Hollywood studios to "self-censor" to appease the moral majority.

Pre-Code Hollywood Characteristics:

Progressive Ideals
Empowering Women
Social Issues
Monsters and Mayhem
Commentary on the Church
Compare with problems of censorship today on social media etc.
Who establishes (or decides) what is and what is not truth?

Frankenstein 1931 had problems because of the line "Now I know what it feels like to be God" (covered with thunderclap)

Later arguments about the films I am Curious Yellow ; Whether Marlon Brando’s Last Tango in Paris should get a "X" rating. It got NC-17

(Many production companies hoped for an "X" rather than "NC-17" because it generated more business).


i. Problems with performers, William Desmond Taylor, Fatty Arbuckle Scandal, etc.
ii. Involvement with religious groups
iii. Early attempt to control
(see Coen Brother’s film Hail Caesar which deals with a "fixer" who tries to keep actors awkward behavior out of the papers)

Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle (March 24, 1887 - June 29, 1933)

Arbuckle was an American silent film actor, comedian, director, and screen writer
His career began at the Selig Polyscope Company. He eventually moved to the famous Keystone Studios. He was very famous and worked with such stars as Mabel Normand and Harold Lloyd. He also performed with his nephew, Al St. John. He was a mentor too many famous comedians Charlie Chaplin, Monty Banks and Bob Hope. He was also responsible for bringing vaudeville star Buster Keaton into the movies. Arbuckle was extremely popular stars of the silents stars during the 1910s and one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. He is reported to have signed a contract in 1920 with Paramount Pictures for $1,000,000 a year (equivalent to $14.6 million in 2022).
His career however, came to a sudden end when he was accused of the rape and manslaughter of Virginia Rappe, a model and "a bit part" player in some films. The event was said to have occurred at a party given by Arbuckle at which Rappe was found ill, was taken to the hospital and died 4 days later. A doctor who examined Rappe said there was evidence of rape, and the death was caused by a ruptured bladder from chronic urinary tract infections. One of Rappe’s friends accused Arbuckle of the rape and manslaughter and the police concluded that the impact of Arbuckle’s overweight body on top of Rappe was the "real cause". This led to three separate trials between November 1921 and April 1922. The first two trial ended in "hung juries" whereas the third not only acquitted him but gave him a letter apologizing for his treatment by the justice system
The event and subsequent trials led to enormous publicity by much of the media including Randolph William Hurst’s papers (Hurst is the supposed model for Citizen Kane). Hurst allegedly said that the scandal sold more papers than the sinking of the Lusitania.

Many actors who knew his well gave testimonials for his gentleness and even called him "the most chaste man in Hollywood" Despite the acquittal, Arbuckle’s career was destroyed. Adolph Zukor head of Famous Players-Lasky convinced motion picture industry censor, William Hays, to ban his films w hich he did. It lasted for a year. It led to a moral outcry from many organizations about the immorality in the movie industry.

This was not the only disaster in terms of deaths and publicity. Director William Desmond Taylor, who had directed fifty-nine silent films between 1914 and 1922 and acted in twenty-seven between 1913 and 1915 was killed on Feb 1 1922. His body was found the following morning and it was determined he had been shot in the back, The case remains open to this day,

Thomas Harper Ince, silent film maker was found dead on Nov 16th 1924. Doctors claimed he died of a heart attack, but rumors circulated. His death was on a private yacht owned by William Randolph Hurst! There were stories that Ince had been bleeding from the head as a result of a bullet wound.
Whatever the truth of the stories the newspapers seem to have loved them because the more lurid they were the more papers they sold, but it had a chilling effect on Hollywood because it implied licentiousness, sex, and everything people said they were against but loved to read about vicariously

The result was a growing pressure to establish rules for "proper behavior" in the films and also in the performers which led to "morality clauses" in contracts.

The Code and its development. Its growing impact on film over the years

Censorship has its good and bad points as we see again in social media battles over whose lies are acceptable and whose are not and who decides.

In many cases the censors were sufficient naive or dense that they missed a great deal of what was going on (or maybe they thought the average person wouldn’t get it and if you were smart enough to catch it, then it didn’t need to be censored for you! Who knows? In the Val Lewton’s (producer) 1942 Cat People directed by Jacques Tourneur, the question of a woman’s frigidity is the subject of the text and yet the censors surely missed it. How do you miss a wedding banquet in a restaurant in which snow is falling outside? Well, maybe you can. As we know things are open to interpretation.


By 1921, 37 states were legislating rules about censorship in films. With each state differing (and capable of altering the legislation) the production companies recognized the impossibility of conformity to all these various bills. In 1922 the numbers of bills had increased.

It was decided to form an association like the one that was formed by the baseball leagues that would set up rules and guidelines. The baseball scandal occurred with the Chicago White Sox team which threw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds for money. As a result of the scandal. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed the first Commissioner of Baseball

The association, Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) which would (self) regulate the movie industry chose as its head William H. Hays who had been the postmaster general under former US President Warren G. Harding. Hays was also a Presbyterian elder giving him both political and religious status. (The NY Times referred to him as "The screen Landis").

The Catholic Church was vocal on the matter claiming that "smut" was bad enough in silent films but in sound it was infinitely worse. There was a cry for punishment for breakers of the code. This led to a statement "A Jewish owned business selling Catholic theology to Protestant America".

In June 13 of 1934 the "code" was adopted which created The Production Code Administration. Added to the code, was a requirement that a certificate be issued to a film to be released on or after July 1 1934, before it could be released.

The code under Hays was modified on occasion and again under Joseph I. Breen, a prominent Catholic layman who succeeded him.

THE CODE Specifically, the MPPDA resolved, "that those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated".

1. Pointed profanityby either title or lip-this includes the words God, Lord, Jesus, Christ (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd, and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
4. Any inference of sex perversion;
5. White slavery;
6. Miscegenation;
7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
8. Scenes of actual childbirth-in fact or in silhouette;
9. Children’s sex organs;
10. Ridicule of the clergy;
11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;
and....BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized: 1. The use of the Flag;
2. International Relations (avoid picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry);
3. Arson;
4. The use of firearms;
5. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, et cetera (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
6. Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
7. Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
8. Methods of smuggling;
9. Third-Degree methods;
10. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
11. Sympathy for criminals;
12. Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
13. Sedition;
14. Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
15. Branding of people or animals;
16. The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
17. Rape or attempted rape;
18. First-night scenes;
19. Man and woman in bed together;
20. Deliberate seduction of girls;
21. The institution of marriage;
22. Surgical operations;
23. The use of drugs;
24. Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a "heavy".

The first film to hit censorship problems was Tarzan and His Mate in which there was a brief nude scene with a body double for Maureen O’Hara. It was cut out of the negative.

Director Edward Dmytryk later said that the Code "had a very good effect because it made us think. If we wanted to get something across that was censorable... we had to do it deviously. We had to be clever. And it usually turned out to be much better than if we had done it straight”. He might have said the same thing for low budgets!


Film contains an young Cary Grant who teamed with West in several films. It is said she saw him on the lot and said "If he can talk, I want him"

He had appeared in vaudeville and on Broadway and in 8 films before this. West is often said to have discovered him but this is not true, he had made movies such as Blonde Venus in which he starred with Marlene Dietrich.

His two films with West, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel Immediately after saved Paramount from bankruptcy. It should be noted that films like this and "singing cowboy westerns" which are constantly ignored or laughed at by film critics but were the films that gave the studios the money to the films the critics swoon over. In the history of the movie business, they were the staple.

Notice also Louise Beavers who plays Pearl in She Done Him Wrong. She went on to make about 35 films between this film (She Done him Wrong -1933) and her critically well received performance in the original Imitation of Life (1934)! After that she slipped back into minor roles. Five years later Hattie McDonald became the first African American to be nominated for and win the best supporting role Academy Award for Gone with the Wind at the 1940 Academy Awards.

Mae West Mary Jane "Mae" West (August 17, 1893 - November 22, 1980)

She was a singer and actress but almost more of a personality,

She was born in The City of Brooklyn i.e. before Brooklyn incorporated into New York City, on January 1, 1898

She appeared in 1911 in a play called Vera Violetta, in which Al Jolson appeared. In 1918 she got her big break appearing in Sometime with comedian Ed Wynn (who appears as "Uncle Albert" in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins.

In 1926 She starred on Broadway in her play Sex. Known for her outspokenness, which drove the censors insane and remained throughout a thorn in their sides. Her material originally appeared on stage and although theater has always been more open about things than films, her plays were regularly raided by the police. Given titles like Sex” this was not surprising. Her character is typified by several characteristics:

1. Physically "sexy" walk which is claimed she developed from watching female impersonators of the time (pansy) Bert Savoy ("You ain’t heard the half of it; You slay me") and Julian Eltinger, who were popular during the late 20’s and mid 30’s when "drag queens" became a popular form of entertainment in cabarets and speakeasies.

This seems to have led to the rumor that Mae West was actually a male drag performer.
2. Her contralto (deep voice) and delivery
3. She is a woman who makes no bones about being sexual and enjoying it and being aggressive about getting it.
4. She is a kind and generous person who often helps people out - often women and children
5. She is interested in money and jewels (although as in this film she is generous as well) Note her hostility to someone who asks "the wrong way"

She also wrote her own plays under the name Jane Mast which were "risqué" and as a result termed "morally objectionable"

Her first Broadway show was Sex and it was raided by the police and the cast arrested (including West) for "corrupting the morals of youth".

She was sentenced to 10 days in jail or a fine. She chose jail on the idea it would help box office. It did and her popularity rose. She was called "The bad girl who had climbed the ladder of success "wrong by wrong"

For much of the history of movies and theater, being censored was to be hoped for. Everyone wanted to see what was "morally objectionable"!

Her next play was called The Drag and dealt with homosexuality, and while it opened out of town it never made it to Broadway because of groups pressuring the city government to block it.

West was actively for women’s rights but not militantly so. Her statements on homosexuality are mixed. In her biography (Goodness had Nothing to Do With It 1959) she says:
"I have always hated the two-faced, the smoother-over folk - the people who preach loudly one way of life, and then do something in private that they’re against in public. In many ways homosexuality is a danger to the entire social system of western civilization. Certainly a nation should be made aware of its presence—without moral mottoes—and its effects on children recruited to it in their innocence. I had no objections to it as a cult of jaded inverts, or special groups of craftsmen, shrill and involved only with themselves. It was its secret anti-social aspects I wanted to bring into the sun."

Later she wrote in her 1975 book Mae West: Sex, Health, and ESP: "I believe that the world owes male and female homosexuals more understanding than we’ve given them. Live and let live is my philosophy on the subject, and I believe everybody has the right to do his or her own thing or somebody else’s - as long as they do it all in private!""

She is also quoted as having said: "I believe that one day the world will judge the witch hunt against homosexuals just as harshly as it judges the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust."

The film is constructed with a number of staged numbers. It is set largely in a NYC Bowery bar cabaret or bar with a performance stage in the 1890’s. It is a time of variety acts and singing waiters. The years of prohibition in the US are from 1919-1933 Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified on January 16, 1919. Prohibition ended with the ratification of the Twentyf-irst Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment on December 5, 1933. So the film was released the same year prohibition ended. However the film is adapted from the Broadway play Diamond Lil which ran in 1928 during prohibition)

Notice here, that despite the fact the film is 5 years after Sunrise and 6 years after The Jazz Singer, that film techniques (i.e. photography) have all but disappeared. The film has few tracking shots or even pans). Although sound improved enough to avoid early problems, the aesthetics of the pre sound films seems to have been lost. Few of the rich film techniques appear any more

Some visual symbolism is apparent: bars indicating entrapment not only in the prison but in the bannister of the balcony. There are also images of people appearing in frames (of pictures, of doors) also indicate entrapment. Remember the prisoner who keeps says "I was framed" and in fact it is Lady Lou who is being "framed".

There are indications of "specularizing" (making something a spectacle by looking at it - mostly of West - she shows her photos, and of course the painting of her over the bar. The film deals with a kind of role reversal in which West takes on the "role" normally assigned to men (the reversal of "He done her wrong" from Frankie and Johnny to "She Done Him Wrong". Are there ways in which the reversal could be shown in filmic terms or does the camera still have a "male glance" i.e. does it look at what men look at rather than what women look at.

Film Techniques

Scarcity of pans and tracking
Most 2 shots with cameras on the speakers - few reaction shots
One wipe, and one dissolve.

Intertextuality in the music again.

Opening shots about the Bowery: "The Bowery the Bowery we don’t go there any more"
Bicyclists on the street sequences uses "Bicycle Built for two"
Man cleaning up after the horse uses "The Old Gray Mare"
Guy thrown out of bar "Pop Goes the Weasel" (open to many interpretations)
Man at piano plays "After the Ball is Over" which ends ("Many the hearts are breaking after the ball")
Remember that many writers and fim makers are well read and often slip in these "intertexuality" pieces and not just in music

Title She Done him Wrong a turn on "He done her wrong" from the song "Frankie and Johnny", which is used behind the titles and later she sings it.

Frankie and Johnny were lovers
O Lordy, how they could love
They swore to be true to each other
Just as true as the stars above
He was her man but he done her wrong
The Name "Lady Lou" (changed from BWay Diamond Lil) is from The Shooting of Dan McGrew, a poem in which 2 men wind up dead and the woman coes out on top

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.
Two guys kill each other - one is Dan McGrew. The poem winds up: These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.
They say that the stranger was crazed with "hooch," and I'm not denying it's so.
I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two
The woman that kissed him and - pinched his poke- was the lady that’s known as Lou.
SHE ALSO SINGS her own song "A Guy What Takes his Time" and "I Wonder where "My Easy Rid’s Gone" ostensibly about a jocky on whom she could be at won but now that he’s gone she loses. Of course the entire thing has sexual significance like “Back in the Saddle” can have” (P.S. There is a Diamond Lil bar
179 Nassau Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222 · ~7.2 mi
(347) 725-2939)
I have no dea if it named for West’s character or not)

West is perhaps known for her double entendres and innuendoes. Here is a list of some quotes from Mae West. Some are comical but some reflect her philosophy on life:

Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.
Sex is emotion in motion
A hard man is good to find.
I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.
When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad I’m better.
I consider sex a misdemeanor, the more I miss, de meaner I get.
Men are like linoleum floors. Lay ’em right and you can walk all over them for years.
Women are like roads. The more curves they have, the more dangerous they are.
Well behaved women do not make history.
Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.
Positive thoughts generate positive feelings and attract positive life experiences. You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.
Never mind about the six feet. Let’s talk about the seven inches.
Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.
I’ll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure.
I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.
Your real security is yourself. You know you can do it, and they can’t ever take that away from you.
I believe that one day the world will judge the witch hunt against homosexuals just as harshly as it judges the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust.
The best way to behave is to misbehave.
I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.
Sex with love is the greatest thing in life. But sex without love--that’s not so bad either.
Everything’s in the mind. That’s where it all starts. Knowing what you want is the first step toward getting it.
His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.
We’re intellectual opposites. Well, I’m intellectual and you’re opposite.
If a little is great, and a lot is better, then way too much is just about right!
How tall are you big boy? Six foot nine inches! Let’s go up to my place and talk about the nine inches!
It is better to be looked over than overlooked.