In the early days of the movie industry, Hollywood studios came under a great deal of pressure from religious and community groups to clean up their act. Studios couldn't help noticing they were losing money in cities where civic leaders were banning their pictures. As a response to the pressure, Hollywood agreed to a form of self censorship, and in 1930 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), later called the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), devised a Production Code, which they began rigorously enforcing by 1934. Known in the early years as the Hayes Code or the Hayes Office because of its primary censor, Will Hayes, and still later as the Breen Office for Joseph Breen, it stayed in effect until 1968, when Hollywood adopted the MPAA film rating system we know today.
So, it's always fun to see a motion picture made before Hollywood instituted the Code, if only to see how much filmmakers got away with back then. On the present disc, VCI Entertainment present two such pre-Code movies, "Hell Harbor" from 1930 (Inspiration Pictures, United Artists) and a co-feature, "Jungle Bride" from 1933 (Chadwick Productions, Monogram Pictures). Let me tell you a little something about "Hell Harbor" first.
Adapted by Fred DeGresac from the novel "Out of the Night" by Rida Johnson Young, "Hell Harbor" tells the lurid tale of a man trying to sell his daughter for profit. Fortunately, its director is Henry King, who knew his way around a movie set. He directed classics like "Stella Dallas," "Ramona," "Stanley and Livingston," "A Bell for Adamo," "Twelve O'Clock High," "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," "Carousel," and "Tender Is the Night." He does what he can with the melodramatic script for "Hell Harbor."
Fortunately, too, he had the lovely Lupe Velez as his star. She was enough to need a Production Code just to cross the street. The setting is a sleepy little village somewhere on the coast of Cuba. The prologue describes it (with questionable punctuation) as "a port in the Caribbean--once a stronghold for the blood thirsty pirates, who roamed the seven seas." Velez plays a young woman named Anita Morgan, none other than the great, great, great granddaughter of Morgan the pirate. I told you it was melodramatic. She's spirited, spunky, and naive, and she wants no part of the plan her father (Gibson Gowland) is trying to promote by selling her to a lecherous local shopkeeper, Joseph Horngold (Jean Hersholt). She even laughs at the idea of marrying the much older and unattractive man.
When Bob Wade (John Holland), an American trader sails into the harbor, potentially to buy some pearls from Horngold, Anita first figures to kill him so Horngold will not have enough money to afford her; then, as we expect, she falls for the handsome young American. In fact, she begins begging him to take her away with him, but, you know, he's a squeaky-clean guy and will have no part of it. Not, that is, until he falls in love with her, too.
By the end of the movie, which comes all too soon (the short version is only sixty-four minutes, the longer version eighty-four), Wade thinks somebody is trying to bamboozle him, and the two older men are at each other's throats.
Human trafficking, larceny, murder and attempted murder, lust, and romance, this movie has it all. Plus, there's Ms. Velez in a low-cut dress leaning forward every chance she gets.
The real action doesn't start until the final quarter hour, however, and then it becomes fairly predictable. So mainly it's the exotic locale (the filmmakers shot it along the Florida coast) and the colorful characters (Harry Allen as Peg Leg, Paul Burns as Blinky, and Rondo Hatton debuting as a dance-hall bouncer) that catch one's interest.
The co-feature on the disc, "Jungle Bride," comes across as less inspired and, if anything, even more melodramatic than "Hell Harbor," as three men and the luscious Anita Page get shipwrecked on a deserted island, with the usual complications. Yes, of course, she removes her clothes at one point, but code or no code, she doesn't show much. Oh, and there are lions and tigers and bears. Well, lions and leopards and hippos and chimps, anyway. And a guitar. I'm not sure which is worse.
On a final note, I doubt that either of these films, somewhat notorious in their day, would receive anything worse than a PG rating by today's standards. Whether that's good or bad is beside the point; just an observation.
VCI present "Hell Harbor" in two versions, a sixty-four-minute version that saw the widest-release (transferred from a mint 35mm nitrate print) and an eighty-four-minute limited-release version (transferred from the only known 35mm nitrate print in existence). It's interesting comparing the two, both in their original 1.37:1 ratio formats. The shorter version is cleanest, with modest definition throughout and generally free of most egregious age marks. However, its black-and-white contrasts vary from acceptably deep to slightly washed out, and its grain varies from very little to moderate. The longer version displays much more wear, with quite a few lines, flecks, specks, and rough spots. Yet it also exhibits the more sustained deep-black levels and the more glowing whites, making it look simultaneously dirtier and sharper than the shorter version.
"Jungle Bride," on the other hand, looks better than either version of "Hell Harbor" all the way around.
The shorter version of "Hell Harbor," taken from the mint 35mm print, is certainly quiet, but in removing most of the background noise, the audio engineers removed quite a lot of high end sparkle as well. The result often makes the dialogue sound soft and muffled, making it sometimes hard to understand. On the other hand, the longer version uses less (or no) noise reduction and actually sounds better for it. "Jungle Bride" has the best of both worlds, its Dolby Digital 1.0 reproduction pretty decent most of the time.
For bonuses, VCI offer the two versions of the film I've mentioned and the "Jungle Bride" co-feature. There are twelve scene selections available in the disc menu for the shorter version of "Hell Harbor," but you'll have to use the "Skip Forward" button on your remote to access chapter stops on the other two. Then there's mention on the keep case of an "original theatrical trailer," which I never found.
Nobody is going to mistake "Hell Harbor" for an Academy Award winner, but it does have an appealing cast, especially Ms. Velez, and some appealing location shots. For fans of old movies, its adventure and romance might catch the eye. "Jungle Bride" may have a tougher time finding an audience.