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In the early 1930s, Hollywood films were under attack for being too risqué. These films seem tame by modern standards, but at the time they enraged women's groups and the Catholic Legion of Decency, which produced a list of films that all Catholics were supposed to boycott. Although these groups comprised only a very small percentage of the population, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Budgets and salaries were being cut, so any economic threat had to be taken seriously. The biggest target of the blue-noses were the films of Barbara Stanwyck, especially Baby Face (1933) and Illicit (1931).
Movies have always been censored, from its earliest days in the 1890s where each city had its own censor to act as guardian of public morals, to today's Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) film ratings. In 1930, Will H. Hays, the former Postmaster General during the Harding administration, was now acting as head of the forerunner to the MPAA. That year he released what would be known as "The Production Code": a list of what could and could not be seen on screen. Specifically, the Code decreed that: "The sanctity of marriage and the home had to be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationships are the accepted or common thing. Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option." The Production Code wasn't made mandatory until July 1934. Had it been so in 1931, Illicit would never have been made.
Shot at Warner Brothers in late 1930, Illicit was twenty-four year old Barbara Stanwyck's first starring role. Based on an unproduced play by Edith Fitzgerald and Robert Riskin, it's the story of a woman who is sleeping with her boyfriend and doesn't want to get married because she thinks it will ruin the relationship. After being pressured by his family, the couple get married and their relationship takes a nosedive. Today a film about a woman who doesn't want to get married wouldn't raise an eyebrow, but it was shocking stuff for 1931. Some local censor boards banned the film or any mention of its title.
James Rennie, a stage actor who is probably best remembered as actress Dorothy Gish's husband, plays Stanwyck's boyfriend/husband. Price Baines, the 'other man' in Stanwyck's life, was originally to be played by former matinee idol Lew Cody (himself best remembered as husband to another silent movie star, actress Mabel Normand), but Cody became seriously ill before production began and was replaced by the up-and-coming Ricardo Cortez.
Mordaunt Hall, in his New York Times review of the film, wrote, "In this story, an intelligent adaptation of a play by Edith Fitzgerald and Robert Riskin, the real conqueror is not marriage, but love. Although the happenings in this production are not particularly dramatic or original, the tale is well worked out and whether Richard and Anne are frowning or cheerful, their doings are always interesting. Here and there the episodes strain one's powers of credulity, but as they are part and parcel of the plot one has to accept them. Barbara Stanwyck gives a most effective performance as Anne. James Rennie measures up to what is desired of him in the role of Richard. The inimitable Charles Butterworth, whose comedy is always so welcome, gives an emphatically amusing portrayal of the intemperate Georgie. Ricardo Cortez does quite well in the minor role of Price Baines and Natalie Moorhead lends her flaxen beauty to the part of Margie."
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: Edith Fitzgerald (play), Robert Riskin (play), Harvey Thew
Cinematography: Robert Kurrle
Film Editing: William Holmes
Music: Harold Arlen, Archie Gottler, George W. Meyer, Sidney D. Mitchell
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Anne Vincent Ives), James Rennie (Richard Ives), Ricardo Cortez (Price Baines), Natalie Moorhead (Marjorie True), Charles Butterworth (George Evans), Joan Blondell (Helen Childers).
by Lorraine LoBianco
The Internet Movie Database
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