If you had to sum up what it’s like to talk with Elliot Lavine, cinema programmer extraordinaire, scholar of film history and engaging raconteur, it might be the moment when an emergency vehicle went by the room where I was interviewing him on February 17, 2106. While ruminating on studio policies about film restoration, he didn’t miss a beat while acknowledging the intrusive sound and then working it into the conversation.
We were there to talk about his upcoming series, HOLLYWOOD BEFORE THE CODE: SEX! CRIME! HORROR!, running at the Castro Theater every Wednesday from February 24 through March 30, but the substance of the conversation was about what made these films made before 1934 so very different from the ones produced afterwards (it wasn’t just sex that was considered taboo), and what caused the film community in Hollywood to submit to self-censorship rather than allow the government involved. Personally, I had always mourned the films that might have been if the code had not been in place, but Lavine, as always, brought a new perspective to the issue, placing the creativity of the time in the context of the cultural upheaval and economic disaster that was the Great Depression, and positing that without the code, the film business itself may have collapsed. Radical idea? Sure, but I think he makes the case.
As for the films themselves, most presented in 35mm, he compared the pleasures and perils of celluloid versus digital, explained why THREE ON A MATCH is the perfect starter kit for people new to pre-code films, agreed with me that Edward G. Robinson’s performance in TWO SECONDS might be his finest, and remembered the magic that was John Gilbert in DOWNSTAIRS. And that was before we got to Todd Browning’s FREAKS.
Lavine talks about the impact of the code on films, and how sophisticated audiences suffered using examples from his current retrospective taking place at the Castro Theater for six consecutive weeks starting February 24, 2016. For more information about this and other series from Lavine, click here.