Without a doubt, there are plenty of iconic lip locks from the films of the 1930s and ‘40s, often accompanied by lush orchestrations that infer burning passion. But characters rarely make out like they mean it. Classic film kisses tend to be rigidly closed-mouthed, as if the lovers are trying not to catch something.
Long before I refined my own tonsil hockey technique, I was struck by the frozen-faced fakeness of black & white movie make-outs. It didn’t help that I grew up in the sex-crazed ’70s, when TV cops, doctors, private investigators, lawyers, and cyborgs were ready for action before the first commercial break. If popular culture reflects the mores of the time, it sure seemed like I was missing out on a lot of fun during the Me Decade. And, the classic films I watched during those formative years suggested that this was, somehow, a new development, that people didn’t really behave like that in the “good old days.”
For years I was baffled by this sexless smooching. “Did soldiers bring back new kissing methods from overseas after World War II?” I wondered. Then I read the Motion Picture Production Code, the self-censorship guidelines instituted by Hollywood’s Hays Office in 1930 in the face of growing controversy over film content, and everything started to make sense:
“Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown,” Section II of the Code stated.
Thankfully, director Gregory La Cava and executive producer David O. Selznick kicked this dictum to the curb in the college-based drama THE AGE OF CONSENT, perhaps the hottest and most sexually honest black and white film I have ever seen. Of course, there’s nothing in this 1932 RKO release that would even approach the frank content of films produced after the Code was retired in 1968 and replaced with the letter-based rating system still in use today. But the extent to which the young unmarrieds in this film exist as realistic sexual beings is shocking. For 72 steamy minutes, pretty young things talk about sex, pursue sex and, in at least one case, actually have sex. And they all kiss each other like they desperately want to tear off their clothes and get it on.
Even more surprising: the ones who want it the most are the women. That must have raised a lot of Depression Era eyebrows (and blood pressures) in the summer of 1932.
THE AGE OF CONSENT opens on the campus of a generic institution of higher learning known as State College. The exact location of the school isn’t mentioned, but later references to a highway called Jericho Turnpike suggest it’s Long Island, New York.
In a series of brief blackout sketches, fresh-faced undergrads in suits and dresses perform the timeless mating rituals of courtship: a love-struck lad recites poetry to his disinterested date; a cooing coed curls up on the lap of her skittish suitor; a girl in glasses gossips about a bold beau; and our hero, straight-laced sophomore Mike Harvey (Richard Cromwell), ignores his studies to fantasize about his crush, Betty Cameron (Dorothy Wilson). Most striking in this sequence: a strapping young buck who shares his feelings on physical intimacy, direct to camera: “If you ask me, it’s more important than food and drink!” Take that, Mr. Hays.
Meanwhile, back in the classroom, Betty plays tic-tac-toe to keep herself awake through a lecture on cell mitosis by Professor David Matthews (John Halliday). Outside, jazzy bad boy Duke Galloway (Eric Linden) leans on the horn of his fancy roadster, with a different type of biology lesson in mind.
“This (car) seems like a hotel,” Mike says to Duke, eyeing up his new wheels.
“Only better. You don’t have to register,” Galloway smirks. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of women, that’s my platform.”
After class, Mike meets Betty on the quad and asks her out. But the joke’s on him: she’s got a date with Duke. Mike gets mopey, but Betty is apparently fed up with the slow pace of his game.
“I’m not my grandmother,” she snaps. “I like to have fun. I’m modern!”
His manhood questioned, Mike hits back, twice as hard: “I don’t see why you shouldn’t go out with Galloway…You’re the only one on the campus he’s missed!”
Betty storms off and Mike gets some mentoring from by his “fraternity brother,” Prof. Matthews, who had relationship troubles of his own at the very same college a generation earlier.
“But girls are wilder than they were then,” Mike protests. “They can smell a good time three blocks away!”
Soon, Mike is drowning his sorrows at the hole-in-the-wall campus café with Dora (Arline Judge), a spit-curled young waitress who talks fast, and lives even faster. All around them the dating rituals continue: guys are on the make, and girls are trying to stop them in their tracks. And Dora seems to know a thing or two about the techniques of the modern man.
“When I first got this job, I used to go home nights and study grammar,” she tells Mike. “But after going out with a couple of these apes, I threw the grammar out the window and went in for self-defense.”
Mike confesses his romantic frustrations to Dora, threatening to chuck it all and become a man of the cloth. She responds with some obvious foreshadowing of developments to come.
“You’d make a swell missionary,” she coos. “You arouse my savage instincts.”
Betty storms in to the café demanding an apology from Mike for casting aspersions on her character, chases him into the men’s room(!), and initiates a hot and heavy kissing session. As Betty runs her hands up and down his lapels, Mike looks like he’s afraid of what might happen next.
“I think you better get out of here,” he says breathlessly, as Betty plants one more smooch, clearly not wanting to stop.
Later, at the big fraternity shindig, Duke cuts a rug with Betty, and gets fresh with her again on the dance floor.
“You’d be much nicer if you loosen your morals,” he quips, as Mike looks on angrily.
“I’d be much more comfortable if you’d loosen your grip,” Betty shoots back.
Soon after, Mike and Betty ditch Duke and steal away to the woods, where they engage in yet another make out session, this time under a tree. They talk about quitting school to get married, which was, at the time, the only way “nice” college boys and girls could act upon certain common biological imperatives.
“Don’t think I don’t want to, as much as you do,” she sighs, intentionally ambiguous.
Fearful of what can happen when two attractive teenagers are alone and horizontal, Mike drives Betty back to her sorority house. As he walks her up the stairs, they stop once again for some frantic Frenching.
“Oh, Michael,” she moans, as she grinds up against him in a manner I have never seen in a black & white movie. “Michael…Michael…Michael.”
Frustrated yet again, Mike heads to the Café to drown his sorrows. There he runs into Dora, who is conveniently finishing her shift. She invites him to walk her home, and Mike hesitates, understanding what this invitation may lead to.
“It’s not safe for a girl to be alone on the streets after midnight,” Dora pouts. Then she pulls up her skirt and adjusts her garter because, you know, it just happens to need adjusting.
Mike, ever the gentleman, takes the bait. He tries to leave her at the front door, but Dora has other ideas. She drags him into the house, turns on some hot jazz, and plies him with a glass of her father’s hooch.
“All we need now is a little time,” she says with a smirk.
(Note: I am not making any of this up. They really did all of this in a movie in 1932.)
Meanwhile, back at the sorority house, Betty seeks counseling from her English professor and housemother, Barbara (Aileen Pringle). The teacher confesses that, in the dim, dark past, she and Prof. Matthews were hot and heavy, but chose to finish school before they married. With clear regret, she admits that their romance cooled and, two decades later, both are still single. This is all Betty needs to hear. She calls Mike to tell him she wants to get married, but he’s not at the frat house. Because, you see, Mike is otherwise engaged.
“Turn off the heat, baby,” our drunken hero slurs, as he and Dora dance to the devil’s beat. “I don’t got fire insurance.”
In a fit of giggles, they fall on to the couch. Dora climbs on top of Mike, looks at him longingly, and the laughter stops. As Mike’s resolve crumbles, director La Cava pans over to the radio and fades to black.
“Are you sorry?” Dora asks Mike later, as the radio chimes the 4 a.m. hour
“For what?” he replies, just beginning to sober up.
“You know…” she says, kissing him softly. “You’re sweet.”
And then her father walks in. And, needless to say, he doesn’t look happy to see Mike. The first thing he does is call the police because, of course, Dora is a minor. Mike and Dora and her dad (Reginald Barlow) end up in the Assistant D.A.’s office along with Prof. Matthews, who tries fruitlessly to fix the mess his horny protege has gotten himself into.
“He’s gonna marry my daughter or go to the penitentiary!” Mr. Swale barks, directing his class-based hostility toward the professor. “Boys and girls learning that morals is all wrong, the church is all wrong, and that they don’t have to marry! I ain’t been to college, but I understand the English language!”
Being the honorable young man he is, Mike agrees to marry Dora, on one condition: he must first be allowed to break the news to Betty. Understandably, Betty doesn’t take it well.
“I tried being good and everything turned out wrong,” she says later, while being comforted by Duke. “Maybe if I tried being bad for a while things would turn out different.”
Then they speed off in Duke’s car, and something happens that changes everybody’s lives.
In realistically depicting the hormonal realities of young adults, THE AGE OF CONSENT is as relentless as the torrents of testosterone flowing through a freshman. La Cava, who started his career in silent shorts and went on to direct comedies like MY MAN GODFREY (1936), approaches the material with an appropriately light touch, never getting in the way of the propulsively soapy story. And, while none of the actors give particularly great performances, they all seem to be operating on exactly the same wavelength, without any of the leftover histrionics that sometimes plague early Talkies.
In a role originated by Sylvia Sidney in Cross Roads, the Broadway play upon which the movie is based, RKO steno pool graduate Dorothy Wilson is consistently inconsistent, delivering an emotional performance any young man of the era (or today) would likely recognize. She doesn’t dominate the film like other Pre-Code leading ladies, but she’s charming and competent. As Mike – lookalike Franchot Tone played the character on Broadway – Richard Cromwell gives the best performance in the film, approaching the part with a naturalism that feels almost Method-like. Eric Linden and Aileen Pringle are broader in their characterizations, but it works for their archetypical bad boy/girl roles. And veterans John Halliday and Aileen Pringle provide able support as the elderly, spinster-ish 40-year-olds.
I can only imagine how exciting a film like this must have been for young audiences at the time – the prospect that this new medium might actually say something when it talked. Sadly, that was not to be the case. Less than two years later, enforcement of Code regulations essentially made THE AGE OF CONSENT unshowable. Only now, thanks to a new manufacture-on-demand DVD release from the Warner Archive Collection, can we begin to understand what we were missing.
THE AGE OF CONSENT feels far more like a primordial version of Nicholas Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) or Elia Kazan’s SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961) than an early 1930s melodrama. In fact, it was only in the ’50s, when the Code’s strangle-hold began to loosen, that filmmakers could once again tackle topics this film addressed head on in 1932. THE AGE OF CONSENT proves one thing without a doubt – classic film characters knew how to kiss just as well as we do, they just weren’t allowed to. And that’s the most shocking plot twist of all.
THE AGE OF CONSENT
available from the Warner Archive Collection
Format: Made To Order (M.O.D.) DVD
Quantity: 1 disc
Special Features: none
THE AGE OF CONSENT (1932)
Release Date: August 19, 1932 Duration: 72 minutes
Director: Gregory La Cava Executive Producer: David O. Selznick
Writer: Martin Flavin (play); Sarah Y. Mason, Frances M. Cockrell (adaptation)
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
Cast: Dorothy Wilson (Betty Cameron), Arline Judge (Dora Swale, waitress at Tolers Cafe), Richard Cromwell (Mike Harvey), Eric Linden (Duke Galloway), John Halliday (Prof. David Matthews), Aileen Pringle (Prof. Barbara), Reginald Barlow (Mr. Swale, Dora’s father), Grady Sutton (Fraternity Brother looking for polka dot drawers), Howard Hickman (doctor), Frederick Burton (Assistant D.A.)