It’s Tough to Be Famous, but It’s Easy to Be Naughty
Without a doubt, part of the lure of pre-Code pictures are those racy bits of dialogue that surprisingly retain the ability to shock or even make audiences blush over 80 years after they were first uttered. Though by now I expect these types of exchanges, many examples of innuendo or sexually suggestive lines – we’re talking material that miraculously survived script conferences with the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) and censor board axes (or didn’t, in some states) – still make me do a double take and sometimes even prompt me to question my hearing. Like, did they really just say that? Quips such as: “Why don’t you come up some time, and see me?” (1933’s She Done Him Wrong), and “As long as they have sidewalks, you’ve got a job” (1933’s Footlight Parade) represent a small sampling of the audible gems pre-Code titles can offer audiences.
And that leads me to a curious recurring joke that popped up in It’s Tough to be Famous (1932), a brisk satire revolving around the unexpected fame heaped upon Scotty (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), after he sacrifices himself to save the crew of his submarine (don’t worry, he’s miraculously rescued by divers and still hailed as the hero). As Scotty’s stock and popularity skyrockets, his freedom slips further from his reach, and his relationship with girlfriend-turned-wife Janet (Mary Brian) begins to falter.
Admittedly, my amoral sensor didn’t buzz too often during It’s Tough to Be Famous, but my censor-attuned ears perked when I heard variations of the phrase “don’t forget to wind the clock” bantered not once, not twice but three times between Janet and Scotty. What starts as a benign honeymoon discussion, in between flirtatious pawing of course, on how the couple will build their life around Dr. Tuck’s wedding present (yes, a clock) somehow turns into a racy proposition; after Scotty playfully inverts the letters, “Dr. Cluck’s tock” becomes an inside joke between the couple, with Janet exiting the room while disrobing, turning around and cooing to her husband: “Don’t forget to wind Dr. Cluck’s tock.” Though Janet’s delivery of the line certainly bumps it into suggestive territory, the following two occurrences solidify the intent. The first one arises after the couple split and Janet proposes they revert to being pals again – “no lovemaking” – so they can determine whether they really care for each other or if it’s just “animal attraction.” “No winding Dr. Cluck’s tock? Not even for a little bit?” Scotty inquires. “No, darling. Not for a while,” Janet answers. Yup, that means what we think it does.
And the final reference really hits it home, as Janet dials Scotty to get this show back on the road with a naughty glint in her eye – and an elated reaction from her reinstated lover: “I think tomorrow would be a grand day to – to wind Dr. Cluck’s tock,” she tells him, with a slight bashfulness in her voice.
Now I’m not really (that) naive, but this phrase was certainly a new one to me, and definitely not a piece of established 1930s innuendo. The more I heard this remark, the more I wondered how reactionary the SRC and state censor boards would have been to ordinary sounding, yet extremely titillating allusions such as this. Personally, I’d wager some dough – only like 25 cents in 1932 terms, which is roughly $4.50 today – on this saying squeezing past the SRC and several state censor boards and sailing over at least a portion of viewer’s heads – especially the younger ones in attendance. (Though the expression remains intact today, that doesn’t mean the SRC or censor boards didn’t take issue with it; unfortunately, the Production Code Administration [PCA] file for this film is not housed at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, or else I would already have investigated this matter.)
Why do I believe this? Whereas books, articles, reviews and contemporaneous feedback I’ve consulted generally aim concern at a picture’s morality, theme and/or characterizations, censor groups repeatedly requested the deletion of sexually suggestive dialogue and even parts of evocative lines, among other things, during both the script phase and after a movie was in the can. (I’m guessing this tendency, particularly in post-production, can be partly attributed to the fact that a picture’s moral compass couldn’t fundamentally be altered at that point, but specific lines and imagery deemed offensive could instead be targeted in an attempt to water down a potentially depraved theme.) However, I’ve found feedback and demands from these entities frequently take issue with more transparent exchanges, ranging from a line as innocuous as: “I saw Pearl and Pepi go in there” in 1933’s Our Betters (a message wholly bland and harmless on its own, though it confirms a lovers’ rendezvous) to “I knew you from your appendix scar” from 1930’s Madam Satan (uttered by a man who turned out to be a stock broker, not a doctor). Oh, and Joan Blondell’s quip in Footlight Parade, “As long as they have sidewalks, you’ve got a job,” an obvious insinuation of prostitution, got the boot in prints in select territories, including Chicago, Ohio, and Maryland. However, I still consider these references more blatant than Scotty and Janet’s bawdy inside joke, as the former examples clearly allude to risqué topics like sex and prostitution, while the latter is wrapped around a metaphor whose exact meaning I can’t 100% confirm (I’m at about 95%), though I’m 110% sure it’s naughty.
To me, it seems the SRC and censor boards were more focused and attuned to such obvious examples of immorality that perhaps innuendo enfolded in banal language such as “don’t forget to wind the clock,” however many times the term was playfully tossed about in the picture, may indeed have slipped past authorities unscathed.
What do you think? Do you believe this allusion, and its repetition, raised eyebrows among the industry’s moral watchdogs?
–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.