Pre-Code Corner: It’s Tough to Be Famous, but It’s Easy to Be Naughty

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.

It's Tough to Be Famous 1932 movie posterIt’s Tough to Be Famous, 1932

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.

It's Tough to Be Famous Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Mary BrianJanet certainly isn’t making this easy for Scotty.

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.

It's Tough to Be Famous Mary BrianYes, tomorrow certainly will be a grand day.

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.

It's Tough to Be Famous Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Mary BrianSuch a sweet, yet saucy, couple.

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

You can read all of Kim’s Pre-Code Corner articles here.

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.



This entry was posted in Posts by Kim Luperi, Pre-Code Corner and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Pre-Code Corner: It’s Tough to Be Famous, but It’s Easy to Be Naughty

  1. CaitlynD says:

    The allusion and repetition must have bothered moral watchdogs of the industry, but I guess not to the extend for them to do anything about it at that time. I can’t imagine it going over anyone’s head (besides the younger ones, like you said) because it’s so repetitive. The writers certainly wanted to get the meaning of that phrase across to the audience. I love learning more about pre-codes and hollywood at that time, I enjoyed your article 🙂

  2. Kellee says:

    Sometimes I wonder if it’s less about what the censors knew but chose to ignore, didn’t get, or perhaps more so didn’t have the time to give it the full attention of a full review. Films were being made with lower budgets at a rapid rate, compared to today- so it just makes me wonder how much that was a factor. Not enough to explain it all, but just a thought to consider. And here’s another thought your article inspired for me. Because the 2018 TCMFF is themed around the writers/writing/written word- I think some of these classic Pre-Codes of unforgettable lines of innuendo as you referenced would make for perfect screenings this April. Another fun piece, Kim!

  3. David Hollingsworth says:

    Great analysis Kim! I have seen plenty of pre-Code films, but this one seems to be one of the most realistic. I really need to brush up on watching classic films that I have never seen.

  4. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    Censorship can sometimes produce hilarious results, often around trying to figure out what is being objected to. It was a favorite game as a teenager in the 50’s and 60’s, when the Legion of Decency Movie Ratings were an important part of Catholic life, for my circle of friends to try to figure out what part of an “Objectionable in Part” movie had triggered the rating. It was hard enough if we had actually seen the movie, and produced particularly weird speculations when we had to rely on hear-say. Thanks for an interesting post. I like to think someone was in a good mood the day they let all the clock references pass, on the grounds that it is moral to make marriage look fun.

  5. It does seem blatant that that phrase was said more than once in the film and the censors let it pass. Maybe they just didn’t think the “average” audience would have recognized this or even cared about this. It’s a phrase, like you said, that I’ve also never heard before.

  6. Pingback: A Big Thank You from CMH: “Give a Gift, Get a Gift” Holiday Contest Promotion… | Classic Movie Hub Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.