One More Hurdle to Cross: The Censorship Woes of One More River
In between the credits and the opening shot of One More River, a certificate proclaims that the picture has been passed by the Production Code Administration (PCA), the 122nd film to do so.
So why am I writing about it for Pre-Code Corner? Released on August 6, 1934, One More River entered production before the establishment of the powerful PCA and the Code’s strict re-enforcement beginning in mid-June and early July 1934. I’ve always been intrigued by movies that straddled the line, with one foot rooted in the pre-Code era and the finished product forced through the industry’s rigorous moral sterilizer. I was also entranced by TCM’s logline: “An abused wife flees her husband and finds love, but at a price.” Now, physical abuse towards women was, unfortunately, not an uncommon sight in pre-Codes, though women could pack a wallop, too. However, a term as frank as “abuse” was not, to my knowledge, bandied about often, which made me curious as to exactly what cruelty the film displayed.
When One More River opens, Claire (Diana Wynyard) has fled her vicious husband, Sir Gerald (Colin Clive), and meets Tony (Frank Lawton) on route back to England. Tony falls for Claire, and though she doesn’t return his affection, she welcomes his company at home. After warding off Gerald’s physically aggressive attempts at reconciliation, Claire is caught spending an innocent evening with Tony, furnishing Gerald ammunition for a divorce. The ensuing trial brings Claire’s relationship with both men into question. With Claire proudly refusing to divulge details of her marital life and fervently defending Tony’s honor, the hearing results in a win for Gerald – and freedom for Claire.
Gerald’s “aggressive attempts” involve spousal abuse and implied rape, both subjects explored in pre-Code titles, but generally not as bluntly and seriously as the proceedings are examined here. Director James Whale and scripter R.C. Sherriff, using John Galsworthy’s posthumously published novel as a source, weren’t able to deliver as frank a picture as they would have liked to, as exhibited through several pages of dialogue modifications the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) requested in the script in April 1934, some of which was left untouched.
The overarching concern the SRC cited was the story’s anchor in sadism, a “definite” Code infringement. As highlighted in notes given on the original script, Gerald initially educed a perverse pleasure from abusing his wife, which was a no-go. “We can see no objection to your developing the character of Corven [Gerald] as that of a brutal man who has beaten his wife and thus compelled her to leave him, but we cannot allow any suggestion, directly or indirectly, referring to sadism,” Joseph Breen, future head of the PCA, wrote Universal’s Harry Zehner. So, spousal abuse was A-OK, but any sexual deviance it suggested crossed the line. Breen struck down such provocative lines from Gerald as: “It was only an experiment. Some women adore it” (the second part wound up: “Some women like rough handling”) and the underlined portion of: “I’m a sensualist if you like – a bit of an experimentalist – what does it matter? Sex naturally wanders from the paths laid down for it by morality.” In many cases, individual words caused a stir, too, including “physiology” and “beast” (altered to “brute” or “cad”).
Two words: Body language. If your wife (Claire – Diana Wynyard) steels herself like this when you’re around, there’s something very wrong with your marriage.
As exhibited above, some of Breen’s objections were pacified by swapping indecorous expressions for diluted synonyms. For instance, “I see. I’m fruit – not blossom” was initially found “highly objectionable” and thus edited to: “I see. I’m not blossom any more.” (So, the mention of “fruit” was what deemed the original “highly suggestive”?) Also, the dialogue: “There are some things that can’t be done to me, and you’ve done them” came out the ringer as: “There are some things I won’t stand for from any man.” In this case, verbs insinuating negative action on Gerald’s part (“you’ve done them”) were substituted for an impassioned declaration on Claire’s end (“I won’t stand for”), which actually takes her from a victim to a resolute woman standing her ground, though I’m guessing that’s simply a byproduct of watering down Gerald’s abuse and not some kind of covert feminist intent to empower Claire. In the end, audiences probably still perceived the same type of behavior alluded to despite the edits; after all, Claire’s mix of resilience, restraint, and resolve and Gerald’s sneering, heartless demeanor convey the same underlying point, regardless of the specific language delegated to their characters.
Compared to other pre and post-Code files I’ve reviewed, One More River counted substantially more requested edits from the SRC and PCA both before and after filming. It can be argued that timing certainly played a role in this significantly scrutinized feedback, as the campaign against immorality reached new heights around the time cameras were getting ready to roll on One More River in May 1934. Movie condemnations, in the past a potential box office boost, really intimidated business this time, and the looming threat of federal censorship drove studios into a panic in which they “applied soap and water to thousands of feet of questionable film,” Andre Sennwald recounted in 1935.
It was under this tense atmosphere that One More River was filmed, edited, re-shot, and re-cut. The pressure was such that in late July 1934, Breen wrote the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s (MPPDA) Vincent Hart a cautionary, yet emboldening note in which he mentioned One More River’s trials and tribulations before broaching the subject of the PCA’s newfound power: “We are on a magnificent spot – both of us. And I need not tell you how important it is that we be scrupulously careful with every decision we render… Everybody in America is censor-conscious; and everybody will be a law to himself, finding fault with our decision. Be prepared for this – keep your chin up – do the best you can – work conscientiously – and let the chips fall where they may.” Perhaps to cover his bases, Breen mandated more than 30 cuts upon reviewing One More River, many for items contested in the script phase, resulting in feverish edits and re-takes. Whale, however, triumphed with some lines, including one in which Claire tells her father that Gerald used a riding whip on her.
One scene, two sexually violent attempts. The second looks like Gerald was actually about to break Claire’s arm – or neck.
Despite – or perhaps due to – the severe examination One More River underwent in Hollywood, state censor feedback proved relatively tame. New York State passed the picture without eliminations, while Kansas requested one cut and Pennsylvania made three. A few distinct points that raised flags across several boards included shots of a bed during Gerald’s forced entrance into Claire’s apartment and an exchange with Claire’s sister Dinny right after the aforementioned drop-in, in which Claire apologizes for not letting her in because Gerald only just left. (The latter, I assume, drew ire because it insinuated what Gerald and Claire were doing.) Additionally, entities took issue with the words “adultery” and “debts,” ones Claire insinuated paying to Tony with her body. “Marital,” normally not a term to be concerned about, came under fire as well, as a war waged during the film’s courtroom scene over whether Gerald and Claire resumed “marital relations” after he showed up at her apartment; he affirms it and she vehemently denies it, as she realizes rape doesn’t – or at least shouldn’t – qualify as such.
Oh look, a nice man! Tony (Frank Lawton) is trying hard to suppress his feelings for the emotionally shattered Claire.
Though the censors targeted hot button topics that Breen had already pointed out to Universal, all in all, the damage did not appear too severe, and One More River enjoyed exceedingly positive critical reviews. (Interestingly, a few periodicals called out Gerald’s nature using the very word the SRC originally struck, “sadism,” with some even commenting upon the extent of the violence, including the riding whip.) Universal praise was bestowed upon Whale’s outstanding, intelligent direction and astute attention to details; Sherriff’s sincere, honest script; and Wynyard and Clive’s compelling performances. Less unanimously commended traits included the picture’s through and through Britishness (as Americans may have found the laws of the country foreign or dull), Lawton’s turn as Wynyard’s prospective lover (mainly due to his youthful look, as he played Wynyard’s son the year prior in Cavalcade), and the fact that the film’s sophistication would limit its audience, and thus, ticket sales (Variety noted that while it “will delight cultivated audiences,” in the end One More River is “a prestige, rather than a money offering”). On that last note, One More River actually surprised many. The New York Times reported the movie’s “unusually good business” at Radio City Music Hall, where it earned a respectable $86,000 in its first week. Even rural areas responded favorably. According to Motion Picture Herald, a Kansas theater manager initially concerned the refined film wouldn’t be received well confirmed that “everyone who saw it here went for it in a big way. We feel that the picture is good enough for any man’s town.”
Innocently sleeping in a car is illegal now, Claire and Tony. Or at least it gets you into just as much trouble.
Ironically, the movie’s glowing reviews, many of which stressed how human, thoughtful, and realistic the story was, did not save it from denunciation. In fact, One More River earns the distinction of being the first post-Code picture to be condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, in mid-August 1934. In a letter relaying this news to Universal production head Carl Laemmle Jr., Breen surmised the film’s divorce storyline brought about the criticism and conceded: “In the face of their very definite viewpoint on the subject of divorce, we are helpless under the circumstances.” But being Breen, he had to chastise Laemmle Jr., reminding the producer that his office warned certain “dangerous” dialogue was likely to face censure and prevailing upon him to “appreciate that our purpose in this office is to save the picture” from mutilation. Breen used Ohio as an example of One More River receiving “rough treatment,” despite the fact that the movie faced only about 5-6 edits of varying degrees in that state, on par with Ontario and Alberta and far fewer than Quebec and Japan.
The excellent courtroom scene was a highlight for reviewers and a source of contention for censors. Defending the sexually perverse Gerald is Lionel Atwill, who would find himself in Gerald’s spot less than a decade later on a morals charge.
In a 1984 Los Angeles Times piece analyzing rediscovered films, Kevin Thomas proclaimed star Diana Wynyard’s “timeless cool elegance and directness… highly contemporary, and today ‘One More River’ seems more strongly feminist.” I agree with this 34 year old statement on the 84 year old picture, despite the fact that today it’s readily apparent that Claire’s actions still confine her firmly to the discretionary and honorable values and laws of 1930s Britain, as antiquated as they even were for that time. As evidenced in the movie, obtaining a divorce on the grounds of cruelty is not really an option, especially since the dignified, proud Claire doesn’t want to parade her husband’s abuses, nor does she want him and his position to suffer publicly; thus, the only way she can end the marriage is if Gerald claims adultery, essentially throwing her under the bus to obtain her freedom. As Motion Picture Herald termed it at the time, Claire’s a “complete woman, fighting, sacrificing, losing.” Though the battle she put up, one that accentuated her buoyancy and independence, was certainly admirable for the period, I’m glad our attitudes have changed on those last two points and “sacrificing” and “losing” are no longer automatically synonymous with womanhood. Today, real life abuses like these are pouring out precisely because they have been protected and kept secret for so long in a twisted sense of loyalty, decency, and expectation, all the while suffering victims like Claire have been shamed and shushed.
Go girl! This low angle shot of Claire on the stand heightens her ethereal presence and tenacious testimony during One More River’s climatic courtroom sequence.
If Claire’s dilemma still sounds antiquated to you, compare that to her aunt’s anecdote about a husband who kidnapped his wife years prior, and her jest that men couldn’t get away with that behavior anymore. From that sentiment, to Claire’s tribulations (deemed immoral by the Catholics), to today – sure, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got quite a path ahead of us to repave.
Note: An analysis of the film’s extensive PCA file and its resulting implications could fill a small book, or at the very least a chapter – and it did. I was surprised to stumble upon an entire detailed section dedicated to this movie in The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema, which I dove in to research for last month’s piece on Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum and ended up using as a valuable source for both articles. If you’d like to read more about One More River, I highly recommend Gregory W. Mank’s book.
–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.