To Pre-Code, or Not to Pre-Code: What Say You, Brief Moment?
Have you ever watched a pre-Code that you felt didn’t quite live up to, well, it’s pre-Code potential?
That was me with Brief Moment (1933).
Now, I don’t expect every picture produced in Hollywood from 1930-1934 to operate on the same level of moral iniquity as The Story of Temple Drake (1933) or Baby Face (1933), or come anywhere near it for that matter. But I was struck by how tame Brief Moment seemed, and it bewildered me to discover how S.N. Behrman’s 1931 play of the same name actually sounded more evocative of the pre-Code period on paper than its silver screen counterpart. Sure, I’m aware that some of the era’s adaptations still required a subdued treatment, but from the synopsis I read, the play appeared a perfectly plausible pre-Code tale. So, what happened? (Spoiler: I can’t guarantee an answer, but I can guarantee an exploration of the question.)
First, an overview of the two versions:
In Hollywood’s Brief Moment, wedded bliss sours for cabaret singer Abby (Carole Lombard) when she discovers new hubby Rod’s (Gene Raymond) plans for their marriage: keep the drinks flowing and continue cashing his father’s $4,000 monthly allowance checks; meanwhile, Abby wants to settle down and enjoy a life of their own making. She implores Rod to find a job to earn a respectable living, but once he discovers the labor force is no leisurely walk around the polo field, he’s right back to his old haunts. It’s only when Abby walks out on him that he gives this employment business another go – without the help of his name this time.
Rod’s attempt at employment, part 2: Welcome to the Great Depression Rod! Heading to an interview or the gallows?
Encapsulated on paper, Behrman’s play takes a more vivacious and comical route: following their nuptials, “young introvert” Rod feels unfulfilled, as experienced Abby (stress on the experienced), who agreed to marry Rod even though she didn’t love him, transforms into a happy society housewife. Abby’s loyalty is tested when her former lover Cass, who once spurned her, reenters the picture and a thirst for revenge overtakes her. From there, the drawing room comedy accelerates as lovers are tossed back and forth: Rod, seeing Cass and Abby together and believing Abby loves her ex, insists she go to him – and Abby does. But it’s not long before Cass is the one feeling rebuffed when he finds out Abby’s sneaking around… with her husband!
Which one sounds more pre-Code to you? The latter, right? Supporting characters like Sig (Monroe Owsley), Rod’s functioning alcoholic BFF, and Steve (Arthur Hohl), Abby’s former boss/protector, remain largely unchanged from stage to screen, so what happened to Abby, Rod, and the story?
As far as I can tell from the picture’s Production Code Administration (PCA) file, the first script submitted to the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), which was deemed “satisfactory” from a Production Code standpoint, most likely followed the source material’s plot. I say this with 95% certainty because December 1932 SRC feedback singled out lines and comments featuring Cass, who was dropped in the movie version, and other points more in line with the play. However, notes from the second draft presented around May 1933 indicate an overhaul of the story, resulting, I believe, in the tamer version captured on film. What transpired during those five months to merit such a revamp is a mystery to me, especially considering the first script didn’t raise substantial censorship concerns.
The funny thing is, before I even knew of Brief Moment‘s stage origins, I was surprised to find the only bawdy asides in the picture refer to sex within the scope of marriage, which takes some of the pre-Code edge off, don’t you think? Cases in point:
Rod’s brother Franklin: “Do you have to marry her to adore her?”
Rod: “Yes, does that answer your question?”
Rod: “I think I’m entitled to a little grasping on our honeymoon, don’t you?”
When I read play reviews from various sources, I was further confused with the modifications made. For instance, pre-Code goodies that could have easily translated to the screen from the Great White Way were either stifled or curiously left unexplored, such as hints at Abby’s past and, you know, that whole potential adultery storyline.
One pre-Code party favor the film boasts: a decent amount of drinking and drunkenness, which the Code fought to lighten.
What does radiate stronger in the film, at least from what I gathered from the stage summary and reviews, is one idea very indicative of the pre-Code period: a strong woman. With substantial forces against her (Rod, Rod’s father, society), Abby works relentlessly to save her husband from becoming a wastrel – a quality Rod admires in idle lush Sig! – and, in turn, preserve their union. While I found her constant struggles rather exasperating, it’s hard not to commend her tireless efforts. Abby’s persistence in rendering her husband a better man, one who understands his worth and can make her proud, is a characteristic of a type of woman brought to the forefront during the pre-Code era.
All this said, I’m still mystified as to the impetus for the renovated story, especially during a time where Columbia could have gotten away with basically all the original content. Could it be that star Carole Lombard requested changes that resulted in the tamed May 1933 redraft? That seems unlikely, considering she ironically chose the property because she recognized the respected play’s title. (Not to mention, Columbia head Harry Cohn promised Lombard he could whip the production together quickly if she wanted the part – and the ensuing five month script revamp isn’t what I’d consider quick.) Did the studio aim to boost working class morale and their worth with more emphasis on a message? I don’t know, but I’d love to! Anyone out there have any insight?
–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.