Before the Code

1 Jan

Yesterday we watched “Massacre” (1934), a picture made before the Hays Code of 1930 began to be enforced. The film takes the US government to task on graft and corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

At the beginning of the film, Joe Thunder Horse’s equestrian and shooting skills have made him the main draw at a Wild West show during the Chicago World’s fair. Learning that his father Black Pony is dying, Joe journeys back to the Sioux reservation of his boyhood to visit him.

Richard Barthelmess as Joe Thunder Horse

Richard Barthelmess as Joe Thunder Horse

At this point, we’re going to intentionally leave out much of what happens after Joe (Richard Barthelmess) returns to the reservation, ’cause you don’t need us ruining the picture for you. Suffice it to say that the whites who run the reservation engage in some shady practices. At one point, Joe visits Washington D.C. to meet with the sympathetic Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The commish tells him, “Every move I make is blocked by the same organized groups that have been bleeding the Indian for years – water power, oil rights, cattle ranges, timber. Whatever the Indian happens to own, they manage to get away from him.” While the Hays code makes no mention of criticizing special interest groups, attitudes toward public institutions would be watched more closely as the code began to be enforced and it’s possible that this scene would have been toned down or cut had the film been released just a year or so later. And while not anti-clerical, the film depicts a clergyman as cluelessly complicit in Indian oppression, a scene which also would likely have ended up on the cutting room floor after enforcement of the Hays code began.

The film is not perfect; it’s a bit melodramatic in parts, the main Native American characters are portrayed by white people, and the few African American characters are there for mostly comic relief. Nonetheless, we found the film to be well worth our time. Film history buffs will note that Sidney Toler plays one of the bad guys, the same Sidney Toler who would take over the role of (you guessed it) Charlie Chan after Warner Oland’s death in 1938.

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