Jan. 11, 1934: “Convention City” opens at the Warner Bros. Hollywood and Downtown.
The early days of the talkie film industry saw plenty of life situations covered realistically and explicitly on celluloid, ranging from nudity, extramarital or sexual relations, addictions, sexual identity, and so on. These films are often now called pre-codes, in that they were produced before the creation of the Production Code Administration in 1934, which regulated what could be shown on screen. This office was created by the film industry in reaction to the Catholic Church’s attempts to organize audience boycotts of films.
“Convention City,” a Warner Bros. film, just made it under the wire, skating the line in what would later be admissible for regular audiences. As the May 28, 1933, Los Angeles Times described the soon to be shot film as “…a hilarious comedy which will bring to the screen the behind the scenes story of a big commercial convention, titled “Convention City.” The paper soon noted that Adolphe Menjou would replace William Powell in the film, as Powell was starting production on “The Kennel Murder Case.” Stars signed to appear in the film included Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Mary Astor, Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert.
As Mark Vieira reports in his excellent book, “Sin in Soft Focus,” producers constantly battled with the Hays Office over what was allowable in the script. Producer Henry Blanke, who would later boast that he single-handedly brought on the Code with this film, was forced to make almost 30 changes in the script. These changes included replacing the word “slut,” to change a scene to indicate a business was a speakeasy and not a brothel, to tone down drinking, gambling, and sexuality, and to change the animal that a salesman chases around the lobby of the hotel trying to lure to his room from a sheep to a goat. Studio chief Jack Warner required Blondell to wear a bra to tone down some of the sexuality. Drunk scenes still littered the film; Herbert is constantly inebriated and states, “I’m stinkin’ and I love it!”
State censorship boards still required an average of 20 cuts per film upon its release. The story featured Honeywell Rubber Co. salesman Ted (Menjou) attempting to keep George (Kibbee) from a promotion by seducing the boss’s underage daughter. When Arline (Astor) disapproves, Ted states, “She’s old enough – almost, anyhow, I remember the year she was born.” Kibbee chased Blondell during the film, telling her “You take off your dress, and I’ll take off my toupee.”
According to Vieira, Blondell would later remark, “That it is the raunchiest thing there ever has been…no dirty words or anything like that, just funny, burlesquey.” Reviews backed her up. “Variety” said “it really passes up sex for laughs”, as well as “every gag goes over, every one good.” The Dec. 25, 1933, New York Times review called Menjou “the best thing in the new film,” as well as “several jokes need a subterranean mind to be correctly understood. An accurate appraisal of “Convention City” should include the information that the Strand’s audience laughed long and loud.”
The Jan. 13, 1934, Los Angeles Times review stated, “The result is comedy-farce for the prurient-minded, with a dash of genuine satire now and again. “Convention City” is, indeed, as ribald and raucous as a smoking-car joke.” They found Herbert the funniest thing in the film, especially when it discovers near the end that he has been happily participating in the wrong party. Reviewer Philip Scheuer also wrote that the quick pace “keeps the spectator from being too seriously aware that originality has flown, like Kibbee’s toupee, out the window.” The Los Angeles screenings at Warner Bros. downtown and Hollywood theatres included a Times-Universal newsreel, two variety shorts, and the travelogue, “Cannibal Island.”
When the Joseph Breen office was established later in 1934, films like “Convention City,” “She Done Him Wrong,” “Baby Face,” “The Story of Temple Drake,” and “George White’s Scandals” were rated Class I offenders, which required that they be pulled from circulation and never be rereleased again.
In 1936, Warner hoped to rerelease this and certain other Class I and II titles, submitting them to the PCA for permission. Breen wrote him on Sept. 3, 1936, “That no amount of cutting could make these films suitable for rerelease.” Rumors spread that since Warner’s couldn’t release the film, they destroyed all prints, negatives, and positives. The Vitaphone Project’s research indicates that this is a myth, in that the film played at the bottom of double bills in 1937 as well as in Madrid in 1942.
The studio planned a remake of the film in 1940, transposing it from sales convention into a political conclave, but nothing seemed to come of it. Jimmy Stewart also looked into remaking the film in 1956.
The Vitaphone Project is diligently searching for an undiscovered print. They recently received a letter from an Englishman stating that his father had seen the film during World War II near South Africa in 1942. As an uncut print of “Baby Face” was remarkably discovered at the Library of Congress a few years ago, here’s hoping that “Convention City” miraculously turns up soon.