I recently purchased a 1934-1939 run of original unbound issues of the weekly motion picture exhibitor trade journal Harrison's Reports.
What is Harrison's Reports?
A weekly 4-page newsletter, sometimes with an additional 4-page supplement, published between 1919-1962 by P.S. "Pete" Harrison (1880-1966), a former reviewer for Motion Picture News.
Thus far I've taken a pretty good look at the entire year of 1934, the first of my run. The content is standard throughout 1934: Pages 2 and 3 carry various movie reviews targeted towards exhibitors, while pages 1 and 4 editorialize about matters of concern to those exhibitors.
Harrison is extremely opinionated, his viewpoint not primarily that of critic, but moral watchdog. More exactly and certainly from his own viewpoint, crusader for the film exhibitor. His interest is in their interest in keeping theater seats filled and satisfied.
Given the important date in film history this is not surprising: Mid-1934 saw the beginning of the enforcement of the Production code.
While Harrison spends the first half of the year arguing in favor of principles to protect the exhibitor most of these editorials, like his reviews, dwell on indecency in pictures. His outrage is such that you'd imagine many of our 1934 favorites had to be blue movies shown in some red light district.
Harrison's Reviews and Their Audience
Harrison begins some of his reviews with the single word exclamation Poor! or Mediocre!. The reasons behind such outrage almost always center upon how morally unfit a picture is.
Many of Harrison's reviews today reflect poor taste whether critically or just in general. However; never forget Harrison's target audience. His reports were not published to the masses but the very specialized audience of film exhibitors (movie theaters operators). He is writing to reflect his perceived reaction of the masses to the film put before them.
The motivation behind his reviews is to advise exhibitors on the films best suited to attract and satisfy crowds in their theaters. All of his reviews will end with advice upon who the film is best or poorly suited to, typically a general recommendation though sometimes qualified with mention of a title being too much for a theater near a church, for example.
Classifications of the Chicago Legion of Decency
This all gets a bit standardized beginning with the August 4 issue, after the Code has taken full effect and Harrison completely adapts the Chicago Legion of Decency A, B, and C classification system for movies on moral grounds.
That system as explained by Harrison in the August 4, 1934 issue:
- Class A: Recommended
- Class B: Not Forbidden but unsuitable for either children or adolescents; adults may see them if they suit their tastes. They are offensive in spots.
- Class C: Indecent, immortal and unfit for showing to decent people.
Some Samplings of Harrison's Reports Movie Reviews
Following are exceprts from a mix of films Harrison's both loved and hated throughout the year. He doesn't hate all pictures he considers immoral, but it certainly doesn't help!
From January 6, 1934
"Lady Killer" with James Cagney
"The first half of this picture is 'terrible'; it is extremely demoralizing, for Cagney is shown working a cheap card racket, later becoming a crook, aiding his gang in getting information to help them rob wealthy women of their jewels ... In one situation Cagney is shown in an intimate pose with Mae Clarke; this scene belongs in a cheap burlesque show. In another situation Cagney, dressed up as an Indian chief, makes a filthy remarks when Margaret Lindsay asks him who he is. Although the expression is in Yiddish most audiences will understand it."
From February 3, 1934
"Four Frightened People" with Claudette Colbert, Herbert Marshall, Mary Boland and William Gargan
"The world's worst! It is incomprehensible how any producer even of ordinary experience, let alone a person of Cecil B. DeMille's experience, would so heartlessly throw so many tens of thousands of dollars away on story material of this kind ... In one scene, a cobra sticks out its head and is about to strike one of the characters on the leg, hanging down the platform where they were playing cards. This scene should prove too horrible for the stomachs of all, particularly of women ... There is nothing morally wrong with the picture; it is simply not an entertainment for any one except children, who may enjoy the animals. But the gruesome scenes spoil it even for these."
From February 10, 1934
"Nana" with Anna Sten, Lionel Atwill and Richard Bennett
"Because of the great amount of publicity both this picture and Anna Sten Have received, and the lavish production given it, 'Nana' may draw large audiences in downtown theaters, but it is unsuitable for small towns because of the sordid theme, in which a woman of the streets is glorified ... Her affairs with men are lucrative to her. This is demoralizing. One of her acts is disgusting ..."
From March 3, 1934
"It Happened One Night" with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable
"Excellent mass entertainment. The story is thin, but Frank Capra's excellent direction and the fine acting of both Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable make it highly entertaining. It holds the attention throughout, arouses laughs, has good dialogue, beautiful photography, holds one in suspense and ends on a note of high comedy."
From April 28, 1934
"Tarzan and His Mate" with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan
"For the most part this is thrilling entertainment; it holds one in tense suspense and has some excellent comedy situations brought about by the antics of the monkeys. But the last twenty minutes are brutal. Never have scenes of such brutality and horror been seen on the screen--men are presumably thrown to hungry lions and devoured by them, their heart-rending screams piercing the air. Added to this is the brutality of a tribe of cannibals, with their particular ways of torturing men. These scenes are so terrible that children, and even adults, will have nightmares for a week and women will leave the theater with a sick feeling."
From May 5, 1934
"Twentieth Century" with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard
"A very good comedy! John Barrymore is at his best. As a matter of fact the whole cast is excellent. The dialogue is clever, the action fast, and although there is little to the story ... there are so many uproariously funny situations that the lack of plot will not matter to the average spectator ... The sex situations are a bit risque in that it is made quite obvious to the audience that Barrymore and Carole are living together."
From May 5, 1934
"The Witching Hour" with Tom Brown, Judith Allen, John Halliday and Sir Guy Standing
"Although the theme deals with superstitious fear and hypnotism, the direction and acting are so good that the action is convincing ... Note: If you are in a town where there are theosophists, spiritualists, hypnotists and members of similar associations, including even Christian Scientists, you should try to attract them."
From May 12, 1934
"Manhattan Melodrama" with Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy
"With a combination of stars such as ... sure to bring the masses to the theaters, and they will probably enjoy it because of the many emotional situations. But it is extremely demoralizing because of the fact that Gable is portrayed as a cold-blooded killer who ... is cynical to the end ... The love affair and eventual marriage of Powell and Myrna is rather sordid since it is shown at first that she is Gable's mistress: A mistress becomes the First Lady of the State of New York."
From May 26, 1934
"Sadie McKee" with Joan Crawford, Edward Arnold and Franchot Tone
"Good acting, a lavish production, and the popularity of Joan Crawford should bring the masses in to see 'Sadie McKee.' Although the story may not appeal to intelligent people, it is made up of the ingredients that entertain particularly the younger element. It is the story of the poor girl who makes good. The first half is vulgar and some of the situations are suggestive ..."
From May 26, 1934
"Little Miss Marker" with Shirley Temple, Adolphe Menjou and Dorothy Dell
"Shirley Temple, the child actress, is so completely charming and acts with such ease in this picture that, despite the shortcomings of the story, the audience is kept entertained. The objectionable feature is that she is surrounded by racketeers and crooked bookmakers, who are shown fixing horse races and cheating people of their money. However, some sympathy is felt for Menjou, one of these bookmakers..."
From, yet again, May 26, 1934
"The Black Cat" with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi
"The value of this picture to you depends on whether your customers like horror pictures or not, for this is a horror picture, with the horror served by the carload. Mr. Karloff this time takes the part of the head of a cult of sadists, who believe in evil. This cult kill people by slow torture. The scenes of torture may thrill morbidly inclined picture goers but the rations picture-goers will, no doubt, be filled with disgust ..."
From June 2, 1934, here's one I'd really like to see based on Harrison's open:
"Born to Be Bad" with Loretta Young, Cary Grant and Jackie Kelk
"Immoral, demoralizing, vulgar and in poor taste ..." He closes with: "This picture should not be shown anywhere."
From June 16, 1934
"Fog Over Frisco" with Bette Davis, Donald Woods and Margaret Lindsay
"An exciting melodrama; it holds the audience in suspense throughout. The story is rather novel, and some of the situations are thrilling. The fact that Bette Davis, a young girl, is involved in a crime with a gang of crooks, just for the thrill of it, is demoralizing, but the spectator is given to understand that she is a pathological case."
From June 23, 1934
"The Thin Man" with William Powell and Myrna Loy
"Excellent adult entertainment. It is different from the usual type of murder mystery melodrama in that is has so much comedy that the audience is kept laughing almost throughout. And it holds one in suspense, for it is a good mystery yarn, cleverly handled, exciting, and with a logical ending. Added to all this is the pleasure of watching the grand companionship that exists between William Powell, the detective, and his wife, Myrna Loy, both of whom give fine performances."
From June 30, 1934
"Of Human Bondage" with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and Frances Dee
"Poor! It is slow moving and tiresome. The intellectuals who are interested in character studies may find it to their liking mildly, but the masses will be painfully bored and disgusted. The first half is extremely depressing and offending for many reasons: First, Leslie Howard is shown having a clubfoot, which immediately give the spectator a feeling of revulsion ..."
From August 11, 1934
"The Girl from Missouri" with Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore and Franchot Tone
The final paragraph takes a long route to a Class C rating:
"Children below twelve will not understand the sex implications, but it is unsuitable for adolescents; it is particularly poison for young girls under twenty, who may conceive the idea that it is possible for them to act like the heroine of the play and get away with it. The classification you may accept for this picture will depend on the sort of people you cater to; if you cater to church-going people, it is Class C; if you cater to others, it is Class B. But under no circumstances should you allow young women into your theatre while you are showing it. It is excellent entertainment for sophisticated adults."
From September 8, 1934
"The Count of Monte Cristo" with Robert Donat and Elissa Landi
"Good entertainment. It has been produced lavishly, and holds the interest throughout mainly because of the excellent performance by the entire cast and of the intelligent direction. Robert Donat, a newcomer to American audiences is particularly good as 'Monte Cristo'; he arouses the sympathy of the audience."
From October 13, 1934
The Gay Divorcee" with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire
"Excellent! It is a worthy successor to 'Flying Down to Rio' for it is just as lavish and even more entertaining. And it has the distinction of being a musical also without the back stage atmosphere. The tunes are catchy, the dancing is exceptionally good ..."
From October 13, 1934
"Power" with Conrad Veidt
"This is not entertainment; it is a medium by which the basest passions are appealed to. Its effect is to arouse bitterness between Jews and Christians. The Jews will find it abhorrent because of the slur it casts upon their race; and the Christians, because of the sensualism and the tyrannical character of the Duke (hero). Some of the situations, however, will be found abhorrent by both, Christians and Jews alike."
Harrison closes with classification and a rare postscript:
"Unsuitable for any decent person--Class C.
"Note: I am making a personal appeal to every exhibitor in the land not to show this picture. In addition to the fact that it is not entertaining, this is not the time to show anything that arouses racial prejudice."
From December 8, 1934
"Imitation of Life" with Claudette Colbert and Warren William
"Excellent entertainment, particularly for women. It is an intensely moving, human, comedy-drama, centering mostly around mother love. Whatever objectionable matter there was in the novel has been removed. The negro situation has been handled delicately and cannot possibly offend any one. At no time is the colored girl, who could easily pass for a white, shown going out or associating with white people. As a matter of fact she is a sympathetic character because of her unhappiness ..."
From December 8, 1934
"The Painted Veil" with Greta Garbo, Herbert Marshall and George Brent
"Excepting the fact that Greta Garbo gives a fine performance, 'The Painted Veil' is a bore. In adapting it from the book the producers toned down somewhat the sex element, but it still remains an unpleasant sex story."
I have published an index of all movies reviewed in 1934 and hope to follow up with later years as I make my way through them. This project will certainly be of value to me and perhaps I can use it to aid a hand in the research of others as well.
Harrison's Reports was republished as a 15-volume set containing all issues from July 1919-August 1962, but as of yet it is not even available on Amazon despite their including an editorial review. I see some vintage single volumes on sale from some online sources and also spotted that the 1948 volume has been reproduced in it's entirety on Archive.org.