BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: archaic adventure.

IN THESE supposedly depraved times, it’s easy to forget that Hollywood was once viewed as the antithesis to morality and good taste. This concern brought about the Production Code, where by 1933, anything people find remotely interesting was cast out in favour of coy entertainment. The Yellow Ticket bears traces of this earlier utopia of free expression – themes of prostitution, pick-up lines, storylines, flashes of nudity for the pervs. Who am I kidding; this film is as dated as last week’s rubbish. The film was too scared to mention anything too daring, and the word “prostitute” was never mentioned. But all this did make The Yellow Ticket a lot of camp fun.

Poor Marya Varenka (Elissa Landi). As a Jewish woman, she was forced to obtain a prostitute’s pass to be allowed to travel on the trains to visit her sick father during Czarist Russia. This ticket (coloured, unsurprisingly, yellow) meant she was continually branded as a prostitute. I wasn’t sure how it’d prove to be such an effective tool of surveillance, but there you go. It meant she was a marked woman, and led to all sorts of nefarious attention from the likes of the corrupt Czarist soldiers (most notably Lionel Barrymore, though Boris Karloff had a small role) and a noble English journalist (Laurence Olivier) who was in Russia in search of the truth.

The film moved at a rollicking pace, which allowed for numerous historical inaccuracies and plot holes to be passed over. Early sound films were noted for their stagy set-ups and conservative camerawork, but Raoul Walsh (who’d find fame in the ‘40s with the still highly underrated High Sierra, and the Oedipal Cagney-gangster masterpiece White Heat) manages to create a truly filmic pace and tension. The film built up to a solid climax, even if it was all quite awkwardly done. It was also surprising to see such a vicious critique of Czarist Russia, but the Depression era time probably explains away even the slightest hint of pro-Communism (though of course, this film would have been unconscionable fifteen years later). The acting varied from the stilted – Landi, who didn’t know which accent she was meant to be speaking in – to the gloriously over-the-top Barrymore in a scenery-chewing villainous turn. The Yellow Ticket is a fascinating relic of the time when Hollywood sound films were learning how to create escapist films with dialogue, but also as evidence of the transition towards an overbearing morality which was to affect the way Hollywood made films for decades to come.