An interesting shift in the days of the Code is that suave, sophisticated men who were clearly sleeping around were generally allowed to appear in movies—but not if they were American. Which Adolphe Menjou was, though he was the son of a French father. The roles were fewer, and they mostly went to Maurice Chevalier instead. Arguably, he’s one of the few men whose career was damaged by the Code. He was actually released from his Paramount contract because of the Great Depression; he went on to MGM and made movies there, but not as many as he’d made before the Depression. If pre-Code sex comedies—a genre I believe deserves a revival—had lingered, he’d have played more lead roles.
Though of course, we’d then have an even harder time dealing with his legacy. We are, after all, talking about a man who said that all Communists should be shot, whether they were US citizens or not. Who firmly believed that merely having a Communist in a movie would produce Communist propaganda, regardless of what was actually in the screenplay, because of how they’d look at the camera or other characters or what have you. Who was a member of the John Birch Society. Really, he seems to have been an awful person.
In fact, allegedly, Katharine Hepburn only spoke to him while the cameras were rolling during State of the Union. She despised him and all his works, at least behind the scenes. He actually believed that all do-gooders were Communist, which is a shocking way of looking at the world. Imagine that there’s something sinister about wanting to do good. People like that really never realize how much they’re telling on themselves.
In a way, it kind of makes him the ideal casting for the surly old Mr. Pendergast of Pollyanna, excpet that the movie explicitly rejects the idea that people should be out for themselves. Indeed, he is redeemed into a do-gooder, and one of the whole driving plots of the movie is that the town needs to work together to fix the orphanage instead of relying on the largesse of Polly Harrington. Walt, Menjou, and Jane Wyman all seemed to miss the significance of the story, if you think about it.
Sometimes, it can be very disheartening to do in-depth studies of people you used to like. Because it is interesting to consider that, yes, Menjou probably suffered from the Code, unlike pretty much any other straight white man. (James Whale and Sessue Hayakawa and Paul Robeson? Yes, okay.) Menjou had a career before Chevalier, but the roles he was best equipped for in those days went to Chevalier instead. I felt that was more of a shame before I discovered how awful he was.