Almost as soon as the cinema had been invented, questions were raised about the content and morality of the films produced. Film criticism was born with a review of May Irwin Kiss (1896, in which Irwin did, in a film a minute long): “absolutely disgusting.”
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Annette Kellerman brought nudity to the screen in Daughter Of The Gods (1916, now a lost film), and Human Wreckage (1923, also now lost) shocked people with its depiction of drug addiction. Lip-readers complained when Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen swore liberally at each other in What Price Glory? (1926), dialogue which was certainly not conveyed by the inter-titles.
The first all-talking pictures were released in 1929, and with the coming of sound further potential problem emerged. Unlike as in What Price Glory?, salacious, profane or otherwise unsuitable dialogue could not only be lip-read, it could be heard as well. One concerned person was Will Hays, who drew up the first version of what became known as the Hays Code (more formally, the Production Code) in 1930. This comprised a list of subject matter under the headings ‘Don’t…’ and ‘Be Careful’. However, America was in the midst of the Depression and escapism was on the agenda for the mass cinema-going audience. A little bit of sauce, such as Jean Harlow or Mae West sinning in style and getting away with it, went down well, even if moralists disapproved. Entertainment industries often do well in times of recession, and the cinema in the early 1930s was no exception. So while box office receipts were on the up, and they could get their films past local censor boards, the major studios simply ignored the Hays Code.
The pre-Code era strictly speaking dates from the first version of the Hays Code in 1930 to its enforcement in June 1934, though it is sometimes reckoned backward to take in early talkies and late silents in 1928-9. It’s a fascinating time for American cinema, and watching some of the films produced then can be eye-opening, particularly in comparison with what was made later in the decade. Some pre-Code films are surprisingly risqué: mostly on the level of innuendo, though some usually discreet nude scenes can be found. While some of the more notorious films of the time can fairly be accused of getting away with as much as they could, many others are more complex and adult than what would be allowed later. A then-controversial subject is indicated in the title of The Divorcee (1930), which won Norma Shearer an Oscar. You’ll find some recognisable gay characters, and Call Her Savage (1932) took us into American cinema’s first gay bar.
Along with the titillation was some fairly direct social criticism. Warner Bros, one of the few studios to deal directly with the fact of the Depression, gave us Heroes For Sale (1933), directed by William A. Wellman, which dealt with the plight of war veterans, with episodes of drug addiction and political engagement along the way. In Wild Boys Of The Road (1933), also directed by Wellman, two boys and a girl leave their Depression-hit town and ride the freight trains, a story which involves such gritty material as a violent confrontation with the police and one of American cinema’s first rape scenes.
The short cartoon Bosko’s Picture Show (1933) may even break a taboo not otherwise broken until 1967 when Bosko seemingly says, “The dirty fuck!” There is some dispute as to whether Bosko is saying that word, though it was censored to ‘cur’ in some versions. It certainly sounds like the F-word to me. The whole cartoon (which also contains possibly the first reference to Hitler in an American film) can be seen on YouTube, so decide for yourself… Any form of swearing would later be banned, with David O. Selznick’s getting ‘damn’ in Gone With the Wind past the Hays Office being very much the exception. You can of course hear some pre-Code ‘damns’.
Of course, this liberality did not sit well with moral groups, who soon began campaigning against what they saw as sinful. Particular genres drew their ire. The early 1930s produced some classic horror films such as Dracula (1930) and Frankenstein (1931), but they were attacked at the time for their gruesomeness. The major gangster films, such as Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1933), were considered to glamorise violent criminals. And the less said about the ‘gold-digger’ genre, such as Red-Headed Woman (1932, and banned outright in the UK, though King George V held a private copy which he would show visitors to Buckingham Palace), the better. Harlow, in her short life, is probably one of the most censored individuals in cinema history.
There is a case to be made for the pre-Code era being a mini golden age for women’s roles. Actresses such as Norma Shearer, Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck, Ruth Chatterton and others played far more complex, grey-shaded and three-dimensional characters than they would be allowed to later in the decade. Take Loretta Young, for example, now best known for more saccharine roles, and her off-screen strait-lacedness, and watch her play a good-time girl in Midnight Mary, in which she convincingly ages from nine to mid-thirties when she was actually in her twenties at the time.
While the major studios disregarded the Code, they still had local censorship bodies to contend with. When New York banned Baby Face(1933), Joseph I. (Joe) Breen of the newly-formed Production Code Administration (then an advisory body) acted as a consultant in order to make the film acceptable. The film tells the story of Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) who effectively sleeps her way to the top, a young John Wayne being one of her conquests. After Breen had worked on the film, gone were scenes where Lily learns her Nietzsche-based philosophy and is told to use men to get what she wants. Gone is a scene set in Lily’s father’s speakeasy where a drunk gropes at her breasts before being hit over the head with a bottle. Also gone is a scene where Lily and her best friend (who is black, something which also did not sit well with parts of the Union) are riding the rails and Lily offers her sexual favours to a brakeman in order to get a free journey to New York. Added was a new ending where Lily has her downfall, sanctimonious and arguably misogynistic. This version was passed by the censor but still caused controversy. (The full-length version was considered lost, but was rediscovered in 2004.) A confrontation was brewing, and it happened the following year.
The two films usually credited with bringing on the enforcement of the Production Code were two late 1933 releases, Convention City from Warners and The Story Of Temple Drake from Paramount. Convention City was a rowdy farce with Joan Blondell in her underwear for much of the running time, jokes about condom machines and possibly the first ever bestiality gag in American cinema. The Story Of Temple Drake was an adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary. The story of a Southern belle’s (played by Miriam Hopkins) degradation – including rape and prostitution – the novel had been so scandalous that many were surprised that it was ever considered for screen adaptation. The story was considerably toned down and the title changed to avoid too many people associating the film with the novel, and Faulkner’s most notorious scene (rape by corncob) was removed, but still the film caused considerable protest. (It was filmed again under the novel’s title in 1961.)
By 1934, the Depression was lifting, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt was talking of a New Deal for the USA. With a change of public mood, the appetite for the edgier themes of pre-Code cinema was beginning to wane. More significant was the foundation of the Legion of Decency in 1933. This organisation set about to rate every film on release for acceptability and no Catholics were allowed to see a film they condemned. This potential mass boycott gave the PCA the leverage they needed.
On 1 July 1934, the Production Code came into force. All scripts and finished films produced by the major studios were vetted for acceptability. Any film released by the studios without a Seal of Approval (which appear in film credits to this day) would be punished by a fine of $25,000. Certain subjects became forbidden, and wrongdoers were not allowed to benefit from their wrongdoing. To put a political cast on it, the Production Code made Hollywood enforce the status quo, and any criticism had to be considerably veiled or it would be suppressed. As for the films on release, the PCA vetted each one of them. Those that contained unacceptable material had to be cut before they could be reissued. The worst examples had to be withdrawn immediately and never shown again. Even a best picture Oscar winner such as All Quiet On The Western Front could not escape: it had to lose a scene where the soldiers spend the night with some French girls. (This footage has since been restored.)
One effect of this was that films which were no longer able to be reissued were remade. Waterloo Bridge (1931) was remade in 1940 with the heroine (Mae Clarke in the original, Joan Fontaine in the remake) being changed from an actress/ prostitute to a dancer. The classic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon came about because the 1931 original was beyond the pale. John Huston was one of many screenwriters who became adept at bypassing the Code. Note how Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr) is referred to as a ‘gunsel’. Huston justified that word as meaning ‘gunslinger’ but it also had another street-slang meaning, what would now be called a rent boy. But certainly Hollywood movies on the whole became more conservative and less adult. From a British perspective we shouldn’t be too smug about this, as the British Board of Film Censors (as was) in the 1930s was equally paternalistic, considering the mass audience easily led and needing to be shielded from controversial subject matter. Many of the most notorious pre-Code films were usually released in the UK, though usually with BBFC cuts. (Wild Boys Of The Road, re-titled Dangerous Days, seems to be a surprising exception.)
It has to be said that for the best part of two decades, the Production Code, however much filmmakers chafed against it, gave Hollywood a period of stability generally safe from moralist’s complaints. Most controversies involved foreign-made films, such as the British In Which We Serve (due to language issues), and the Italian neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves (due to a scene in what is strongly implied is a brothel). The major challenge came from Howard Hughes, who had butted heads with the Code previously with Scarface. His version of the Billy the Kid story, The Outlaw, scandalised with an advertising campaign centred on Jane Russell’s bust, but more seriously showed Billy and his girl Rio ending the film without any retribution for their crimes.
Joe Breen retired in 1954, by which time the Code was beginning to seem antiquated. Amongst others, Otto Preminger challenged it by releasing The Moon Is Blue (a comedy containing such naughty words as ‘virgin’ and ‘mistress’) and The Man With The Golden Arm (starring Frank Sinatra in a study of the then-taboo subject of drug addiction) without a Code seal. Censorship gradually broke down to the point that the MPAA, while still granting Seals of Approval, replaced the Code with a ratings system, the basis of the one that is in use today.
Meanwhile, the new medium of television was gaining ground in the 1950s, and it had an insatiable hunger for old films. So Hollywood’s vaults opened, and many films became available again for the first time since 1934. Some of them included the films that Breen had considered beyond the pale, which had therefore never been cut. Others, which had had to be edited, still survived in their complete forms in the studio archives – for example, The Merry Widow (1934), whose producer Irving Thalberg has been so disgusted at having to censor it that he authorised an uncut copy to be made and kept. Other films were able to be restored, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, King Kong and Frankenstein among them. (In the case of the last-named, the drowning sequence survives because it was found in a British release print, as the BBFC had not cut the scene. And yet, there is conjecture that a close-up of the girl drowning is still missing because the BBFC had cut that particular shot.)
However, there were casualties. Some films survive in their PCA-cut versions, Dracula and Rouben Mamoulian’s musical Love Me Tonightbeing examples. One film, Letty Lynton starring Joan Crawford, has been commercially unavailable since the mid 1930s due to litigation, though it survives in the archive and has been posted on YouTube.
However, the saddest case is that of Convention City. The story goes that the film was regarded by Joe Breen as completely unacceptable for re-release, but Jack Warner was still receiving requests from it, from convention parties in particular. Warners did not want to have to tell people that the studio that the film was not available when it was, so he ordered that all prints and negatives be destroyed. So Convention Citybecame the most recent lost film in the Warner Bros catalogue, and one of the most recent lost films from any Hollywood major. However, later research has cast doubt on this story, citing advertising which has the film playing on the bottom half of a double bill in 1937, though how much edited it was from its already short length of 66 minutes is anyone’s guess. Studio records advise that the negative was junked in 1948, most likely due to nitrate deterioration, which would be sadly not the only case of this.
The Production Code had an incalculable impact on Hollywood, for better or for worse. In recent years, there has been considerable interest in the short but fascinating pre-Code era. Many of the films produced during that time are still eye-opening today.
Many pre-Code films have been released on DVD, though by no means all. Warner Bros have, so far, released three volumes of their Forbidden Hollywood Collection in the USA. Volume one contains Waterloo Bridge, Red-Headed Woman and both versions of Baby Face. Volume two contains The Divorcee, A Free Soul, Female, Three On A Match, and Night Nurse plus the documentary on the pre-Code era Thou Shalt Not. Volume three contains six films directed by the prolific William A. Wellman: Other Men’s Women, The Purchase Price, Frisco Jenny, Midnight Mary, Heroes For Sale, and Wild Boys Of The Road. All these DVDs are NTSC and encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4. Universal have also issued their own Region 1 pre-Code set, containing The Cheat, Merrily We Go To Hell, Hot Saturday, Torch Singer, Murder At The Vanities, and Search For Beauty.
A TOP 10 PRE-CODE FILMS
This list is intended to give someone a good grounding in pre-Code Hollywood, with the emphasis on films which are either significant in censorship history or are particularly entertaining, or both. I’ve left off films which have classic status already, such as the major Universal horror films, Warner gangster films and others. With one obvious exception I have only listed films I have seen myself and given details of their availability on DVD or otherwise (almost entirely in the US rather than the UK).
Baby Face (1933) director: Alfred E. Green
Available on DVD in Warner’s Forbidden Hollywood Collection: volume one, in both its pre-release and censored release versions.
Convention City (1933) director: Archie Mayo
It may be that a print survives in a foreign archive (the film had a British release, albeit with BBFC cuts), but in the meantime please check your attic. There are rumours that the soundtrack survives on a Vitaphone disc and there has been at least one dramatic reading of the script.
Female (1933) director: Michael Curtiz
Ruth Chatterton runs a company (inherited from her father) and lives in an awesomely swanky apartment to which selected handsome male employees are invited home… Only 60 minutes long and great fun, though you wonder if the volte-face ending was put there to appease censors. Note Ferdinand Gottschalk’s performance as an overtly gay office colleague and confidant. He gets a gratuitous scene where he seems to be coming on to a woman – censor-insurance, perhaps? Now it’s available in the second Forbidden Hollywood Collection from Warners.
Heroes For Sale (1933) director: William A. Wellman
Richard Barthlemess was a D.W. Griffith regular and here he gives his best performance in a talkie as the WWI vet who has problems fitting back into society. Morphine addiction and political struggle are amongst his issues. Available in the third Forbidden Hollywood set from Warners.
Night Nurse (1932) director: William A. Wellman
Another one from the prolific Wellman, this is an absolute treat. Barbara Stanwyck takes the title job to a pair of sickly children and discovers a plot involving chauffeur Clark Gable to poison them for their inheritance. The most sympathetic male character is a bootlegger and the ending is jaw-droppingly amoral. It’s included in the second Forbidden Hollywood Collection from Warners.
The Sign Of The Cross (1933) director: Cecil B. DeMille
For years this was only available in its heavily-cut re-release version, which added a WWII prologue. The full version survived in DeMille’s private print, which means you get to see a lesbian seduction dance intended to test our Christian heroine’s resolve, and an astonishingly graphic arena sequence. (This had an impact on British censorship. Due to complaints about the treatment of animals in this sequence, Parliament passed the ‘Cinematograph (Animals) Act’ of 1937. It is still in force today, and films still have to be cut in the UK because of it.) It’s available in the US from Universal, as part of the Cecil B. DeMille Collection boxset.
The Story Of Temple Drake (1933) director: Stephen Roberts
A good film, but you may wonder what the fuss is about nowadays: the cleaning up of the storyline before the film was even made makes some aspects of the plot unclear. Temple’s degradation at the hands of brutal rapist Trigger (renamed from Popeye in Faulkner’s novel, and played by Jack LaRue after George Raft turned the role down as potentially career-damaging) would be defined as Stockholm Syndrome nowadays. It was made for Paramount, whose 1930s catalogue is owned by Universal nowadays. However, rights may sit with Fox, who made the 1961 remake Sanctuary. Either way, it’s not on an official DVD, though public domain labels offer it, and it can be watched on YouTube.
Three On A Match (1932) director: Mervyn LeRoy
Forget what you hear about old movies being slow when you see how much LeRoy gets through in a mere 63 minutes. Three women, friends from childhood, find their relationship tested when one of them goes to the bad (a fine performance from Ann Dvorak). It’s available in the second Forbidden Hollywood Collection from Warners.
Waterloo Bridge (1931) director: James Whale
An important film in Whale’s career as its success enabled him to make Frankenstein, which also featured Mae Clarke. (She had an eventful year: James Cagney pushes a grapefruit into her face in The Public Enemy.) Clarke shines in this fine drama as an actress and part-time prostitute in WWI London who falls in love with a soldier. Its unavailability post-1934 has led it to be overshadowed with the toned-down 1941 remake. Now it’s included in the first Forbidden Hollywood Collection.
Wild Boys Of The Road (1933) director: William A. Wellman
A surprisingly hard-hitting Depression-set drama… The female lead, Dorothy Coonan, went on to marry the director. It’s available in the thirdForbidden Hollywood Collection.
Histories of Hollywood censorship, including the pre-Code era, include The Dame In The Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship And The Production Code, From The 1920s To The 1960s by Leonard J. Leff, and Censored Hollywood: Sex, Sin & Violence On Screen by Frank Miller. More specifically devoted to pre-Code films is the lavishly-illustrated Sin In Soft Focus by Mark Vieira.