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Friday, 23 May 2014

When humor was funny, ladies were liberal & and words weren't censored.. Pre-Code Hollywood


Here is a story of my favorite film era of all times. The era before the dreadful "Production Code" came in power and turned Hollywood into what it is today.

BEST way to explain Pre-Code :)

What is Pre-Code Hollywood?

The quickest definition is this: 
“pre-Code” refers to an era in motion pictures from the arrival of sound (aka ‘talkies’) in 1927 to the mandatory enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in July 1934. This era is notable for while being censored, it is not as severely censored as the films that follow that July 1934 date.
A major problem for studios of the time was the fact that motion pictures were not considered free speech under the American constitution, and therefore were not afforded any protections in their content. Many states and even a few major cities had censorship boards that could order cuts before any movie would play within their jurisdiction. These cuts could be wildly different from state to state and even country to country– Great Britain, for example, would raise an objection whenever two people shared a bed– even if they were husband and wife. Because the cost of editing the prints to fit the censor’s demands fell back on the studios, these costs were a major drain on the industry.

The goal initially was to avoid censorship by creating guidelines that studios should be mindful of when producing pictures. You know, simple stuff like “don’t show any nudity”. But as the stink of the scandals receded, studios returned to being bold with their content– sex sells, after all. The Jazz Age also saw widespread social changes, as the post-War sense of nihilism, a booming economy, and new sexual freedoms (including widespread birth control) resulted in an era of laissez faire moral attitudes in cities, while the nation’s vast countryside remained staunchly religious and conservative. This clash would only intensify in the early 30s.

What’s the ‘Code’ that pre-Code refers to?

It is best described in this quote:
With the crash, the party was over. In the littered debris of confetti and ticker tape, an enormous sense of guilt set in. One does not turn from the past so suddenly and so unaccountably. A creeping fear that Big Daddy was striking back set in. In a mood of sobriety, a chastened citizenry reacted against those symbols of its great debauch and began to punish them. The Securities and Exchange Commission was made into a powerful bureau to control excesses in the stock market. And the F.B.I. was resurrected from the mothballs and made into a mighty arm of righteousness under the young Director J. Edgar Hoover. The imaginative system of the “ten most wanted” criminals was created, the rumrunners and racketeers were routed, and Prohibition was repealed.
The movies were more wily. They promised to control themselves. Since this solution seemed more coordinate with the American ideals of freedom and of the undesirability of censorship, the gesture of good will was accepted generally by the public.
I believe that this was pretty much the mood in which the Code first came into being.
– See No Evil by Jack Vizzard, pages 38-39

What brought an end to pre-Code Hollywood?

After the enforcement of the Production Code became mandatory in 1934, many producers and directors bragged about how their film was ‘the one’ that brought on the censorship. From the sources I read, these are the most commonly cited films for the crackdown:
  • Baby Face
  • Convention City
  • I’m No Angel
  • Red Headed Woman
  • She Done Him Wrong
  • The Sign of the Cross
  • The Story of Temple Drake

Dorothy MacKaill in "Safe in hell"

The final, absolute end date of pre-Code Hollywood is July 1, 1934, with mandatory censorship occurring after that time.
If you are interested in reading the whole text of the PRODUCTION CODE you can read it on the Pre-Code site (amazing place, where I got this story from - and I hereby thank them ever so much).
This attempt at censorship stuck for a number of reasons. After several years of decline, 1935 showed a turnaround at the box office, which was attributed to the new, ‘clean’ slate of pictures. A new star named Shirley Temple became emblematic of the late 30s, a precocious tot whose innocence captured the public’s imagination. America, sick of the Depression and hard times, accepted the censorship of movies as a necessary evil. The Code would remain enforced until 1968.

Why do I like Pre-Code films?

First of all, they are showing the true human nature. They are honest, and yet find the way to be utterly ridiculous. And then, there's the amazing dialog that is provided in every single film. Here's one from a lovely movie called "Footlight parade":
Nan Prescott: You scram, before I wrap a chair around your neck!
Vivian Rich: [Angrily] It's three o'clock in the morning - where do you want me to go?
 [Nan starts to speak, but Vivian immediately cuts her off]
Vivian Rich: You cheap stenographer...
Nan Prescott: Outside, countess. As long as they've got sidewalks YOU'VE got a job.
 [Shoves her out, gives her a swift kick in the rump, and slams the door behind her]
This is truly not something you'll be able to hear in a 1940's film, no matter how "liberal" you think it may be, even if it featured Humphrey Bogart. :)

Do you like Pre-Code films?


  1. Excellent post, sweet dear. It's surprising, actually, that we don't chat about this topic more in the mainstream vintage world (aka, outside of blogs devoted just to classic films). I'm a big fan of pre-coded movies and think they had such a powerful sense of genuineness - not to mention being an even more apt representation of that point in human history - that many later films sorely lacked.

    ♥ Jessica

    1. Thank you, Jess,
      I too have realized that multitude of people avoid this topic of films, and I think it could partially be due to the fact they are afraid of not knowing enough on the matter. I know so little one matter of filmography, but that does not stop me from enjoying myself. So, I have decided to post this.. and maybe I'll post some of my personal reviews of the films I've seen . I am by far a connoisseur, but I find that this might be a way to open this chapter for a wider audience..


  2. Baby Face is one of my favorite films and I too have a love for Pre Code, but I do also like the inventiveness and subversion of sexuality that happened in Code Hollywood. Great post! I'm a new follower :D

    1. Hello there!
      I'm so glad you decided to stick around, dear!
      I hope you have enjoyed your stay.. and I do agree with you. There is a certain line of mystery in Code films, as the directors tried to thread some of the forbidden themes in the lines and scenes.. much better than today's "all-in-your-face" way of presenting everything to the audience. Leaves little to imagination.

      Great having you here,

  3. This is quite interesting. I find it fascinating how at first they let a lot go in hollywood, but then began censoring films. And now they are reverting back to the non-censoring. I have seen very little silent films, other than the Charlie Chaplin ones.

    1. Today's "non-censoring" is, as we here like to say it: all up in your face. These times fail to present anything even remotely hidden; I suppose people don't have time to take hints and make guesses.. and those hints & guesses are precisely what makes Pre-Code films attractive.


  4. Really informative post, I only recently heard about 'pre-code' cinema and am keen to watch some of the films I haven't seen. I've just watched 1931's 'Platinum Blonde' starring Jean Harlow and was surprised at some of it, maybe the pre-code thing explains it?! P x

    1. I'm glad you are willing to venture into Pre-Code.
      I agree: there is a sure tell-tell it's pre-code. Not only do the people show their affection, great dialog (in some occasions, quite liberal) and there's a natural feel to it; since there were no boundaries set to the screenwriter or the director.
      The film itself is a gem.