When we talk of Pre-Code Hollywood, what is generally being referred to are the studio films released within the four year period of the early 1930’s.
Or, in short, from the time the Hays Code was drawn up in March of 1930, to the advent of the Production Code Administration, which enforced these stringent censorship regulations from the beginning of 1934.
Within this brief period it was almost as if no theme was off-limits. Filmmakers fearlessly explored unspoken taboos like infidelity, prostitution, rape, murder, organised crime, corruption, social inequity and disenfranchisement.
With a palpable shift in darker subject matter from the decade before, it’s sinful characters and not-so-happy endings tested censorship constraints, and pushed the boundaries of what is permitted to be seen on the big screen. And as the silent-era of film was coming to a close, these new ‘talkies’ were quite literally saying much more than they had ever done before.
‘The American motion picture… owes no civic obligation greater than the honest presentment of clean entertainment and maintains that in supplying effective entertainment, free of propaganda, we serve a high and self-sufficing purpose’.
(William H. Hays)
But the questions we really want to know is why on earth the big deal, for a period that lasted only four years? Why is the Pre-Code film talked about within cinema circles as if it’s almost a genre of it’s own? Surely, after 8 decades the Pre-Code film’s bold and intrepid impact (if any) has somewhat lessoned over the long course of time?
To gain a better scope and understanding from which to answer these questions, we need to look at the context and social background from which the Pre-Code film was forged.
As the industry was making it’s migratory transition out of the silent-era and into sound, a string of provocative and controversial films (along with some highly publicised court cases involving larger-than-life stars of the time) led to a frenzy of sensationalised newspaper headlines and an overall negative shift in public perception.
With the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle scandal in 1921, and the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor the year after, Hollywood’s previously unsullied image was beginning to reveal it’s cracks and blemishes under the bright lights.
And in 1922, after the backing and endorsement from several conservative groups at the time, Presbyterian elder and former head of The Republican National Committee, William H. Hays was appointed by the studios in order to restore Hollywood from it’s seemingly crumbling reputation and tainted image within the public eye.
Almost simultaneously, the studios were noticing a significant shift in interest from what it’s audiences wanted to see at the box office. With the onset of local economic disaster, the stock market collapse of 1929, and the impending Great Depression that soon swept across America, the scintillating and ostentatious films of the Jazz Age the decade before were fast becoming passé to a public that was growing jaded from the false promises and political blunders of those in power.
Across the country, the people’s optimism was at an all-time low, and the studios were having to tighten their purse strings to cope with constricted budgets and technical discrepancies that came with the introduction of sound in film.
One might be inclined to think that within this gloomy period Hollywood slowed it’s overall production rate, but in reality it would prove quite the contrary. The studios still managed to churn out hundreds of films, with a good deal of them cementing the careers of some of the industry’s biggest and brightest stars. And a large number of these films are as strikingly salacious, menacing, thought-provoking or moving as they were at the time they were released.
Some challenged conservative minds at the time, or our views on tradition, with plots that put a twist on conventional practices, like Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 adaptation of the Noël Coward play Design For Living. Within the film’s comedic frame the two male protagonists, a painter and a playwright (played by Gary Cooper and Fredric March) shake hands on a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ where they share the affection of Gilda (played by Miriam Hopkins), and attempt to co-exist within a mutual three-sided relationship, under one roof.
Films like MGM’s Red-Headed Woman (1932), or the Warner Brothers release Baby Face (1933) portrayed ambitious female protagonists in lead roles, who used sex-appeal and cunning in order to opportunistically outwit and exploit a swathe of affluent and successful men.
Both films toyed with controversial elements, but their lead women- in Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck, bore humanistic complexities and vulnerabilities that made them much more than just avaricious gold diggers.
Strange, yet vaguely familiar arenas, and faraway, exotic lands became the backdrops for a new take on the science fiction and horror genre, with Paramount Pictures’ gruesomely macabre Murders in the Zoo (1933) and Tod Browning’s groundbreaking classic, Freaks (1932), that cleverly deconstructs our preconceived notions of disfigurement and deformity, as the carnival’s circle of sideshow freaks prove more dignified or virtuous than the beautiful woman who infiltrates the bigtop.
Set on a small, exotic island somewhere on the South Seas, Paramount Pictures’ 1932 adaptation of the H.G Wells classic novel The Island of Dr. Moreau is as ridiculous as it is ridiculously enjoyable. The Island of Lost Souls stars Charles Laughton as the wicked Dr. Moreau; whose nefarious attempts at playing god have spawned beast-like men, and one seductively alluring ‘panther woman’.
The film’s darker elements of horror were met with criticism abroad, and the British Board of Film Censors heavily censored the film in the UK until as late as 1957.
Also set entirely on an island in the South Seas was MGM’s 1932 Pre-Code melodrama directed by Lewis Milestone, Rain. The overall mood and rhythm of this film, however, beats to the tune of an entirely different drum. With moving performances from Joan Crawford and Walter Huston, and based on a short story from W. Somerset Maugham, Rain boldly questions our notions of belief and of morality, of truth and of hypocrisy.
Crawford plays a bar singer and call-girl, momentarily stranded on a small island with a motley group of travellers, including a Christian missionary (Huston) and his wife. Throughout the torrential downpours that rain down throughout the entirety of the film, the so-called ‘savage’ inhabitants of the island sing and fish, whilst the ‘civilised’ few resort to malevolence and tyrannical prejudice.
The Pre-Code era also produced a string of game-changing underworld films that laid the foundations for cinema’s gangster, and shaped many of the distinguishing cornerstones for the genre.
Warner Brothers led the way with Little Caesar in 1931; a hard-hitting and highly influential mobster film, starring Edward G. Robinson as Rico ‘Little Caesar’ Bandello. A year later, riding off the notoriety of organised crime figures in the headlines, like Al Capone and John Dillinger, the studio released William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy, with the film’s infamous protagonist Tom Powers played by the great James Cagney.
Sure, both these films detailed a consequential fall from grace, as their itchy-fingered protagonists finally caught up with the law, but never before had the crime film been presented so graphically, and in such a way that it’s growing audience could connect with.
United Artists would follow suit in 1932 with Scarface: Shame of a Nation. With actor Paul Muni playing the role of the callously cold-hearted Tony Calmonte (the character clearly draws many ‘coincidental’ parallels to Al Capone), the censorship boards at the time still forced many changes to the initial script, and the addition to the film’s title Shame of a Nation was added at their request. Other such notable Pre-Code crime films were City Streets (Paramount Pictures, 1931) and Taxi! (Warner Brothers, 1932).
These films made household names out of Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Paul Muni and George Raft, and the images of them toting deadly firearms has been etched into the annals of cinema history.
There were most certainly an array of notable filmmakers active in this period, but one director worth mentioning has got to be the great William (Wild Bill) Wellman. His films- like the aforementioned Public Enemy (1931), along with other Pre-Code classics like Other Men’s Women (1931), Purchase Price (1932), Heroes for Sale (1933) and Wild Boys of the Road (1933) display an empathetic flair for realism, and an innate understanding of the frail social conditions of the time.
From the unified group of steam engine workers in Other Men’s Women, to the returning World War I veteran who struggles to assimilate back into a society that has no room for him in Heroes for Sale, to the multitude of displaced and destitute adolescents who roam the country in search of a better life in Wild Boys of the Road, Wellman’s intuitive knack for crafting deeply relatable characters that still manage to touch audiences is indeed no small feat.
With a vigorous push from the conservative right, and from the Catholic and Protestant church movements after the Pre-Code era, protests and threats of a Hollywood boycott forced the studios into reevaluating their brand, and their motion pictures came under heavy censorship in the decades to follow. Some films of the Pre-Code era suffered irreparable alterations when studios attempted to reissue these films after 1934. In some instances, films like Mata Hari (1931), Arrowsmith (1931) and A Farewell To Arms (1933) are only available in their censored versions, whilst others are missing entirely because directors refused to have them put under the scalpel.
That being said, there is still to be found a treasure trove of classic gems from this period, as the passing of time has seen more of them placed under the public domain. But censorship, and the right to free speech and expression has arguably been the elephant in the room since the birth of cinema. As the industry would go on to face many more censorship adversities, including the McCarthyism witch hunts and trials a decade or so later, the art of filmmaking would be shaped by the evolution of society’s changing moral values.