Books

There are a good number of resources for any bookworm to read about Pre-Code Hollywood. Please note that all descriptions come from Amazon and that these are sponsored links, so buying books from the links help me out. Feel free to let me know what you think of the books down at the bottom of the page!

 


What To Start With

Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934

by Thomas Patrick Doherty

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Description: 

Pre-Code Hollywood explores the fascinating period in American motion picture history from 1930 to 1934 when the commandments of the Production Code Administration were violated with impunity in a series of wildly unconventional films — a time when censorship was lax and Hollywood made the most of it. Though more unbridled, salacious, subversive, and just plain bizarre than what came afterwards, the films of the period do indeed have the look of Hollywood cinema — but the moral terrain is so off-kilter that they seem imported from a parallel universe.

In a sense, Doherty avers, the films of pre-Code Hollywood are from another universe. They lay bare what Hollywood under the Production Code attempted to cover up and push offscreen: sexual liaisons unsanctified by the laws of God or man, marriage ridiculed and redefined, ethnic lines crossed and racial barriers ignored, economic injustice exposed and political corruption assumed, vice unpunished and virtue unrewarded — in sum, pretty much the raw stuff of American culture, unvarnished and unveiled.

No other book has yet sought to interpret the films and film-related meanings of the pre-Code era — what defined the period, why it ended, and what its relationship was to the country as a whole during the darkest years of the Great Depression… and afterward.

Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood

by Mick LaSalle

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Description: In the pre-Code Hollywood era, between 1929 and 1934, women in American cinema took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, led unapologetic careers, and, in general, acted the way many think women only acted after 1968.

Before then, women on screen had come in two varieties-sweet ingenue or vamp. Then two stars came along: Greta Garbo, who turned the femme fatale into a woman whose capacity for love and sacrifice made all other human emotions seem pale; and Norma Shearer, who succeeded in taking the ingenue to a place she’d never been: the bedroom. In their wake came a deluge of other complicated women-Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, and Mae West, to name a few. Then, in July 1934, the draconian Production Code became the law in Hollywood and these modern women of the screen were banished, not to be seen again until the code was repealed three decades later.

A thorough survey and a tribute to these films, Complicated Women reveals how this was the true Golden Age of women’s films.

Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man

by Mick LaSalle

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Description: Using the same mix of accessibility and insider knowledge he used so successfully in Complicated Women, author and film critic Mick LaSalle now turns his attention to the men of the pre-Code Hollywood era.

The five years between 1929 and mid-1934 was a period of loosened censorship that finally ended with the imposition of a harsh Production Code that would, for the next thirty-four years, censor much of the life and honesty out of American movies. Dangerous Men takes a close look at the images of manhood during this pre-Code era, which coincided with an interesting time for men-the culmination of a generation-long transformation in the masculine ideal. By the late twenties, the tumult of a new century had made the nineteenth century’s notion of the ideal man seem like a repressed stuffed shirt, a deluded optimist. The smiling, confident hero of just a few years before fell out of favor, and the new heroes who emerged were gangsters, opportunists, sleazy businessmen, shifty lawyers, shell-shocked soldiers-men whose existence threatened the status quo.

In this book, LaSalle highlights such household names as James Cagney, Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson, Maurice Chevalier, Spencer Tracy, and Gary Cooper, along with lesser-known ones such as Richard Barthelmess, Lee Tracy, Robert Montgomery, and the magnificent Warren William. Together they represent a vision of manhood more exuberant and contentious-and more humane-than anything that has followed on the American screen.

Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood

by Mark A. Vieira

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Description: Sin in Soft Focus showcases a scintillating era in film history: “pre-code Hollywood,” that boldly creative period in the early 1930s when defiant producers flouted the restrictions of the censors, who tried–but failed–to ban everything from sex, profanity, and excessive violence to “lustful kissing.” Lavishly illustrated with rare film stills, the book captures the artistry and bravura of the era’s controversial films.


Star Biographies

Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes

by Matthew Kennedy

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Description: Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes is the first major biography of the effervescent, scene-stealing actress (1906-1979) who conquered motion pictures, vaudeville, Broadway, summer stock, television, and radio. Born the child of vaudevillians, she was on stage by age three. With her casual sex appeal, distinctive cello voice, megawatt smile, luminous saucer eyes, and flawless timing, she came into widespread fame in Warner Bros. musicals and comedies of the 1930s, including Blonde Crazy, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade.

Frequent co-star to James Cagney, Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart, friend to Judy Garland, Barbara Stanwyck, and Bette Davis, and wife of Dick Powell and Mike Todd, Joan Blondell was a true Hollywood insider. By the time of her death, she had made nearly 100 films in a career that spanned over fifty years.

Privately, she was unerringly loving and generous, while her life was touched by financial, medical, and emotional upheavals. Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes is meticulously researched, expertly weaving the public and private, and features numerous interviews with family, friends, and colleagues.

Cagney by Cagney

by James Cagney

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Description: This book is for the true fan of James Cagney. Mr. Cagney tells his story as no one can.

Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis

by Ed Sikov

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Description: In Dark Victory, noted film critic and biographer Ed Sikov paints the most detailed picture ever delivered of Bette Davis, the intelligent, opinionated, and unusual woman who was—in the words of a close friend—“one of the major events of the twentieth century.” Drawing on new interviews with friends, directors, and admirers, as well as archival research and a fresh look at the films, this stylish, intimate biography depicts Davis’s personal as well as professional life in a way that is both revealing and sympathetic.

With his wise and well-informed take on the production and accomplishments of such movie milestones as Jezebel, All About Eve, and Now, Voyager, as well as the turbulent life and complicated personality of the actress who made them, Sikov’s Dark Victory brings to life the two-time Academy Award–winning actress’s unmistakable screen style, and shows the reader how Davis’s art was her own dark victory.

Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career

by Lynn Kear and John Rossman

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Description: Kay Francis came of age in the Roaring Twenties and relished the era’s hedonistic pursuits. Her career as an actress was launched at the same time, and before her death in 1968, she had appeared on many theater stages, in more than 60 films, on radio, in USO tours, as a model, and on television. The tall, stylish actress had a husky voice and dark beauty that was striking on film. Despite her financial success, relaxed morals, and life as a socialite, the millionaire actress shunned luxuries such as limousines and sprawling estates popular among Hollywood elite. The actress who insisted she wanted to be forgotten left behind scrapbooks, boxes of memorabilia and detailed diaries.

These rich resources help provide an exhaustive look at the life of one of Hollywood’s most intriguing early stars. Francis’ biography is the heart of this book, beginning with her family background and her upbringing by a vaudevillian actress mother. The story of her extensive career and never-ending romantic pursuits is peppered with comments from the media and her own diaries, and supplemented with ample photographs. A chronology gives dates of theater openings, film releases, marriages, television and radio appearances, births and deaths. A filmography includes complete cast and credit lists.

Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood

by Emily W. Leider

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Description: From the beginning, Myrna Loy’s screen image conjured mystery, a sense of something withheld. “Who is she?” was a question posed in the first fan magazine article published about her in 1925. This first ever biography of the wry and sophisticated actress best known for her role as Nora Charles, wife to dapper detective William Powell in The Thin Man, offers an unprecedented picture of her life and an extraordinary movie career that spanned six decades.

Opening with Loy’s rough-and-tumble upbringing in Montana, the book takes us to Los Angeles in the 1920s, where Loy’s striking looks caught the eye of Valentino, through the silent and early sound era to her films of the thirties, when Loy became a top box office draw, and to her robust post-World War II career. Throughout, Emily W. Leider illuminates the actress’s friendships with luminaries such as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford and her collaborations with the likes of John Barrymore, David O. Selznick, Sam Goldwyn, and William Wyler, among many others. This highly engaging biography offers a fascinating slice of studio era history and gives us the first full picture of a very private woman who has often been overlooked despite her tremendous star power.

Spencer Tracy, Fox Film Actor: The Pre-Code Legacy of a Hollywood Legend

by The New England Vintage Film Society

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Description: n/a

Mae West: It Ain’t No Sin

by Simon Louvish

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Description: Sex goddess, Hollywood star, transgressive playwright, author, blues singer, and vaudeville brat—Mae West remains the twentieth century’s greatest comedienne. She made an everlasting mark in trailblazing Broadway plays such as Sex and The Constant Sinner and in films such as She Done Him Wrong, Klondike Annie, and I’m No Angel.

Simon Louvish, biographer of W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Keystone’s Mack Sennett, brings Mae to vibrant life in this unparalleled new biography. He charts her amazing seven decades in show business, from early years in teenage summer stock to her last reincarnation as 1960s gay icon and grande dame of Hollywood survivors.

Mae West: It Ain’t No Sin is the first biography to make use of Mae’s recently uncovered personal papers, offering an unprecedented view into the endless creative drive and daring wit of this legendary star

Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood

by John Stangeland

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Description: On the motion picture screen, Hollywood star Warren William (1894-1948) was a magnificent rogue, often deliciously immoral and utterly callous, yet remarkably likable in his wickedness. Off-screen, the actor was as humble and retiring as his film characters were mean and heartless. This biography examines William’s life and career in detail, from his rural Minnesota roots through his service in World War I, his Broadway stage success, and his meteoric rise and gradual fall from Hollywood fame in the 1930s and 1940s.

Also analyzed are his film persona and the curious mechanisms by which our culture “selects” certain film personalities to remember and others to forget. Featured is a wealth of biographical material never before available, including rare candid photos of William’s early years. Interviews with his surviving nieces provide intimate family details and personal remembrances.


Filmmakers

Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley

by Jeffrey Spivak

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Description: Characterized by grandiose song-and-dance numbers featuring ornate geometric patterns and mimicked in many modern films, Busby Berkeley’s unique artistry is as recognizable and striking as ever. From his years on Broadway to the director’s chair, Berkeley is notorious for his inventiveness and signature style. Through sensational films like 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), and Dames (1934), Berkeley sought to distract audiences from the troubles of the Great Depression. Although his bold technique is familiar to millions of moviegoers, Berkeley’s life remains a mystery.

Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley is a telling portrait of the filmmaker who revolutionized the musical and changed the world of choreography. Berkeley pioneered many conventions still in use today, including the famous “parade of faces” technique, which lends an identity to each anonymous performer in a close-up. Carefully arranging dancers in complex and beautiful formations, Berkeley captured perspectives never seen before.

Jeffrey Spivak’s meticulous research magnifies the career and personal life of this beloved filmmaker. Employing personal letters, interviews, studio memoranda, and Berkeley’s private memoirs, Spivak unveils the colorful life of one of cinema’s greatest artists.

Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood

by Robert S. Birchard

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Description: Cecil B. DeMille was the most successful filmmaker in early Hollywood history. Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood is a detailed and definitive chronicle of the screen work that changed the course of film history and a fascinating look at how movies were actually made in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Drawing extensively on DeMille’s personal archives and other primary sources, Robert S. Birchard offers a revealing portrait of DeMille the filmmaker that goes behind studio gates and beyond DeMille’s legendary persona. In his forty-five-year career DeMille’s box-office record was unsurpassed, and his swaggering style established the public image for movie directors. DeMille had a profound impact on the way movies tell stories and brought greater attention to the elements of decor, lighting, and cinematography.

Best remembered today for screen spectacles such as The Ten Commandments and Samson and Delilah, DeMille also created Westerns, realistic “chamber dramas,” and a series of daring and highly influential social comedies. He set the standard for Hollywood filmmakers and demanded absolute devotion to his creative vision from his writers, artists, actors, and technicians.

Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master

by Michael Sragow

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Description: Victor Fleming was the most sought-after director in Hollywood’s golden age, renowned for his ability to make films across an astounding range of genres–westerns, earthy sexual dramas, family entertainment, screwball comedies, buddy pictures, romances, and adventures. Fleming is remembered for the two most iconic movies of the period, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, but the more than forty films he directed also included classics like Red Dust, Test Pilot, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Captains Courageous. Paradoxically, his talent for knowing how to make the necessary film at the right time, rather than remaking the same movie in different guises, has resulted in Victor Fleming’s relative obscurity in our time.

Michael Sragow restores the director to the pantheon of our greatest filmmakers and fills a gaping hole in Hollywood history with this vibrant portrait of a man at the center of the most exciting era in American filmmaking. The actors Fleming directed wanted to be him (Fleming created enduring screen personas for Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Gary Cooper), and his actresses wanted to be with him (Ingrid Bergman, Clara Bow, and Norma Shearer were among his many lovers).

Victor Fleming not only places the director back in the spotlight, but also gives us the story of a man whose extraordinary personal style was as thrilling, varied, and passionate as the stories he brought to the screen.

Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood

by Todd McCarthy

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Description: Howard Hawks is the first major biography of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, a filmmaker of incomparable versatility whose body of work includes the landmark gangster film Scarface, screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, the Bogart-Bacall classics To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and aviation classics and Westerns like The Dawn Patrol and Rio Bravo.

Sometime partner of the eccentric Howard Hughes, drinking buddy of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, an inveterate gambler and a notorious liar, Hawks was the most modern of the great masters and one of the first directors to declare his independence from the major studios. He played Svengali to Lauren Bacall, Montgomery Clift, and others, but Hawks’s greatest creation may have been himself.

A Short Time for Insanity: An Autobiography by William A. Wellman

A Short Time for Insanity: An Autobiography

by William A. Wellman

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Description: The man who made such successful motion pictures as Wings, The Public Enemy, A Star is Born, Beau Geste, Battleground, and The High and the Mighty, and also made such flops as The Boob and Stingaree, could not be expected to write a conventional autobiography. What it is, is a piece of insanity.

From the perspective of a hospital bed, through a drug-induced haze, Wellman’s memory makes connections between events in life that his rational mind would never perceive… between a child’s first hunting trip and a drunken weekend with Spencer Tracy, between working with Clark Gable and a recalcitrant St. Bernard in Call of the Wild and working with Ernie Pyle and real fighting troops in GI Joe, and between the friendship and courage and sorrow of flying in the Lafayette Escadrille and everything that ever happened in the rest of his life.

What it is, is a beautiful insight into the mind of a man who would have been called a genius if there’d been anybody willing to risk a black eye by calling him that. What it is, is a good and moving and funny and warm and honest… and a little crazy. Exactly like William Wellman.


Other Relevant Topics

Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code

Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code

by Thomas Doherty

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Description: From 1934 to 1954 Joseph I. Breen, a media-savvy Victorian Irishman, reigned over the Production Code Administration, the Hollywood office tasked with censoring the American screen. Though little known outside the ranks of the studio system, this former journalist and public relations agent was one of the most powerful men in the motion picture industry. As enforcer of the puritanical Production Code, Breen dictated “final cut” over more movies than anyone in the history of American cinema. His editorial decisions profoundly influenced the images and values projected by Hollywood during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.

Cultural historian Thomas Doherty tells the absorbing story of Breen’s ascent to power and the widespread effects of his reign. Breen vetted story lines, blue-penciled dialogue, and excised footage (a process that came to be known as “Breening”) to fit the demands of his strict moral framework. Empowered by industry insiders and millions of like-minded Catholics who supported his missionary zeal, Breen strove to protect innocent souls from the temptations beckoning from the motion picture screen.

There were few elements of cinematic production beyond Breen’s reach—he oversaw the editing of A-list feature films, low-budget B movies, short subjects, previews of coming attractions, and even cartoons. Populated by a colorful cast of characters, including Catholic priests, Jewish moguls, visionary auteurs, hardnosed journalists, and bluenose agitators, Doherty’s insightful, behind-the-scenes portrait brings a tumultuous era—and an individual both feared and admired—to vivid life.

Censoring Hollywood: Sex and Violence in Hollywood and on the Cutting Room Floor

Censoring Hollywood: Sex and Violence in Film and on the Cutting Room Floor

by Aubrey Malone

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Description: Censorship has been an ongoing issue from the early days of filmmaking. One hundred years of film censorship, encompassing the entire 20th century, are chronicled in this work. The freewheeling nature of films in the early decades was profoundly affected by Prohibition, the Depression and the formation of the Legion of Decency–culminating in a new age of restrictiveness in the movies.

Such powerful arbiters of public taste as Will H. Hays of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and Joseph Breen of the Production Code Association fomented an era whereby films with contentious material were severely censored or even condemned. This held sway until rebellious filmmakers like Otto Preminger challenged the system in the 1950s, eventually resulting in the abandonment of the old regime in favor of the contemporary “G” through “NC-17″ ratings system.

Crime Files: American Gangster Cinema from Public Enemy to Pulp Fiction

American Gangster Cinema: From Little Caesar to Pulp Fiction

by Fran Mason

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Description: Much analysis of gangster movies has been based upon a study of the gangster as a malign figuration of the American Dream, originally set in the era of the Depression. This text extends previous analysis of the genre by examining the evolution of gangster movies from the 1930s to the contemporary period and by placing them in the context of cultural and cinematic issues such as masculinity, consumerism, and technology. With a close examination of many films from Scarface an Public Enemy to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, this book provides a fascinating insight into a topical and popular subject.

Hail Hail Euphoria! Presenting The Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP The Greatest War Movie Ever Made

Hail, Hail, Euphoria!: Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made

by Roy Blount Jr.

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Description: Nearly eighty years after its release, the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup remains one of the most influential pieces of political satire in history. In Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, bestselling author Roy Blount Jr. tells the history and making of Duck Soup, examining the comedic genius of the Marx Brothers in their finest hour and nine minutes.

In Duck Soup, a slim, agile, quick-witted, self-assured young man is summoned to save a nation from financial ruin. As the nation’s new president, he brings together a team of rivals, a band of brothers. Those brothers are Pinky, Chicolini, and Lt. Bob Roland. Their leader? None other than Rufus T. Firefly.

The humor and idiosyncratic wit of Duck Soup are saluted by the author’s own in this gem of a book, offering a behind-the-scenes tale of show business and brotherhood that only a true Marx Brothers aficionado could tell.

Glamour in Golden Age: Movie Star

Glamour in a Golden Age: Movie Stars of the 1930s

by Professor Adrienne McLean, Professor Christine Becker, Professor James Castonguay and Professor Corey Creekmur

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Description: Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, and Gary Cooper-Glamour in a Golden Age presents original essays from eminent film scholars that analyze movie stars of the 1930s against the background of contemporary American cultural history.

American Cinema of the 1930s: Themes and Variations  by Ina R. Hark

American Cinema of the 1930s: Themes and Variations

by Ina R. Hark

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If you have any suggestions for books to add here, subtract from here, or any suggestions for me, please either contact me via the tab above or leave a comment below. Thanks!

4 Responses to Books

  1. Caren says:

    I’m reading the book THE DAME IN THE KIMONO: HOLLYWOOD, CENSORSHIP AND THE PRODUCTION CODE, FROM THE 1920′s TO THE 1960′s by Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons. I’m using it as a resource for pre-Code film.

  2. Ben says:

    Here’s a fantastic book about the Code from the inside. “See No Evil” by Jack Vizzard, published 1970. Vizzard came to work in the Production Code office, I believe in the early 1940′s, working directly under Joe Breen. He came in expecting to help save Hollywood from itself but ended up seeing the futility of such a mission. Told with a great deal of humor and irony. Gives some history of the early Code days, relates many wonderful anecdotes about the work he did as well as stories of the other censors. Used copies available on Amazon.

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