What is Pre-Code Hollywood?

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What is Pre-Code Hollywood?

The simplest definition is this: Pre-Code refers to an era in motion pictures from the arrival of ‘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.

That sounds confusing, so let me go a different tack and explain that the fascination with Pre-Code films often from how openly suggestive and fun the majority of films that compromised those seven years are. Sex, drugs, any portrayals of homosexuality, and a host of other issues that would be banned from public consumption for several decades are indulged in and exploited frequently by then-big Hollywood studios.

Here’s a good video that can serve as a primer:

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

The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 is a document written up by William Hayes with the aid of the major motion picture studios at the time, and this is the ‘Code’ that Pre-Code refers to. I have a copy of the entire document on my site, along with notes and a list of topics that violated the Code.

This code was written by newspaper editor Martin Quigley and a priest named Daniel Lord. Will H. Hayes and the major studios all agreed upon this update to previous criteria in hopes of limiting state and local censorship boards from cutting their films. Under its provisions, studios would submit scripts and screenplays to his office in order to find ways in which objectionable content could be avoided.

Avoiding objectionable content was, of course, ideal in order to avoid the many local censorship boards, though the racy content was fairly popular with the general public. This voluntary version was meant to strike a ‘best of both worlds’ approach that, in the eyes of censor boards across the country and many church groups, didn’t work.

When was Pre-Code Hollywood?

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

Here’s where we’re going to touch on some tricky stuff. The ‘Pre-Code’ Era is actually defined differently by different people. For the purposes of this site, I’ll be covering anything that is a talking motion picture and came out before July of 1934.

Some define the start date as simply whenever the widespread adoption of talking movies began, ranging from 1927 to 1929. Others go by when the Code was adopted, meaning 1930.

However the final, absolute end date of Pre-Code Hollywood is July 1, 1934, with mandatory censorship occurring after that time.

So, what’s so great about Pre-Code?

There’s a remarkable freedom of creativity in the era, as film studios tried out talkies and whole a generation of stars rising in these new pictures. Several genres flourished in the era, from gangster movies to message pictures. The ability to create risky and adult content gave rise to a variety of movies that looked at moral issues in depth, and challenged America at its lowest point.

But the thing that always engages me about Pre-Code films is how vital they still feel. Besides how structural experimental and free they still are, it’s fascinating to look back 80 years ago and see how people lived, and both how much has changed and how much remains the same. While no one will contend that the Recession of 2008 holds a candle to the horrors of the Great Depression, watching hard time in American history dealt with through fiction is a fascinating mirror for our own time and the challenges we face even today.

Further Reading & References

  • If you’re interested in reading more in the print arena, try our Books page for a couple exhaustive volumes. There are also plenty of links to other good resources on our Community and Other Blogs page as well as the blogroll on the right column.
  • Mick LaSalle, one of the most preeminent film critics who exalt the Pre-Code Era, has written a pair of books about the era, as well as this useful introduction over at Green Cine. You can read that here.

Comments or questions? Feel free to ask below!



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One Response to What is Pre-Code Hollywood?

  1. Dachsie says:

    I just watched a 1933 movie, Design for Living, on YouTube. It was divided into 10 segments, and in segment 10 at 5 minutes 28 seconds, Meriam Hopkins uses the word “fuckin”. I have seen quite a few “pre-code” movies but I have never seen that.

    The video above is somewhat lacking in several ways. One is that It fails to mention that a Catholic priest spearheaded a very successful effort to get Catholics to boycott the movies. THAT threat to the money making of the Hollywood producers is what got the code to be abided by and abided by more strictly than ever. That was a good thing.

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