History is a straight line, with the events of the past connecting up with the present in thousands of delicate threads. Understanding the history of pre-Code movies involves not just knowing what happened in 1929, but throughout American history to understand this unique moment in motion picture history.
This page is designed to help you, the curious reader, an overview of the events of what was happening in the early 1930s, from major film releases and censorship battles to political upheaval and general interesting factoids. I think it’s fascinating to know that if you’re watching a movie from 1930, it’s from before the chocolate chip cookie was invented, or if you’d lived in a big enough city, you could have seen the first shows of Trouble in Paradise and Red Dust within a day of one another.
I’ve broken it down by different events, so if you’re just looking for movie info and movie info only, you can skip to dates in just black. Other information is provided for context and because I find it interesting.
November 17, 1734 – On this day, Johann Peter Zenger, who printed The New York Weekly Journal, is arrested by the Governor of New York for libel. Zenger had been accusing colonial governor William Cosby of corruption in replacing a judge with his own preferred pick, and the trial became a national sensation. Zenger was freed, and the colonial precedence of allowing things to be printed so long as they’re provably true began. But this is also the first time a government official in what would become the United States attempted to censor something they didn’t like. It would not be the last.
September 11, 1791 – The Whiskey Rebellion in the United States is the first armed insurrection against the government. The new American government, established in 1789 after the failure of the Articles of Confederation and adoption of the American Constitution, desperately needed money to repay debts from the Revolutionary War. Americans revolted, as trading whiskey, rather than goods, was cheaper and easier in the rough Western parts of the country, primarily Pennsylvania and spreading to Maryland, Virginia and other areas West of the Appalachians. On September 11th, a tax collector was tarred and feathered, officially starting the conflict that would last until 1795. The incident would prove a lynchpin in proving the strength of the new federal government as well as being crucial to the founding of political parties in America.
1798 – President John Adams signs the Sedition Act into law, which allowed for the jailing of people who spoke out against the government. Unsurprisingly, it was mostly used to silence political opponents. When Thomas Jefferson of the opposite political party was elected, he let the Act expire… but not before using it against a few of his own political enemies.
1830– Americans drink about nine gallons of hard alcohol, or roughly four gallons of pure alcohol, a year. As a consequence, the first temperance societies grow and become part of the national consciousness. They would continue their growth until the Civil War.
1830s – The American Postmaster General refuses to allow the mail to carry abolitionist pamphlets to the South.
February 22nd, 1842– Abraham Lincoln gives a speech in Springfield about temperance, chastising more radical movements while advocating a reasoned approach to ending alcoholism in America.
Let us make it as unfashionable to withhold our names from the temperance cause as for husbands to wear their wives bonnets to church, and instances will be just as rare in the one case as the other.
A political cartoon that portrays the then-new temperance movement.
Early 1870s – Orator Dr. Dio Lewis preaches temperance to women across the country. His speeches inspire groups of women to do ‘sit ins’ in saloons and asking their owners to close their establishments. It’s a runaway success, with more than 17,000 drinking establishments being closed during this period. This also serves as one of the first major organizations composed entirely of women, and its successes soon feed into other causes, including that of gaining women the right to vote.
December 23, 1873– The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is founded. Under their second president Frances Willard, the group sought to encourage the prohibition of alcohol in the United States under the belief that it would end poverty and preserve families. To do this, the WCTU began to create scientific textbooks that portrayed the dangers of drinking (in a grossly exaggerated light) and then pushed for laws that made teachers emphasize the horrors of drinking to their students starting at a young age. (Women were unable to vote in national elections until the passage of the 19th Amendment, but 19 states allowed women to vote in local elections.) The organization also sought to indoctrinate newly arriving immigrants, seeing them as ‘more prone’ to alcoholism. The organization would continue to grow substantially over the next five decades. The organization also focused on woman’s suffrage and better working conditions.
November 5, 1879 – William Harrison Hays is born in Sullivan, Indiana.
1881– The WCTU counts a membership of 22,800.
1888 – “Roundhay Garden Scene” is the first film produced with a motion picture camera.
1891– The WCTU counts a membership of 138,377.
1893– Seeing that other organizations had too broad platforms, the Anti-Saloon League is founded to specifically force the adoption of alcohol prohibition in the United States. The organization backed “Dry” candidates, or those pro-prohibition, and put pressure on “Wet” candidates. Starting at the local level, it would eventually be credited as a major force in getting the 18th Amendment passed by exploiting post-War patriotism and anti-German sentiment to gain popular support.
1894 – Two weeks after Edison’s Kinescope premieres, there are protests in Atlantic City over the film Dolorita in the Passion Dance, one of the first public outbursts against a film. Pornographic films lasting only a few minutes would flourish in Nickelodeons as the motion picture industry evolved.
1897 – A statute is passed in Maine to prevent the exhibition of prizefighting films. (Boxing, at the time, was illegal in every state other than Nevada.) This is the first time a specific movie is prohibited from being played by the government. This would also lead to the first incident of self-regulation as Edison refused to film any more prizefights to avoid controversy. For both, it certainly wasn’t the last time. You can read more about this here.
1900– Carrie Nation captures the nation’s imagination as she goes across Kansas violently destroying illegal saloons. She was symbolized by the hatchet she used to break mirrors and bottles holding liquor. She preaches to high school students to “grab up a rock and smash up the glass doors and windows of these hell holes.” Though her journey across the state wrecking the saloons only lasted a few months, she became nationally famous.
1901 – Carrie Nation’s crusade is parodied by Thomas Edison’s studio in Kansas Saloon Smashers.
1902 – A Trip to the Moon is produced by Georges Méliès. Looks pretty cool, right?
June 30, 1905 – “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper” is published, outlining Einstein’s theory of relativity.
1908– There are an estimated 3,000 brewers and distillers in the United States. They supply spirits for the 100,000 legal saloons in the country, and the 50,000 illegal saloons.
August 12, 1908– Production begins on the Ford Model T automobile, which would come to revolutionize driving and car production. The car’s initial cost is $824.
1910 – D.W. Griffith’s In Old California is the first film shot in Hollywood.
1911 – The WCTU counts a membership of 245,299.
June 9, 1911– Carrie Nation dies. Her lasts words are, “I have done what I could.”
April 30, 1912 – The Universal Film Manufacturing Company is founded in New York by Carl Laemmle. It would evolve into Universal Studios and move to Hollywood in 1915.
1912 – The Famous Players Film Company is founded by Adolph Zukor, Daniel Frohman, and Charles Frohman. Through mergers, the studio would evolve into Paramount Pictures by the end of the decade.
December 10, 1913– The Anti-Saloon League, with a growing base and strong support, gives their version of what would become the 18th Amendment to Texas Senator Morris Sheppard. Major news outlets and brewers, despite the mounting evidence of the League’s successes, aren’t concerned. Blumenthal notes, however:
To the middle and upper classes, who could afford to buy their own liquor and bring it home, the saloons were nothing but a breeding ground for riffraff and crime. In the South, whites fought for regulations to keep alcohol away from blacks. The campaign highlighted the nation’s differences, pitting rural Americans against city dwellers, the middle class against the the working class, native-born Americans against immigrants, race against race, and eventually, faith against faith, as some Protestants challenged wine used by Catholics and Jews. […]
With so much attention on the subject, the issue began to play a pivotal role in the politics of the day. The drys demanded that people running for just about any office declare whether they were wet or dry– there was no in-between. Wets, by contrast, were often moderate drinkers who preferred to leave the prohibition decision to individual communities. As a group, they weren’t organized politically. And because liquor was widely available even in areas that were dry, many people may have simply believed that prohibition would never happen.
June 28, 1914 – The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand sparks the first world war (then known as “The War” or “The Great War”). America opts to officially remain neutral, but in reality backs Britain and France with massive material support. Germany, unable to purchase aid due to blockades, instead opts to subvert American industry, planting bombs in factories and boats.
1915 – William Fox merges two of his companies, a production studio and a theater chain, to form Fox Films.
February 18, 1915 – The Birth of a Nation is released. It is the highest grossing movie of all time until Gone With the Wind is released in 1939. Roger Ebert on the landmark film:
Griffith demonstrated to every filmmaker and moviegoer who followed him what a movie was, and what a movie could be. That this achievement was made in a film marred by racism should not be surprising. As a nation once able to reconcile democracy with slavery, America has a stain on its soul; to understand our history we must begin with the contradiction that the Founding Fathers believed all men (except black men) were created equal. […]
Today, what they saw for the first time, we cannot see at all. Griffith assembled and perfected the early discoveries of film language, and his cinematic techniques that have influenced the visual strategies of virtually every film made since; they have become so familiar we are not even aware of them. We, on the other hand, are astonished by racist attitudes that were equally invisible to most white audiences in 1915. What are those techniques? They begin at the level of film grammar. Silent films began with crude constructions designed to simply look at a story as it happened before the camera. Griffith, in his short films and features, invented or incorporated anything that seemed to work to expand that vision. He did not create the language of cinema so much as codify and demonstrate it, so that after him it became conventional for directors to tell a scene by cutting between wide (or “establishing”) shots and various medium shots, closeups, and inserts of details. The first closeup must have come as an alarming surprise for its audiences; Griffith made them and other kinds of shots indispensable for telling a story.
February 23, 1915 – Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio is decided by the United States Supreme Court. In a 9-0 decision, the court rules that films are not protected by the 1st Amendment and are not considered free speech. The movement condones the institution of state censorship boards that will eventually become the bane of Hollywood and lead to the institution of the Production Code. The Supreme Court’s rationale: “The exhibition of motion pictures is a business pure and simple.” You can read the full decision here. From Leff and Simmons:
The rules of the extant censor boards were minefields. Women could not smoke on-screen in Kansas but could in Ohio; a pregnant woman could not appear on screen in Pennsylvania but could in New York. All six censorship states– which controlled over thirty percent of the theater seats in America — condemned illegitimacy and sexual deviance. After producers cut their films, censors recut them. The outcome was mutilated prints and adverse publicity.
November 18, 1915 – Inspiration is released by the Mutual Film Corporation. Starring one of the most famous artist’s models in the world, Audrey Munson, she becomes the first woman to appear fully nude in a non-pornographic film. Because her role in the picture is that of an artist’s model posing for a sculpture, censorship boards are reluctant to cut the scene, feeling that what’s she’s doing is ‘artistic’ rather than ‘exploitative’. Munson would appear in three more films as ‘artist’s models’ who, unsurprisingly, posed nude.
1916 – There are about 3 million cars in total in the United states.
April 6, 1917 – The United States, after enduring years of German sabotage, declares war on the Central Powers. The United States sent over 4,000,000 troops to aid in the conflict, and suffered 110,000 deaths. Among these troops were notable names like Buster Keaton, Merian C. Cooper, William Wellman, Walt Disney, and many more. A wartime food-control bill also prohibited the use of grains in the manufacture of hard alcohol, and soon after a law forced all beer to be watered down to 3.2% alcohol — earning the impolite nickname, “near beer.”
Pro-Prohibition newspaper proclaims the success of the Drys.
January 16, 1919 – The 18th Amendment, banning liquor sales, is ratified. The strength of the Anti-Saloon League was such that the amendment was passed by every state legislature outside of Rhode Island and Connecticut. Notably, the law only prohibits the sale, not the ownership of alcohol. This meant that wealthier families could fill their cellars while poorer ones had no choice but to turn to liquor often manufactured in substandard conditions or smuggled illegally.
Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission here to the States by the Congress.
June 28, 1919 – The Treaty of Versailles is signed, ending World War I. The booming post-War economy resulted in many people leaving agriculture and moving to cities to cash in on the new wealth.
October 28, 1919 – The Volstead Act is passed, outlining the enforcement of the 18th amendment. It was vetoed by President Wilson, but his veto was overridden by congress. The Act included any beverage with more than 0.5% alcohol content was considered intoxicating, with exceptions made for only medicinal or religious purposes. Blumenthal describes the mood:
Stung by the strict regulations of the Volstead Act and the stark reality of what was ahead, the wets, especially in big cities, cried foul. They were way too late.
The drys were gleeful. Crime would soon disappear, jails would close, and hospitals would lose patients. Families would flourish and America would prosper as never before.
Those were the expectations. The reality was something else altogether.
January 1920 – Norma Shearer arrives in New York with her mother and sister. Hoping for stardom, she meets Florence Ziegfeld and D.W. Griffith (then filming Way Down East). Both men return the same unflattering verdict: with looks like hers, she’ll never be a star. Undaunted, Shearer begins a regimental fitness routine as well as experimental treatments to help cure a cast in her eye.
January 16, 1920 – The enforcement of the 18th Amendment begins.
August 18, 1920– The 19th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, and women are given the right to vote.
September 1920 – A whiskey distillery is discovered on the property of Senator Morris Sheppard. Though it was later discovered to be his cousin’s work, the publicity made it look like ‘The Father of Prohibition’ didn’t take the new law very seriously. Many Americans followed suit.
September 5, 1920 – Model, actress and former Ziegfeld starlet Olive Thomas accidentally ingests mercury bichloride and kills herself. The bichloride had been prescribed to her husband, Jack Pickford (brother to Mary) to topically treat his chronic syphilis. After the death, the press ran wild with it, with some accusing Pickford of murder, others attesting it was a suicide after Pickford forced Thomas to participate in coke orgies, and still others dreaming up even wilder theories. Considering Jack’s work as an actor and his family’s prestige, this became one of the first big scandals that would rock Hollywood in the early 1920s that would soon lead to the Production Code.
September 28, 1920 – Eddie Cicotte and Joe Jackson confess to a grand jury that they participated in the fixing of the 1919 World Series by the Black Sox. The scandal tarnishes the professional baseball league, which creates the position of ‘Commissioner’ to serve as the public face of reform. The film industry would soon take a lesson from this as it formed the MPPDA.
1921– The WCTU counts a membership of 344,892. There are 9 million cars on the rapidly-paved roads. The proliferation of cars helps speakeasies and blind pigs flourish as alcohol is smuggled across state and national lines.
Mugshot of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
September 5, 1921 – Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, celebrating a new contract with Paramount that netted him $1 million, throws a party in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. During the festivities, a frail aspiring actress named Virginia Rappe became ill due to a problem with alcohol that inflamed her chronic cystitis. Two days later she was taken to the hospital, where her friend Bambina Maude Delmont, in a bid to shake the actor down for some money, told Rappe’s doctor that Arbuckle had raped her. Rappe died shortly thereafter, setting off a scandal as rumors swirled.
Arbuckle was accused of rape, though the stories soon grew exaggerated and more transgressive as they implied that he either was impotent, had violated her with an object like a champagne bottle or piece of ice, or that he had crushed her to death during intercourse. Publisher William Randolph Hearst, seeing an opportunity, blasted the scandal across the front page of his nationwide newspaper chain, turning Arbuckle from one of the most popular and famous men into one of the most reviled.
December 4, 1921 – Fatty Arbuckle’s first trial for the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe returns a hung jury.
Will Hays promotes talking pictures and promises more moral movies.
January 14, 1922 – William Hays resigns his cabinet post as the Postmaster General to become the President of the MPPDA. On Hays from The American Heritage:
For a number of reasons, Hays—a forty-two-year-old Hoosier with a wide open, big-toothed smile that caricaturists loved—seemed the right man for the job. His was an influential voice with the party in power; he had been Republican national chairman before his Cabinet appointment and would provide a bulwark against not only federal censorship, but any antitrust action, a perennial Hollywood fear. He was a nonsmoker and teetotaler, an elder of the Presbyterian Church and, as postmaster, an avowed opponent of smut in the mails—a man, in other words, very much like the rural churchgoers who had been giving the movies their biggest problems. And perhaps the studio heads spied in Hays the qualities that reporter Edmund G. Lowry had remarked on a year before: “He is the one hundred per cent American we have all heard so much about. Submit him to any test and you get a perfect reaction.”
William Desmond Taylor.
February 2, 1922 – The murdered body of director William Desmond Taylor is discovered. The murder, unsolved to this day, unraveled the career of several stars and further dented Hollywood’s reputation. Mabel Normand, who’d been a popular comedic actress at Mack Sennett’s studios, was revealed to have a cocaine addiction that she’d sought the director’s help with. Mary Miles Minter was a teen-aged screen idol whose romantic letters to the much older Taylor came out during the investigation and decisively tarnished her image; some reporters even alleged a sexual relationship. Other suspects included a host of confidence men, prostitutes, drug dealers, and gangsters (and some falling into several of those categories). For a full accounting of this story, check out Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann.
February 3, 1922 – The second trial of Fatty Arbuckle ends in another hung jury.
April 12, 1922 – The third trial of Fatty Arbuckle ends after a six minute deliberation by the jury. The jury returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict, and offered an apology to Arbuckle for the way he’d been treated by the ambitious prosecutor and the flagrantly deceitful Bambina Maude Delmont. Because of the negative publicity campaign orchestrated by Hearst, however, Arbuckle’s name was never cleared in the public mind. The jury’s apology read:
Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was our only plain duty to give him this exoneration. There was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.
He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed.
The happening at the hotel was an unfortunate affair for which Arbuckle, so the evidence shows, was in no way responsible.
We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women who have sat listening for thirty-one days to the evidence that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.
April 15, 1922– Senator John B. Kendrick pushes for an investigation into recent favorable leases of government lands to oil companies. After two years, a revelation of bribery would be uncovered and the Teapot Dome Scandal would widely be considered one of the largest and most corrupt acts in the American government until the Watergate Scandal in the the 1970s.
April 18, 1922 – Will Hays forbids Roscoe Arbuckle from ever working in Hollywood again. Though he would quietly lift the ban in December, the damage was done. Arbuckle’s films were shut out of theaters across the country, and he was forced to work as a director under a pseudonym to eke out a living for the rest of his life.
The cover for The Sins of Hollywood
May 1922 – The Sins of Hollywood is published by an anonymous author. Featuring chapters such as “Strip Poker and Paddle Parties” and “Sodom Outdone”, the sensationalist screed assures the audience that 80% of the motion picture industry is respectable, while the remaining 20% participate in gold digging, drug addiction, incest, rape, murder, et al. You can read the full text at Archive.org. The book promises in its statement of purpose:
Unfaithful and cruelly indifferent to the worship of the youth of the land, [movie stars] have led or are leading such lives as may, any day, precipitate yet another nation-wide scandal and again shatter the ideals, the dreams, the castles, the faith of our boys and girls!
It is for these reasons that the SINS OF HOLLYWOOD are given to the public–
That a great medium of national expression may be purified– taken from the hands of those who have misused it– that the childish faith of our boys and girls may again be made sacred!
May 27, 1922 – Nude model Audrey Munson attempts suicide in Mexico, New York, by attempting to swallow a solution of bi-chloride of mercury. She survived the attempt, but she became mentally unstable afterward and spent the rest of her life– 65 years– in a mental institute.
November 26, 1922 – The first feature length film in two-strip Technicolor, The Toll of the Sea, is released by Metro Pictures. The movie starred Anna May Wong as a Chinese woman who falls for an American and has his child out of wedlock.
January 18, 1923 – Matinee idol William Reid dies in a sanitarium. He had become addicted to morphine after an injury during a film shoot a decade earlier and soon it had spiraled out of control. His widow produced a movie about the dangers of morphine addiction called Human Wreckage (1923) which toured the country. The scandal of such a revered star dying of addiction was touted as another one of Hollywood’s debauched excesses.
April 4, 1923 – After two decades of distributing, producing, and financing their pictures independently, the four Warner brothers formally incorporate their film production business as Warner Brothers Pictures.
1924– A Model T costs $260.
April 17, 1924 – Theater chain operator Marcus Loew gains control of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures and merges them into Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM).
May 19, 1924 – After a run in Philadelphia, the revue “I’ll Say She Is” makes a successful opening on Broadway. The stage show’s success elevates its stars, the Four Marx Brothers, from vaudeville to Broadway. They would star in two more Broadway shows over the next two years, “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers”, before being signed by Paramount.
1925– There are 30,000 illegal speakeasies in New York City.
September 10, 1925 – Having just signed her first contract with MGM, the star once known as Greta Lovisa Gustafsson arrived in Hollywood for the first time with little fanfare. She is now better remembered for her stage name, Greta Garbo.
1926 – Struggling independent studio Warner Brothers signs a contract with Western Electric and establishes Vitaphone. The recording process would include record disks synced up to movies, making the first talking pictures possible. Initially seen as a way to save costs on orchestra accompaniments for live movies, it soon became clear that talkies changed both the way movies were made and how they were watched irreversibly.
August 6, 1926 – Don Juan premiers at the Warner Theatre in New York. Don Juan only had synchronized music and sound effects, but it was proceeded by several shorts that showcased all-talking vaudeville acts, including Al Jolson.
September 10, 1926 – The sixth annual ‘Miss America’ competition is held in Atlantic City. Placing fourth is a brunette known then as Rosebud Blondell.
Late 1926 – Preparing to star in her first Broadway production after spending several years as a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies, budding starlet Ruby Stevens is told her name sounds too much that of a burlesque dancer. The play’s producer and director combine a pair of old theatrical monikers to give the budding star her new name: Barbara Stanwyck.
1927 – In 37 states, over a 100 bills are introduced regarding the censorship of motion pictures. William Hayes and the MPPDA put together and issue their list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” to filmmakers to preempt more regulations of the movie industry. The list, consisting of 36 suggestions to filmmakers, is almost immediately ignored since there is no binding reason to obey it; sometimes copies of the rules were sent back to the MPPDA unopened. The complete “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” are as follows:
Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:
Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” “damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
The illegal traffic in drugs;
Any inference of sex perversion;
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
Children’s sex organs;
Ridicule of the clergy;
Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;
And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
The use of the flag;
International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
The use of firearms;
Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
Methods of smuggling;
Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
Sympathy for criminals;
Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
Branding of people or animals;
The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
Rape or attempted rape;
Man and woman in bed together;
Deliberate seduction of girls;
The institution of marriage;
The use of drugs;
Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.
A still from “Sex.” Reviews were dismissive, though The New York Times noted that the film’s one “torrid” love scene lives up to the play’s title. From New York Magazine.
February 1927 – While New York City’s mayor is on a trip to Havana, acting mayor Joseph V. (“Holy Joe”) McKee raids three Broadway shows and closes them for obscenity. The prime target of this is Mae West‘s Sex, then in its 44th week. The play, written by West, tells the story of a prostitute who falls in love with a rich boy and how his family reacts; by the end of the play, West’s character is neither redeemed nor punished. West choose to stand trial for the obscenity charges, and was charged as guilty. She was sentenced to 10 days in prison and a $500 fine. The judge chastised West for making Sex, “as obscene and immoral as possible.”
February 5, 1927 – Buster Keaton’s The General premieres in New York. The large-budgeted feature is a failure with audiences and critics. Because of it, Keaton enters into a contract as an actor with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
March 9, 1927 – Al Capone is quoted on the front page of the Chicago Herald-Examiner:
I violate the prohibition law– sure. Who doesn’t?
June 13, 1927 – Charles Lindbergh completes the first solo flight over the Atlantic in the “Spirit of St. Louis.”
October 6,1927 – Warner Brothers releases The Jazz Singer. While it is nowadays seen as the catalyst for the entire talkie revolution, its box office return was that of a hit but not a mammoth success. Theaters across the country, especially in rural areas, would wait years for sound technology to be installed. In the meantime, the movie’s legend grew and as sound became more common in theaters, Jolson’s movie continued to do strong business. The success of The Jazz Singer’s premiere was dampened for the Warner Bros. as brother Sam, the main proponent of the Vitaphone system, died from pneumonia on October 5th.
Topless maidens lead the way for Ramon Novarro in 1925’s Ben Hur. Image from Setsuled’s Journal.
October 8, 1927 – Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ is released. There are several sequences depicting topless maidens laying out flowers during a parade that cause a stir.
1928 – Films from this year are frequently part talkies or silent films re-released with talking parts added. It is widely believed in the industry that silent films will continue as an art form moving forward, with some pictures being silents, others being hybrid, and others being talkies. Over the next two years, though, the public demand for talking pictures would squash such notions.
April 29, 1928 – Honor Bound is released. The movie, now lost, is probably only now remembered as the first screen appearance of an extra known as Harlean Harlow Carpenter– later to be known more widely as Jean Harlow.
July 21, 1928 – The Mating Call is released. In it, star Renee Adoree goes skinny dipping and wears nigh-translucent lingerie home afterward.
September 1, 1928 – Our Dancing Daughters is released. Joan Crawford’s performance of the Charleston is considered scandalous at the time.
October 23, 1928 – The Radio Corporation of America (RCA), having sought an outlet for its sound-on-film technology, creates the Radio-Keith-Orpheum holding company. This combined the Keith-Albee-Orpehum theater chain and Film Booking Offices production studio into the new motion picture studio, RKO Pictures.
November 6, 1928 – Herbert Hoover wins the election with 60% of the popular vote and carrying every state outside of the South and Massachusetts.
November 18, 1928 – Mickey Mouse first appears in the short cartoon “Steamboat Willie.”
1929 – As of the beginning of the year, the American employment rate is 3.2%. There are 23,300 movie theaters open in the United States, a still-standing record. In less than two years since the technology’s debut, almost every movie theater– save for extremely rural ones or those in very poor neighborhoods– are wired for sound.
February 1929 – Hollywood hasn’t cleaned up its act. Over 50% of the films making it to audiences are censored by state or local boards where movies made 60% of their profit. Rumors are running rampant in Hollywood that William Hearst, the newspaper magnate, is going to put out a call for federal censorship of motion pictures. Iowa Senator Smith W. Brookhart is planning to revive a bill that would place the regulation of the motion picture industry under the FTC. New President Herbert Hoover is rumored to be considering anti-trust action, while women’s groups and religious organizations continued to protest Hollywood’s output. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s profit margins are at an all-time high, with studios who obeyed Hays’ guidance only finding smaller audiences as their reward. And, after the prolific failure of the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls”, Hays is unable to interest anyone in a further negotiation towards self-regulating what should be on the screen.
February 14, 1929 – The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. Six men are lined against the wall and killed under orders from Al Capone as his Italian gang scuffled with an Irish gang of bootleggers headed by Bugs Moran. The violent act shook the nation, confirming the national feeling that authorities were powerless against the bootlegging gangs.
March 25, 1929 – After the Federal Reserve warns about excessive speculation in the stock market, a mini crash occurs. The crisis was halted after two days when National City Bank extended a line of credit.
April 28, 1929 – Carl Laemmle Jr. takes control of Universal Studios, a present for his 21st birthday from his father.
May 26, 1929 – The very first Academy Awards ceremony is held. It was created by the MPPDA in hopes of raising Hollywood’s prestige and to celebrate traditional artistic merit. For the first ceremony, winners had been announced three months prior. The banquet was held in the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, with honorary awards handed to the Warner Bros. and Charlie Chaplin. The ceremony itself only lasted 15 minutes.
Summer 1929 – Editor of the “Motion Picture Herald” and Catholic layman Martin Quigley decides it is his responsibility to create a new guideline for the moral responsibility of films. With Jesuit priest Daniel A. Lord, the two write out “The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930” based on ‘Judeo-Christian’ principals. Knowing that simply getting civics groups on his side wasn’t enough, Quigley also approached bankers– the financiers behind the studios– to ally themselves with pushing the Code onto an unwilling industry.
October 29, 1929– The Crash. From Doherty:
Cold statistics render the magnitude of the wreckage. In any graph of economic indicators between 1929 and 1933, the lines plunge downward almost at right angles, bottoming out at a “cyclical trough in March 1933” before inching upward with an agonizing slowness that slumps again in 1937. and will not truly reverse itself and quicken until the eve of World War II. In the wake of the Crash, production of goods contracted by 33 percent. One-fifth of all commercial banks failed. Nationally, 25 percent of the labor force was idle, but in some stricken regions the figure was twice that or more.
When looking at the bottom lines of the Great Depression, conservative economists drop their normal reserve, indulge in superlatives, and admit the sky really was falling. “The great contraction” of 1929-1933 , concluded Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, was “the most severe business cycle contraction” in the whole of U.S. history. “Real income fell by 11 percent, 9 percent, 18 percent, and 3 percent in the four successive years. These are extraordinary declines for individual years, let alone for four successive years.”
December 2, 1929 – The first Marx Brothers film, The Cocoanuts, premieres. Also starring in it is a young Kay Francis.
The cost of living in 1930:
Average cost of a new home – $7,145.
Average annual salary – $1,970.
Average cost of a car – $745.
A gallon of gas – $0.10.
A loaf of bread – $0.09.
Price of a movie theater ticket – $0.10.
The American unemployment rate for the year is 8.7%.
80,000,000 movie tickets per week are sold in America.
February 21st – Anna Christie is released by MGM. The talkie debut of Greta Garbo is a sad personal melodrama about a fallen woman who must reconcile her past with a new potential lover. Garbo had been preparing for her talkie premiere for over two years due to her heavy accent, and the film was a smashing success.
March 12th– Mahatma Gandhi begins a 200-mile protest march to the sea to protest British salt monopoly practices.
March 15th– Ingagi is released. The documentary film purports to show an African ritual in which women are given to gorillas as sex slaves– though later it was revealed to have been shot in Los Angeles and starred women in blackface. The movie causes a sensation, if you can believe it.
March 19th – Paul Robeson appears in a production of Othello at the Savoy Theatre in London.
March 31st – The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) formally adopts The Motion Picture Production Code and creates the Production Code Administration (PCA) on the west coast to monitor and give suggestions to the studio as to how to prevent violations. While studios tried to obey the Code, there was still little incentive for doing so, especially as box office receipts begin tumbling at the beginning of the Depression and the only way to regain them is through plenty of ‘hot stuff’. For the full text of the Hollywood Production Code, please click here. More on it from The American Heritage:
What was truly new about the code, however, was its heavy theoretical emphasis; about twice as much space was allotted to philosophical exegesis as to the Particular Applications. The point was summarized in three general principles:
“No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience will never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.
“Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
“Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.”
Quigley and Lord believed in the capacity of art to do moral damage, and their emphasis therefore was not simply on subject matter but on theme and message. The code repeats over and over, in various wordings, “That throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right .” Quigley and Lord, however, never cited their authority for what constituted “wrong-doing,” “correct standards of life,” “natural law,” or “moral” (the word and its derivatives appear twentysix times in the code); they confined themselves to referring blithely to “the law which is written in the hearts of all mankind.”
The pre-Code era begins.
April – Jason Joy, the head of the West Coast office of the PCA, successfully gets the Author’s League to forbid Mae West’s hit stage production of “Diamond Lil” from being available for adaption. The intensity of the PCA’s campaign against Hollywood adapting or even talking to Mae West would scare them off of her and her controversial stories for nearly two years.
April 19th – Warner Brothers releases their first “Looney Tunes” cartoon, “Sinkin’ in the Bathroom”. The cartoon featured the first appearances of Bosko and Honey, who would star in much of the series until 1933.
Considered the first major pre-Code movie, The Divorcee looks at the life of a woman who ‘balances the books’ on her cheating husband. The movie’s star, Norma Shearer, was crucial in getting the controversial film made.
April 30th – The Divorcee is released by MGM. Violating the Code provision, “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.”, the film is a daring look at the double standard faced by sexually voracious women. Backed by MGM’s biggest star, Norma Shearer, the film manages a Best Picture nomination and wins Shearer her only Oscar. It is also a box office sensation, leading to several years of copycats, both good and bad.
June 7th – Ignoring the protestations of over 1,000 economists, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act is signed into law by Herbert Hoover. The act raised taxes on imports drastically in hopes of making American businesses to be more competitive, but, in reality, just caused other nations to similarly tax American imports, further depressing the country.
June 19th – Secretary of Labor James J. Davis assures the country, in terms of the Depression, “The worst is over without a doubt.”
August 9th – The cartoon “Dizzy Dishes” premieres with the first appearance of Betty Boop.
August 24th – All Quiet on the Western Front is released by Universal. A pet project by Carl Laemmle, Jr., he saw it as a way to bring prestige to the fledgling Universal Studios. his gamble paid off as the film won Best Picture at the next year’s Oscars and is one of the best remembered films of its time.
September 24th – First performance of Noel Coward’s play Private Lives occurs at the Phoenix Theatre in London. It would be adapted by MGM into a film the next year.
September 30th – Whoopee! is released by United Artists. Based on the popular stage play, the film was shot in two-strip Technicolor and charged a premium at the box office– $2.50
October – Joseph Breen is hired as a publicity man for the West Coast office of the Code Administration. Frustrated with Hays’ desire to please everyone, he quickly makes friends with many influential Catholics. Within three years, his manipulations of the church and his office would see him leading the Production Code Administration.
October 8th – The Philadelphia Athletics win the World Series, beating the St. Louis Cardinals four games to two.
October 11th – Sinner’s Holiday is released. Based on the Broadway production Penny Arcade, Al Jolson, who’d brought the movie to Warner Brothers, insisted the studio cast two of the costars in the film version, giving James Cagney and Joan Blondell their film debuts.
November 5th – The Third Annual Academy Awards are held. All Quiet on the Western Front wins Best Picture, while Norma Shearer takes home Best Actress for her role in The Divorcee.
November 8th –Feet Firststarring Harold Lloyd and distributed by Paramount is released. A slight remake of the comedian’s famous silent comedy Safety Last!, this successful release is one of the more successful demonstrations of melding silent comedy sensibilities with the new abilities of talking pictures.
November 15th – Hell’s Angelsis released. The brainchild of Howard Hughes, the film was the most expensive one made for nearly a decade afterward, clocking in at a budget of $3 million. Originally shot as a silent film, Hughes went back and reshot many of the scenes to incorporate dialogue as soon as it became apparent that talkies were there to stay. These reshoots forced Hughes to cast a new leading lady, Jean Harlow, and the film shot her to super stardom. Harlow would be one of the most consistent box office stars of the next 7 years.
No date – William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is released.
The unemployment rate is 15.9%. Reno, Nevada, legalizes gambling while at the same time lowers its residency requirements to six weeks– making it the ideal place to get a quick divorce.
Box office receipts are down between 10 to 35% in most localities. By the middle of the year, the number of operating movie theaters is at 13,000. There are only about 40,000,000 million people attending films per week. And, for the first time in their three decade existence, the movie industry is contracting.
A layout in Photoplay details all of the personnel involved in creating a talking picture outdoors during the shooting of Cimarron. Click for full size.
January 25th – Little Caesar premieres. Though not the first gangster film by any means, the electric performance of Edward G. Robinson and the new sound technology’s ability to bring a level to the reality of the violence sends censors scurrying to trim the picture down.
January 26th – Cimarron is released by RKO. Based on a best seller by Edna Ferber, Cimarron would go on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the only Western to do so for over 60 years. It is also the only Best Picture that RKO would ever produce.
January 30th – City Lights is released by United Artists. It is a silent film as Charlie Chaplin disliked talking pictures, feeling like they ruined ‘the fine art of pantomime’. Albert Einstein attends the premiere at the request of Chaplin and declares it the finest film ever made.
February 12th – Dracula is released by Universal. Its star, Bela Lugosi, made less on the picture than his costars because he’d been so desperate to play the part. It would turn him into an icon, though he would be typecast as such for the rest of his life. The movie’s overwhelming response at the box office soon sent all of the Hollywood studios running to make horror pictures, much to the dismay of the censor boards around the country.
February 20th – California gets the go ahead from the United States Congress to build a bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. Construction on the Bay Bridge would begin in July 1933 and the bridge would open in November 1936.
March 3rd – “The Star Spangled Banner” is adopted as the American national anthem.
March 17th – Nevada legalizes gambling.
March 25th – Nine African-American teenagers, later known as “The Scottsboro Boys”, are arrested in Alabama for the rape of two white women. The rushed trials would see all but one of the boys sentenced to death initially, and, despite one woman later admitting that the story was a fabrication, several all-white juries still returned guilty verdicts for members of the group. The trials would rivet the country, and continues to be used today as a prototypical miscarriage of justice. All of the Boys were given a retroactive full pardon in 2013. You can read more about it here.
April 4th – “The Stolen Jools”, a short film made to raise funds for the National Variety Artists Tuberculosis Sanitarium, is released. It is chock full of star cameos from various studios from Warners to MGM, and was played in theaters across the country followed by requests for donations.
April 23rd – The Public Enemyis released by Warner Brothers. Like Little Caesar, it makes a star out of its lead, here Jimmy Cagney. Though a look at the ugly life of a hoodrat who ultimately pays for his decision to become a criminal, Cagney’s magnetism makes the roller coaster ride through his life impossible to look away from. Cagney became one of Warner Brothers’ biggest box office draws, and he became the icon of the new talkie revolution.
May 1st– Construction completed on the Empire State Building.
June 19th – President Hoover issues the ‘Hoover Moratorium’, a grace period of a year for European nations in the repayment of war debts and reparations. The Moritorium was not approved by Congress by December, and by then it was apparent that due to the flailing economies in Germany, France, and Britain, there would no ability for them to repay their debts.
Clark Gable and Norma Shearer star as sexual partners in A Free Soul.
June 20th – A Free Soul is released by MGM. Norma Shearer’s follow-up to The Divorcee is just as sexually frank, though gets trapped more in plot melodramatics as it progresses. Most notably about it is the appearance of Clark Gable as a rough and tumble gangster who becomes sexually obsessed with Shearer’s character. His dynamic and brooding sexual desire sent female audiences into a tizzy.
August 1st – The Smiling Lieutenant is released by Paramount. The critically acclaimed movie would be the studio’s biggest grosser of the year, and helped turn Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins into stars.
August – Joseph Breen, sent to investigate Hollywood’s conduct, is appalled by what he finds. He discovers that members in the industry have no self-censorship, citing incidents such as when a woman declared herself a lesbian to the Los Angeles Times and another story that was floating around town about a studio head caught in bed with one of his studio’s lead actresses, only spared death because his wife forgot to turn off the safety. Joseph Breen sends a letter to Will Hays, and he’s quickly made to take over the West Coast publicity for the MPPDA,
September 18th– The Japanese military stage the Mukden Incident, a fake bombing of a Japanese train line in Manchuria used as a pretext for invasion. The ruse was exposed eventually, leading to Japan becoming diplomatically isolated and its withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933.
September 22nd– In light of a recent run on the pound, the British government abandons the gold standard.
October 4th– Comic strip character Dick Tracy makes his debut.
October 17th– Al Capone is sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion in Chicago.
October 18th – Thomas Edison, co-inventor of the motion picture, dies at age 84.
November 10th – The Fourth Annual Academy Awards are held. Cimarron is the Best Picture. Best Actor goes to Lionel Barrymore for A Free Soul, while Best Actress is Marie Dressler for Min and Bill.
November 21st – Frankenstein is released by Universal. After Lugosi declined taking the lead role, it instead went to British actor Boris Karloff. The film was a sensation, but also met fierce opposition from censorship boards, especially in one scene where the monster innocently murders a child.
December 10th– Jane Addams, suffrage advocate, is the first American woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
A censored missing scene featuring Greta Garbo seducing Ramon Novarro from Mata Hari.
December 26th – Mata Hari is released by MGM. The film again met resistance from censors as several of Greta Garbo’s dances were considered too risque for audiences at the time. Only the censored version of the film survives.
Behind the scenes on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
December 31st – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydeis released by Paramount. The movie, directed by Rouben Mammoulian, uses heavy doses of Freudian philosophy in its portrayal of Dr. Henry Jekyll as a scientific egotist run wild. The horror is dialed up through heavily expressionistic sets and lighting. The movie contains a number of scenes censors objected to, not the least of which is starlet Miriam Hopkins forcing Jekyll’s hand upon her bare leg and her subsequent stripping down. From LaSalle on Hopkins’ appeal:
Miriam Hopkins is one of the undiscovered joys of the pre-Code era. She didn’t make many films, but she made a disproportionate number of first-rate ones. She was kittenish and seductive, a mischievous belle from Bainbridge, George, with a sneaky smile, and she could play anything. Hopkins was busting with energy– not the Crawford-like energy of a woman dancing fast to keep the whorehouse customers happy– but the kind of energy that comes from being smarter and faster than everyone else.
The unemployment rate is 23.6%.
January 2nd – Surveying the miserable box office of 1931, Martin Quigley in the Motion Picture Herald and many in the industry blame the pictures. MGM’s Nicholas Schenck famously says,
There is nothing the matter with the picture business that good pictures will not cure.
January 28th – In what came to be known as The January 28th Incident (or The Shanghai War of 1932), Japanese forces invade Shanghai.
January 30th – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is first published.
Poster for Shanghai Express.
February 2nd – Shanghai Express is released by Paramount. The film, starring Marlene Dietrich, would become the highest grossing film of 1932.
February 4th to 15th – The 3rd (III) Olympic Winter Games are held in Lake Placid, New York.
February 22nd– The first Purple Heart is awarded.
March 1st – The Lindbergh baby, Charles Lindbergh, Jr., is kidnapped from his family’s home in Hopewell, New Jersey. A national manhunt would ensue.
March 7th – 3,000 unemployed autoworkers march in Dearborn, Michigan. Four are killed when police fire upon them.
March 25th – Tarzan, The Ape Man is released by MGM.
April 9th – Scarface is released by United Artists. The movie, made independently by Howard Hughes, had faced strong opposition from both censors and the mafia– with Al Capone even sending a few men to Hollywood to shake down director Howard Hawks and assure him that Paul Muni’s Scarface wasn’t based on him. Legal battles had delayed the premiere of the movie for a year, as the wanton display of violence shocked and outraged many civic groups across the country.
April 12th – Grand Hotel is released by MGM. The critically acclaimed drama brought together a number of MGM’s biggest stars, including Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and Wallace Beery. It would go on to win Best Picture.
May – Joseph Breen, frustrated with the studio mogul’s continued push of sin-filled pictures, writes to Quigley, “the fact is that these damn Jews are a dirty, filthy lot.”
May 2nd – Jack Benny’s radio program airs for the first time.
May 12th – Ten weeks after his abduction, the corpse of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. is found a few miles away from the Lindbergh home. A man, Richard Hauptmann, would be apprehended for the crime in 1934 and he was convicted of the murder. However, Hauptmann never confessed and many feel that a number of irregularities indicate that he may not have been the actual kidnapper. No accomplices were ever indited.
May 15th – A coup d’état attempt results in the assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister. Growing nationalism saw that the 11 naval cadets that attacked him were given light sentences.
May 29th – The first veterans of World War I arrive in Washington to demand their bonus payments early from their service during the war. This group would eventually grow into 150,000 veterans.
June 3rd– Two prison guards in Florida are arrested after a prisoner dies in a ‘sweat box’. This would go on to inspire pre-Code films Hell’s Highway.
June 25th – Red Headed Woman is released by MGM. The first film the studio makes with Harlow is a smash success, playing up her sex appeal. Of course, that sex appeal is backed up by plenty of shots of her legs and even a fleeting shot of her breasts and an ending to the film that rewards her for her sexual appetite. Unsurprisingly, the film was a smash– and a rallying cry for censors who saw the blonde (nee redheaded) sex symbol as everything wrong with films. Some dialogue from the movie:
Lil: Can you see through this [dress]?
Clerk:I’m afraid you can, Miss.
Lil: I’ll wear it.
July 28th– President Hoover orders the army to clear out the Bonus Army from their encampments. Several veterans die during this.
July 30th to August 14th – The 10th (X) Olympic Games are held in Los Angeles, California. These games would serve as inspiration (or cashi-in opportunities) for fare like Search for Beauty (1934).
August 18th – Love Me Tonightis released by Paramount.
September – Jason Joy leaves as head of the Western Office of the PCA after he’s accused of giving leniency to MGM productions. James Wingate takes over.
October 1st – Babe Ruth makes his famous ‘called shot’ in game 3 of the World Series.
October 2nd – The New York Yankees sweep the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.
October 13th– The cornerstone of the new Supreme Court building is laid.
The sexual undertones are surprisingly frank in this pre-Code 1932 film, and we understand that none of the three characters is in any danger of mistaking sex for love. Both Lily and Mariette know what they want, and Gaston knows that he has it. His own feelings for them are masked beneath an impenetrable veneer of sophisticated banter.
October 22nd – Red Dustis released by MGM. The first pairing of Gable and Harlow is a massive success, though many of its themes are, of course, objectionable.
November 7th – The first science-fiction radio program, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, debuts.
November 8th – The American presidential election sees Franklyn Delano Roosevelt square off against incumbent Herbert Hoover. Roosevelt garners 472 electoral votes and wins 42 of the 48 states.
November 9th – The Champ is released by MGM.
November 16th – New York City’s Palace Theater finishes converting to a cinema. It had once been the most famous vaudeville theater in the country, with it being known that if you ‘played The Palace’ you had officially made it. The theater’s conversion is considered the death knell for vaudeville.
December 8th – A Farewell to Arms is released by Paramount.
December 25th – An earthquake in the Kansu Province in China kills 70,000 people.
The unemployment rate is 24.9%.
February 9th – She Done Him Wrong is released by Paramount. The PCA had heavily discouraged all studios from hiring Mae West for several years now, knowing how her reputation would ignite the censors, but Paramount, in desperate straights, saw her as the way to reignite their fortunes and keep them out of bankruptcy and used her hit play, “Diamond Lil”, as the film’s basis. The movie would make a great deal of money and even manage a Best Picture nomination. Unsurprisingly, religious groups were in an uproar over the film, with Leff and Simmons noting:
Quite likely, the censors feared the independence and freedom of Mae West more than the sexual explicitness.
March 2nd – King Kong is released by RKO. Combining producer Merian C. Cooper’s and director Ernest B. Schoedsack’s love of adventure with the special effects work of Willis O’Brien, the story of a driven filmmaker who mistakenly endangers an actress and the whole of Manhattan with a giant ape remains a perennial classic. When re-released after Code Enforcement began in 1934, several violent passages would be deleted, as well as a scene where Kong delicately undresses actress Fay Wray.
March 4th – Franklin D. Roosevelt is inaugurated as the 32nd President of the United States. His inauguration speech includes the famous refrain,
We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
March 22nd – Roosevelt signs the Beer and Wine Revenue Act, legalizing the sale of liquor with 3.2% and lower alcohol content.
April 13th – The New York Rangers with the Stanley Cup.
April 15th – Cavalcade is released. It would go on to win Best Picture.
Miriam Hopkins’ Temple Drake is horrified after being raped in The Story of Temple Drake, here pictured with Jack LaRue.
May 5th – The Story of Temple Drake is released by Paramount. The movie, based on the highly controversial novel Sanctuary by William Faulkner, was extremely controversial, and flopped badly. Jack Vizzard, future PCA censor, noted in his autobiography:
Of all the pictures that were occasionally cited as having brought on the Code single-handedly, the two most frequently mentioned were The Story of Temple Drake and Convention City. They can be taken as symbols of a small hoard of other films that continued to be thrown, like pies, into the face of a public suffering in the throes of the deep Depression. […]
Be that as it may, the proof of all this pudding is the fact that the motivation of her repentance was a cause of some anguish to the Code people in those early days. The girl never came back to a correct set of values. She was lauded and made to seem sympathetic not because she disavowed her black experience, but because she wanted to restore what she had withdrawn from the bank of ancestral integrity.
May 2nd– The World’s Fair opens in Chicago.
Summer – Breen meets with Catholic leaders, encouraging them to step up their campaign against the film industry. It’s successful, as a Catholic working for Bank of America, A.H. Giannini, ties the bank’s loans to studios with a morality clause. The Catholic Legion of Decency would be founded over the remainder of the year, and became the first major force whose ability to boycott pictures actually hurt the studio’s bottom line. Because of this, the fortunes of the PCA and the Legion of Decency would soon be intertwined as they sought to create mandatory PCA approval for all pictures released– and all movies would have to conform to the Production Code.
June 28th – After signing with Warner Brothers to appear in a feature film under his real name for the first time since the scandal, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle goes out with friends to celebrate. That night he dies of a heart attack at age 46.
July 6th – The first Major League Baseball All-Star game is held.
July 13th – Baby Face is released by Warner Brothers. The scorcher, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a young woman driven to sleep her way to the top of the corporate ladder, was Warner Brothers’ attempt to outdo MGM’s Red-Headed Woman with notable success. Censorship problems were plenty, with several endings shot and hacked to pieces in hopes of placating religious groups and audiences.
August 26th – “Bosko’s Picture Show” is released. This is the last Warner Brothers cartoon centered at the character before he moved to MGM, as well as the infamous cartoon where it’s widely believed that Bosko calls the animated short’s villain a “dirty fuck!”.
August 29th – Dinner at Eightis released by MGM. Though not nominated for any Academy Awards, the prestigious film brought together much of MGM’s top talent in 1933, and has what’s considered one of the best closing lines in all of cinema.
Mae West in a publicity still for I’m No Angel.
October 6th – I’m No Angelis released by Paramount. Again, West’s film sent religious groups into an uproar. I’m No Angel would go on to be the biggest grossing film of the year, and, with the two West films, Paramount pulled out of receivership. The Mae West penned screenplay is filled with entendres and come ons. One of the more famous:
Well… When I’m good, I’m very good. But, when I’m bad… I’m better.
November 16th – Little Women is released by RKO. The prominent adaption of the family book was a massive hit at the box office and pointed the way towards more high-brow literary adaptations after the enforcement of the production Code in the late 1930s.
November 17th – Duck Soup is released by Paramount. The Marx Brothers’ fifth movie for Paramount struck a sour note with the public and flopped. The group would go to MGM in 1935 and make their classic A Night at the Opera sans Zeppo, but the transition would also see the group losing much of their malicious edge.
December – Having proven himself adept at working with (and manipulating) the Catholic church as well as being able to stand up to the studio moguls, Hays names Breen head of the West Coast office of the PCA.
December 3rd – James Joyce’s Ulysses is cleared by a District Court to finally be published in the United States. The novel, originally published in 1922, had been banned in the U.S. since its serialization in the journal The Little Review had led to obscenity charges being brought. (The section had included a metaphorical occurrence of masturbation.) The judge in the trial, John M. Woolsey, called the book both “brilliant” and “dull”, allowing its publication because it was clearly dirty, but not pornographic. The United States became the first English-speaking country to allow the book to be published.
December 5th – The 21st Amendment is ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment and bringing a formal end to Prohibition. During its enforcement, nearly 800 gangsters had been killed in Chicago alone, while thousands of Americans have been blinded, paralyzed or killed by the illegal liquor. Despite the amendment’s repeal, hundreds of counties across the United States remained dry by local regulation, but the movement itself was more or less dead. After the 18th Amendment’s repeal, President Roosevelt noted:
What America needs now is a drink.
December 14th – Convention City is released by Warner Brothers. It starred Adolphe Menjou and a host of Warners actors, including Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Mary Astor and more, at a convention in Atlantic City. Despite its popularity, it was widely censored across the country and the PCA refused to reissue it after 1934 due to its scandalous content. No known copies have been found of either it or its trailer, and the search continues. To learn more about the movie, read “Where is Convention City hiding?” by Ron Hutchison.
December 22nd – Gold Diggers of 1933 is released. Quite possibly the most essential film of the era, it stars Joan Blondell, Aline McMahon, and Ruby Keeler as out of work chorus girls trying to get in a show– and score some rich husbands– in the depths of the Depression. Also starring is Warren William, Guy Kibbee and Dick Powell, and Busby Berkely choreographed the fantastic musical numbers. The movie also contains lots of peek-a-boo nudity (one reveal of Joan Blondell in lingerie sent censor boards into a frenzy) and sly suggestiveness. The film’s finale, “Remember My Forgotten Man”, is a brilliant melding of Warner’s social consciousness films and production number grandiosity.
No date – The chocolate chip cookie is invented in Whitman, Massachusetts by Ruth Graves Wakefield. It was originally named the ‘Toll House’ cookie after the Inn that Wakefield owned. Her original recipe is still included on every bag of Nestle chocolate chips sold.
The unemployment rate is 21.7%.
January 1st – Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie is published.
February 22nd – It Happened One Night is released by Columbia. Frank Capra’s screwball romantic comedy would sweep the Oscars the next year.
March 22nd – 25th – Horton Smith wins the first golf Masters tournament at the inaugural Augusta National Invitational. Smith is still considered one of the best putters in golf history.
April 10th – The Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup.
May 4th – Manhattan Melodrama is released. It was the first of 14 pairings of Myrna Loy and William Powell.
May 11th – An enormous windstorm struck the High Plains area of the Midwest (Mostly Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma) and carried away millions of pounds of topsoil. The dust blew to the East Coast, depositing 12 million pounds of dust on Chicago alone.
May 11th – Twentieth Century is released. The film proves to be a milestone for its two actors, catapulting Carole Lombard to stardom after years of frustration at Paramount while also serving as perhaps the final high water mark in John Barrymore’s storied career.
May 19th – Smarty is released by Warner Brothers. Starring Joan Blondell and William Warren, the movie is about a woman who craves her husband to physically abuse her because it arouses her. It’s a very strange film.
May 23rd – Bonnie and Clyde are shot and killed by a posse of police officers.
Publicity still of Myrna Loy and William Powell for The Thin Man.
May 25th – The Thin Man is released by MGM. The film, shot in only 11 days, revolutionizes the comedy/mystery genre. It also contains many elements that would filter into the screwball comedy genre that dominated the late-30s. For more on The Thin Man, check out the book Thoughts on The Thin Man, edited by the author of this site.
July 1st– Total enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code now begins. Any picture released must have approval from the PCA and a seal attached to be able to play in movie theaters or face a stiff fine and boycott. Movies from before this period must be submitted for a seal, where they will either be censored to comply with the new rules or simply denied a seal and put back on the shelves. From The American Heritage:
The anti-movie campaign of the early thirties differed from earlier crusades not so much in content as in militancy, constituency, and efficacy. It was fueled in large part by something that had always been lacking and that, in this social-science-obsessed age, was invaluable: “scholarly” evidence about the influence of movies on the nation’s young. The Payne Fund studies conducted by the Motion Picture Research Council were the inspiration of William H. Short, a censorship advocate who previously had lamented that “the absence of an adequate and well authenticated fact” had prevented “the civic-minded forces of the country” from really throwing their weight around. A total of eleven volumes, all written by academics, appeared between 1933 and 1935; they discussed movies’ effects on children’s sleep, behavior, and attitudes, and catalogued their contents. In 1930, for instance, one of the studies reported that 81 per cent of all films released dealt with crime, sex, love, mystery, or war. The most provocative findings had to do with the way movies colored sexual and criminal ideas and actions. Herbert Blumer went to the horse’s mouth, presenting in his Movies and Conduct the testimony of adolescents: “It was directly through the movies that I learned to kiss a girl on her ears, neck and cheeks, as well as on her mouth.” “I think the movies have a great deal to do with the present so-called wildness. If we did not see such examples in the movies, where would we get the idea of being ‘hot’?” And, from a young reformatory inmate: “Movies have shown me the way of stealing automobiles, the charge for which I am now serving sentence. […]
Censor Joseph Breen.
Under the leadership of Joseph Ignatius Breen, a strong-willed Irish-Catholic ex-newspaperman, the Production Code Administration acquired a startling amount of clout. Even the czar was eclipsed—the PCA began to be known as the Breen Office, and until he stepped down in 1954, Hays spent most of his time spewing forth public relations. All scripts, prints, and works to be adapted had to be submitted, and Breen and his assistants were not at all hesitant in telling producers what would and wouldn’t wash. Among their tens of thousands of decisions and recommendations were: cautioning a producer of one projected film that “we presume there will be no suggestive reactions to the playing of ‘Let’s Put Out the Lights and Go to Bed’ ”; changing the title of a Joan Crawford picture from Infidelity to Fidelity , without touching the contents; banning—in 1941, at the peak of Lana Turner’s glory—“Sweater Art” from the screen; and forbidding Walt Disney to show a cow’s udder in one of his cartoons.
The classics got the same treatment. When MGM wanted to adapt Anna Karenina , problems were immediate; after all, the code said the subject of adultery should be avoided. After extensive consultations with the PCA, the studio agreed that the illegitimate child who appears in the novel should be eliminated; that the “matrimonial bond” would be “positively defended” by prominently featuring two happily married couples; that Vronsky would be portrayed unfavorably and would be miserable; and that no scenes could be played in Anna’s bedroom.
Not surprisingly, Breen eventually got too strong a sense of his own power. A former staff member, Jack Vizzard, writes in his memoirs that his boss “nurtured not the slightest seed of selfdoubt regarding his mission or his rectitude. He was right, the moviemakers were wrong, and that was that.” Breen once told a subordinate who was perusing the code, “Don’t pay any attention to that thing. Just you listen to me. I am the code. ”
All motion pictures released after mid-1934 must have a Production Code seal attached. Movies that don’t earn a seal can’t be issued– or reissued, as the case may be.
The pre-Code era ends.
July 13th – Babe Ruth hits his 700th home run.
July 22nd – Bank robber and criminal at large John Dillinger is gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Dillinger had gone to the theater to see Manhattan Melodrama because of his fondness for Myrna Loy.
August 2nd– The death of President Hindenburg of Germany leads to the ascension of Adolf Hitler. He combined the offices of chancellor and the president into a single new position: Fuhrer.
August 3rd – The Girl From Missouri is released. Jean Harlow’s first post-Code enforcement film sees her in the typical role of a gold digger, but instead of sleeping her way to the top, she uses her virtue as a bargaining chip. Harlow’s films would continue to become more sanctimonious as she left her Blonde Bombshell phase of her career behind her.
August 11th – The first prisoners arrive at Alcatraz. Al Capone would soon join those interred there.
September 12 – L’Atalante is released in France. Directed by Jean Vigo, it is often called one of the greatest films ever made, coming in at #17 in the distinguished semi-annual “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?” poll.
The movie was released in 1934, just as the Hays Office began to police Hollywood films for morals violations. Von Sternberg must have had a friend on the force; he gets away with murder. Although the movie wisely sidesteps the famous legend of the empress’ sub-equestrian death, a title does inform us, in sublime understatement, “Catherine coolly added the army to her list of conquests.”
September 21st – Belle of the Nineties is released. Mae West’s first post-Production Code Enforcement is notably toned down from her previous movies, including an utterly ridiculous finale that absolves everyone of sin in the last reel and includes a very convenient (and very unconvincing) marriage for Ms. West’s character, Ruby. West’s career would continue in Hollywood through the late 30s, but she never recaptured her former levels of success. The battle over censoring this film would prove Breen’s authority as the head of the PCA and cement him as the head of the Hollywood censorship apparatus for the next two decades.
The implication of kinky sex is dialed down significantly in Forsaking All Others from its original form, as well as a reduced emphasis of the allure of extramarital relationships.
September 24th – Babe Ruth’s last appearance as a New York Yankee. He’d play baseball part time for one more year as part of the Boston Braves, and then, unable to secure a managerial job in baseball, he drifted into retirement
September 27th – Lou Gehrig completes his sixth year of professional baseball without missing a single game.
October 10th – The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Philadelphia Athletics four games to three to win the World Series.
December 23rd – Forsaking All Others is released, starring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Robert Montgomery. The film is mostly remembered for its behind the scenes drama, where its original script as shot included copious references and implications of extramarital sex as well as scenes of Clark Gable spanking Joan Crawford. The PCA refused to allow the film to be released and demanded retakes. Arguments about the movie became so fierce that PCA head Joseph Breen actually ended one stand off by punching director W.S. Van Dyke in the nose. With no other choice, MGM acquiesced and did reshoots to tone down the movie. Van Dyke refused to be a part of them.
1935 – The fledgling Fox Films is merged with 20th Century Productions to form 20th Century Fox.
June 13, 1935 – Becky Sharp starring Miriam Hopkins is the first feature length film shot in three-strip technicolor.
June 7, 1937 – Jean Harlow dies from kidney disease at the age of 26. Her final film, Saratoga, is completed using a stand-in.
1939 – “Hollywood’s Greatest Year” sees the release of classic films like Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
1948 – End of the studio system as the Paramount Case declares that studios cannot own the movie theaters that their movies play in.
May 26, 1952 – Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v Wilson is decided by the Supreme Court. Overturning their previous decision from 1915, films were now protected under the 1st Amendment as free speech. Read the full decision here.
July 8, 1953 – Famed director Otto Preminger films The Moon is Blue based on the Broadway play he directed, which courted controversy in its seduction scenes, implications of premarital sex and use of the word ‘virgin’. The studio that produced it, United Artists, decided to release it without a PCA seal, and it was censored in several states. Most were overturned, with Kansas being the only state whose board supported the ban. It was eventually granted a seal in 1961 after the Supreme Court overturned Kansas’ Supreme Court, and proved to be the first major (and successful) challenge to the PCA’s power.
October 1954 – Joseph Breen retires as the head of the PCA. Taking over for him is the more liberal Geoffrey Shurlock.
December 18, 1956 – Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll is the first film given a PCA Seal that is condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. The Legion pushed for bans of the film in many states, but the film still made money and earned its filmmakers four Academy Award nominations.
1968 – After the release of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the PCA is disbanded by new MPAA head Jack Valenti. He instead institutes a film ratings system to help guide viewers in choosing what movies to see.
1970s – William K. Everson runs retrospectives on movies from the 1930s at NYU. Busby Berkeley films are also reissued and play around the country as nostalgia for the Roaring 20s and early 1930s takes hold. Movies set in the era, such as The Sting and The Boy Friend, are also strikingly popular.
Late 1980s/Early 1990s – Bruce Goldstein crafts the first film program specifically dedicated to pre-Code cinema with help from Everson. Goldstein coins the phrase ‘pre-Code’. Turner Entertainment, who owns the pre-Code films of Warner Brothers and MGM, releases Forbidden Hollywood collections on VHS and Laserdisc.
February 4, 1994 – Janet Maslin discusses pre-Code movies in The New York Times in relation to one of Goldstein’s programs. You can read that article here.
2003 – Based on Mick LaSalle’s book, the documentary Complicated Women premieres. In it, Mark Viera says one of my favorite things about the results of two decades of PCA rule:
It kept mature thought from an audience that craved it.
December 5, 2006 – The first Forbidden Hollywood DVD collection is issued.
July 15 – August 11, 2011 – Bruce Goldstein runs a new month-long retrospective of “Essential Pre-Codes” at New York City’s Film Forum.
October 4, 2012 – I started this blog. And, obviously, that is the most momentous event of them all. 😀