Pre-Code Hollywood  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Pre-Code films were created before the Motion Picture Production Code or Hays Code took effect on July 1 1934 in the United States of America. Although an existing code of conduct for the film industry came into being in 1930, many ignored it and it was not enforced very enthusiastically.

The original code was written by a Jesuit priest, Father Daniel A. Lord and officially adopted in 1930. The code was effectively ignored because many found such censorship prudish, due to the liberal social attitudes of the 1920s and early 1930s. This was an era in which the Victorian era was looked upon as being naive and backward and was constantly ridiculed as such.

Films in the late 1920s and early 30s reflected the liberal attitudes of the day and could include sexual innuendos, references to homosexuality, miscegenation, illegal drug use, and profane language (such as the word "damn") as well as women in their undergarments. Such behavior was common in the liberal climate of cities at that time, although it often shocked audiences in rural areas.

Popular character roles include tough-talking, assertive women, gangsters, and prostitutes.

Of particular note were both the references to sexual promiscuity, drug use, bloody gangster life, and morally ambiguous endings, which drew the ire from various religious groups – some Protestant, but overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

In particular, Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, apostolic delegate to the American Catholic Church called upon American Catholics to unite against the surging immorality of the cinema. As a result, many religious groups (overwhelmingly Roman Catholic) created their own leagues, such as the Catholic Legion of Decency (eventually renamed to the "National Legion of Decency") in 1933, premised around controlling and enforcing decency standards in theatres, and boycotting movies which they deemed offensive. Conservative Protestants tended to support much of the crackdown on "immorality", particularly in the South, which had its own form of censorship. By 1939 "Even black bellboys were routinely cut out of films shown in the South; from the evidence of Hollywood pictures of the 1930s, one might not suspect that black people existed in America" ([1]). Anything relating to the state of race relations in the South or miscegenation could never be exhibited below the Mason-Dixon line.

By 1934, theatre revenues were slumping (likely, in part, to the Depression) and those in the film industry were unhappy with the prospect of losing even more of their audience, particularly in heavily Catholic cities (New York, Boston, Chicago, etc).

Thus, the pre-Code era effectively came to a close with the establishment of a special bureau (eventually christened The Breen Office, after Joseph Ignatius Breen, a former public relations executive), whose purpose was to review scripts and finished prints in order to ensure that they adhered to the new Code.

This effectively spelled the end of the pre-Code era, and shaped the trends in American film-making during the ensuing years. It should be mentioned that enforcement of the code popularized several new trends, such as plots about headstrong, able, employed women (like Jean Arthur).



Excerpt from The Free Expression Policy Project at the University of Virginia:

As censors like Martin Quigley and Joe Breen understood "a private industry code, strictly enforced, is more effective than government censorship as a means of imposing religious dogma. It is secret, for one thing, operating at the pre-production stage. The audience never knows what has been trimmed, cut, revised, or never written. For another, it is uniform — not subject to hundreds of different licensing standards. Finally and most important, private censorship can be more sweeping in its demands, because it is not bound by constitutional due process or free-expression rules — in general, these apply to only the government — or by the command of church-state separation ... there is no question that American cinema today is far freer than in the heyday of the Code, when Joe Breen's blue pencil and the Legion of Decency's ever-present boycott threat combined to assure that films adhered to Roman Catholic Church doctrine" (see [2] from The Free Expression Policy Project at the University of Virginia).

Many fans of Classical Hollywood cinema today prefer these pre-Code films for their audacious attitude toward conventional morality, and their presentation of more "mature" or risque themes generally not seen again in film until the collapse of the code system.

Many pre-Code movies suffered irreparable damage from the censorship that followed from Breen Office after 1934. When studios attempted to re-issue films from the 1920s and early 1930s, they were forced to make extensive cuts. Many of these films (e.g. Love Me Tonight 1932, Animal Crackers 1930, Blotto 1930) currently exist in only these censored versions. In at least one case, a film (Convention City 1933) was entirely lost because the Breen office refused to budge. In other cases, the studios remade films (such as The Maltese Falcon of 1931 which was remade in 1941) because the Breen office refused to allow them to be shown. Pre-code films are a refreshing surprise to modern audiences who may feel that the films of the 1940s and 1950s are just too unrealistic.

The Code did not begin to weaken until the late 1940s, when the formerly taboo subjects of miscegenation and rape were allowed in Pinky (1949) and Johnny Belinda (1948), respectively. By the late 1950s, increasingly explicit films began to appear, such as Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Some Like It Hot (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1961). In the early 1960s, films began to deal with adult subjects and sexual matters that had not been seen in Hollywood films since the early 1930s. The MPAA reluctantly granted the seal of approval for these films, but not until certain cuts were made. The code was finally abandoned in 1966.

In that year, Warner Brothers wanted to release the new film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. When Jack Valenti became President of the MPAA in 1966, he was faced with censoring the film's explicit language. Valenti negotiated a compromise: The word "screw" was removed, but other language remained, including the phrase "hump the hostess." The film received Production Code approval despite this prohibited language.

A few months later, MGM planned to release the Michaelangelo Antonioni movie Blowup (UK, 1966), which contained nudity and drug use. After it was denied Production Code approval, MGM released it anyway, the first instance of an MPAA member company distributing a film without an approval certificate. There was little the MPAA could do about it. Enforcement was impossible, and the Production Code was effectively dead. On 1 November 1968, the MPAA film rating system went into effect, allowing audiences to choose the type of films they wanted to watch.

Popular pre-Code stars

Notable pre-Code films

In chronological order.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Pre-Code Hollywood" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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