Pre-Code Hollywood (1929-1934) refers to a specific era of the American film industry when the widespread adoption of sound by movie studios at around the time of the Great Depression resulted in films that were more daring, gritty, and reflective of the harsh realities of contemporary American society. Before what became known as the Hays Code was introduced, in general, restrictions on what the public got to see depended on local laws and public taste. Says one movie critic: "As a result, pre-Code films tended to be racier, sexier, more adult, more cynical, more socially critical, more honest and more politically strident than the films produced by Hollywood on up through the early 1960s".
Prior to the introduction of the Hays code the movie industry did have a self-regulatory Production Code of sorts, it's just that usually it was either circumvented or blissfully ignored. Consequentially the Hays code was born in 1930 when an influential group of pious lay Catholics and clergy from Chicago persuaded the studios to adopt their own 'revised' version of the industry Production Code to safeguard the 'moral rectitude' of God fearing America. The movie moguls (mostly Jewish) went along with the Catholics for fear of adverse publicity, but they had no real intention of abiding by the new code, especially at a time when the Hays Office - under-resourced and lacking authority in key areas - was trying to establish itself.
It was only when an amendment to the Code, adopted on June 13, 1934, came into force that the new measures were seriously implemented. The Amendment itself was the establishment of the Production Code Administration (PCA), headed by Joseph Ignatius Breen, a devout Catholic and virulent anti-Semite, who insisted that all films had to obtain a certificate of approval from his office before being released. It was later drily observed that 'what resulted was a Jewish owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America'.
To quote U.S film critic and pre-Code expert, Mick Lasalle:
It was a reactionary document, not merely interested in grossly limiting what could be depicted on screen, but concentrating on using film as a social instrument to push forward a traditionalist agenda. According to the Code, sex outside of marriage could not be portrayed as "attractive and beautiful," could not be presented in a way that might "arouse passion," and could not be made to seem "right and permissible." Dances were allowed, so long as they did not "excite the emotional reaction of an audience... with movement of the breasts [or] excessive body movements while the feet are stationery."
All crime had to be punished, and while it could be portrayed, it had to be done in such a way as not to arouse sympathy for either the crime or the criminal. Authority could not be held up to ridicule. In the case of clergymen, their depiction as comic characters or villains was proscribed. In the case of politicians, police and judges, they could, under some circumstances, be movie villains, so long as it was clear that they were bad apples and not representative of their institutions.
Under this Code, movies were to be sermons. Worse than that, they were to be deceitful sermons, presenting an untrue vision of life for propagandistic purposes. It was a document instigated by people who not only did not understand art but also hated and feared art's truth, power and freedom.
(PRE-CODE MOVIE STILLS)(CLICK TO ENLARGE)
See Here for some of the 'don'ts and be carefuls' of the Code.
The abrupt suppression of all those "sinful excesses" in pre-Code movies bequeaths the 21st century a reminder of how forcefully the power of cultural truths and social observation viewed through the prism of art can unsettle powerful men with a vested interest in controlling what the masses see, hear, and imagine. By expunging motion picture art of its stark social realism the vaccuum can then be conveniently filled with family-values homilies - and the status quo controlled. The Hays Code's raison d'être from 1934 onwards amounted to right-wing moral propaganda instituted by a tiny minority of Bible-thumping Christians who feared the realities of the human condition. Goodbye Jean Harlow, hello Shirley Temple! Swept away was the essential shock of the authentic to be replaced with comforting fantasy - escapism that intentionally steered people away from contemplating the many injustices below the shiny surface.
Just as it was then - as it has always been - we live in a world of moralisers. Everyone has an opinion on what is right and wrong, but some will go to extreme lengths to press their point. Society cannot afford the self-indulgent luxury of knee-jerk censorship at the expense of truth divined through art; nor should we attempt to filter the mainstream in the vain hope of homogenising morality. It is easy to rail against our own excesses while forgetting that mostly they are on the fringes, just as they were 90 years ago - peep shows never die. The overarching issue is not peripheral nasties that sometimes occupy our center stage, but what kind of cultural diet the mainstream will be fed, what underpins it and who does the feeding. In the age of multi-media mass entertainment we must ensure that what happened to the great movie makers of pre-Code Hollywood doesn't end up our fate too. Could it happen today? Does the Tea Party exist?
The legacy of pre-Code Hollywood is best summed up in the following way. Watch the 1933 classic,Baby Face, starring the great Barbara Stanwyck, in the full knowledge that if the Hays Code had dominated all film making from its beginnings, Baby Face and other movies like it wouldn't exist, and we'd be missing something crucial to the development of our free society. That one movie alone covers issues in every way relevant to today. For a free world to flourish freedom of expression must flourish too.