Filmmakers in the early 1930s succeeded in making movies that introduced aggressive sexuality, nontraditional relationships and outright horror. These films came from an era collectively known as "Pre-Code Hollywood", and this week we explore these four pivotal years in film history and take a look at some of the best films from the era.
Collected below are a sort of ‘Greatest Hits’ from the pre-code Hollywood era; similar to the Pre-Code Hollywood Horror List we did a little while ago. Many of the films have lasting influences on film and television of the present day, especially given the new-found freedom we get from YouTube, HBO, world cinema and beyond. Though there are still restraints, restrictions, and censorship, the connection our current media has with the films of the pre-code Hollywood era is unmistakable.
This is not to say that “Pre-Code Film” is a genre, as so much writing would have you believe. Historically, it refers to a specific period between 1930 and 1934 – the announcement of the Hays Code and the formation of the PCA to actually enforce it. Anything from brazen sexual dialog to the terrors of humanity’s Id, the rules were looser and so were the actors on screen. If you take a look at any of the trailers and clips below, you get a sense of the rambunctious nature and free-wheeling movie-making these artists and craftsmen had for the first time in the mediums history.
This pre-Code Hollywood period in film featured lawbreakers, heart-breakers, and shocking tales of modern morals running rampant. Some examined the existence and sinful aspects of the ‘modern’ man while others were affronts to the very nature of religion; namely Catholicism. This is why after the introduction of the Hays Code in 1930 and the PCA (Production Code Association) which enforced it, the Catholic Legion of Decency was also allotted to enforce their own standards on film-making.
“I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land… Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”
—Catholic Legion of Decency pledge
Most of the movies made during this era have been lost, and not all of those that survived are timeless classics. On the contrary, some movies waste several minutes on dead air in scenes that would have been cut entirely just a few years later. When comparing them to modern day movies some (scratch that… most) may find them boring, kitschy, and primitive. When watching an older movie, try meeting it half-way; see where it’s coming from, look between the lines, if you will. You may find more in common with them than you’d think, especially considering the massive amount of film/TV digesting the average person does today.
Yes. If you can’t stand black & white or anything made more than 10 years ago, there will be little here to convince you otherwise, but if you have an open-mind and find yourself in an adventurous mood, give some of these a shot. You’ll find anything from sex comedies and gangsters running amok to flat-out monster horror.
The Public Enemy (1931)
The Public Enemy from William Wellman is a classic of the gangster genre. Even though we could have thrown in Little Caesar, Lady Killer, Picture Snatcher, and a slew of other relatively solid gangster films, The Public Enemy stands apart based on precedent alone. James Cagney slamming a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face. A vicious act against a woman and blatant disregard for his best friend (any man that isn’t himself), Cagney is the ultimate anti-hero – in fact, he’s a downright villain. Searing violence, bootlegging, theft, and a bleak, powerfully haunting ending keeps this nearly 85-year old movie fresh as ever.
Though Frankenstein was heavily discussed in a previous article on the Hollywood pre-Code era, It’s worth mentioning again. Supremely more satisfying than Todd Browning’s Dracula, James Whale’s flamboyant direction brought a standard to horror film-making that had gone unseen till 1931. The Gothic visuals, ensemble cast of character actors – who perform rather than read their lines – and the most sympathetic portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster ever put to screen. Boris Karloff’s appearance is the stuff of movie legend. The film’s frank discussion of defying God as well as its morbid depiction of grave-robbing and a finale fueled by fiery mob-mentality is pure horror gold.
Scarface: The Shame Of A Nation (1932)
Non-stop violence and blatant disregard for morals, this Howard Hawk’s directed film produced by Howard Hughes was a boundary-pushing Tommy Gun blast to Hollywood. Paul Muni makes one of two appearances on this list and claimed the role years before Al Pacino eventually took it to another level. Scorsese cited this film as a huge influence on The Departed including using foreshadowing “X`s” in the set-design to symbolize a character’s death. This is still an entertaining and ridiculously violent film with an over-the-top caricature of Italian stereotypes.
Wild Boys Of The Road (1933)
A film brimming with almost neo-realist aesthetic, William Wellman’s Wild Boys Of The Road follows the unemployed youth of America as they make their way via railway across the states in search of work. The film takes a harsh look at the treatment of the unemployed by established systems. A very vivid telling of a stick-it-to-the-cops mentality, a theme that still echoes loudly in films of today.
Baby Face (1933)
Filled with innuendo and banned in several cities, Baby Face became one of the most controversial films from the pre-code Hollywood era. Stanwyck literally sleeps her way to the top of the corporate ladder; eating men up and spitting them out in order to take care of herself. This is an interesting inclusion on the list for its deft perceptions of the individuality of women. Though outdated with its depiction of a “loose woman”, the film contains a fantastic early performance from Barbara Stanwyck that would play out almost ten years later in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity.
Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933)
A Busby Berkeley extravaganza that features this bawdy little song and dance number about “getting it in the open air.” Scenes in which Dick Powell opens Ruby Keeler’s metal corset with a giant can-opener are but a few of the insane sights to behold in this depression-era musical. “We’re In The Money” is but a few of the songs that tapped ironically into the national drought of the depression. Never before had a musical carried such a message in Hollywood.
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1933)
Warner Bros. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni, was the most powerful and popular of a series of jailhouse or “chain gang” films from the pre-code era. The most searing exposés of the prison system were reserved for the chain gang pictures, which drew on sensational newspaper reports of brutality in the prison system of the rural Deep South. The film had such an effect on society that it brought about a reform of the correctional system’s treatment of chain gangs in the south. It may seem like a cliche but the ending is one of the most haunting of any American film.
Design For Living (1933)
The free-spirited artist can’t decide between the two men, but she openly engages both gentlemen in a sexual relationship, and eventually the trio moves in together. Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper star in one of the most interesting and whimsical films from the early thirties and dealt broadly with the notion of open relationships. The risqué living arrangement is handled with wit and sophistication thanks to the guidance of director Ernst Lubitsch and a screenplay from Ben Hecht.
Red-Headed Woman (1933)
Seduction, blackmail, murder — Jean Harlow really knew how to have a good time in Red-Headed Woman. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the original script which was declined by the studio. The film contains brief nudity, sadistic marital torture, and a brazen showcase of physical desire. Censored and banned in certain countries, the film was a smash hit around the world. Red-Headed Woman is one of many films depicting women as “free-spirits”. A pattern that would soon disappear only one year later and for some 30 years after that.
Honorable Mention: Madam Satan (1930)
Madam Satan, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, gets an honorable mention for one specific reason – It’s bat shit crazy. Fans today appreciate the story of a straying husband who learns the error of his ways when his wife dons a glamorous disguise and seduces him – just before a climactic dirigible crash – for its ironic, pre-Code humor and brazen attempt to provide something for everyone.
The first hour is slow to start but during the third act the gloves are off. Everything from a bizarre musical number dedicated to some sort of futuristic “Spirit Of Modern Power” to a wildly costumed Electric Man leading a group of dancers dressed in costumes looking like something out of a Soviet science fiction film on acid. All of this taking place on a dance floor in very close quarters – aboard a zeppelin, which crashes (of course), setting ablaze fat-cat millionaires and half-naked ‘good time girls’ as their scorching bodies rain down on New York City in a fiery glory. It’s surreal.
Without these films, you wouldn’t have luminaries of today making films like The Wolf Of Wall Street, or any number of TV series on HBO. These laid the groundwork. When you go out to the theater or stream your next movie and see a slew of nudity, outrageous action, frank discussion or outright disregard for morals, remember that it holds its respect to films made 80 years ago.
A few years in a long history of movie-making that needs to be explored, where the boundaries between amoral behavior and entertainment were so blurred you would almost think you were drunk, and hell, you probably were.
Images: Universal Pictures, Warner Bros, MGM, Paramount Pictures