Films made between 1930 to 1934 are collectively known as the Hollywood 'Pre-Code' era in film history. Today, we'll take a closer look at what made these films, in particular the slew of horror films, classics of the genre.
Quick history lesson: This era in American film was between the introduction of sound in the late 1920′s and the enforcement of the Hays Code (Motion Picture Production Code) in July of 1934. From 1930 to 1934, compliance with any Code was merely a verbal agreement; which in Hollywood means close to nothing. Therefore, Hollywood experimented further than it had before; showcasing the loosest of morals, and a new found freedom of expression.
During this time, Hollywood ventured in to their first golden age of horror, amassing a collection of films still revered today. They are oddly sublime in their streamlined simplicity, many of them only lasting just over an hour running time. These are poetic horror films, but contain a harsh cynicism that fed off society’s social and psychological turmoil.
Presented below are just a few of the horror films to come out during the early thirties. This is by no means an exhaustive list but should be a great start to any interested cinephile.
In James Whale’s Frankenstein, we have the immortal (literally) tale of the “Modern Prometheus.” Henry Frankenstein becomes obsessed with creating life from death, from stealing fire from the gods and defying the endless sleep. The film takes you by surprise right off the bat with a short introduction, completely out of the ordinary for the rest of the period-set movie. Edward Van Sloan, who plays Henry’s mentor, enters behind a curtain and addresses the theater audience directly.
The studio execs felt obliged to “warn” audience members of what they were about to see, as if it were so abhorrent that they may not be able to truly comprehend what striking visuals the macabre tale depicted. It’s hard to imagine anything today where this would feel necessary. Most films strive for shock. Whatever can get you feeling the most queasy is usually deemed the most horrific, but one of the benefit these older films had were the ability to discuss certain aspects without having to viciously depict it. This was possible more so during the early thirties than it would be for the next thirty years.
Even after the advice of Van Sloan’s warning, the film contains memorable pieces of sacrilegious dialog. When yelling his most famous line: “IT’S ALIVE!”, Dr. Frankenstein shouts out:
“Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!.”
Director James Whale insisted that his character would “learn his ways” and a line that would have never made it to final cut just five years later was allowed to stay; subsequently turning this Hollywood pre-code era film into a much-beloved classic.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Made the same year as Frankenstein came the Freudian, sexual perversity of Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Paramount. Frederich March won an Oscar for Best Actor in his duel role as Jekyll and Hyde and thus solidified horror as a serious genre amongst award shows (though still not often enough). The bluntness of Miriam Hopkin’s sexuality coupled with the sexual abuse Hyde afflicts on her throughout the film’s running time more than creates a mood of terror and unease. The film’s opening scene, all shot through the POV of Jekyll is incredibly impressive even by today’s standards.
The Island Of Lost Souls (1932)
Adapted from H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau, the film tramples through a plethora of taboo subject matters. It’s docu-style narrative looks very similar to King Kong (1933) in that it appears to bring footage from far-off lands back state-side. The taboo subject matters in question range from sexual deviancy, bestiality, surgical torture, and the act of creating life. All subjects that would be off-the-table just two years later. The film is worth seeing for Charles Laughton`s performance as Moreau as well as Bela Lugosi as the Sayer Of The Law, the leader of the band of animal/human hybrids made in Moreau’s “House Of Pain.”
The film that ruined director Tod Browning’s career and is now hailed by many as a masterpiece. This is a one-of-a-kind venture into the strange. A film that fully involved the participation of many individuals from the circus. The viewer will realize that the title is not referring to the outcasts of the film but of the two “normal” leads: The strong man and the trapeze artist. The use of people with various extreme deformities seems exploitative, and on some level of course it is but the two normative leads ridicule the other performers (dwarfs, a limbless man, a man with no legs using only his arms to walk, etc.) in their little circus family and must suffer the consequences when disrespecting humanity in any of its physical or mental forms. The film’s conclusion is surreal, odd, and very satisfying. Watch the haunting, and still-terrifying, climatic sequence and witness a film that is certainly one-of-a-kind.
Murders In The Zoo (1933)
The opening scene is so startlingly grisly that it still appalls today, A. Edward Sutherland’s Paramount production, in which Lionel Atwill plays a gleefully sadistic zoo owner who sees off competitors for wife Kathleen Burke’s attentions by using his animals in ever more dastardly ways. The scene in question opens the film, Atwill surgically sews a man’s mouth shut for speaking out against he, his wife, and his methods. The film continues on as Atwill kills and disposes of a number of bodies using the venom of a Black Mamba and throwing their bodies to the alligators and lions. The briskly paced film is one filled with particularities of the early ’30s, a nonsense love-story thrown in for good measure, and lots of captive animals ready to rip apart anyone.
The Black Cat (1934)
The Black Cat is filled with a cynical yet poetic approach to its literary routes. The film has a startling set-design and a poetic disregard for human life. The film`s narrative set-up has also been attributed to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with a newly-wed couple stumbling upon an old horror house. However, the house in question in this film is not an old Gothic manor but an avant-garde masterpiece of early thirties set-design. Throw in some live-skinning – oh yes, in The Black Cat, Bela Lugosi skins Boris Karloff’s character alive – and you have one of the better horror film’s from the pre-code era.
A taste for gruesomeness and cruelty courses through the veins of horror pictures in these years, whether in Doctor X, Mystery Of The Wax Museum, The Old Dark House, or Murders In The Rue Morgue. These films had venom to their bite. Any number of the titles presented above offer a startling set-design, disregard for human life, beautiful black & white cinematography, and creepy, if primitive, sound designs.
These were films that would later be under the scrutiny of more than several studio & national codes. It would not be until the European film’s of the late-fifties, where audiences would begin to see the horror rather than the cheap terror in movies again. Take a look at any of the above titles and enjoy for yourself a unique and celebrated period in movie-making; one that we are still seeing the ripple-effects of today.
Images: Universal Studios, Warner Brothers, MGM, RKO