Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pre-Code Cinema

The following is a piece I did for a classic film community about six years ago. I figured I would re post it here and hopefully get the time, motivation and inspiration to write more in the near future.

Pre-Code Hollywood: Film, Interrupted

When one considers the films of the late 1920’s – early 1930’s, it is hard to imagine that they could be anything but chaste. After all, look at most of the films of the fifties and early sixties: husbands and wives slept in separate beds, our favorite actresses were flirty but most of the time didn’t put out and the men were dashing cads who kept their indiscretions to themselves or at most, relegated this topic to their respective men’s clubs. Therefore, it is easy for one to assume that the early days of “talkie” films had the depth and sex appeal of a Styrofoam cup, which makes the discovery that these were some of the richest films of the first six decades of the 20th century a delightful one.

And Hollywood DID forget about it. The next four years proved to be fruitful and provocative. The first film approved by the SRC was its most “subversive” yet. Norma Shearer solidified her stardom by starring in The Divorcee, released in 1930. In this film, Shearer discovers that her husband cheated on her, so she promptly goes out and cheats on her husband; with his best friend. When her husband returns to their Manhattan apartment, she simply tells him, “I’ve balanced our accounts.” Greta Garbo, who became an icon with her pre-Code filmography, was usually cast as The Notorious Woman, who was both dangerously beautiful and vulnerable. She played prostitutes and spies, but always did the right thing by her men, even if they did become quite broken because of it. In Grand Hotel, she plays a washed up ballerina who falls in love with the dashing John Barrymore, a man who rescues her from suicide while breaking into her hotel room to steal her jewels. The two have an obvious, passionate affair during their stay at the hotel and they not only are not approaching the level of marriage, but they just met one another. There were many other actresses who began their careers at the cusp of the Silent/Talkie era, among them Miriam Hopkins, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert and Constance Bennett. All of these actresses went on to have successful careers in post-Code films, but could have arguably done their best in the unrestricted early 1930’s.

And then came July 1934. The newly formed Production Code Administration created an era of censorship that would continue until the Code’s end in 1968. The most integral figure in this entire enterprise was not Hays himself, it was Joseph Breen, a lay Catholic , public relations man, and blatant anti-Semite. It was clear that his agenda was to save America from the movies and movies from the Jews, as most of the studio heads were Jewish. Breen referred to the moguls as “lice” and “ignorant on all matters having to do with sound morals.” Surprisingly, rather than being concerned about “subversive” matters like nudity, the censors were more concerned about the message the films created. The hardest hit was the roles women played in film. Women got their virginity back, and the price for non-conjugal relations was death, or loneliness. If men stepped out on their wives, they not only had to grin and stoically bear it, but also wait and hope for them to return. One of the greatest (and worst) examples of this phenomenon is Norma Shearer. Nine years after exerting her independence and playing the same games as her husband, she is relegated to becoming a hand wringing, wronged wife who can only hope that her husband comes to his senses and leaves his mistress, played by Joan Crawford. Goodbye strong women, hello doormat.

In pre-Code films, women did not have to answer to men, they had careers (and *gasp* were sometimes the boss) and most importantly, exuded independence and free thought. When Will Hays, the former Postmaster General, realized that there was a need for a commission to oversee the products that Hollywood was churning out, he created the Studio Relations Committee, though they had little power. Then the Code was introduced. The Production Code was actually hammered out in February 1930, unanimously agreed upon by the studio heads, with declarations such as “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it”. (Exchange “moral” with “intellectual” and we would have some serious problems today.) Take your pick as to what this entailed: Nudity and profanity was prohibited, as were comic representations of “revered” figures (clergymen, etc.) and criminals would be called to justice. Why would the studio heads agree to sign this document? Unfortunately they were under the threat of protest by various religious groups, and there were powerful men such as Orson Welles’ best friend William Randolph Hearst who, when he was not shacking up with his longtime mistress Marion Davies (another pre-Code actress) were threatening to call for government censorship. Therefore, the studio heads basically had no choice, and they knew that it was all for show; smile and nod, sign the paper and forget about it.

Ironically, there actually was a film medium that became prevalent as a result of the Code: Film noir. Film noir films could include as many dastardly deeds as they wanted, as long as the criminals got punished in the end, as evidenced by noir classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. The 1940’s has also been categorized as one of the greatest decades for women in film, and certainly there were some great films that were made, but one can only imagine what they could have been without the blatant censorship that hovered over them.

On a personal level, I found that I began to really reexamine the films and actresses who I have historically found to be strong, with interesting results. I love the melodramas of the 1940’s starring pre-Code or early post-Code actors, like The Heiress with Olivia de Havilland, Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford and pretty much anything starring Katherine Hepburn or my favorite, Bette Davis. Now that I know the history of the Code, I find it intriguing that these actresses can still give off auras of great strength and savvy. I find that I am even more impressed with their performances. Conversely, I also find that I am almost ashamed of my love for certain post-Code films that, after examination, DO objectify women and knock them down several pegs, especially the aforementioned The Women.

So I suppose the question is, despite the obvious setback that films took due to the abject censorship during a 42-year period, how did films continue to thrive and how did we eventually develop a “Golden Age of Hollywood”, if there were so many factors stifling the industry? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, when stifled or restricted, screenwriters and producers are forced to come up with something better than they could have if one of their options was to simply shock and titillate the audience. Instead of exciting the audience through physical means, they went for the mind. This could be one of the reasons that anyone who is a devotee to classic film could arguably extol the virtues of classic films with a good story on an exponential level to modern offerings. While censorship on any level is inherently bad, and the Production Code set back films and women in particular, back 40 years, perhaps the one good thing that a Pollyanna could derive from this debacle is the theory that films had to get more meaty because they had the challenge that their pre-Code ancestors did not; rigid parameters and senseless “guidelines” they were forced to adhere to. Misguided, the Code took an idealized vision of present day society and forcibly applied these morays to the big screen, disallowing the viewer the option of casting feelings upon what they are seeing. While some of us wouldn’t act upon our husband’s infidelity in the same way as Shearer did in The Divorcee, if this film had been made four years later, the audience would have been denied the opportunity to pass judgment, if they chose to do so. Prior to the Code, one had to develop their own judgments when viewing film. Between 1934 and 1968, this was included for free in the price of a movie ticket.


  • Night Nurse (1931)

  • The Common Law (1931)

  • The Divorcee (1930)

  • Baby Face (1933)

  • I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1933)

  • Scarface (1932)


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