Pre-Code Hollywood. It’s one of my favorite periods in film history. Why? Because the movies are stupendously risqué, progressive, frank, and sexy. They tiptoe up to the line of forbidden content, leaving modern audiences – used to snickering at classic movies depicting spouses in twin beds – thinking, “Whoa, my grandma saw this stuff?”
The first thing you need to know about Pre-Code Hollywood is that the phrase itself is a misnomer. Pre-Code is not the time before there was a Production Code that governed what could (and could not) be shown. It’s the years between 1930 and 1934 before the code was strictly enforced. That meant studios were constantly playing footsie with censor boards about what was allowed, while pushing the limits of what would titillate viewers.
So, where did this whole code conundrum start, anyway?
As I explained in my previous post, the 1920s were marked by a slew of celebrity shockers. Bad enough that some self-appointed purity groups felt that passionate screen kisses would corrupt our nation’s youth. But thanks to the five scandals I highlighted, there was widespread outrage that stars, who already had an outsized influence on pop culture, would ruin the lives of gullible viewers.
Studios were also sick of dealing with city and state censors across the country, each of which demanded specific cuts and revised prints of films before they would allow them to be shown in theaters. Piling onto those tedious chores was the not-unreasonable fear that if Hollywood didn’t clean up its act, Congress would do it for them. The upshot? Industry leaders calculated that proactive self-censorship was their best option.
So, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) hired Will Hays, the Postmaster General in President Harding’s cabinet, as their hand-picked fox to watch the Tinseltown hen house. Hays was ideal for two reasons: He was a D.C. insider who could help navigate political landmines to guard MPPDA’s interests; and he was a non-smoking, non-drinking Presbyterian elder. Why did that matter? Reformers knew that most movie bosses were Jewish men, immigrants, or both. Who better than Hays to promote and protect America’s Christian values in La-La Land?
In 1927, Hays and his staff released a window-dressing-ish list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” for filmmakers to follow. (“No nudity” was a “Don’t,” “No sympathy for criminals” was a “Be Careful”). After entertainment execs publicly agreed to abide by those guidelines (but often ignored them), calls for big-screen boycotts began anew.
Then, following the stock market crash of 1929, cash-strapped studios – knowing that “Sex sells” movie tickets – proceeded to stuff their scripts with salacious material. Within weeks, the inevitable backlash followed. In response, the Hays Office issued a detailed Production Code in 1930: Mandatory rules required for every release. But until the outcry over naughty content became so fierce in 1934 that producers were forced to comply (or face an extinction event), hundreds of edgy pics were made...and they’re a blast to watch!
In the next edition of Classic Hollywood, I’ll reveal the drama that’s been called “The Citizen Kane of Pre-Codes.”