Pre-Code Hollywood (1929-34): Sin on Celluloid

The PRE-CODE ERA was a period of filmmaking (1929-34) that featured a more laidback atmosphere. “More unbridled, salacious, subversive, and just plain bizarre than what came afterwards, they look like Hollywood cinema but the moral terrain is so off-kilter they seem imported from a parallel universe,” remarked historian Thomas Doherty.

Will H. Hays had been recruited by the Hollywood studios in 1922 to help restore Hollywood’s tainted image brought on by a series of scandals. In 1929, Catholic Martin Quigley, editor of the trade MOTION PICTURE HERALD, and Jesuit priest Father Daniel A. Lord created a code of standards and submitted it to the studios. While the Production Code was adopted in 1930, it was not strictly enforced; therefore, films during this time would often include sexual innuendo, illegal drugs, scantily-clad women, rape, infidelity, abortion, children born out of wedlock, violence and homosexuality, among other later taboo subjects; it was a world where crime *did* pay.

Pre-Code film classics include THREE ON A MATCH, FEMALE, BABY FACE, FREAKS, RED-HEADED WOMAN, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, etc., and gangster films such as THE PUBLIC ENEMY, LITTLE CAESAR, and SCARFACE.

At the end of ’33 and the beginning of 1934, the Catholic Legion of Decency fought with a renewed vigor against what they considered the immorality of films. This, combined with the threat of a government takeover of film censorship, brought about a new Motion Picture Production Code, with rules of what was now forbidden on screen; a rigidly enforced crackdown took place as the studios sought the Production Code’s seal of approval before a film could be released.

July 1, 1934, signaled the end of the pre-Code era. Wrote historian Thomas Doherty in PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD SEX, IMMORALITY AND INSURRECTION IN AMERICAN CINEMA, 1930-1934: “American cinema changed. During that month, the Production Code Administration, popularly known as the Hays Office, began to regulate, systematically and scrupulously, the content of Hollywood motion pictures. For the next thirty years, cinematic space was a patrolled landscape with secure perimeters and well-defined borders. Adopted under duress at the urging of priests and politicians, Hollywood's in-house policy of self-censorship set the boundaries for what could be seen, heard, even implied on screen. Not until the mid-1950s did cracks appear in the structure and not until 1968, when the motion picture industry adopted its alphabet ratings system, did the Code edifice finally come crumbling down.”

Join us as we celebrate pre-Codes, the “raw stuff of American culture, unvarnished and unveiled.”