Useful Notes: The Pre Code Era

Thought all movies were squeaky clean and decent in the olden days? Think again!

The Pre-Code Era is Exactly What It Says on the Tin. The period before the active, total enforcement of The Hays Code. This period stretched from 1928 to 1933, though stragglers continued into 1934 and 1935. This brief, short period is unlike any later period in film history. Imagine seeing old classic films with actors like Clark Gable or Claudette Colbert and feeling that the roles they are playing are too conventional and too cute. You wish they played different roles, you wish that the films weren't so bound by censorship that almost all the roles and the entire plot register as a Dull Surprise to the viewer since the conventions are so painfully enforced. Basically, you wish to see old-time actors operate with the same freedom as the New Hollywood. The good news is that you can, by seeing films from The Pre-Code Era.

Oh sure, you didn't have Precision F-Strike and the language is still (mostly) squeaky clean, and there's not a whole lot of full nudity even if there is more skin. But everything is different. In these films, there's no coyness or euphemisms, visual or otherwise; characters if they like each other will get physical. Gangsters and bad guys tend to be more Affably Evil without the Character Derailment in later films that makes them obvious bad guys as an Author's Saving Throw. There are more Karma Houdini villains and a Downer Ending is not rare, though the films are fairly light on the whole.

This period coincided with the end of The Roaring Twenties and the early years of The Great Depression and are incredible portrayals of the time. It shows the level of unrest and uncertainty brought out by mass unemployment, urban violence and the worker's movements and strikes in the same period. Male characters tended to be Working Class Heroes more often than not. Women are also shown at work, living alone and dating as per their wishes. Crime movies tend to have prostitutes not as cautionary tales but as genuinely conflicted, morally complex characters. There's more Gray and Gray Morality here and Reality Ensues more often than not. Seen today, the contrast between the films made before the censorship and the period after goes a great deal to showing the impact censorship made on American cinema and the kind of films that could have been made had censorship not been active for the thirty years after the end of the era, dispelling the myth that American cinema were prudish by instinct rather than external factors, showing that they were in fact stifled by an obsolete system that they themselves never set store by.

Some directors who were especially frank and provocative suffered when censorship was enforced. A director like Josef von Sternberg, a favorite of Jorge Luis Borges and an influence on Alfred Hitchcock and many others, made provocative works about sex and power in his films with Marlene Dietrich. Censorship inevitably prevented him from dealing with the same kind of content, and Dietrich herself declined in stardom after the period, never truly playing roles of the same caliber. Frank Borzage, who was Lighter and Softer, but thought nothing of making films about couples who were openly sexual and who tended not to be married and whose films had a real anarchic working class spirit, never recovered fully either. It was also a prolific period of creative outpouring with a director like William A. Wellman making 20 films in a three year period for Warner Bros, a rate of productivity that he didn't repeat afterwards, even if he continued making good films. Several of the films made in this era disappeared from public view because The Hays Code required older titles to be resubmitted for evaluation for general release in repertory theaters and later on television. Most of them, needless to say, didn't pass muster. They became prized objects for private collectors, and archivists around the world. These films were often more widely seen abroad than in America in the same period, especially at the Cinematheque in Paris, whose audiences became the French New Wave.

A good example is Howard Hawks' original Scarface. Despite being the Trope Maker for gangster films and a phenomenal influence on American cinema at the time to the point of Pop-Cultural Osmosis it was unseen in America till the late 70s where it once again attracted notice and attention, which in turn led to well-known remake with Al Pacino. Other titles were Trouble in Paradise by Ernst Lubitsch, as well as his Design For Living, an incredible Older Than They Think portrayal of a One True Threesome which anticipates the Free Love climate of The Sixties. The films were steadily rediscovered since then with TCM channel being a major supporter of these works. Several of them are released on DVD labels like Forbidden Hollywood with the hook being its Older Than They Think value.

Films from this period also treated sexuality much more frankly. In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way to riches. In Topaze, Myrna Loy's character matter-of-factly admits that she is The Mistress of a Corrupt Corporate Executive. Brief nudity was occasionally seen, dating back to the silent film era, as well as scenes with women in states of undress, like Fay Wray in King Kong (1933) after Kong peels off her clothing.

This period provided us the Gangster Film, The Musical and the Screwball Comedy, in addition to some war films like All Quiet on the Western Front. It was also the period of Universal Horror films, titles like James Whale's Frankenstein with Boris Karloff and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein, Tod Browning's Dracula, The Black Cat as well as MGM's one attempt to cash in on the trend, Tod Browning's Freaks which could not be made in any other period but this one. It was also a time of important innovations in special effects, with King Kong released in 1933. All in all, this period of six years, which marked the end of silent cinema and the beginning of sound was a climate of freedom which was all too brief but whose impact reverberated for years to come.

Actors who were major figures in this era include James Cagney, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Margaret Sullavan, George Raft, Wallace Beery, Edward G Robinson, Claudette Colbert, Constance Bennett, Paul Muni, Frederic March, Maurice Chevalier, Jean Harlow and many others. In addition, actors like Clark Gable , Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne made early-bird appearances in films in this era.

Important Directors from this period are,

  • William A. Wellman - The Public Enemy (which made James Cagney a star), Wild Boys on the Road, Heroes for Sale, The Purchase Price, Midnight Mary, The Conquerors, Other Men's Women. He made 20 films in a four-year period! He later noted that this was partly because he and the writers had the freedom to pretty much do they as they pleased so long as a film was in a certain genre, had a standard runtime, and was made fast and cheaply. After the Code came, screenplays were subject to stricter scrutiny, which delayed the process greatly and as such created more inconveniences and annoyances to deal with.
  • Josef von Sternberg - The Blue Angel, Morocco, Blonde Venus, Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman (all with Marlene Dietrich), in the same period he also made the first adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy which resulted in Executive Meddling. These films were resonantly adult in tone, dealing with sexual relations and Masochism Tango between couples. After the Code, Sternberg couldn't deal with his preferred subject and Dietrich whose stardom was so much a part of that freedom of content never really had a role of the same caliber afterwards.
  • Frank Borzage - Incredibly prolific in this period. A major silent film director, he took to sound really quickly and made several films which were innovative in camera movement and bold content. Man's Castle with Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young is set in a Hooverville in New York is perhaps the boldest portrayal of the Depression from this period. His adaptation of A Farewell to Arms with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes was disliked by Ernest Hemingway but later audiences adored its swooning romanticism and frank eroticism.
  • Ernst Lubitsch : A major director before and after the code. He made some incredible musicals (which were closer to operetta) starring Maurice Chevalier and then switched to making sophisticated comedies like Trouble in Paradise and Design For Living, and he still found time to make a WW1 drama like Broken Lullaby which was one of his favorites. He survived the end of the period better than other directors.
  • King Vidor : A major pioneer in the silent era. When sound came in, he made the Fair for Its Day all-black musical Hallelujah which recorded sound on location in 1929! He made The Champ, Street Scene, The Stranger's Return, Bird of Paradise and the 30s equivalent of the independent film with Our Daily Bread which dealt with the Depression and was cited by Orson Welles as one of his ten favorite films.
  • Busby Berkeley : Pioneer of the Busby Berkeley Number, directed musical numbers with gorgeous ladies in kaleidoscopic formations in such films as 42nd Steet, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames and others. He was himself a returning war veteran and used his knowledge of military drills to form his numbers and this inspired such bold numbers as Remember My Forgotten Man inspired by the 1932 Veterans March to Washington.
  • Howard Hawks : The director of the original Scarface and progenitor of the screwball comedy.
  • Rouben Mamoulian : Director of the famous sound version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Frederic March and Miriam Hopkins, foregrounding the sexual subtext of the original and innovative for its special effects. He directed the musical Love Me Tonight, famous for the number, "Isn't It Romantic?", and provided Greta Garbo with a signature role in Queen Christina.

Notable films from the Pre-Code Era:

  • Underworld (1927), the first-ever gangster movie.
  • The Docks of New York (1928) by Josef von Sternberg, a dark and cynical love story with a surprisingly happy ending.
  • Lights of New York (1928) by Brian Foy, aka "Keeper of the B's," a bad film notable for being the first full-length all-talking movie.
  • The Love Parade (1929): Jeanette MacDonald takes a bath onscreen, and Maurice Chevalier sings a song about how he's not getting any (and thus, nobody is enjoying his skills as The Casanova).
  • The Divorcee (1930): Jerry, embittered after her husband Ted cheats on her, divorces him, but not before telling him that "you're the only man in the world that my door is closed to." The latter portion of the movie shows Jerry going through a rotating parade of boyfriends.
  • Monte Carlo (1930): The heroine (Jeanette MacDonald again) spends about a quarter of the film in her underwear or a negligee.
  • Morocco (1930) by Josef von Sternberg features the first lesbian kiss in Sound Cinema and a dark romantic story with Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in a Masochism Tango.
  • The Miracle Woman (1931): An early Frank Capra film, starring Barbara Stanwyck, telling the story about a corrupt evangelical church. Oh, and someone flips the bird.
  • The Public Enemy (1931): The main character is a young man living in Chicago during Prohibition whose crimes progress from small-time theft to bootlegging and murder.
  • Quick Millions (1931) by Rowland Brown. Cited as an influence for Boardwalk Empire and it shows. It's pretty brutal in examining the links between politics, labour and crime and features Spencer Tracy in a completely unsentimental role.
  • The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) — opens with Maurice Chevalier singing a song about how officers in the army like to get laid. Lots of Double Entendre, and a Be a Whore to Get Your Man ending.
  • Blonde Venus, (1932) also from von Sternberg and Dietrich, tells the story of an adulteress from a sympathetic standpoint.
  • Call Her Savage (1932) — adultery, Marital Rape License, a Cat Fight, Clara Bow turning to prostitution to get money for her baby...
  • The Dark Horse (1932) — deeply cynical political satire that also has, believe it or not, a Strip Poker scene.
  • Freaks (1932) — way too upsetting to have gotten made after 1934.
  • Kongo (1932) — thoroughly nasty piece of work about an ivory trader in Africa that features fun stuff like prostitution, sex slavery, drug addiction, murder, a Rape Discretion Shot...
  • Love Me Tonight (1932) has Jeanette MacDonald spending large amounts of screentime in her underwear again, and the doctor giving her a prescription that boils down to You Need to Get Laid.
  • One Hour With You (1932): Includes a song where the main characters frolic on their double bed while singing about how it's great to be married because they can have all the sex they want. Double Entendre abounds, and infidelity is Easily Forgiven in the end.
  • Red Dust (1932) — an adulterous Love Triangle with Clark Gable having a Betty and Veronica dilemma between married Betty (Mary Astor) and Veronica (Jean Harlow) the Hooker with a Heart of Gold.
  • Red-Headed Woman (1932) — notable not only for the overt sexual content, as well as a brief shot of Jean Harlow topless, but also for the fact that her character is a Karma Houdini who doesn't pay for her home-wrecking ways.
  • Scarface (1932) by Howard Hawks, is the Trope Codifier for the Depression gangster film, the first film to raise issues about "glorifying violence" and gangsters. It was in its day as shocking as the more famous 1983 remake. It was also probably responsible for calls for stricter censorship.
  • Trouble in Paradise (1932): A pair of stylish thieves live in sin and rob their way around Europe; the "trouble" happens when one of them falls in love with a mark. They get away with a nice haul in the end.
  • Baby Face (1933) — Barbara Stanwyck, tired of being pimped out by her father, literally sleeps her way to the top of a company.
  • Design For Living (1933) — in which Miriam Hopkins, faced with a choice between Frederic March and Gary Cooper, picks both of them.
  • Forty Second Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933, Busby Berkeley musicals that feature lots of Fanservice, scantily clad chorus girls, and winking sex jokes.
  • Female (1933) — in which Ruth Chatterton is a ruthless corporate shark who spends her evenings bonking various handsome men from her office.
  • She Done Him Wrong (1933) — Mae West in skin-tight dresses engaging in endless sex jokes with Cary Grant and all her other admirers.
  • Heroes for Sale (1933) by William A. Wellman which shows what really happens to a Working-Class Hero War Veteran, he comes back home with serious shellshock, has no work and ends up becoming a morphine addict searching for a fix.
  • Man's Castle (1933) by Frank Borzage, starring Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young. A love story among two slum-dwellers living in a hooverville, it shows the Depression with a candour few films of the time dared. It also features a scene of the two lovers skinny-dipping, incredibly realistic and deliriously romantic at the same time.
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934), the second to last Sternberg-Dietrich film and perhaps the boldest. A biopic of Catherine the Great that totally embraces the ruthlessness and sexual daring of the Queen while boldly admitting that Evil Is Cool and Evil Is Sexy. None of the preachy moralizing from the Hays period is here.
  • Twentieth Century (1934): The main characters live together without being married, and there's even a casual reference to them sleeping in the same bed. Carole Lombard briefly stalks around in just her bra and panties. A religious nut is lampooned, and religion is used as a con in getting him to finance a play.
  • Wild Boys of the Road (1934), which features Frankie Darro as the leader of teenage runaways. During the Depression, several young teenagers, boys and girls, had to go on the run to find work since their parents could no longer support them. What happens to these kids? They become deliquents and criminals, get chased out of town, and are subject to police brutality and rape.