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Before the Code

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Tarzan and His Mate

Pre-Code movies - two words that thrill cinema buffs and make their hearts beat faster. The term, pre-Code, relates to films made between 1930 when two men wrote the Motion Picture Production Code, and, July 1, 1934, when studios finally enacted the Code; however, pre-Code is a misnomer. Moving pictures were still a nascent industry when regional censorship boards tried to dictate on-screen content. In 1915, filmmakers went to the Supreme Court with the case of the Mutual Film Corporation verses the Industrial Commission of Ohio. The highest court in the land ruled against Hollywood, declaring that the movies were a business and not an art form entitled to First Amendment protection. That ruling may have opened the film industry up to the mandates of local blue stockings but the studios managed to work around them. From the 1910s through the 20s and into the early 30s, nudity, drug and alcohol addiction, along with explorations of hedonism, vice and sexuality were common elements in motion pictures.   

Manslaughter, 1922
Faith-based censorship groups may have tsk-tsked the images on the screen but the films they condemned reflected the outré aspects of American life. Sexual relations outside of wedlock and between the races were part of American society as were gambling halls and brothels. Silent dramas reflected them. Filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille partnered with his mistress, writer Jeanie Macpherson, on a number of contemporary melodramas that DeMille peppered with as many provocative scenes as possible. He even managed to slip a bare breast or shapely calf into his famed religious spectacles.


Sessue Hayakawa
Although miscegenation among whites and blacks was a “no no,” DeMille made a matinee star out of Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa. Hayakawa worked opposite white actresses and attracted a huge female following despite his race.  

Lupe Velez
Mexican actors Ramon Novarro, Lupe Velez, Gilbert Roland, and Dolores Del Rio achieved a degree of stardom in the 20s and 30s that was unmatched until Jennifer Lopez and Selena Gomez came on the scene decades later. 


A pre-Code image of Anna May Wong
Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong’s career spanned the silent era and beyond playing “Oriental temptresses” but no studio cast her opposite the great male stars of the period. Miss Wong watched as Caucasian actresses donned yellow-face to play roles she would never be considered for.
1920s Our Gang with African American actor, "Sunshine Sammy"

The one ethnic group Hollywood couldn’t shape into matinee heroes or heroines were African Americans. With the exception of the child actors in the Our Gang comedies, move studios stripped black performers of any semblance of sexuality and relegated to roles as servants.

Filmmakers faced catering to regional differences in taste and the ambivalence of the American public towards provocative subjects. Scenarios that sophisticated audience in New York City eagerly embraced faced heavily censorship in Omaha, but the studios were undeterred. Hollywood however, would periodically confirm the worst fears of prudes who saw movies as a moveable feast of celluloid sin and vice. In 1920, Olive Thomas, a former showgirl married to Mary Pickford’s wastrel brother, died after accidentally ingesting mercury bichloride.  

Roscoe Arbuckle's Mug Shot
A few months later in 1921, on Labor Day weekend in San Francisco, comedian Roscoe Arbuckle was a guest at an afternoon soiree. An actress and fashion plate named Virginia Rappe attended the party and died four days later from peritonitis. The tabloid press painted the bash as a drunken orgy and labeled the comedian a rapist and sadist although he had nothing to do with the woman’s death. The notoriety almost destroyed Arbuckle’s career (Arbuckle worked as a director before his acting career rebounded briefly in the talkie era) and allowed morality groups across the country to point a Puritanical finger at degenerate Hollywood.



These same self-appointed guardians of the nation’s morals labeled Hollywood licentious and immoral for the slightest misstep but remained silent about lynching, the rampant racism, sexism and anti-Semitism of the period and the mistreatment of the American worker by big business. It’s not a stretch to suggest that anti-Semitism played a large role in the indignation over the “debauched” behavior of those in the film community. Powerful anti-Semites like Henry Ford feared Jewish power and raged against Jews in a rag he financed called The Dearborn Independent. Other voices joined Ford including the virulently anti-Semitic radio personality, Father Charles Couglin. The Klan and Christian extremist groups promoted visions of gentile virtue sacrificed on an altar of Jewish lust.


Will H. Hays

Mabel Normand
In January 1922, the studios found a buffer between censorship boards, holier than thou evangelists and the industry, His name was Will H. Hays, the former chairman of the Republican Party and an ex-Postmaster General. Hays was a ‘by gosh by golly’ straight arrow, a Presbyterian deacon from Indiana and the perfect person to convince local censorship boards to leave the movies alone. He took the helm of the newly formed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) at the perfect time.

There were two more major scandals after the Arbuckle debacle brewing on the horizon, one in 1922 and 1923, and they were a double whammy for Hollywood. Someone murdered director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 and the mystery surrounding his death adversely affected the careers of the two women closest to him, comedienne Mabel Normand and ingénue, Mary Miles Minter. The studios managed to handle the hot potato, but Taylor’s murder compromised both Normand and Minter.  The dust hadn’t begun to settle from the Taylor murder when there was another catastrophe. Leading man, Wallace Reid, died in private sanitarium of pneumonia and heart failure while trying to kick his addition to morphine. A fall injured the handsome actor while shooting a motion picture and he turned morphine, a legal drug at the time, for relief. Like thousands of Americans, including veterans of W.W.I, Reid became addicted. A sanctimonious press spun his unfortunate death into another tale of Hollywood as a cesspool of vice. Luckily, Hays and the studios were able to skirt the line of provocative fare for another eight years. 


Jeanne Eagles in The Letter shortly before her death

Even a cursory glance of films from the 20’s yields a number of provocative silent dramas. The titles are legend - ManslaughterThe Ten Commandments, Flesh and the Devil, Hula and The Wedding March among many more. Producer Samuel Goldwyn even briefly flirted with filming The Captive, a lesbian drama that the New York police raided during its Broadway run. A few more premature deaths including Barbara LaMarr from tuberculosis, Jeanne Eagels, and Alma Rubens from drug overdoses, led to more finger pointing, but it was the advent of talking pictures that signaled the beginning of the end to artistic freedom.     
A DeMille Biblical epic

In 1927, the Hollywood “problem” exacerbated with the coming of talkies. Now the public could hear racy dialogue along with seeing provocative images. Sound, especially Vitaphone, made the job of local censorship boards more difficult since it was impossible to remove offending scene when sound engineers recorded the audio disk. Cutting the offending footage from a Warner Brother’s film would throw the movie out of sync. The end of 1929 saw the Great Depression and more problems for Hollywood. Studios had to up the ante to attract audiences but not go too far. Hays assembled list of don’ts compiled from the suggestions of local censorship boards, but the studios often ignored their ideas were still largely ignored. Finally, the Catholic publisher of motion picture trade newspaper, a pious fellow named Martin Quigley turned to Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest whom Cecil B. DeMille employed as a consultant on King of Kings. The Catholic Church had the distinction of being the largest Christian church in the country yet in the past had left censorship issues to their Protestant brothers and sisters - no longer. There was power in numbers and the Church exploited them. 

Like many moralists around the country, the idea of the potential of talking films to destroy American values terrified Father Lord and he seized his entry into controlling popular culture. With the fervor of a member of the Spanish Inquisition, the sex-phobic padre declared, “Silent smut has been bad, vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance!” Father Lord gave his recommendations to Hays in 1930 who promptly set up another impotent group, the Studio Relations Committee. The pre-Code era was born. 

Father Lord was right about one thing - sound opened the floodgates to adult entertainment. Warner Brothers started with a half-silent musical called The Jazz Singer then brought the charismatic gangster into movie theaters. In the persona of stars like James Cagney and George Raft, thugs became sexy. New personalities like Mae West, Fredric March, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich emerged and actors who put their sexual personas front and center. Hollywood turned to the Broadway stage for teleplays with mixed results; the acting may have been static but the subject matter was tantalizing. On-screen patter became snappier and movies reflected the American zeitgeist. Pre-Code movies examined the issues of the day, the Depression, the police, big business, and the plight of the workingman and woman as never before.



The pre-code talkies opened the floodgates to the unbridled sexuality stars like Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, and Ramon Novarro appeared nude on screen in the silent and pre-code era. Still, the action was tame by modern standards. 1930s Hell’s Angels featured a scene of open-mouthed kissing and raised eyebrows with phrases like “for Christ’s sake”, “goddamn it,” and “son of a bitch,” but even in the most daring films, foul language or simulated sexual acts were verboten - it was the mere suggestion that offended. Actresses like Harlow, Dietrich, West, Shearer, and Stanwyck blurred the line between virtuous lady and sinner, portraying women as three-dimensional beings who were unapologetic about their independence and sexuality.

Studios continued to skirt the code but there were a few sacrificial lambs along the way. 1933’s Convention City, a comedy about drunken conventioneers, was pulled from theaters and the original negative destroyed.



Censorship in the guise of the Catholic Legion of Decency reared its head and rather than face a boycott by a huge church group, the studios relented and began adhering to the code. Hays hired the pugnacious, Joseph I. Breen, a.k.a. “Mean” Joe Breen to become his enforcer as head of Production Code Administration. In July of 1934, the pre-code years ended led by a mean-spirited bigot who was not above getting physical with those who questioned his authority. Breen struck director Woody Van Dyke for questioning him about edits he had ordered in a film. The 1934 version of Imitation of Life raised his racist hackles because of hints of miscegenation, and Breen did everything to torpedo the production. As Censor in Chief, he was determined to protect the world from anything tainted by “Jewish lust.” He contacted the Jesuit priest, Wilfred Parsons, S.J., editor of the Jesuit weekly, America, and declared, “These Jews seem to think of nothing, but money making and sexual indulgence.” The inmates were indeed in charge of the asylum.  

Joe Breen
Generations of moviegoers grew up with the flash of the PCA certification. The studios were forced to edit movies like King Kong and Tarzan and His Mate.  Mae West found herself censored and her sex appeal blunted. For next thirty years, the code constrained an American art form that had an unbelievable influence on world culture. Under Breen’s watch, sexuality was off the table and the work of geniuses like Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner were effectively spayed and neutered. As far as race, namely relations between blacks and whites, under the dictatorship of Breen whom moviemakers called the Hollywood Hitler, the film industry remained fixed in the days of petticoats and mint juleps. African American beauties like Nina Mae McKinney and Fredi Washington, along with the elegant Paul Robeson had truncated Hollywood careers as a result.
Fredi Washington and Louise Beaver in Imitation of Life, 1934
Who knows how many films died in the womb during the Breen watch? Breen finally passed away in 1965, and the code died three years later. Years of repression ended.

Books of interest include Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-code Hollywood By Mark A. Vieira: Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty: Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood by Jill Watts: Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man also by Mick LaSalle

Pre-Code.com

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