Sunday, November 9, 2008

Pre-Code Hollywood

Hollywood's "pre-code" era referred to a roughly five year period in movie history, beginning with the widespread adoption of sound which was around 1929 and ending on July 1, 1934, with the inauguration of the Production Code Administration and a policy of rigid censorship. Pre-code films were created before the Motion Picture Production Code or Hayes Code which were censorship guidelines . A previous code of conduct for the film industry, introduced in 1930 was widely ignored and not enforced in the United States very enthusiastically. Before the code was adopted, restrictions on movie content varied widely, depending on local laws and mores and public taste. As a result, pre-code films tended to be racier, sexier, more adult, more cynical, more socially critical, more honest and more politically strident than the films produced by Hollywood up on through the early 1960's.

Films from the late 1920's and early 1930's reflected the liberal attitudes of the day and could include sexual innuendos, references to homosexuality, illegal drug use, infidelity, abortion, and profane language. As well as women in their undergarments, Such behavior was common in the liberal climate of cities at that time, although it often shocked audiences in rural areas. Popular character roles included tough-talking, assertive woman, gangsters and prostitutes.

Of particular note were both the reference to sexual promiscuity, drug use, bloody gangster life and morally ambiguous endings, which drew the ire from various religious groups, some Protestant, but mostly Roman Catholic.

The difference between pre-codes and films made during the Code is so dramatic that, once one becomes familiar with pre-codes, it becomes possible to tell, sometimes withing five minutes whether a 1934 movie was released in early or late in the year. Contrary to what was sometimes assumed by historians, the pre-code era didn't just fade. It was ended in full bloom and with the finality of an axe coming down.

Despite there being a Production Code before the existing code was developed as I said earlier, it was blightly ignored. The story begins in 1929 when a group of lay Catholics and the Catholic clergy in Chicago, seeing the 1920's social revolution beginning to make its way onto film and realizing that sound was making movies more daring than ever, devised a code of ethics and practices they hoped that the studios would adopt. In February of 1930, these Catholics met with the production hears of various studios, including Irving Thalberg of MGM, and made revisions to the Production Code. Ultimately, the Code was adopted by all the major studios and a group was already in place...the Studio Relations Committee.

It's safe to say that if the producers actually thought they might ever have to abide by the Code, they would never have adopted it.....It was a reactionary document, not merely interested in grossly limiting what could be depicted on screen, but concentrating on using film as a social instrument to push forward a traditionalist agenda. According to the Code, sex outside of marriage could not be portrayed as "attractive and beautiful", could not be presented in a what that might "arouse passion", and could not be made to seem "right and permissible". Dances were allowed as long as they did not "excite the emotional reaction of an audience...with movement of the breasts or excessive body movements while the feet are stationery". All crime had to be punished, and while it could be portrayed, it had to be done in such a way as not to arouse sympathy for either the crime or the criminal. Authority could not be held up to ridicule. In the case of clergymen, their depiction as comic characters or villains was proscribed. In the case of politicians, police and judges, they could, under some circumstances, be movie villains, so long as it was clear that they were bad apples and not representative of their institutions.

Under this code, movies were to be sermons, Worse than that, they were to be deceitful sermons, presenting an untrue version of life for propagandist purposes. It was a document instigated by people who not only did not understand art but also hated and geared arts truth, power and freedom.

Fortunately, even a they signed it, the studio heads had not intention of following the code. From the beginning of film history, would-be reformers from both the left and right had repeatedly tried to censor and influence screen content and by 1930, Hollywood had learned that the best way to handle these people was to agree with them until they went away. So, the Studio Relations Committee, as set up, was given absolutely no power to control screen content, and their advice was almost totally ignored. Moreover, the man in charge of the SRC, Jason Joy, was no reformer. He liked sleazy movies and, upon leaving the SRC, Joy became studio editor for Fox, which produced a slew of lewd entries during his tenure. Though the code would eventually revive, its betrayal by the studios gradually became a rally point for reformers. in 1930, it was dead on arrival. And Hollywood went on making movies of increased daring and sophistication.

Today, as seen from a distance from well over seventy years, the pre-codes retain their freshness and fascination. Their appeal is multi-faceted. They have the capacity to take viewers by surprise, by the virtue of their honesty, but also, simply because they weren't made to a prescribed formula. They startle us with their modernity, Women in pre-codes for example, act recognizably like women - independent, shrewd and worldly - and not like the bubbleheads , girls next doors, martyrs and rueful sluts you often find in American film throughout the early sixties. Likewise, men didn't act like fools for authority, but as independent spirits. Most refreshingly, with pre-codes, you get the unmistakable sense of an era's speaking with its true voice without the countervailing of censorship. The pre-codes were inhibited by only one force: Public Mores. As a result, what we see in the pre-codes is an unfiltered expression of how people felt about life in their time.

The pre-code era was especially good for women. Though the 1940's is sometimes remembered as a golden age for actresses, it was in the early 30's that woman dominated the box office, and their films weren't considered "woman's films" at the time. Rather, they were the movies that the general public flocked to see. They dealt with the issues surrounding the emergence of the newly sexualized, self-sufficient New Woman, who'd emerged in the 1920's. They explored sex, marriage, divorce and the workplace. mainly in a spirit of discovering and re-evaluating morality in light of a new day. Men's vehicles were equally interesting. They depicted crime, the business world, politics, war, history and horror also from the viewpoint of examining morality and coming to terms with modern life. It's Ironic: Though the reformers considered pre-codes immoral, Hollywood, in fact, never made so many films, directly concerned with morality as in the pre-code era...The difference was that the reformers didn't want morals to be examined, debated, discussed, or discovered. They wanted them to be accepted blindly.

The pre-code era came to an end soon after the Catholics formed the "Legion of Decency" in April of 1934, an organization of clergy that threatened to keep Catholics away from the movies. Joseph Breen, one of the architects of the Code, who was now ensconced as head of the SRC, presented himself to the studio heads as the one man who could mediate between them and the Legion. The studios gave in to his demands. The PCA was founded under the agreement that no film could be released without a seal of approval from the PCA.

(Iwould like to thank Mick LaSalle for the majority of the previous very knowledgeable article)

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