Course Overview

What is the pre-Code era? Why is it worth studying?

For four years, between 1930 and 1934, a set of unduplicatable economic, technological, and social factors converged, and Hollywood studios desperately trying not to go bankrupt served up what dwindling, desperate audiences seemed to want: Fast-paced, down-and-dirty movies with plenty of sexy situations, scantily clad actresses, and violence. Not every film made during this period answers this description, but enough have survived the past 80 years, most of them locked in vaults and archives, to form an alternate history of Hollywood movies—one that contradicts the wholesome portrait of American life we’ve seen all our lives—and which also challenges our received notions of what life was like in the early years of both talking pictures and the Great Depression.

The pre-Code era has only recently been named and is a relatively new field for study. Thomas Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 is the most comprehensive history yet. It provides a cultural, historical, political, and economic context for this brief, fascinating period, and it is the primary text for this course. You don’t need to buy it but it’s available if you’re interested.

The Code referred to is the Motion Picture Production Code, a document produced by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), a consortium of studio executives who sought a way to satisfy the requirements of myriad local censorship boards, religious groups, women’s groups, and other private groups, all of whom had strong feelings about what it was acceptable to depict in movies. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 (Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio) that freedom of speech did not extend to motion pictures. This laid the studios open to endless litigation from parties who felt injured by the content of their movies. In addition boycotts were disruptive and hit them where they felt it: the box office.

Hollywood had done its part for the Jazz Age by, as Doherty says, “spinning out whole film cycles devoted to the sins of wild youth, dancing daughters, straying wives, and dark seducers.”

Joan Crawford dancing on the table in Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Coupled with a series of scandals in the Hollywood community that included murders, suicides, and drug addiction, the industry sought to repair its reputation in the heartland by creating the MPPDA and appointing Will Hays, who had been Postmaster General under Warren G. Harding and had also been chairman of the Republican National Committee, as its czar. It was Hays’s job to serve as the friendly, regular-guy face of the industry, and to be point man for the concerns of all those outraged citizens’ groups.

Editorial cartoon showing the film industry drowning and Will Hays jumping in to save it

The Code consisted of a statement outlining philosophical principles, followed by a list of specific injunctions, the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” which were to provide guidelines for filmmakers. The 1930 Code was not strictly enforced, and the result was the movies we will screen in this course. I will post a version of the Code (there are many, none completely authoritative) and it’s worth a look—not very long, and it gives us insight into the thinking of the people who wrote it, the people they hoped to placate, and the issues of their times.

It was a tumultuous time for most everyone, but Hollywood was reeling from its first -ever economic downturn (Hollywood had gone from nothing to a vast global industry in very few years and had weathered other economic downturns with virtually no damage—but this was different), as well as from extremely expensive investment to retrofit its studios and theaters for sound production and exhibition. And there was the dislocation of sound itself: We tend to think of silent movies as movies without sound, but in fact the silent film was a fully developed art form, and the introduction of sound wasn’t a question of just adding something to what already existed, it was a new medium. Early sound films are often clumsy, and not just because of the sound quality. The storytelling itself is crude, and audiences noticed and started staying home with their radios (another unwelcome change for Hollywood).

There are so many interesting films from this period and we have so little time, I thought it might be best to break it down by genre. So we’ll watch a political film, a fallen-woman film, a gangster movie, a musical, a horror movie, and a pre-Code romance.

Class notes will be posted here a few days before we meet, and you can access them with the password I provided before the first class. You can leave questions or comments after the notes, and I hope you will.


Suggested Reading:

Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934, by Thomas Doherty

We’re in the Money, by Andrew Bergman

Sin in Soft Focus, Mark Vieira

On censorship:

The Dame in the Kimono, by Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons

Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era, by Matthew Bernstein

Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen & The Production Code Administration, by Thomas Doherty

Movie Censorship and American Culture, ed. Francis G. Couvares

Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies, by Gregory D. Black


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