The "pre-Code era" refers to a roughly five-year period in film history, beginning with the widespread adoption of sound in 1929 and ending on July 1, 1934, with the inauguration of the Production Code Administration and a policy of rigid censorship. Before July 1, 1934, restrictions on movie content varied widely, depending on local laws, mores and public taste. As a result, "pre-Code films" tend to be racier, sexier, more adult, more cynical, more socially critical, more honest and more politically strident than the films produced by Hollywood on up through the early 1960s.
Indeed, 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 within five minutes, whether a 1934 film was released early or late in the year. Contrary to what was sometimes assumed by historians, the pre-Code era didn't fade. It was ended in full bloom and with the finality of an axe coming down.
The term "pre-Code," though a convenient shorthand, is in a sense a misnomer: For the entire pre-Code era, a Production Code did, in fact, exist. It was just blithely ignored. The story begins in 1929, when a group of lay Catholics and Catholic clergy in Chicago, seeing the 1920s 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 the studios would adopt. In February of 1930, these Catholics met with the production heads of the 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 already in place, the Studio Relations Committee, was installed in an advisory capacity to apply the strictures of the Code to various movies and to advise the studios as to what cuts might be needed.
t'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 way that might "arouse passion," and could not be made to seem "right and permissible." Dances were allowed, so 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 vision of life for propagandistic purposes. It was a document instigated by people who not only did not understand art but also hated and feared art's truth, power and freedom.
Fortunately, even as they signed it, the studio heads had no intention of abiding by 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. Thus, the Studio Relations Committee, as set up, was given absolutely no power to control screen content, and their advice was almost invariably 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 story editor for Fox, which produced a slew of lewd entries during his tenure. Though eventually the Code would revive - its betrayal by the studios gradually became a rallying 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 of well over 70 years, the pre-Codes retain their freshness and fascination. Their appeal is multi-faceted. They have the capacity to take viewers by surprise, by virtue of their honesty but also simply because they weren't made according 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 door, martyrs and rueful sluts you often find in American film through the early 1960s. Likewise, men don'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 influence 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.
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