By Mick LaSalle
Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus
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.
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 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.
The beauty of that - of an era speaking for itself - is beauty enough. We don't need to agree with the sentiments expressed by these films. To expect them to be "modern" is to subject them to an inappropriate and ever-shifting standard. Yet, even acknowledging that, the pre-Codes have a way of making the leap across the decades, and part of their undeniable thrill is in recognizing in them one's own emotional experience. When we connect with, for example, the exuberance of a passion turning to love in Queen Christina, or the wife's anger in The Divorcee, or the existential doubts expressed in Frankenstein, or the youthful passion and political rage of The Gold Diggers of 1933, we're having a communion across time. It's an experience akin to the feeling we might get when reading a 500-year-old poem that says everything we're feeling - only it's more immediate, because with movies we're actually seeing the people, walking and talking.
The pre-Code era was especially good for women. Though the 1940s is sometimes remembered as a golden age for actresses, it was in the early 30s that women 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 1920s. They explored sex, marriage, divorce, and the work place, 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.
Though the films of the pre-Code era are at least as varied as those of other eras, they tend to share some philosophical similarities. They celebrate independence and initiative, whether the protagonist is honest or crooked. They prefer the individual to the collective and are deeply cynical about all organized power, such as the government, the police, the church, big business and the legal system. Anything that gets in the way of freedom, including sexual freedom, they tend to be against. In the same way, anybody who tells somebody what to do is usually the villain. The horror of World War I and disgust with Prohibition are always fresh in mind. Later in the era, the Great Depression would only reinforce the notion that people in power are either stupid or malevolent, that pleasures are for the taking and that the world is a rigged game, so that anything you can do to beat it is justified. In terms of politics, an FDR-like liberalism is pervasive. The pre-Code movies celebrate individualism and individual freedom but see nothing inconsistent with expecting the government to look out for the little guy.
It used to be that pre-Code movies weren't available on DVD and scarcely available on VHS, but that's changing for the better. To start, there are several ways to see the early stirrings of the pre-Code sensibility. For glimpse of proto-pre-Code pessimism, see Lon Chaney in The Unknown. The glorification and the idealization of the loose woman, a consistent feature of pre-Code, can be vividly found in Garbo's A Woman of Affairs and The Mysterious Lady and in Von Sternberg's 1928 The Docks of New York, in which Betty Compson gets the full Sternberg treatment two years before Dietrich did.
Movies about prostitutes were a familiar feature of the first years of the pre-Code era. They were Hollywood's way of dealing with the real changes in sexual behavior happening with American women, under cover of presenting tales of exoticism. Among these are the English and German language versions of Anna Christie both starring Garbo (the German language version is better); Blonde Venus, with Dietrich, and Red Dust, starring a delightful Jean Harlow. Two of the best pre-Code prostitute movies are set for DVD release some time in the next year: a restored Baby Face, in which Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top; and James Whale's poignant Waterloo Bridge from 1931, with Mae Clarke giving the performance of a lifetime. (The Whale film will be included as a special feature in a re-release of the 1940 remake starring Vivien Leigh.)
Most actresses in the early pre-Code played prostitutes. Norma Shearer in the epoch-making The Divorcee established a different pattern. She played a normal wife who, upon discovering her husband has been unfaithful, sets out on a voyage of sexual discovery. With nothing floozy-like about her, Shearer established the bedroom as safe territory for normal women, thus paving the way for Claudette Colbert in Smiling Lieutenant (only on laser disc!), Loretta Young in Employee's Entrance, Bette Davis in Ex-Lady, Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living and others.
James Cagney in The Public Enemy
The gangster was the pre-Code's male equivalent of the prostitute, an exotic figure the movies used to explore a new, amoral social mindset. James Cagney in The Public Enemy, Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar and Clark Gable in A Free Soul were thinly veiled heroes, and after breaking through with these films, they carried their personas virtually intact into other films, in which they embodied a new kind of heroism: Street smart, innovative, shady and self-interested. It was the era of the shameless self-promoter, such as Lee Tracy in Blessed Event and Cagney in Blonde Crazy.
Even horror films fit the pattern of moral questioning and examination. The pre-Code era was not an era of monsters (as in the 1950s) but of existential horror, as embodied by Dracula, Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the 1931 version). These films question the nature of existence, just as the era's social protest films, such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Heroes for Sale and Gabriel Over the White House questioned and criticized the social and political organization of society.
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 Production Code Administration was founded, under the agreement that no film could be released without a seal of approval from the PCA.
In retrospect, it's probably fortunate that Hollywood's brief era of freedom came when it did. As it happened, the pre-Code era coincided with a particularly interesting period in American history. It saw the emergence of women, the prevalence of gangsterism, the collapse of the economy, the end of Prohibition, and the coming of a political realignment that would last 47 years. Had Hollywood been allowed the same freedom between say, 1949 and 1954, would it have resulted in an equally rich cinematic legacy? It's impossible to say. In any case, the brilliance and vitality of the pre-Code era - and its virtual elimination from historical consideration until Bruce Goldstein's pre-Code festivals at Film Forum in the 1980s and Turner Classic Movies' debut in 1994 - is a warning about the damage a small, organized bands of reactionaries can do.
For those new to pre-Code, here is a list of some particular favorites, listed in chronological order:
The Divorcee: A milestone of the area, and one of the best films about marriage Hollywood ever produced. (Only on VHS for now.)
Waterloo Bridge: Poignant James Whale film that, unlike the remake, depicts prostitution in gritty terms. This is Mae Clarke's true legacy - not getting hit with a grapefruit in The Public Enemy.
Blonde Crazy: Cagney at his most youthful and rambunctious; Joan Blondell at her most beautiful.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Memorable performances from Fredric March in the title role and by Miriam Hopkins as Ivy the cockney barmaid.
Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face
Grand Hotel: Pre-Code elements are present throughout this classic best-picture winner, featuring an all-star cast.
Red-Headed Woman: Thoroughly outrageous film, with Jean Harlow as an almost demented gold digger who is willing to do anything and destroy anybody to get money.
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang: A masterful protest film, starring Paul Muni and directed by Mervyn LeRoy.
Gabriel Over the White House: A scorching view of Depression-era America and an exploration of the advantages of a benevolent dictator.
The Gold Diggers of 1933: An absolute gem, directed by Mervin LeRoy, with choreography by Busby Berkeley. The film combines ribald sex comedy with impassioned social commentary about the costs of the Depression and of governmental indifference. This second element starts slow but comes into full bloom during the unforgettable climax.
Baby Face: The uncut original version, rediscovered in 2005, is not only more risqué, it's also a much better movie than the released version. Barbara Stanwyck is at her hard-boiled best.
Queen Christina: Garbo's best movie, and one of the most sophisticated and humane explorations of sex and gender that Hollywood has ever produced.
The Scarlet Empress: The very last pre-Code. Released in America through a technicality a few months after the imposition of the Code, this Von Sternberg-Dietrich effort features nudity, perversity and licentiousness, in a thoroughly baroque atmosphere.
Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, is the author of two books on the Pre-Code era, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood and Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man. He was also the Associate Producer and a co-author of TCM's Complicated Women.
As one of the latest and greatest features of the Chronicle's site, you can listen to the regular podcast, Movies With Mick LaSalle.