While it might seem as though film has become more and more risqué over the years, you might be surprised to learn about an early era of film whose subject matter was so bold that it brought about the enforcement of industry-wide moral guidelines.
The era — which ran from 1929 until 1934 — is known as pre-Code Hollywood, and it came about after the introduction of sound pictures, though to understand pre-code films, we have to dip a little further back to 1922 when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was established.
MPAA and the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" list
After a series of scandals, the MPAA was established in 1922 in order to ensure that American films had a "clean moral tone," and also to make sure the productions could continue to garner Wall Street investment. There was little regulation on film at the time, but then in 1927 (after the advent of "talkies"), thanks to public outcry at the apparent lack of morals in film, the president of the association, Will H. Hays, created a code called the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls." The code contained 11 subjects to be avoided at all cost, and a further 26 to be handled with care. But despite the creation of the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," they were not enforced, and studios continued to be subject to only light censorship.
The Code creation
In 1930 the Motion Picture Production Code was drafted with heavy influence from the Catholic church. The Code consisted of a set of principles whose aim were to prevent a film from "lowering the moral standards of those who see it," as well a list of items of subject matters which were not to be included in film. But despite best efforts, the code was still largely ignored by studios, and following the Great Depression, film studios had to make a profit by any way possible, meaning racy subject matter in film became the norm.
The rise and fall of pre-Code films
So with little restriction and the upper hand in negotiating censorship, film went through a five year period of creative freedom. Finally able to use sound in film meant that many genres such as gangster, sex and comedy films had new life breathed into them, and others, such as musicals, finally got their time in the spotlight. However, after studios continually pushed the envelop further and further, Joseph Breen took control of the Production Code Office, and from July 1, 1934 it became rule that all films needed the Motion Picture Production Code Seal of Approval before it would be released.
The end of the Code
With the Code enforced, studios were now bound to produce content deemed appropriate by the MPAA. As a result the enforcement there was a total turnaround in the industry, and stars such as the adorable Shirley Temple captured hearts of American audiences. Enforcement of the Code gradually weakened in the 50s with the arrival of television and foreign films, when the American film industry suddenly had competition and needed to stay relevant. Finally, in 1968, the Code was abandoned altogether, and the film rating system — a system still used today —was brought in.
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Despite the pre-Code era ending over 70 years ago, the films produced during this time are still extremely interesting to read about. Take a look at five of the most bizarre pre-code Hollywood movies that help paint a clearer picture of this short-lived era in film:
1. Freaks - 1932
The film which caused such outrage that it effectively brought director Tod Browning's career to an early close, Freaks is probably the most famous pre-code Hollywood movie.
Freaks told the story of a beautiful circus trapeze artist named Cleopatra, who marries the leader of the side-show performers, a little person named Hans. But, it's soon revealed that Cleopatra only married Hans for his inheritance and is plotting to murder him — with the help of her lover, Hercules — in order to get her hands on the money.
However, the film — which used actors with actual deformities and disabilities — was so controversial even for pre-code Hollywood that the studio cut it from 90 minutes to just 64 minutes, and the lost footage no longer exists.
2. Baby Face - 1933
Perhaps the origin of the phrase "sleeping your way to the top," Baby Face has to be one of the most sexually explicit pre-code film.
The movie followed Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) as she used her sexual prowess to better her dreary life following the death of her alcoholic father. After moving to New York, Lily seduces a man to score a job at a bank, and then continues to climb the corporate ladder, sleeping with whomever necessary in order to make her way to top - destroying relationships and lives along the way.
Baby Face was shocking when it premiered, but as it turns out the film had initially been a whole lot more scandalous! Warner Bros actually made a lot of cuts and revisions to the film in order to please the New York State Censorship Board. But even with the cuts, Mark A. Vieira, an expert on pre-code Hollywood, believes that "Baby Face was certainly one of the top 10 films that caused the Production Code to be enforced."
3. Convention City - 1933
Along with Baby Face, sex comedy Convention City is a film that is often touted as one of the main reasons that the Production Code was enforced, just months after its release.
Convention City followed employees of the Honeywell Rubber Company, who are in Atlantic City for an annual convention. However the employees are more interested in drinking and conducting elicit affairs. When the owner of the company, J.B. Honeywell, is to choose a new company salesman, two men compete to win the position, but both disgrace themselves, and eventually a different drunken employee is given the job after he catches J.B Honeywell in a compromising situation.
Convention City was so full of racy material, that following the introduction of the Production Code, it was actually banned from cinema and the prints were destroyed by the head of Warner Bros studios! Along with the material that was cut from Freaks, Convention City is now considered lost, with no known copies in existence. Nonetheless there's no denying this film made its mark on cinema history.
4. Night Nurse - 1931
Another Barbara Stanwyck film, Night Nurse is a pre-code Hollywood movie which was not only salacious, but also jarring - even by today's standards.
In the film, nurse Lora Hart (Stanwyck) is hired to privately care for two sisters, Desney and Nanny Ritchie. After moving into the Ritchie mansion, she realizes that the children are being slowly starved to death by the family's cruel chauffeur Nick, whom the girls' alcoholic mother is infatuated with. Lora eventually learns Nick's scheme is to starve the girls to death, in order for the girls' trust fund to pass to their mother, who Nick will then marry. Enlisting the help of a petty criminal she met earlier in her nurses training, Lora fights to save the girls and thwart Nick.
While the film might not have been as risqué as others of the pre-code era, it did have quite the shocking storyline, involving violence against women and horrific child neglect - something which would undoubtedly still shock viewers today.
5. The Story of Temple Drake - 1933
The Story of Temple Drake follows wealthy Southern Belle, Temple Drake, as her life is turned upside down after she's forced into the hideout of a savage bootlegger, witnesses murder and is raped and forced into prostitution. Eventually after she kills her captor, and eventually confesses on the stand to everything she's done and witnessed, disgracing herself, but winning the heart of her former suitor as she aids justice.
With such a plethora of immoral activities going on it the film, it's no surprise that The Story of Temple Drake was a major factor in the Hays Code being enforced. The film implies some pretty horrible things, including that Temple got what was coming to her (rape and prostitution), due to the fact that she had a reputation as a tease. Not to mention how it uses her courtroom confession — where she reveals all her actions, ruining her reputation — as a type of penance.