Watching a movie made in the forties or fifties, one gets the idea that certain themes were taboo. That’s because they were. But this was not always the case. Many of the movies made in the twenties and even the early thirties were actually somewhat risqué. These movies dealt with such controversial subject matter as adultery, homosexuality, drug addiction, abortion, incest, and miscegenation (or what was at that time referred to as “the mixing of the races”).
What then caused the sudden shift to more “morally correct” films? Numerous Hollywood headlines in the twenties, the “Fatty Arbuckle” scandal amongst others, along with the strong influence of the Catholic Church, resulted in a general feeling that the film industry needed some sort of accountability. This was to come in the form of Will Hays, a man who had served as Postmaster General under President William Harding (ironically, Harding’s presidency epitomized scandal, but that’s another story). At any rate, this is how the Motion Picture Production Code came to be.
What sort of “moral guidelines” did the MPPC put forth? Aside from the avoidance of the above mentioned subjects, there were now “rules” to be abided that didn’t exist prior to the code: criminals had to be punished for their crimes, authority figures had to be respected (particularly clergymen), brutal killings could not be shown in detail, there was to be no nudity and no sex outside of marriage, (if there was, the participants couldn’t enjoy it, in fact, they had to suffer as a result of it) and so on.
Directors and producers paid little attention to the code and looked for ways to get around it but that soon changed. In 1934 an amendment to the code was adopted which created the Production Code Administration, requiring all films to get a “certificate of approval” before they could be released (any theater that didn’t adhere to this would be fined $25,000). Joseph Breen, who appears to have been one tough cookie, resided over the PCA with a rigid hand. Under his leadership, scripts that were deemed to be “questionable” in their moral views were changed. (For instance, if a woman, lying in bed, were to be kissed the man kissing her would have to have had one foot on the floor).
Needless to say, the Breen office was not a favorite with directors, writers, and movie moguls and the final cut of films like Animal Crackers only made it to the screen in their much censored versions. (Groucho was notorious for having slipped many a double entendre under the noses of the PCA but in the fifties, when he had his own TV show, he was once again rebuked by censors. He’d asked a contestant why she had so many children and when she smiled shyly and said she loved her husband a lot, Groucho quickly replied, “I love a good cigar but I occasionally remove it from my mouth”).
Back to the code. As mentioned, the code was strictly enforced, whether it pertained to the adaptation of a classic book such as King’s Row (a good deal of sex, incest, and sadism in that one) or even to a cartoon (Betty Boop changed her attire from that of a flapper, to one that was deemed to have been more “sedate”). Years of symbolic sexual implications passed by (trains entering tunnels, fireworks exploding, the tide rushing in, etc.) before adherence to the code began to weaken.
By the late forties, some subject matter began to become acceptable in films, prostitution for example. By the fifties, the film industry was feeling the competition from television. In addition to this, unregulated foreign films, with their more sophisticated themes, began making their way into the country and moviegoers’ demands changed. It was director Otto Preminger who is credited with first thumbing his nose at the PCA by using the word “virgin” in his film, The Moon is Blue. Directors such as Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot) soon followed suit.
Though the code ended in 1968 (the movie industry replaced it with “age-based” ratings), it had a far reaching influence even in television. (For example, take the twin beds poor Laura and Rob Petrie were forced to sleep in). And those Doris Day sex comedies of the sixties! It always amazed me while watching A Touch of Mink, to see Doris Day, a virgin in her late twenties or early thirties, turning down an opportunity of traveling the world with her love interest, wealthy business tycoon, Cary Grant, for the sake of her virtue.
Pre-code films are truly quite remarkable and make one wonder how much greater might some of the movies have been that were made when the censorship code was strictly enforced. On the other hand, an argument could be made that having these restrictions may have resulted in more creativity and ingenuity on the part of filmmakers.
Below, I’ve listed a dozen of, what I consider to be, the best “pre-code” movies. They often turn up on TCM or they can be ordered as part of TCM’s “Forbidden Hollywood” trilogy.
1. EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE (1933) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023986/ Starring William Warren (a pre-code favorite) and Loretta Young. Loretta plays the wife of a department store employee who is harassed by the lascivious store manager, Warren.
2. BABY FACE (1933) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023775/ Stars Barbara Stanwyk as a girl from “the wrong side of the tracks” who uses her body and sexual know-how to climb the corporate ladder. (And climb she does). Incidentally, strong female characters were a cornerstone of pre-code films.
3. FREAKS (1932) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022913/ I was first introduced to this bizarre depiction of a group of circus sideshow “freaks” by my brother when I was young and I found it terribly disturbing. (Particularly the man who was little more than “a head”, lighting his own cigarette.) With the advances in medical science, Americans are rarely exposed any more to the deformities depicted here. A good, if somewhat predictable, story with amazing characters.
4. THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0024617/ This is a movie I’ve never had the opportunity to see, much as I’ve wanted to. Based on the novel SANCTUARY By William Faulkner, the film is apparently steeped in “Southern Gothic”. Starring Miriam Hopkins, it is recognized as much for its extraordinary cinematography as for its depiction of a flirtatious Southern belle who “gets what’s coming to her” when she falls in with a bad, bad gang.
5. THREE ON A MATCH (1932) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023590/ The story tells the tale of three school chums who reunite to find that their lives have taken very different paths. The seemingly most successful of the three (her name is Vivian, by the way) ends up throwing it all away in exchange for a life of debauchery and alcoholism.
What surprised me most when watching this movie was what a relatively minor role Bette Davis played. Like her co-star William Warren, Joan Blondell was another pre-code favorite.
6. WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0024772/ This film is a dismal depiction of the Depression. In order not to be a burden to their struggling, out of work parents, two teenagers, Ed and Tom, head for the road in search of work. They hop freights and camp out in God awful places with their newly acquired friend, Sally. When Sally suggests they visit her “well to do big city aunt”, they’re delighted (until they meet “auntie” and discover she makes her money by turning tricks).
7. NIGHT NURSE (1931) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022208/ I enjoyed this one immensely. My kind of movie: psychological suspense. When a nurse trainee (Barbara Stanwyk) is hired to care for two small sick children, she suspects that something (or rather someone) sinister is behind their illnesses. She employs the aid of a petty criminal (Clark Gable) to get to the bottom of things.
8. LILLY TURNER (1933) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0024258/ Like many pre-code movies, this one was directed by William Wellman. It tells the story of a carnival magician who deserts his wife when he finds out she's pregnant. She marries the carnival's barker, but soon finds herself attracted to a young engineer. When Warner Bros. tried re-releasing this in 1936, they couldn’t get a PCA “seal of approval”.
9. RED HEADED WOMAN (1932)http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023385/plotsummary Another “woman sleeping her way to the top” story, this one starring a sultry Jean Harlow whose ultimate goal is to sleep her way into high society.
10. TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023622/ This comedy starred Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, and Herbert Marshall. Since it takes a lighthearted look at pickpockets, and thievery in general, it would never have received PCA approval.
11. POSSESSED (1931) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022276/ Factory worker, Joan Crawford, enamored of the lifestyle and the man, acquiesces to becoming the mistress of influential lawyer, Clark Gable. Great chemistry between the two, who were paired in many, many movies.
12. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022835/ Having seen both this version, starring Fredric March, and the later one starring Spencer Tracy, I’d have to say that this was the better of the two. March’s incredible transformation from kindly Dr. Jekyll to maniacal Mr. Hyde was nothing less than brilliant. In fact, he earned his first Academy Award for his performance.
If you can rent or purchase any of these movies, I’d encourage you to do so.
Have a wonderful weekend and thank you for joining me this week on,
RHODES LESS TRAVELED,