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Jean Harlow, 1934; photograph by George Hurrell from Vanity Fair: The Portraits: A Century of Iconic Images, with a foreword by Graydon Carter and published by Abrams

The term “pre-Code”—denoting the Hollywood films of the early talkie era, before full enforcement of the Production Code was imposed in 1934—has been enjoying the kind of currency previously attained by “film noir,” and for similar reasons: it’s at once a promise of buried pleasures and shorthand for an aesthetic aura that is complex enough to encompass both campy artifice and rough-edged immediacy. It isn’t of course news that to the early 1930s we owe the most enduring mythic figures of talking pictures: the gangsters incarnated by Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, the chorines of Busby Berkeley’s epic musical numbers, the iconic fright masks of Frankenstein and Dracula and The Mummy, and—before their comedy was normalized and bowdlerized—the Marx Brothers and Mae West. But these represent only the glittering surface of a legacy with many hidden layers. After 1934 many pre-Code movies were either put on the shelf or reissued in censored form; most weren’t shown on television; and for a long time they were frustratingly hard to find on video.

All that has begun to change, bringing a wholesale reassessment of movies once seen more as the curios of a transitional moment. The last few years have seen a flood of cable television screenings (usually on Turner Classic Movies), restorations, and reissues. A series of pre-Code retrospectives at New York’s Film Forum has helped to instill a wider taste for movies like Baby Face, Employees’ Entrance, and Night World—movies that still seem too raucously unsettled to submit to the term “classic.” In only the last few months, two notable box sets have been added to the mix: a Pre-Code Hollywood Collection offering six little-known Paramount films (including the fascinating early Cary Grant vehicle Hot Saturday, with its persuasively unsentimental fresco of small-town life) and a third installment of the pioneering Forbidden Hollywood series that makes available six essential works from the extremely rich pre-Code catalog of director William Wellman.

These Wellman films are the ideal starting point for a reconsideration of the period, whether one begins with a desperate, unemployed Loretta Young in Midnight Mary glancing up at neon signs that transform themselves into NO JOBS TODAY and NO HELP WANTED; or with Ruth Chatterton in Frisco Jenny playing host, as the doyenne of San Francisco’s brothel-keepers, to a conclave of superannuated courtesans; or with Frankie Darro and others in Wild Boys of the Road defending their hobo jungle against an onslaught of police in scenes that here and there look almost documentary; or with Richard Barthelmess in Heroes for Sale undergoing a sort of modern American Calvary as a war hero reduced to morphine addict, prisoner, and finally vagrant herded along a dark and rain-swept highway. It is not simply that these films evoke a lost world; they also reflect a singular moment in filmmaking. They start up out of the narcotic trance of late silent cinema into a world of noise and verbal aggression; yet they retain for the moment, through long habit, all the imagist power and associative poetic logic of the silents. They have a directness and intensity—a wide-awakeness—still capable of astonishing.

The slow reemergence of pre-Code cinema has for me been the unanticipated occasion to experience again a memorable first impact. When I was fifteen my aunt insisted on taking me to the movies—to Dan Talbot’s New Yorker theater on West 88th Street, which in the early 1960s served as an unofficial Cinémathèque Américaine, ceaselessly dredging in Hollywood’s buried archives—to see a double bill of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. My tastes at the time leaned more toward avant-garde theater and my preferred filmmaker was Eisenstein; my aunt wanted me to see her favorite movies from her own adolescent days. The experiment was a success. I went in with my mind on Eugène Ionesco and the Theater of the Absurd and came out with my mind on Joan Blondell and her crew of wisecracking out-of-work chorus girls.

In short order I discovered in the canon of early 1930s movies—those, that is, that could be seen in the 1960s—a universe of delights encompassing the classic gangster cycle (Scarface was only just becoming available again), the amour fou of the Dietrich–von Sternberg collaborations such as Shanghai Express (“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”), the peerless sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, and—in a class by herself—a vision of Jean Harlow on late-night television in Red Dust, fresh from her impromptu bath in a Malayan rain barrel. Had there been something in the water (or the bootleg hooch) in 1932 that gave such a peculiar magic to its films, a magic compounded equally of gum-chewing, corner-of-the-mouth verbal byplay, musical numbers of unparalleled geometric splendor, unbounded leaps into exotic fantasy (whether Saharan outpost or Viennese boudoir) counterbalanced by stark, dead-on glimpses of prison corridors and newspaper offices and city streets worthy of Walker Evans, and (not least) a mood of erotic impudence that afterward, it seemed, had so suddenly and mysteriously vanished?


If I had known more about the history of Hollywood—but it was a history then in large part still to be written—I would have understood that the vanishing was, if sudden, hardly mysterious. The sea change undergone by Hollywood filmmaking more or less on July 1, 1934 (the date when the amended “Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures,” promulgated by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, came into effect), marked the culmination of a political and cultural struggle that had simmered since the early 1920s. In fact the struggle went back much further; from the moment that movies revealed themselves as the most potent form of mass entertainment yet devised, it was inevitable that their content, and the question of who if anyone should oversee it, would spark conflict. A rash of scandals in the 1920s led to the creation of the “Hays Office,” intended to certify the purity of the industry’s product. But Will Hays proved a pliable commissar, and Hollywood continued to test the limits of the permissible while paying lip service to high-mindedness.

With the coming of sound—and, not long thereafter, with economic collapse and a resulting steep fall-off in movie attendance—producers ventured into yet more daring material. Stories “ripped from the headlines” became common, and the risqué humor of the burlesque show and the Broadway bedroom farce made its way more or less unimpeded to the screen. One rapidly mutating cycle gave way to another—gangster films, stories about prostitutes and unwed mothers, bawdy backstage musicals, prison exposés, gruesome horror pictures—whatever filled seats.

The crisis made the studios more open to gambling on movies that pushed the limits of violence or sexual suggestiveness or cynical irreverence, but also made them more vulnerable to outside pressures. The original Production Code, drafted by Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest, and Martin Quigley, a Catholic layman who edited the trade paper Motion Picture Herald, was formally accepted by the industry in 1930 in an effort to placate the opposition. When it became apparent that the Code was not being seriously enforced—Warner Brothers, for example, when not glorifying gangsters, was churning out product like Naughty Flirt, Misbehaving Ladies, and Hot Heiress—a more concerted movement took shape. Grandstanding politicians introduced bills calling for a federal censorship commission to control film content, and after Roosevelt’s election it became apparent that the new administration was not averse to some form of government regulation. Social researchers, in a best-seller called Our Movie Made Children (1933), blamed movies for youthful delinquency and sexual misconduct. Most significantly, the Roman Catholic Church put its full weight behind—in the words of a papal spokesman—“a united front and a vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema.”

The Catholic (later National) Legion of Decency, formed in 1933, encouraged thousands to take its pledge, which read in part:

I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which…are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land.

I shall do all that I can to arouse public opinion against the portrayal of vice as a normal condition of affairs.

By the time Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia called on parishioners to boycott all movies, with the result that attendance immediately fell off by 40 percent, the studios were ready to cave in. They agreed to the enforcement of the Code and the installation of Joseph Breen as its enforcer. He would keep the job until 1954, and unlike Will Hays he was no pushover.

The Breen Office became a highly effective organ for blocking impermissible ideas at their inception, long before the production stage. “Our procedure,” Breen declared, “is a sort of ‘Irish Bull’ procedure: where there is likely to be any difficulty, or trouble, we endeavor to stop it before it begins.”1 For Hollywood, the Code finally gave as much as it took. It deprived filmmakers of certain profitable avenues of exploitation, but it obviated local censorship hassles and, by promoting a one-size-fits-all regularized product acceptable for audiences everywhere, made the whole filmmaking process, especially at the writing stage, more streamlined and systematic. By chance or not, profits boomed after the Code came into effect, with much help from the immensely popular and definitively inoffensive Shirley Temple.

It is a fascinating piece of work, this Code, more blatant both in its specific prohibitions and in its articulation of their rationale than any government document would likely have been. It shows clearly that Lord, Quigley, Breen, and the rest never intended merely to black out the occasional glimpse of nudity or burst of tommy gun fire or inappropriate swear word. From the heart of its opening paragraph—


Mankind has always recognized the importance of entertainment and its value in rebuilding the bodies and souls of human beings

—the Code outlined fundamental principles on which all films were to rest. It was a vision not merely of art but of life, based on the premise that “wrong entertainment lowers the whole living condition and moral ideals of a race,” a premise underscored by references to gladiatorial combat and “the obscene plays of Roman times.” (This might seem consonant with Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 success The Sign of the Cross, except that Martin Quigley pointedly denounced the film for its “odors of Lesbos and de Sade.”) It called for films in which “evil and good are never confused and…evil is always recognized clearly as evil,” films that would never “leave the question of right or wrong in doubt or fogged.” Right was seen as inherent in the American social order: “The courts of the land,” according to one stricture, “should not be presented as unjust.”

Although addenda to the Code spelled out a wide range of things not to be allowed on screen—whether depicting methods of safecracking or poking fun at ministers of religion or even hinting at the existence of the illegal drug traffic—the overwhelming concern was with sexual conduct. The overheated tone of the Code’s language—its harping on “intimate parts of the human body [which] should not be covered with transparent or translucent material,” on the indecency of “dances of the type known as ‘Kooch’ or ‘Can-Can,'” its rigorous distinction between “pure love ” (“permitted by the law of God and man”) and “impure love ” (“which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law”)—would be amusing were it not for how completely the implications of this document were allowed to dominate American filmmaking, and by extension American culture, for decades to come.


Paramount Pictures/Photofest

Adolphe Menjou and Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930), with a farewell note scrawled on Dietrich’s mirror by her lover, played by Gary Cooper

Pre-Code movies offered—not by concerted choice but more or less randomly, in response to the audience’s perceived desires—a distorted, partial, often absurd and contradictory depiction of a world that nevertheless actually existed, even when it was made up to look like Paris or Havana or the Gobi Desert. The most extreme melodramas—perhaps especially those so extreme that they now seem like a species of grotesque comedy—were imbued with harsh emotional knowledge. This was a cinematic world in which, not infrequently, men flouted morality and yet prospered; in which American cities and small towns and factories were sites not of harmonious cooperation but of endemic factional struggles and maneuverings for advantage; in which the institution of marriage was frequently inadequate to satisfying the needs of husbands and wives alike (and in equal measure).

Adultery was rife; prostitution flourished. The problems of poverty and exploitation were deep-rooted and not always capable of easy solution. Seemingly decent people could be corrupted or embittered with disturbing casualness; there was never any telling how things might turn out. After the Code, by contrast, Hollywood movies elaborated something like a parallel world purged of a great many common human situations and motives, a world of such foreordained moral clarity that few endings could surprise.

To make that post-Code world believable required the lavishing of increasingly sophisticated techniques of persuasion, and Hollywood filmmaking marshaled ever more subtly enchanting visual and aural effects to hold the spectator spellbound. In consequence the earlier, pre-Code movies can seem antiquated or at least disturbingly irregular to spectators who have internalized the more smoothed-out norms of a later era. Acting styles may at times seem wildly histrionic or woodenly inexpressive—but they can also, as with an actress like Ann Harding (The Animal Kingdom, When Ladies Meet), seem startlingly effective in their underplaying.

The frequent absence of musical underscoring forces dialogue to stand nakedly exposed—without the lush orchestral support that Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and the rest lent to so many otherwise banal stretches of movie conversation—and gives a “real time” quality to the pacing of scenes. In fact the longer you look at pre-Code movies the more you become aware of the expertise with which, in later films, spectator response is massaged, microsecond by microsecond. In some early 1930s movies one comes to appreciate certain moments of relaxation, and the resulting sense of breathing room—even in movies that are otherwise models of tense, ferociously clipped storytelling.

Pre-Code movies can be distinguished as much by matters of form as by matters of content. What is it that seems different about them? For one thing they tend to be relatively short; many features are no more than sixty-eight to seventy-seven minutes long. Into that span they cram enough material for a much longer film, material that may lurch without warning from ribald farce to heart-clutching melodrama, from scenes of brutal domestic violence to frivolous panoramas of sophisticated society. To anyone brought up on the later products of Hollywood’s so-called golden age, they can seem almost freakishly unpredictable—“oddly cadenced” or “off balance” or “structurally flawed”—as if their makers had simply not yet learned the proper way to tell a story or develop a character.

Most glaringly, elements arise that would not be seen again for decades in American movies: the abundant instances of near nudity (or, in Tarzan and His Mate, total nudity); the exaggeratedly gay characters who turn up, generally as a form of comic relief, in Night World and Call Her Savage and many other films; the interracial love story of, for example, Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen ; the sexually independent women embodied in different registers by Norma Shearer (The Divorcee), Ruth Chatterton (Female), Jean Harlow (Red-Headed Woman), and Barbara Stanwyck (Baby Face); the sympathetically portrayed “good bad girls” enduring various degrees of prostitution and concubinage in an almost endless stream of early 1930s films (Waterloo Bridge, Possessed, Frisco Jenny, Back Street, Mandalay).

In film after film, rapacious capitalists (often played by Warren William, one of the few male stars who ever actually looked like an American man of power and influence) revel in free-market scheming and sexual exploitation; workers (Heroes for Sale) and unemployed youths (Wild Boys of the Road) and indignant high school students (This Day and Age) exact violent justice from their oppressors; innocent victims are condemned to reform schools and chain gangs; and racketeers, con men, and cynical reporters (especially if played by Lee Tracy) function as a wisecracking chorus making light of every form of homespun virtue and naive idealism.

The early talkies revel in a certain baldness of exposition. At times there is an impression of Brecht’s Alienation Effect arrived at by accident, as in those moments when characters declaim defiant protests or personal credos as if directly addressing the audience. Pre-Code characters—the women especially—had freer scope in venting their rages and desires. Joan Blondell in Blondie Johnson: “I found out that the only thing worthwhile is dough. And I’m gonna get it, see?” Claudette Colbert in Torch Singer: “Don’t ever let any man make a sucker out of you!” Norma Shearer in Strangers May Kiss: “You think women should all be shoved into a coop like hens!”

The shock of the speaking voice—rude, abrasive, fast as a machine gun—cuts through all the luxuriant poetry cultivated by the silent screen in its final years, even as the poetry lingers on in the form of Art Deco interiors, glistening silken fashions, and camera movements that delight in prolonging their restless explorations. There is often a jarring juxtaposition of visual delicacy and verbal brutality. The characters have to talk loud enough to drown out the noises suddenly audible: the sounds of cars honking, guns firing, planes taking off, and dance bands jamming at full throttle to the tune of “Hot Voodoo” or “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

Every other night seems to be New Year’s Eve, and every monosyllabic outburst calls for an instant rejoinder. It was an age of back talk. “Get me?” asks gang overlord Wallace Beery in The Secret Six. “Sure I get you,” Jean Harlow replies, “you’re no crossword puzzle.” “The truth?” repeats Norma Shearer to a well-meaning friend in The Divorcee. “The last thing a man wants to hear from any woman.” And when Harlow in Red-Headed Woman flaunts her new social status by talking about the “charming house” she and her husband have bought, her old pal Una Merkel quickly brings her back to earth: “‘Charming’? Say, you’re getting to talk like a pansy.” “Oh, all right,” says Harlow, “swell.”

All of a sudden movies needed words, lots of them, and they got them wherever they could find them: on the street, on the radio, in comic strips, in pulp detective stories and romance novels, in plays sophisticated or socially conscious in their bent, in the lyrics of jazz songs (like the odes to marijuana that crop up in International House and Murder at the Vanities), in generations of vaudeville bits finally brought to the screen, in the telegraphic argot of Walter Winchell (expertly mimed by Lee Tracy in Blessed Event) and the newly frank sexual advice of lonely hearts columnists. Taken all in all the pre-Code movies constitute an overflowing repository of American speech and vernacular American writing—a sort of literary treasure, actually, largely unnoticed because scarcely transcribed—captured on the run, flung about at will, handled at times with musical fluency.

With the emergence of James Cagney—he pops up, unforgettably, striding across the top of a moving train in Wellman’s Other Men’s Women—you can feel how utterly the talkies transformed what it meant to see a movie. The impact of Cagney’s physical grace can hardly be separated from the way the tones and rhythms of his voice register split-second mood changes from comical bragging to lilting, fast-talking seduction to manic, murderous rage: it is all one effect, at once fantastically exaggerated and as real as, say, a grapefruit in the face. Soaking in a lavender-perfumed bathtub (in Picture Snatcher) and shouting “Am I gonna stink pretty!,” Cagney embodies ecstatic defiance and pure enjoyment of his own energies. Within a few years the word “stink” would be out of favor, along with much of the slang phra-seology and double-entendre humor and simple vulgarisms that fill the soundtracks of the early 1930s.

Language may have had as much to do with the imposition of the Code as the glorification of vice and the sheer silk negligees of Jean Harlow and Norma Shearer. It was language that emanated from urban centers—the language overheard by the people who wrote the movies—and some of it was too fast and too modern for audiences in middle America. “We need more effortless entertainment,” complained a theater owner in Kansas City, “and less of the type that makes intellec- tual demand on our patrons…. Words are too smart.”2 The high-speed repartee of movies like Blessed Event, Five Star Final, and Twentieth Century—language-drunk movies whose characters live to talk—may have left many in their original audiences behind.

It is an amusing game to define these movies by how they offend the Production Code: to stay on the alert for words and deeds and images that would have fallen under the sanctions of 1934. But that is to treat them as an anomaly, in the manner of the promotional copy for the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection that invokes “the era before rules” and “the most decadent era in motion picture history.” The era was of course neither conspicuously decadent (although it was conspicuously desperate) nor devoid of rules (the pre-Code movies provide eloquent testimony, both explicit and tacit, about just how many rules there were). What was anomalous was what followed: a rigidly enforced control of moral implications whose deforming effect lingered long after the Code’s demise. The regularizing of morals turned out to be inseparable from the regularizing of aesthetics. In its tidying up of loose ends, the Code encouraged a cookie-cutter approach to structure and character that is with us yet, to which the anarchic unpredictability of the early 1930s offers a bracing corrective.

Incontestably, the years when the Code ruled were also years of great filmmaking, the heyday of Hitchcock and Ford and Hawks, of the beloved musicals and adventure movies and screwball comedies of the “golden age.” But they were also years when a certain anodine predictability seeped deep into filmmaking, often masquerading under rubrics like “story logic.” Immersion in the movies of the pre-Code years, with their ragtag, catch-as-catch-can openness to random appropriation, suggests all sorts of “what if” questions about movies and about America. What if, for instance, American movies had continued to develop with the same license? Perhaps the country and the culture that pre-Code movies show us would not then seem so disarmingly unfamiliar. As it is, we turn back to the early 1930s to catch a last glimpse of a place that seems exotic even in its drabness: a harsher place, a ruder place, perhaps, but cherishing certain liberties that it took as a matter of course, and beginning to stretch its imagination in ways that were about to be abruptly curtailed. It is a place worth spending time in, in the way that film so peculiarly allows.

There is a great deal more still to be explored. As welcome as these new DVDs are, it would take scores more of similar releases to begin to provide a full sense of a brief but very crowded era. Where is the DVD of Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle, a moody Depression romance that can stand comparison with Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante or any other cinematic monument of European poetic realism? Where is Raoul Walsh’s free-form comedy Me and My Gal with (among other joys) its rollicking parody of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude ? Where are Rowland Brown’s devastating gangster pieces Quick Millions and Blood Money ? And where is William Wellman’s Safe in Hell, an incomparably speedy account—the very model of deadpan early 1930s outrageousness—of how a prostitute on the run discovers the tragic sense of a life in a tropical hellhole occasionally enlivened by musical numbers? These are at least known quantities. It is tantalizing to consider how many more such discoveries may still await among the horde of unseen pre-Code features.

This Issue

July 2, 2009