The term “pre-Code” has come to describe films made between March 1930, when the Production Code was adopted, and July 1934, when it was amended and enforced. Film Forum’s current eye-popping series is a 42-movie survey devoted to this raunchiest and most shockingly frank period in the history of classic Hollywood.
The original Code—drafted by a Jesuit, Father Daniel Lord—had been largely ignored until 1934, when, due to protests organized by Roman Catholic bishops—apparently with a mandate from the Vatican—a “Legion of Decency” was established, calling for a boycott of films considered indecent. The bishop of Cleveland exhorted his flock to “purify Hollywood or destroy it.”
The new Production Code Administration was headed by Catholic power broker Joseph Breen. Breen slammed Will Hays, whose office had created the original Code, for believing that “these lousy Jews will abide by the Code’s provisions.” With Breen at the helm and a Code with teeth in it, Hollywood did abide for decades. In essence, a Catholic constituency was dictating to Jewish moguls the content of movies to be made in a predominantly Protestant country.
The Code had a profound homogenizing effect on the Hollywood of the later big-studio era. But Breen not only bowdlerized the present, he butchered the past. If the studios wanted to rerelease a film, he obliged them to cut scenes he found offensive from the master camera negatives—the cut sequences were never restored. When this hatchet man of reaction retired in 1953, he was given a “lifetime achievement” Oscar by the Academy. The Code itself finally became obsolete with the introduction of the ratings system in 1968.
The title of Film Forum’s series is not misleading: its emphasis is squarely on “sex, booze, and red hot jazz”—horror and jungle pictures and the social dramas that were significant genres during the period are not included. Pride of place goes to four sexually themed films that made waves and raised hackles: Red-Headed Woman (1932), with Jean Harlow as a poor girl who hops from bed to bed on her way toward wealth and happiness; the ruthlessly funny Baby Face (1933), in which Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way up from the personnel department in the basement of a skyscraper bank to the topmost penthouse; The Story of Temple Drake (1933), with a stunning performance by Miriam Hopkins as a wild Southern belle; and Mae West’s best picture, I’m No Angel (1933), in which she appears as a carnival lion tamer with the intention of climbing the social ladder “wrong by wrong,” if necessary.
The retro’s surprise éclat is supplied by a number of films that haven’t been shown theatrically in these parts since their original release. The two standouts are Her Man (1930) and Dancers in the Dark (1932). Made at a time when many early talkies were static, Tay Garnett’s Her Man is a rowdy melodrama set in Havana, marked by the director’s strong visual sense and flair for elaborate tracking shots. David Burton’s charming Dancers in the Dark, deftly scripted by Herman Mankiewicz, takes place in the sleazy razzle-dazzle of a New York dance hall. Sets are superb; portly comic Jack Oakie, generally cast as a buffoon, is surprisingly moving in the role of taxi dancer Miriam Hopkins’s rebuffed suitor.
Pre-Code is à la mode—in addition to the film series, two new books are devoted to this fascinating chapter of Hollywood history. Mark A. Vieira’s Sin in Soft Focus (Abrams) is a lively, valuable study, marvelously illustrated with rare stills. Thomas Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood (Columbia University Press), a more exhaustive and academic affair, is burdened with endless plot summaries and marred by a number of
factual errors. If you’ve only one pre-Code slot on your shelf, go with Vieira.