The term “pre-Code” refers to a handful of years in the late 1920s and early 1930s after the introduction of sound but before the consistent enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code, when movies were chock-full of naked gangsters shooting up churches and they all had titles like Satan, Let’s Go Dancing and Ten Little Cocaine Dippers and That Jazz Baby’s Loopy Tomorrow (not real film titles). Movies were raunchy. Then Joseph Breen showed up and ruined everything (I can only imagine that “JOSEPH PEEN” was a common graffito in Hollywood bathrooms around 1934).
If you’re not familiar with the Code, or haven’t seen many movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, you might be shocked to see people in fedoras and fur coats swearing and getting hangovers; sort of like if you rewatched Casablanca to find there was a six-minute hardcore sex scene between Rick and Ilsa you’d forgotten about during the Paris interlude, so it’s best to ease into this kind of thing.
Here’s a look at the Code itself, so you can get a feel for just exactly what was going on at the time that needed to be forbidden.
Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” “damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
The illegal traffic in drugs;
Any inference of sex perversion;
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
Children’s sex organs;
Ridicule of the clergy;
Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;
And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
The use of the flag;
International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
The use of firearms;
Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
Methods of smuggling;
Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
Sympathy for criminals;
Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
Branding of people or animals;
The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
Rape or attempted rape;
Man and woman in bed together;
Deliberate seduction of girls;
The institution of marriage;
The use of drugs;
Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.
This last one, by the way, explains why so many lovers in classic films kiss like nobody else on earth, namely by grabbing one another tightly, smashing their lips together, and then not moving in the least for at least 4-5 seconds (I call it the ol’ seize-and-freeze). When I was a kid, I saw so many old movies that I assumed everyone used to kiss like that, and it was only sometime in the 1970s that adults learned they could move their heads and lips in a romantic context.
Most of the movies made during this era have been lost, and not all of those that survived are timeless classics. Studios were still figuring out what worked in a talking picture and what didn’t, so there’s lots of problems with pacing — some movies waste several minutes on dead air in scenes that would have been cut entirely just a few years later. Serious technical issues dog the crop from 1928-1930, too; there’s one film where every time you see a character holding a piece of paper, it’s soaking wet because at the time there was no other way to keep from picking up every crackle and rustle of a dry sheet of paper with the microphones. So there are more than a few pre-Code films that have been deservedly forgotten. But here are a few that have earned the Mallory Ortberg Seal of Approval and are well worth digging up on Amazon or Netflix or Apple TV.
Worth Watching For Any Reasons
Dirigible, 1931 – I first saw this at the second TCM Film Festival and I have such a soft spot in my heart for it, despite the fact that it’s pretty much just a remake of 1927’s Wings, but with talking and dirigibles. It does have a lot of dirigibles, I’ll give it that. It’s one of Frank Capra’s earlier movies, and it’s full of the heroic sacrifices and noble gestures you want from a Capra film. If nothing else, it’s worth watching for the scenes set in Antarctica (filmed in the San Gabriel Valley in the middle of the summer) and the world’s saddest ticker-tape parade.
Lonesome, 1928 – Oh, God, this is a heartbreaker. Two lonely people living in an impersonal, heartless city share a magical day together on Coney Island. The Coney Island sequences are dazzling and tinted in color, and it’s wonderful to see men wearing suits on wooden rollercoasters. It’s almost entirely silent, with two talking scenes (or goat glands, “talkie sequences added to an already completed silent film in an effort to make the otherwise redundant film more suitable for release in the radically altered market conditions”) inserted in the middle.
Frankenstein, 1931 – It’s Frankenstein. Why haven’t you already seen it? Go see Frankenstein.
Gold Diggers of Broadway/Gold Diggers of 1933, 1929/1933 – If you’re only going to see one of these, make it Gold Diggers of 1933, because it’s an almost completely identical remake, and it stars a young Dick Powell (best known as hard-boiled private dick Phillip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet, but here a delightful young tenor), and it’s terrific. There’s plenty of gold diggers, of course (a young Ginger Rogers among them), and suggestive songs like “Pettin’ In The Park” that made it a target for censors just a year later. Also ends with one of the most tragic and stirring songs about the Great Depression ever to make it onscreen — “Remember My Forgotten Man.” There’s absolutely no reason for it to be in this movie to begin with, but it’s perfect and you should watch it anyhow.
M, 1931 – Oh, my God, it’s so brutal and so good. Peter Lorre plays a trembling, loathsome child murderer, and it has some of the most tense sequences involving a balloon and a walk down the street in the world.
The Public Enemy, 1931 – Jimmy Cagney shoves a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face. There is nothing else you need know about this movie.
Kept Husbands, 1931 – This one will depend on your fondness for Joel McCrea and your tolerance for Taming of the Shrew-style narratives. My fondness for him is enormous and my tolerance for said narratives is boundless, so I find it deeply charming.
Baby Face, 1933 – This is very much the kind of movie that comes to mind when one thinks of the classic pre-Code film. It’s just sex from start to finish. Barbara Stanwyck sleeps with everybody, and also murders at least one guy, and ends up marrying a bank president, because there are no consequences when you’re hot as shit. Her name is LILY POWERS, which is fantastic, and it’s basically an Ayn Rand novel before there were Ayn Rand novels. Her moment of self-realization comes when she talks to a cobbler who is also a Nietzsche enthusiast (GOD BLESS THE 1930s) and he tells her:
A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men. But you must use men, not let them use you. You must be a master, not a slave. Look here — Nietzsche says, “All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation.” That’s what I’m telling you. Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want!
Even for Hays (Hays was before Breen; think of Hays as Mrs. Jewels and Breen as Mrs. Gorf), this was a bit much; he had them clean up the speech a bit before they could release the film, but you still got the picture. HAVE SEX APPEAL, DESTROY MEN.
Of Human Bondage, 1934 – PERFECT MOVIE IS PERFECT. Remember how utterly, utterly miscast Leslie Howard was as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind? This is the opposite of that. His Phillip is a shy, self-loathing, clubfooted failed medical student-cum-failed artist who resents everyone without even realizing it and falls desperately in love with the worst person in the world. Also memorable for featuring Alan Hale, Sr. (father of Alan Hale, Jr. of Gilligan’s Island fame) as a sweaty German lothario, so if you’ve ever wanted to see the Skipper wearing an evil Teutonic mustache, this is your chance.
There’s lots of SEXY INNUENDO in this movie, but it’s probably most worth watching for the scene where Bette Davis’ Mildred finally loses it and starts flinging plates and screaming “You’re a cripple!” at Phillip. Not to mention her death scene — Bette Davis had to fight the studio hard in order to appear that degraded and de-glammed onscreen, and it’s an image that sticks in your mind for a long time.
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, 1932 – My absolute favorite film of all time, bar none. You have to see it. YOU HAVE TO SEE IT. Oh, God, I want to give away the ending so bad, but I won’t, even though it’s been over eighty years. It’s one of the most absolutely harrowing endings in film history, and completely unthinkable for a studio film to end on that kind of a note at the time. There’s a hiss and a whisper and footsteps in the dark and an admission of something that’s impossible to believe. Oh, God, watch it yesterday and call me when you’re done so we can talk about it for hours. Also up for hours-long discussion: the dreamboatery of Paul Muni. CALL ME AND I WILL MAKE AN EXCEPTION FOR YOU, PAUL MUNI. What can I say; I like sweat and desperation and terror on a man.
If You Want To Get Into Pre-Civil-Rights-Era Racial Dynamics
Call Her Savage, 1932 – It’s not a good movie, not by a long shot, although it’s one of Clara Bow’s last films (and one of her only speaking roles). It’s worth watching for a few things — there’s a scene where she visits a gay bar with her boyfriend and watch a musical performance by two proudly effeminate men that was featured in The Celluloid Closet. Clara’s character Nasa is suggested strongly to be half-Native American and has a tentative romance with the only other Native character in the film (who’s also the only non-rapist playboy, which is a real plus for him).
Murder!, 1930 -HOO BOY, is this one a real parade of something else. It’s a very early Hitchcock, and the racial dynamics are about as subtle as a Punch and Judy show. There’s a dead white girl, a beautiful and innocent white girl wrongly accused of her murder, and (spoiler alert) an evil, cross-dressing, secretly mixed-race trapeze artist who’s been passing as white and commits suicide in the middle of a circus act when he gets found out. There’s enough grist here for about seventeen new TV Tropes articles.
Golden Dawn, 1930 – Fortify your spirit before giving this one a chance. It’s about a white woman kidnapped and raised by “African natives” (the setting never gets more specific than “colonial Africa”) who falls in love with an Englishman but can’t marry him until she’s able to decisively prove that she’s not biracial. Most of the “natives” are played by English actors in blackface, and the happy ending comes about when the lead character is released from a sacrificial ceremony for being “pure white,” so gird your loins if you decide to watch it. OH. And it’s a musical. So.
Safe In Hell, 1931 – So the movie itself is only okay — it’s the old “prostitute kills the man who led her into a life of crime, convinces her sailor boyfriend to hide her on Tortuga, is hung by the corrupt governor of the island for refusing to sleep with him in exchange for clemency after shooting the man who led her into a life of crime a second time when he unexpectedly shows up alive” story. Dorothy Mackeill is good in it, but she can’t really carry a picture, and the pacing is awfully S-L-O-O-O-W for a movie that’s 100% about sex and murder. But it’s worth watching just to see Nina Mae McKinney, who was known as “The Black Garbo,” as Leonie and Clarence Muse as Newcastle — it’s quite possibly the first time black actors appeared in a mainstream American film without speaking in Hollywood’s bastardized version of AAVE.
“William Wellman’s biographer, Frank T. Thompson, speculated that either McKinney and Johnson, who were popular favorites at the time, had enough clout with the studio to avoid using “Negro dialect”, or else that Wellman “just wanted to avoid a convenient cliche.” Either way, it’s worth watching for McKinney’s lovely, lilting version of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and Johnson’s enormously plummy English accent.
Imitation of Life, 1934 – Much better than the 1959 version, and truer to the source material, inasmuch as the character of Peola is played by actual black actress Fredi Washington (played by Susan Kohner in the Lana Turner adaptation). Fredi Washington was a fascinating woman — here’s what she had to say in 1945 (!) about choosing not to pass for white in her own career:
You see I’m a mighty proud gal and I can’t for the life of me, find any valid reason why anyone should lie about their origin or anything else for that matter. Frankly, I do not ascribe to the stupid theory of white supremacy and to try to hide the fact that I am a Negro for economic or any other reasons, if I do I would be agreeing to be a Negro makes me inferior and that I have swallowed whole hog all of the propaganda dished out by our fascist-minded white citizens.
Also Alan Hale, Sr. is in it. Alan Hale, Sr. was in everything. And he looked so bizarrely identical to his own son that if you watch enough movies from the 1930s you start to feel like the Skipper was a secret time traveler.
Less Well-Known Remakes
The Letter, 1929 – SLUTTIER THAN THE BETTE DAVIS REMAKE.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1931 – SLUTTIER THAN THE SPENCER TRACY REMAKE.
Mädchen in Uniform, 1931 – LESBIANER THAN THE 1970S REMAKE.
The Maltese Falcon, 1931 – GAYER AND SLUTTIER THAN THE HUMPHREY BOGART REMAKE (Obviously not as good, though. I mean, it doesn’t ask us to believe that Mary Astor is a femme fatale who has had sex, so that gives it a leg up on the John Huston version, but still. Only worth watching as a comparison to the classic. And I don’t think being as overt about sexual matters makes much of a difference — it’s still incredibly clear that Bogart and Astor bone, that Joel Cairo is super-mega gay, and that Gutman is giving it to poor Wilmer in the 1941 remake.)
The Broadway Melody, 1929 – Really, really bad production values, but a lot of fun if you’re a Singin’ in the Rain completist and want to hear the full version of “The Wedding of the Painted Doll.”
Ugh, If You Must, They’re “Important” But I Hate Them
The Blue Angel, 1930 — It’s stupid and I hate it. Just go rewatch Lilli von Schtupp’s rendition of “I’m So Tired” in Blazing Saddles again, and you’ll get the gist of it.
Tarnished Lady, 1931- All the treacle of Mildred Pierce and none of the camp. Worth watching only for the scene where Tallulah Bankhead gets drunk.
Worth It For The Titles Alone
Ladies Love Brutes (based on the play Pardon My Glove)
Sin Takes A Holiday
The Matrimonial Bed
The Greeks Had A Word For Them
Confessions of a Co-Ed
Merrily We Go To Hell
Hallelujah, I’m A Bum
Hips, Hips, Hooray!
If You Want To Take A Deeply Uncomfortable Journey To Another Time
The Age of Consent, 1932 – The happy ending comes when the underage waitress calls off her shotgun wedding to the guy who deflowered her because she can see how much he’s really in love with the girlfriend he cheated on her with. So.
The Beast of the City, 1932 – Rivals I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang for “bleakest ending pre-Chinatown.”
Freaks, 1932 – Definitely…definitely some ableism.
The Story of Temple Drake, 1933 – I heard someone describe this once as “the first David Lynch movie” and that pretty much sums it up.