What was the Pre-Code Era of Hollywood?

Pre-Code Hollywood is a term that refers to an era of films since sound was introduced in movies in 1927 to the mandatory enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code. Even if the movies back in that era were being censored, it was not as severely censored like the films that were made after July of 1934.

The interesting aspect of the pre-code films comes from how openly in those 7 years movies covered a wide range of controversial topics. Topics such as drugs, sex, portrayals of homosexuality, miscegenation, and lots of different issues were exploited and explored in by big Hollywood studios back in the pre-code era such as Baby Face, Virtue, and The Story of the Temple Drake.

What Was the Pre-Code Era of Hollywood?

Pre-Code Hollywood is a period in the American film industry that happened in the middle of the popular adoption of sound in films in 1929 and the implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines in 1934 or also referred to as the “Hays Code”.

The Code was adopted in 1930, however, it did not became rigorously enforced until July 1, 1934. Before the Hays Code was strictly enforced, movie content was controlled more by local laws, negotiations between the Studio Relations Committee and the major studios, and by popular opinion, rather than strictly adhering to the code which was frequently disregarded by Hollywood filmmakers.

As a result, the films made in the late 1920s and early 1930s portrayed or implied illicit and controversial contents such as sexual innuendo, miscegenation, mild profanity, illegal use of drugs, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, prostitution, and homosexuality. Some example of those movies were Female Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface.

During those times, these movies were seen by many as heroic rather than evil. But in late 1933 and through the first half of 1934, a campaign against the immorality of American cinema was launched by American Roman Catholics. Added to that was a potential government takeover of film censorship and social research that seemed to have indicated that those movies were seen to be immoral and could promote bad behavior which forced the studios to give up to greater oversight.

The Pre-code era of Hollywood is indeed an interesting topic, therefore, let us know more about what happened in that short era in the American film industry.

The Earliest Attempt for the Code

In 1922, after some films with illicit and controversial contents were made and Hollywood stars were involved in a series of off-screen scandals, the studios recruited William H. “Will” Hays to rehabilitate the image of Hollywood. He was a Postmaster General under Warren G. Harding and also a former head of the Republican National Committee. He served as president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America for 25 years.

In 1924, Will Hays introduced a set of recommendations which were dubbed as “The Formula”. The studios were advised to be mindful of these recommendations and he also asked filmmakers to describe to his office the plots of pictures they were planning. Studios would submit scripts and screenplays to his office in order to find ways in which offensive content could be avoided. However, studios remained under no obligation to honor these suggestions, meaning, the Production Code Office or the Hays Office needed to find ways to work with religious and ethnic groups to drive out controversy.

The Creation of the Code and the Code’s Contents

Martin Quigley, an American Roman Catholic layman and editor of the prominent trade paper Motion Picture Herald, together with Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest, created a code of standards in 1929 which was immensely liked by Hays and was submitted to the studios. The major concerns of Lord were the effects of sound film on children whom he considered especially at risk to their appeal.

In February 1930, several studio heads met with Lord including Irving Thalberg of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or MGM. They did some revisions to the code and later agreed to its stipulations. To avoid direct government intervention was one of the main motivating factors in adopting the Code. Therefore, it’s the Studio Relations Committee’s responsibility to supervise film production and advise the studios when changes or cuts are needed.

The Code contains two parts. One part included a set of general principles that mostly concerned morality. The other part was a set of particular applications, where they listed items that could not be depicted. Some of the restrictions that were included in the code were the ban on homosexuality or the use of specific curse words. And some of the forbidden topics were miscegenation or the mixing of the races.

Aside from determining what could be portrayed on screen, the Code also sought to promote traditional values. Some of the examples of these were:

  • Sexual relations outside of marriage could not be represented as attractive and beautiful nor be made to seem right.  
  • Criminal actions should be punished and neither the crime nor the criminal could stimulate empathy from the audience.
  • Authority figures should be treated respectfully and the clergy could not be depicted as villains or comic characters.
  • Politicians, police officers, and judges, under some circumstances, could be villains, as long as they make it clear that they were the exception to the rule.

The entire Code contained Catholic connotations but the Catholic influence on it was initially kept secret. A repeated theme was throughout every movie, the audience should feel that evil is wrong and good is right. The Code also included an addendum which was commonly referred to as the Advertising Code. This regulated film advertising copy and imagery.

The Implementation of the Code

Variety magazine published the entire contents of the Code on February 19, 1930 and anticipated that state film censorship boards would soon become obsolete. However, the people who were obligated to enforce the code, namely Jason Joy, the head of Committee until 1932, and Dr. James Wingate, his successor, were generally ineffective.

In fact, The Blue Angel, which was the very first film the office reviewed, was passed by Joy without revisions but it was considered indecent by a California censor. Even though Joy has negotiated cuts for films in several instances which were indeed definite, there were still a lot of lurid material that was able to be shown on screen.

There were 500 films in a year that Joy needed to review with just a small staff and little power. In 1930, the Hays office did not have the authority to order studios to cut material from a film but instead worked by reasoning and sometimes begging them.

When the Code was announced, a liberal periodical called The Nation, attacked it. According to the publication, if crime were never presented in a sympathetic light, then law and justice would become the same when taken literally, and if clergy were always to be depicted positively, then hypocrisy could not be examined as well, which was agreed to by the Outlook magazine.

The Great Depression of the 1930s also motivated the studios to create films with violent and racy content and soon, the violation of the Code became an open secret.

The End of the Pre-Code Hollywood

Due to the combined list of the worst offenders of 1932 and 1933, the Catholic Legion of Decency was formed in 1933. It is a group that issued its own classifications of films and forbade its members to see films that were marked as Class C for ‘Condemned’. Even when the Class C movies tagged by the Legion could still turn a profit, their organization grew and began to lobby the government.

In 1934, Joseph Breen, a Catholic who worked as a trouble shooter for Hays in 1931 became the head of the Production Code Office. He used his closeness to the Legion and exploiting fear of the studio heads. He discussed that all films needed to receive the Motion Picture Production Code Seal of Approval before they could be released and if this was not followed, they would suffer protests and fines.

July 1, 1934 was the final, absolute end date of pre-Code Hollywood. Due to the Depression and hard times, America accepted the censorship of movies as a necessary evil. The Code was enforced until 1968.

Movies that Were Released During the Pre-Code Era

  • The Divorcee (1930)
  • The Sign of the Cross (1932)
  • Gold Diggers (1933)
  • The Wild Party (1929)
  • Three on a Match (1932)
  • Red-Headed Woman (1932)
  • Night Nurse
  • Employees’ Entrance (1933)
  • Murders in the Zoo (1933)
  • Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
  • The Story of Temple Drake (1933)
  • Baby Face (1933)
  • Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
  • Female
  • Loose Ankles
  • Design for Living
  • A Free Soul
  • Blonde Crazy

Even if there are a lot of freedom in creativity in the film industry and several genres emerged from this era such as message pictures and gangster movies because of the freedom that the filmmakers had, the production code was able to pave the way into making films and TV shows a lot safer and less provocative to the younger audience.