Sunday Matinee: Pre-Code Part 1

Reasons Supporting Preamble of Code

I. Theatrical motion pictures, that is, pictures intended for the theatre as distinct from pictures intended for churches, schools, lecture halls, educational movements, social reform movements, etc., are primarily to be regarded as entertainment. Mankind has always recognized the importance of entertainment and its value in rebuilding the bodies and souls of human beings.

But it has always recognized that entertainment can be of a character either HELPFUL or HARMFUL to the human race, and in consequence has clearly distinguished between:

(a) Entertainment which tends to improve the race, or at least to re-create and rebuild human beings exhausted with the realities of life; and

(b) Entertainment which tends to degrade human beings, or to lower their standards of life and living.

Hence the Moral importance of entertainment is something Which has been universally recognized. It enters intimately into the lives of men and women and affects them closely; it occupies their minds and affections during leisure hours; and ultimately touches the whole of their lives. A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work.

In 1922 after several Hollywood scandals and some risque films, the rumblings of what would eventual become the Production Code started with Presbyterian elder Will H. Hays. By 1927 the studios had decided on a list of 11 don’ts for movies.

PUBLISHED IN OCTOBER 1927 BY THE MOTION PICTURE PRODUCERS AND DISTRIBUTORS OF AMERICA

Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:

1. Pointed profanity-by either title or lip-this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in conncetion with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” “damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fatc or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
4. Any inference of sex perversion;
5. White slavery;
6. Miscegenation (sex relationship between the white and black races);
7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
8. Scenes of actual childbirth-in fact or in silhouette;
9. Children’s sex organs;
10. Ridicule of the clegy;
11. Willful offence to any nation, race or creed;

And it be 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:
1. The use of the flag;
2. International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavourable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry);
3. Arson;
4. The use of firearms;
5. 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);
6. Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
7. Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
8. Methods of smuggling;
9. Third-degree methods
10. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
11. Sympathy for criminals;
12. Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
13. Sedition;
14. Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
15. Branding of people or animals;
16. The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
17. Rape or attempted rape;
18. First-night scenes;
19. Man and woman in bed together;
20. Deliberate seduction of girls;
21. The institution of marriage;
22. Surgical operations;
23. The use of drugs;
24. Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.

Naturally these rules were ignored. In 1929 a new code was created – The Production Code and after several revisions it was put in place in 1930. It too was ignored until 1935 when it was finally enforced. The films made from 1929 to 1935 are commonly known as the Pre-Code era.

The films made in this time featured strong female characters, sex was prominent, it was the rise of gangster film and violence and drug use were plentiful. In short Hollywood movies were “entertainment which tends to degrade human beings, or to lower their standards of life and living.” not unlike the films of today. Over the course of the next few Sunday Matinees I will look at some of the excellent films that came out of this era before Hollywood censored itself and sanitized the film industry for over thirty years.

To start things off let’s have a quick look at the bad girl films of the 1930’s. These tough talking ladies usually slept their way to happiness. The studios would push the limits and then tack on a moral ending to make everything ok with the Hays Office. A couple of prime examples are Red-Headed Woman (1932) with Jean Harlow as a woman who sleeps her way into society.

And Baby Face (1933) starring Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who decides to start life a new when her father dies. She does this by using men to get what she wants. The film suffered controversy with its portrayal of sex and in particular a speech made from a Nietzche philosopher that did not pass New York State Censorship.

” 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!”

Along with some minor cuts the film was released but was still quite racy. The uncut version was discovered in 2004 and has since been released on DVD.

Author: Shane Hnetka

Shane Hnetka has spent most of his life watching movies and reading comic books. He has decided to use this vast knowledge for evil instead of good.