Sunday Matinee: Pre-Code Part 2

Continuing with the ladies of the Pre-Code era and the continued lowering of moral standards today we feature some of the films of Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Norma Shearer and Barbara Stanwyck among others.

Women in Pre-Code films were at times sexually aggressive, independent, self-reliant and free from the stuffy code that forced them back into the kitchen in 1935. Films like Female (1933) where Ruth Chatterton owns and runs her own car manufacturing company and sleeps with a different man from her secretary pool. If anyone gets too clingy it’s off to Canada for them. “I know for some women, men are a household necessity; myself, I’d rather have a canary.”

Hot Saturday (1932) features Nancy Carroll as small town girl whose reputation is ruined by unsubstantiated gossip that she spent the night with rich playboy Cary Grant. It ends with her getting pissed off and leaving town with Cary Grant. As the tagline says “They gave her a bad name…and she lived up to it!”

Marlene Dietrich broke ground with The Blue Angel (1930) Germany’s first sound film as a sexy cabaret singer. In Morocco (1930), her first American film, Dietrich wore a man’s tuxedo and kisses a woman before chasing after Gary Cooper.

Barbara Stanwyck had already shocked audiences with sleeping her way to success in Baby Face. In Night Nurse (1931) she runs around in lingerie and fights to save two children from a ruthless Clark Gable with the help of a bootlegger.

The Divorcee (1930). Norma Shearer is a married woman who finds out that her husband has had an affair. So she decides to even things up by having an affair herself. Naturally her husband doesn’t take to kindly of this despite telling her that it mean nothing when he did it. After the divorce Shearer declares “All men are fair game from now on!”

Claudette Colbert spent most of the Pre-Code half naked in such films as The Sign of the Cross (1932) where she was the wife of Emperor Nero in the days of Rome when everyone enjoyed watching Christians getting fed to lions.

She played Cleopatra in 1934.

She did a nude shower scene in Four Frightened People (1934) and in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) she played the other woman who was attracted to Lieutenant Maurice Chevalier. Chevalier is forced to marry stuffy prude Princess Miriam Hopkins. When Hopkins confronts Colbert, Colbert decides to help out Hopkins by “jazzing up your lingerie”.

The following is the basic outline of the production code and what the guidelines were.

General Principles

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Particular Applications

I. Crimes Against the Law
These shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.

1. Murder

a. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation.

b. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.

c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.

2. Methods of Crime should not be explicitly presented.

a. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method.

b. Arson must subject to the same safeguards.

c. The use of firearms should be restricted to the essentials.

d. Methods of smuggling should not be presented.

3. Illegal drug traffic must never be presented.

4. The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, will not be shown.

II. Sex
The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.

1. Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.

2. Scenes of Passion

a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.

b. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.

c. In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.

3. Seduction or Rape

a. They should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method.

b. They are never the proper subject for comedy.

4. Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.

5. White slavery shall not be treated.

6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.

7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.

8. Scenes of actual child birth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented.

9. Children’s sex organs are never to be exposed.

III. Vulgarity
The treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be subject to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.

IV. Obscenity
Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden.

V. Profanity
Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ – unless used reverently – Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd), or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.

VI. Costume
1. Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.

2. Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot.

3. Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.

4. Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden.

VII. Dances
1. Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.

2. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.

VIII. Religion
1. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.

2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.

3. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled.

IX. Locations
The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.

X. National Feelings
1. The use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.

2. The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.

XI. Titles
Salacious, indecent, or obscene titles shall not be used.

XII. Repellent Subjects
The following subjects must be treated within the careful limits of good taste:
1. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishments for crime.
2. Third degree methods.
3. Brutality and possible gruesomeness.
4. Branding of people or animals.
5. Apparent cruelty to children or animals.
6. The sale of women, or a woman selling her virtue.
7. Surgical operations.

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.

2 thoughts on “Sunday Matinee: Pre-Code Part 2”

  1. This code is pretty awesome. Some of my personal favourites are the following:

    “In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.” – Clinical “passion” to merely serve a specific purpose within the plot, wherein that purpose cannot be to evoke (lower or “basic”) interest or excitement from the audience? Booooooring…

    “Seduction or Rape” – Oh, the discussion of rules surrounding seduction or rape… Seduction and rape are two very different things, so why are they presented in a way that makes it seem like one can be equated to the other?

    “White slavery shall not be treated” – I’m so glad that it’s only white slavery! Thankfully, the slavery of any other cultural group of people is completely within the parameters of the code.

    “Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.” – When following the above, this one seems just as pathetically par for the course…

    “No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.” – Of course not. That would be blasphemy.

    “The following subjects must be treated within the careful limits of good taste: The sale of women, or a woman selling her virtue.” – Although this has to be used within the “careful limits of good taste”, I’m just so relieved that it’s not forbidden! Yeah! Sell those women!

    On another note, I do love the make-up and costume direction of these featured period films. Gorgeous!

  2. While my favourite Sunday Matinees are still the French silent films you did at the outset (Fantomas and Les Vampires were awesome — Richard Sala makes so much more sense now), this series on Pre-Code stuff is shaping up to be brilliant. Thanks Shane.

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