Book Review: Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934

Censorship in American cinema didn’t really take hold until 1934 when Will Hays tightened the grip with the Hays Code which had come about due to pressure from the Catholic Church and civic groups. The code was then enforced vigorously by Joseph Breen, who used his oratory skills, working knowledge of the motion picture business and strong belief in the moral well-being of the nation, to have a firm hold over the industry.

So, what was happening in these films during the years before the enforcement of the Production Code?

Sign of the Cross (1932)
Thomas Doherty takes the reader from the period 1930, just after the advent of sound, to 1934. In those four short years Hollywood produced a mixture of gangster movies which glorified crime, political pictures where the small guy wins, adulterous pot-boilers where love affairs outside of wedlock were accepted, drunkenness, liquor, loose women, semi-clothed showgirls and where a woman could fall in love with a half-naked primitive man in the hot steamy African jungle.

This was all during a dark time in American history when the Great Depression was gripping most American families and cinema attendance had fallen due to the lack of money. Something needed to be done to get the audiences back into the cinema seats.

The answer was to produce movies which would help the audiences escape the reality of day-to-day life and their mistrust of the government and the establishment. By adding racy or violent content, producers found that cinema ticket sales were on the up

Doherty discusses these dark times in American history and how these movies fitted in with the mindset of the audience and drew them way from the newly popular radio and back into the cinema. He takes a peek at each genre and discusses key films within it.
Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932)

I must admit, up until now my only exposure to pre-code movies were the classic horror movies such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), King Kong (1933) and the seminal Freaks (1932), as well as the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films.

The second Tarzan adventure, Tarzan and His Mate (1934), pushed the boundaries of what was decency with a stand-in double for the scantily clad Maureen O'Sullivan doing a nude swimming scene with Tarzan. The movie advertising specifically aimed at the desires of its female audience with advertising lines such as:

Baby Face (1933)

"Could you ever be coaxed back to civilization as long as you had a bronzed mate like this to kiss you awake at every dawn?"

Even though at times Doherty can be a little dry in his writing style, I still found this book a fascinating read and it has opened my mind up to a period in American cinema I had previously only had a limited knowledge of, as well as the social history of those turbulent times. Ultimately, this book has increased my list of movies to watch out for in the future.

You can find out more about Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934 here

1 Response to "Book Review: Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934"

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