Looking Back at Hollywood's Pre-Code Era

Before the censorship intensified.


Over at The Toast, Mallory Ortberg takes a tour through Hollywood's pre-Code era, recommending movies left and right—some of them because they're good, some of them because they're weird and interesting even if they aren't exactly "good" in any normal aesthetic sense. To give you the flavor, here's her list of "Less Well-Known Remakes":

The Hulk is horny.
Paramount Pictures



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."

The pre-Code era came to an end for a few reasons, the most underappreciated of which is the threat of federal censorship. Thomas Doherty described that process in this classic Reason article (and I've touched on the topic a time or two myself); it's a still-relevant lesson in the ways busybodies can clamp down on eccentric creativity.

For more on this chapter of Hollywood history, check out Doherty's book Pre-Code Hollywood, which is a great read. And since I was writing about the Army-McCarthy hearings yesterday, lemme add that one of the best discussions I've seen of that soap opera is in another Doherty book, Cold War, Cool Medium. Check that one out too.

[Via bOING bOING.]

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  1. The pre-Code era came to an end for a few reasons, the most underappreciated of which is the threat of federal censorship.

    Underappreciated? That’s the number one reason in all the half dozen or so articles I’ve read on the subject over the years.

    1. Maybe the tide is turning, then. (Or maybe you read a lot of those articles here at Reason.)

  2. Let’s not forget:

    1. The pre-Code Mystery of the Wax Museum, in which the squealer was a drug addict (transformed into an alcoholic in the Vincent Price remake under the title “House of Wax”).

    2. The pre-Code Doctor X, which includes a scene in a whorehouse within the first 10 mins.

    1. Glenda Farrell has one of the great lines in Mystery of the Wax Museum, saying something to the wealthy guy she’s trying to exonerate and who’s driving her around the city as part of her efforts, “Why don’t you take your car and drive someplace warm? And I don’t mean California!”

      She’s got another great line in Girl Missing, where she plays one of a pair of gold-diggers trying to live the good life off of Guy Kibbee. He jilts them with a “Dear Jane” letter, which she reads: “Yes, it’s addressed to us, all right. ‘To the GD Sisters’. I wonder if he means ‘gold-diggers’… or that other well-known word.”

  3. Ladies Love Brutes (based on the play Pardon My Glove)

    Just what was going on in this picture?

    1. Your mom.

  4. What’s funny (or sad?) is that the post-code industry created sanitized films that gave later generations a distorted view of what life was like during those earlier decades. People really think that 30’s and 40’s and 50’s America was more repressed than what they think Victorian England was. As if people weren’t still having sex and swearing and doing drugs and whatnot like they always do.

    1. It must have been terrible to be an adult at that time and be subjected to an endless stream of kids’ movies. How stupefyingly boring.

      1. Hollywood quickly figured out how to make entertaining movies even with the restrictions, but yeah, those who witnessed the transformation must have been disappointed. It would have been like seeing all the choices we have on TV suddenly go back to 70’s and 80’s style sanitization. Ugh. How horrible.

        1. Seems like most 21st century movies are rather sanitized.

      2. Huh? We’re talking about the golden age of film. Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, The Big Sleep, The Searchers, The Third Man, From Here to Eternity, North by Northwest, Notorious–all “stupefyingly boring”? Yeah, I know they often had to rely on innuendo to hint at what was explicit in the books from which they were derived, but as long as neither you nor the the director is a complete moron, you can usually figure it out.

        Hell, even the “kids’ movies” were not boring. Have you watched any old Bugs Bunny cartoons lately?

    2. There’s a John Watters school of thought that the white suburban middle class milquetoast culture was a thin veneer beneath which a cauldron of vice and perversion roiled.

      While there may be much truth in that. As a native of the Midwest suburban 70’s I can testify that there did exist a squeaky clean, society of tax paying, church going, families headed by coupon clipping moms, and bread winning dads. Their children’s innocence preserved well into puberty.

      I believe the internet put an end to that.

      1. Warren, I would bet that a lot of that “squeaky clean” didn’t go clear to the bone.

        And I think there is something to be said for the Victorian-style delineation between your public life (squeaky clean) and your private life (nobody’s business, because you keep it, you know, private).

    3. This is why it’s fun to meet old ladies who were strippers back in the 1940s/50s/60s – they give you the real deal about what was going on back then.

  5. The Manchurian Candidate, 2008?REALER THAN THE ORIGINAL.

    1. “This is what you get when you have rich people doing bad science”? I retched every time I saw the commercial for the movie.

  6. Hammett made it clear in the book; Joel Cairo was as queer as a three dollar bill. There were a couple of hints in the Bogarted version, but nothing struck me as really explicit.

    *To be honest, forties-era gaydar might have been more sensitive.

    1. Yes, and I’m not sure about Gutman. Maybe I missed it, but I just read the novella. It’s certainly not clear in the movie.

    2. I’m pretty sure the lilac scented business card was all the hint the audience needed.

  7. It is so good to finally find another human being who finds Mary Astor totally un-sexy. I understand she led a very racy life off camera, but I just don’t get it.

    1. Its the ice queen thing.

      You just know that once you pop her cork, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

  8. I’m amused when I see people complain at certain Pre-Code movies for being racist. Yeah it’s great that these movies offended other people but offending you is terrible.

    And how different is the Rape Culture and trigger warning folks from the likes of Hays and Breen than that the latter two were White Christian Men and therefore bad?

  9. ASDGJKL:”


    1. Sorry. I’m drunk and slipping back into Klingon.

  10. Or Afrikaans.

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