Friday, August 13, 2004

Pre-Code Hollywood Films, An Overview

Pre-code Hollywood films are generally defined as those films made between the appearance of sound in 1929 and the strict enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code in 1934. In an earlier post, I discussed the rigid production code, a censorial document that dictated film content from mid-1934 to 1968. Now I want to give an overview of the types of films made “pre-code”—films that Depression-era audiences loved and drove the moralists crazy!

Gangster Films. The birth of the modern gangster film happed in this era. Probably the most famous group of films from this time are: LITTLE CAESAR (1930), where Edward G. Robinson defined the genre with his portrayal of his Al Capone-based character; THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), with James Cagney famously smashing a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face; and the original SCARFACE (1932), which features Paul Muni as the insanely violent Tony Camonte, with a rather incestuous attachment to his sister.

Horror. Some of the well-known horror films made pre-code were FRANKENSTEIN (1931), the Bella Lugosi version of DRACULA (1931), and DR. JYKELL & MR. HYDE (1932). KING KONG (1933), too, was a pre-code film. Perhaps the most notorious of the bunch was director Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932), which features actual circus freaks who take revenge against a “normal” woman who does them wrong. I intend to devote an entire post to this film later on because there is way too much to discuss! Tod Browning was blackballed by the U.S. film industry after the film was released. Freaks was banned in some U.S. states, and in the entire United Kingdom for thirty years. According to the Internet Movie Database, it’s still banned in Sweden.

Vice Films. These films featuring moral laxity were very popular in their day. The titles alone were enough to titillate viewers: THE ROAD TO RUIN; MERRILY WE GO TO HELL; MADAM SATAN (great film!); FREE LOVE; SHE HAD TO SAY YES. A popular sub-genre was the “kept woman” film, which features young women who discover the perks and pitfalls of being well-compensated mistresses to usually-married men. A young Joan Crawford in POSSESSED (1931) is a prime example. Another popular type was the all-out “bad girl”, who will lie, cheat, and steal to make her way to the top. One of the most notorious of this category is BABY FACE (1933). A poor Barbara Stanwyck stands in front of a skyscraper and decides that she wants to go to the top—and she does just that by sleeping her way from office to office, floor to floor, until she snares the rich playboy that lives in the building’s penthouse.

Other standout examples of pre-code films include MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934), a musical with an over the top number devoted to marijuana; THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932), a Cecil B. deMille epic ostensibly about Christian martyrs, yet seems to relish showing Roman orgies; and THE EMPEROR JONES (1933), featuring the legendary Paul Robeson who escapes the poverty of the segregated South to become a despotic dictator on a tiny Caribbean island (another film to be discussed at length in the future). The era also showcased the sophisticated sexual innuendo of Mae West and the Marx Brothers before they became de-fanged caricatures.
Some of these films are making their way to DVD, and many are available on VHS if you can find an independent rental outlet with a deep catalogue. Several pre-code films turn up from time to time on cable’s Turner Classic Movies channel. Later on, I will devote posts to specific films, actors, and other topics surrounding the pre-code era.


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