Pre-Code Hollywood: Rules are Made to be Broken
Film writers and critics Pamela Hutchinson and Christina Newland present some of Hollywood’s most risqué films made before the 1930’s Hays code was enforced. We’re delighted to join their nationwide season Pre-Code Hollywood, with films screening at Phoenix this December.
To introduce the season, we spoke to co-curator Christina Newland who offers valuable insight into the inspiration behind Pre-Code below.
“If we’re talking about Golden Age Hollywood, there are certain ironclad rules audiences tend to accept unthinkingly: people don’t use illegal drugs, they don’t undress, they don’t (permanently) divorce, they don’t have pre-marital sex, and they don’t show explicit, bloody violence. This is universally-received wisdom for so many decades that it can be hard to believe there was ever a time when Hollywood actually relished in all the bad behaviour it could get.
But before the censors came along in 1934 and stomped out all the fun, there were a few brief years where fast, thrilling, nasty flicks were the talk of the town. They starred the likes of James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, and Norma Shearer, often as avaricious criminals or unrepentant harlots and homewreckers; here are movie stars acting naughtier than you’ve ever seen them.
In our touring season of five restored films, Pre-Code Hollywood: Rules are Made to be Broken, Park Circus and Cinema Rediscovered present the wild, dangerous, risqué period of the early 1930s, when crimes did pay, the bad guy can get the girl in the end, and you really could get away with murder.
Jean Harlow steals husbands and drinks bathtub gin with aplomb in Red-Headed Woman (1932); James Cagney and Joan Blondell go on a crime spree in Blonde Crazy (1931); a baroness falls for a marijuana-smoking jewel thief in Jewel Robbery (1932); Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top in Baby Face (1933); and Norma Shearer follows her lusty passions in A Free Soul (1931).
Each of the films pack licentious antics, criminal schemes, and some dagger-sharp quips into their lean running times, not to mention an awful lot of swishing around in fabulous gowns.
In 1934, though, the Hays Production Code crashed the party. A set of killjoy religious-minded censors set down a series of rules that would remain unwavering until the late 1950s: married couples must always reunite, nudity, sex, drugs and bad language were prohibited, and criminals must be punished for their misdeeds.
Films could not be made without being vetted and approved by the Production Code Administration, and censors often requested heavy cuts or changes to the films being made.
Some actors suffered as a result of the Code: out went Mae West, with her self-possessed sense of sexual heat and wit, and in came Shirley Temple, a literal child, who was a threat to no one. But before Hollywood became family-friendly, there was a short space of time where adult material ruled the roost. In those heady Pre-Code years, swagger, sex, and sin were served right beside your popcorn.”
Christina Newland is the lead film critic at the i paper and a journalist on film, pop culture, and boxing at VICE, Criterion, Sight & Sound, BBC, MUBI, Empire, and others.
Film images provided by Pre-Code Hollywood, Park Circus and Cinema Rediscovered.