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Pre-Code:Hollywood's Era of Raw and Racy Movies

Updated on April 1, 2008

Jean Harlow


Pre code Hollywood was an era in the film industry before the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code. The movies made in this short time period were freer than those made for decades after. These films are still facinating generations of audiences because of their power to shock and stimulate. I recently veiwed a documentary released by Turner Classic Movies "Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre Code Hollywood" which shed light on the conditions leading up to the Production Code, it's effect of films, and eventual enfourcement in 1934. I wanted to share the information with others and give them the opportunity to enjoy these brilliant and vital films.

The year was 1930, the stock market had crashed and millions were unemployed. The era of the silent film had ended and Hollywood was now faced with talking roles in film. This brought about an entirely new challenge for censors and films wouldn't be protected by free speech of the 1st amendment until 1952. A group of Catholic clergy and lay Catholics relized that the adaption of sound in films could lead to more daring and immoral movies. They feared the effect that this may have, so they met with the production heads of various studios to revise the production code that had previously been put into place by the Studio Relations Committee. Revisions were made and all the major studios agreed to comply with it.

This was just a ploy by the industry to get the Catholics off of their case and Hollywood continued making films that pushed the envelope. The Studio Relations Committee really had no control over screen content and were ignored by the studios.

The Code stated that films could only disply certain things that were deemed explicit or immoral if they motivated the plot and were not shown as acceptable behavior. The audience wasn't to be made excited by what they saw on the silverscreen.

Mae West

James Cagney

Barbara Stanwyck

Must See Pre -Code Films

There was a time when movies from the pre-code era were difficult to find, but with the growing interest many of these films have been released on vhs and dvd. To truly understand exactly how much the studios got away with you should watch the movies for yourself. I have compiled a list of a few of the essentials that I recommend you check out.

  • Baby Face (1933) Many critics at the time thought that Baby Face was "The most depraved film to come out of Hollywood." It is the story of Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) who sleeps her way to the top and isn't denounced for her raunchy behavior.
  • Three on a Match (1932) The lifes of three women are examined in this example of everything that went agianst the code sex,drugs,violence and even child abuse. It may be a shocking tale but still manages to have a good storyline.
  • The Divorcee (1930) Norma Shearer plays an ordianary wife who, upon discovering that her husband has been unfaithful, sets out on a voyage of sexual discovery and in the end returns to her husband.
  • Public Enemy (1931) Starring James Cagney and Jean Harlow in this early gangster film. The criminal underground and life of the thug are explored with vivid images of violence for the time.
  • Female (1933) Shockingly naughty film about a female executive boss who sleeps with her male employees. She uses them to satisfy her needs and then dismisses them afterward.
  • The Scarlett Empress (1934) Von Sternberg's strange and very artsy film starring Marlene Dietrich. This film was accually released in the US after Hollywood had began to enforce the code.
  • I'm No Angel (1933) Mae West wrote and plays the leading role alongside Cary Grant in this hilarious film. If you ever wondered why Mae West is considered a sex symbol, just watch this film.
  • Wonder Bar (1934) A scandalous film about one evening at a nightclub. This film appalled audiences then and I'm certain that you will gasp in disbelief as well. This film features a very highly disputed scene of two men dancing together and the offensive musical "Goin To Heaven on a Mule"

The End of an Era

The Pre Code era came to an end in April of 1934. Movie attendance began to rise due to the end of the depression and groups began to speak out agianst the values that films represented. Joseph Breen, a devout Catholic, became the head of the Studio Relations Committee and along with the Catholic Legion of Decency vowed to clean up Hollywood. He pushed for the Production Code to be enforced and the studios gave in to his demands. Hollywood founded the Production Code Administration and no film could be released without their seal of approval. Then finally decades later in 1968 the Production Code was abolished for the rating system that we use today.


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      Ross 8 years ago

      Thanks. A really interesting article