What the heck is a ‘Pre-Code’ picture?!
If you love older Hollywood films, you may have heard the term ‘Pre-Code.’ However, too often there really isn’t any sort of explanation as to what this exactly means. For years, I really didn’t know exactly what this meant and when I heard about Pre-Code films, I only had a vague idea what this meant. Hopefully I can help you sort all this out and gain an appreciation for these sorts of movies.
Back in the old days, not too long after dinosaurs stopped roaming the Earth according to my youngest daughter, there was no set standard for films in the US. Each state had their own set of rules and often films were either chopped to pieces to appease each state as well as local authorities, or they were banned outright. To make things more confusing, much of the rest of the world had widely varying standards as well. So, in the 1920s, Hollywood decided to try to get around this problem by creating their own Production Code and appointed Will Hays as its head. After a short time, however, it became obvious that this code was actually just a ruse. Films were not cleaned up. In fact, they were getting a lot worse and by the early 1930s films were shocking, even by today’s standards.
Since there was no rating system, parents couldn’t be so sure that their kids wouldn’t be exposed to questionable material, so Hollywood’s answer was the artful use of the innuendo. While words like prostitute, abortion, homosexuality, adultery and the like, were not used in films, they sure were heavily implied and appeared often in films. Even the most naive adults in the audience would have picked up on many of these allusions and it’s fun watching the films today to see how they did this, although, some of these adult aspects to the films were far less subtle. For example, in the film Parachute Jumper, Frank McHugh plays a guy trying to thumb a ride and his thumb quickly becomes the middle finger when a car passes him! And, in a few of these films, such as Tarzan and His Mate, there was nudity…very artful nudity but clearly nudity. Additionally, gangster films were amazingly brutal and sometimes seemed to glamorize the life.
As a result of all these factors, groups like The Catholic Legion of Decency began campaigning against Hollywood and placed some films on their banned list. At first, Hollywood seems to have appreciated this publicity and films got worse–after all, the public was curious about these ‘bad’ movies! However, when folks finally stopped coming to theaters and the bottom line was affected, Hollywood took notice. Studio heads met and decided to create a much tougher Production Code and in mid-1934 it was implemented. As a result, many films had to be hastily edited to get them approved for distribution or shelved completely. And, many films were remade–with much more sanitary plots and wholesome characters.
Some of this was good. After all, with no ratings system, something had to be done to prevent kids from being exposed to these things. However, some of the changes were too great and as a result many topics would remain buried for decades. Starting in 1934, homosexuality simply no longer existed, folks who slept around were always punished as were the gangsters, no one knew what an abortion was, married couples inexplicably slept in separate beds and you rarely saw anything more than a very brief and chaste kiss. However, a few films learned to be even more subtle in implying inappropriate behaviors–such as the rape that occurs in Johnny Belinda (a great film, by the way) and so they were eventually approved for release. Unfortunately, films often became dull as a result of the sanitization of the code.
So what happened with the code? Over time, it was weakened a bit here and there and the Production Code Office gradually loosened some of their mandates. However, in the 1960s came a huge change when the code was abandoned altogether for the system we are now used to here in the States–the national ratings board. Now films would receive ratings and would be able to feature much more. Is this a perfect system? Not at all (as you’ll learn if you watch the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated). And, I am sure one day it, too, will be replaced by something…
As for the term ‘Pre-Code,’ I should add a few final words. First, although every film made before mid-1934 is technically Pre-Code, the term is usually applied only to the racier films of this era that were made after Hays was appointed, but before mid-1934. So, you’re very unlikely to see a film geared for kids in the early 30s referred to as Pre-Code. Second, explaining the code doesn’t really adequately describe the allure of the Pre-Code films today. So, in future articles I’ll be discussing a variety of topics related to it–such as Bad Girls of the Pre-Code as well as how a Pre-Code film and a Production Code remake might differ. I hope you’ll not only read these articles but try a few of the films yourself–and I’ll have plenty of recommendations.
By Martin Hafer