When discussing classic film with those who may have little knowledge of its history, a common grievance I hear is that people take issue with the contrived storylines and docile women that they perceive to make up the cinematic landscape of classic Hollywood. “The stories are all the same,” they often state, “and the women are so wholesome and pure. It’s not real.” When I hear statements like these, I try to give as much historical context as is appropriate for the conversation, and then…I almost always recommend a pre-Code.
Before the strict enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, Hollywood was the antithesis of what most people consider “old movies” to be. A far cry from the sweet, obedient women who always ended up married to the good guy at the end, women in this era of filmmaking were often driven, manhunting, sexual creatures who lived their own lives, their own way. They got divorces, slept their way to the top, and weren’t afraid of the power of men.
This was the world of pre-Code Hollywood.
In 1922, following a series of Hollywood scandals that culminated in the accusation and ultimate acquittal of Fatty Arbuckle in 1921 in the famous Virginia Rappe rape trial, Hollywood realized that its morals were coming into serious question by certain political factions. The studios hired Will Hays, Presbyterian clergyman and former head of the Republican National Committee, to try to tame what they perceived to be an industry spiraling out of control. He drafted a series of “Do’s, Don’ts, and Be Carefuls” that ultimately morphed into the first Hollywood Production Code, put into effect in 1930. Jason Joy was employed as the chief enforcer of the new mandate, holding the post until 1932.
Though the code existed as a technicality, Jason Joy was not too keen on its enforcement and the first film that was reviewed under the new system, The Blue Angel (1930), was passed through with very few changes. The story of an elderly professor who falls in love with a cabaret singer is one that has become a classic of German cinema, but in 1930 it was branded as indecent by a California state censor. As there was poor communication between Joy’s office and the studios, and poor infrastructure regarding who had the power over what, there was not much that Joy could do had he wanted to.
While the studios and the Production Code office fumbled with the cumbersome new laws, box-office sales skyrocketed. Out of this era of lack of code enforcement came films that were sexy, steamy, brutal, and raw. Women were loose and manipulative, men killed and massacred. There were overt references to sex, and near-nudity.
In Night Nurse (1931) Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck dress and undress 3 times in the first half hour.
Despite the Code’s ban on sexual suggestion and nudity in silhouette, this scene from Golddiggers of 1933 appeared, a clear slap in the face to the Production Code office and one of the raciest scenes to come out of the 1930s.
There was an air of lawlessness in the movies, and the public loved it. The studios were making movies that people wanted in spite of the powers-that-be, and they were doing it right under their noses.
And then came Baby Face (1933).
Film scholars often cite Baby Face as the film that served as the tipping point for all the changes that would take place the following year. At the TCM Festival a few weeks ago Bruce Goldstein, president of the New York Film Forum, described Baby Face as the Citizen Kane of pre-Codes, a film so good, so racy, and so much in defiance of everything the Code stood for that it singlehandedly rallied the office to action.
Baby Face is the story of a young woman who, tired of her life as a prostitute in the saloon owned by her father, decides to use her powers over men to get a job and rise to the upper echelons of New York society. Literally sleeping her way to the top, she is the epitome of the power pre-Code women had over their men. All the men in the movie simply crumble to her will, she uses them as rungs on the ladder to get to where she wants to be.
Even by today’s standards, Baby Face in its original form is a monument to feminism, a story of how a woman uses her wiles to outsmart all the men in her life. But upon its completion in mid-1933 the Production Code office, now headed by Joseph Breen, panicked. The film broke so many rules of the Code, it was essentially unfit for release and was banned by censors across the country. Serious cuts were made to Baby Face to make it palatable to censors, and less than 6 months after the release of Baby Face in December of 1933, an amendment was added to the Code to require all films released after July 1, 1934, to obtain a certificate of approval before their release into theatres. An important shot of a muder/suicide scene in Baby Face was cut to comply with restrictions on murder. Scenes such as this one were cut to comply with the restriction on illicit sex being presented as attractive:
The original cut of Baby Face was tragically presumed lost, until 2004 when a print of the original negative was discovered at the Library of Congress. It premiered at the London Film Festival, and is now widely available via several DVD releases. The print is magnificent. The original theatrical release shows a movie that is nothing special, a run-of-the-mill production with few particularly memorable moments. But when one views the original, uncut version, it is magical. The movie comes to life, and it is a rich, complex story of a woman’s drive and motivation to better herself. Baby Face is the ultimate pre-Code, and the discovery of the uncut version in 2004 stands as one of the most important cinematic discoveries of the last 20 years.
As for the Code itself, it slowly chafed away until its replacement by the MPAA in 1968. It is a controversial subject among film scholars. In my personal view, though the Code severely restricted the freedom of artists to express themselves in Hollywood, its enforcement had its benefits to the progression of the movie industry. In order to make the films they wanted to make, filmmakers were forced to resort to subtlety and innuendo, clever and biting dialogue that went under the radar of the censors, and that audiences had to listen or watch for. Movies played to smarter audiences, because the Code forced them to.
The Women (1939)
But as the Code lasted for such a long span of film history, far too few people know about the rich history before its enforcement, when films were decidedly modern and extremely thrilling. For further reading on this subject, I would recommend Mick LaSalle’s 2000 book Complicated Women, all about the women of pre-Code Hollywood and the roles they played. A great read on an immensely fascinating subject.
See you next time!