Once upon a time, there was a period in American cinema—roughly 1930 to 1934—that with dewy-eyed nostalgia is celebrated as a last great flowering of bold, envelope-pushing, taboo-busting, sex-and-mayhem laden movies before the whip hand of censorship came down and put a stop to all the nonsense. These few years are shorthanded as the “pre-Code” era, and it was eighty years ago today—15 July 1934—that the Production Code Administration, one of Hollywood’s most successful attempts to police itself, began its work as the final arbiter of what could or could not be shown on American movie screens for the next three decades.
Of course, pretty much from the moment that cinema was invented, organizations were founded to censor the nascent medium. If it wasn’t the provocative dancing of Carmencita, it was the barbarity of boxing films. If it wasn’t the actual content of films, it was a concern that picture shows were becoming hangouts for layabouts and undesirables (read: immigrants). A censorship committee was founded in New York City in 1909, and by the mid-teens there were dozens of individual municipalities and states with boards of their own.
And these boards were kept fairly busy as narrative cinema evolved. Not only was the industry maturing—we see the beginnings of the studio system in the late teens and early 20s–but films were increasingly sophisticated in terms of both their editing style and the subject matter they addressed. From the brazenly sensual films of that most hedonistic of moralists Cecil B DeMille to movies that dealt with drug addiction, abortion, and eugenics, Hollywood was often found teetering at the edge of propriety…and the bluenoses were getting restless.
Then, within five months, the film industry’s public image took a calamitous nosedive. In September 1921, beloved comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter in the death of an ingénue named Virginia Rappe, and then in February 1922, director William Desmond Taylor was murdered, a case that remains unsolved to this day.
A perfect storm of scandal and public outrage was forming. It didn’t take long for the threat of Congressional investigation and the howls of state censorship boards to reach the business offices in New York and the production lots in Los Angeles. Now, there’s nothing that will focus the mind of industry barons like the threat of government oversight, and the movie studio chieftains were no different. So, in an effort to prove how serious they were about cleaning up their own act, the film moguls reached out to an unimpeachable symbol of moral rectitude–a deacon in the Presbyterian Church, former chair of the Republican Party, campaign manager for Warren G Harding’s 1920 Presidential campaign, and now Postmaster General, Will Hays.
Hays was installed as head of the newly formed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) at a salary of $150,000/year and given the job of turning down any regulatory heat. And in this, Hays proved quite the adept politician, shepherding the industry through a series of self-censoring rules and guidelines, first with the “Formula” (1924), then the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” (1927), and then A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized, and Silent Motion Pictures in 1930, or what came to be known as the Hays Code.
Between the Code and the presence of state censorship boards all over the country, one might expect that films produced after 1930 were exemplars of wholesomeness and purity. In practice, the men who enforced the Code on behalf of the MPPDA (Jason Joy and his successor James Wingate) were wholly ineffectual, primarily due to the very small staffs they were allotted to keep up with the work of reviewing scripts, treatments, and finished films while battling studios that weren’t especially thrilled by the bottleneck caused by the whole operation.
The pre-Code era has been the subject of many books and articles, so there’s no way I can cover it in a blog post without drastically oversimplifying. To wit: there’s no question that many movies during these years were heavily informed by the Great Depression, and it’s demonstrably the case that many films—particularly those made at Warner Bros., whose emphasis was on gritty realism and “stories torn from today’s headlines”—represented a remarkable symbiosis of studio economics and aesthetics.
But while we justifiably associate Warner Bros. with gangster films like The Public Enemy, social consciousness pictures like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and lurid dramas such as Baby Face, it’s also important to remember that among the studio’s most reliable and profitable stars during these years were comedian Joe E. Brown and master thespian George Arliss. Just because a movie was released between 1930 and 1934 doesn’t make it a “pre-Code” film!
Of course, the term “pre-Code” is something of a misnomer; more accurately, it should be called “pre-enforcement of the Code” because by 1934, censorship groups—most notably the Catholic Legion of Decency—were again agitating about the immorality of motion pictures. This time, Hays really put his foot down, establishing the Production Code Administration under the leadership of Joseph Breen. And so it was that beginning 15 July 1934, every film produced by a MPPDA member would have to be approved by the PCA before it could be released, or else the member faced heavy fines.
In the 1950s such films as The Man With the Golden Arm and The Moon is Blue posed direct challenges to the Code by portraying adult themes in an increasingly frank manner. By 1968, movies like Blow Up and Bonnie and Clyde prompted the Motion Picture Association of America (the successor to the MPPDA) to replace the Code with the letter-based ratings system we have today.
And here’s some good trivia in case it becomes the subject of a bar bet: the first film to receive the PCA seal of approval was The World Moves On, directed by John Ford and released by Fox.