When it comes to the movies, sin never goes out of style. And on April 28, it’s back on your TV screen when TCM presents a three-film series looking back at Hollywood’s pre-Code era with three films: Little Caesar (1931), Red-Headed Woman (1932), and Baby Face (1933); all of which Mark A. Vieira covers in his latest book, Forbidden Hollywood: The Pre-Code Era (1930–1934): When Sin Ruled the Movies.
Despite the cumbersome title, Vieira’s book is a swift-moving detailed account of Hollywood during the early 1930s, and the 22 films the brought about the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code or, as it is more commonly known, “the Hays Code” after Motion Picture Producer and Distributors of America president Will H. Hays.
A little backstory: The 1920s were a period of impressive expansion for the movies. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was formed in May 1927 with the mission of protecting and promoting the industry. Their inaugural awards ceremony followed in 1928.
With attention came condemnation, mostly from religious organizations but also from local mores. What passed for acceptable behavior in New York City was frowned upon in Pittsburgh. And what was frowned upon in Pittsburgh was sacrilege in Omaha. When movies were silent, exhibitors could easily snip out the objectionable frames, and the movie would play. But, when synchronized sound came along in 1927, the film would be projected alongside a sound disk providing the dialogue. Now the films could no longer be regionally edited without being completely thrown out of whack, and that meant our skittish exhibitor in Omaha would skip the movie altogether.
What to do? Well, rather than have individual markets police the movies, the movie studios decided to police themselves. In 1930, they issued “the Code,” a list of “Don’t’” and “Be Careful” for writers, producers, directors, and studio executives.
But then, the Great Depression. Attendance plummeted, and studios and theater owners had to bring them back. The answer: Ignore the Code and give the masses all the tawdry sex, nudity, and violence they could handle.
It worked. Then as now, sex sells.
As you might expect, flouting the Code drew an awful lot of attention. Enter Joseph Breen, a reporter from Philadelphia on the right side of the Catholic Legion of Decency. Hays appointed Breen as his enforcer, and in June 1934, adherence to the Production Code became as mandatory to filmmaking as electricity.
Forbidden Hollywood is Vieira’s second book on the subject—his first, Sin in Soft Focus, is currently out of print—and he deftly traces this four-year-period with extensive research and over 200 photographs, many of which have never been published before. For cineastes, it’s a must.
Vieira identifies 22 films as hallmarks of the pre-Code era: The Trial of Mary Dugan, The Cock-Eyed World, The Divorcee, Hell’s Angels, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Dracula, Frankenstein, A Free Soul, Possessed, Scarface, Red-Headed Woman, Call Her Savage, Island of Lost Souls, The Sign of the Cross, She Done Him Wrong, So This Is Africa, Baby Face, The Story of Temple, Drake, Convention City, Queen Christina, and Tarzan and His Mate.
Three of these: Little Caesar, Red-Headed Woman, and Baby Face, will show on TCM on April 28. One has undertones of homosexuality, two have working-class women using sex to get ahead, and all three are hilarious and entertaining. They make modern-day movies look downright cloistered.