In Retrospective: Hollywood History: The Pre-Code Era (1928-1934)

4 mins read

This is part one of an ongoing series of articles based around Hollywood history, discussing the Pre-Code era of Hollywood film-

The Pre-Code Hollywood Era, from 1928-1934, is a very singular period in the history of the movie-making palace.

It took place before the widespread use of sound in filmmaking in 1929 and before the harsh enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, guidelines for censorship within film – or the Hays Code, as it is commonly known, which came into force in mid-1934.

The Pre-Code Era was a time of progressive filmmaking, focusing on bold, often controversial, subject matters. A lot of the discussions brought up within these films wouldn’t return to American film until after the death of the Hay’s Code in the 60s.

Silent-era sex films and crime films were two of the main genres responsible for controversy, however, silent-era horror did not gain the same.

However, when sound came around, they quickly gained controversy as it was thought that sound added an extra level of macabre and terror to the horror films produced and this intensified audience reactions.

The main sub-genre of pre-code Hollywood Horror was Monster Movies with Frankenstein (1931) being a prime example. Causing much controversy around its release – especially due to a scene where the main monster throws a little girl into a body of water. However, this film had already been re-cut to comply with censorship and therefore was permitted.

Universal Studios is responsible for the horror films we know and love today; with their hits such as Dracula (1931), the as mentioned Frankenstein (1931) & The Mummy (1932) remaining in cult iconography even today.

In 1922, The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) were trying to bring censorship into play in Hollywood.

The roaring ’20s had brought changes in the American view of sexuality. It was an era of social liberation; women were becoming more respected and being treated as professionals after being given the vote in 1920.

With high-ranking members of prominent Christian churches furious about what they perceived as immorality & filth in cinema, they paid Presbyterian church leader William Hays a huge amount to get involved with studios and the government to bring about what would eventually become the now infamous Hay’s Code.

What came around initially in the pre-code times was a list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” (proposed – 1927). A lot of which would become main points in the Hay’s Code.

Some key points on the list of “Don’ts” were:

  1. White Slavery
  2. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases
  3. Ridicule of the clergy
  4. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words God, Lord, Jesus, Christ (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), Hell, S.O.B, damn, Gawd, and every other profane and vulgarity expression however it may be spelled.

And on the list of “Be Carefuls”:

  1. Arson
  2. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime
  3. Sympathy for criminals
  4. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.

The full list can be viewed here

Prominent films in this era are The Divorcee (1930), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), The Public Enemy (1931) Freaks (1932) & Red Headed Woman (1932).

Next Wednesday, we’ll be discussing the Hay’s Code and its impact on Hollywood at the time.

Featured Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

+ posts

Film & Media & Journalism Student
Here to review, discuss & celebrate all things film.
contact me:

%d bloggers like this: