In 1915, the United States Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not covered by the First Amendment. As a result of this, city and state censorship ordinances began to take hold in the motion picture industry and films that contained “immoral content” were ostracized. As Hollywood became more glamorous and subsequently more dangerous, at least in the point of view of the puritanical outsider, persistent calls for the “cleaning up” of Hollywood filled the 1920s.
In 1922, to answer the considerable public outcry, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (now the MPAA) was formed to self-police the movie industry. Led by Will H. Hays, the former United States Postmaster General, the Association fought off attempts at federal censorship by imposing a morality clause. Hays and the Association lacked the authority to censor or change things in Hollywood, however, and business went on pretty much as usual.
With the advent of talkies in 1927, there was a “need” for further enforcement as people were now able to talk about all sorts of morally reprehensible things. Various individuals began lobbying for a higher standard of censorship and film producers kept ignoring Hays and the Association. There was a kind of understanding in Hollywood and the “dos and don’ts” of the Association functioned more like a bit of advice than any sort of authoritative statement.
From 1930 to 1934, the economics of the Great Depression and changing social mores created one of the most interesting times in American cinema history. Studios began to produce racier films and Hays’s Association was unable to keep up. The films reflected the experience of the times, providing entertainment and titillation for masses.
After 1934, however, different groups of so-called “moral authority” brought about the Hays Code in a concrete, enforceable form. The Code stipulated a slew of provisions that were all based around three basic fundamentals:
- No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
- Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
- Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
There were also specific provisions given regarding the Code that made it difficult for films to express much by way of freedom of thought or style. As a result, many of the films produced under the Hays Code had to work harder to get their point across. This led to some of the most interesting and compelling films in history, including 1942’s Casablanca and some of the racier subtle comedies of the day.
Turner Classic Movies delved into their archives to gather a sense of the pre-Code era with the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 1. Released with three films, 1931’s Waterloo Bridge, 1933’s Baby Face, and 1932’s Red Headed Woman, the collection featured some of the spiciest and most controversial films of pre-Code Hollywood.
With the release of TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 2, five films capture the racy days of the early 1930s. Highlighted by an informative and entertaining documentary entitled Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood, the collection presents films that have not lost their ability to stun, shock, and titillate.
Presented on three discs, the collection begins with 1930’s The Divorcee. Starring Norma Shearer, this Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer All Talking Picture is a stunning film. Playing the wife of a husband caught in an affair, Shearer’s character decides that the only way to make her husband learn a lesson about infidelity is to embark on her own affair. She matches him, tryst for tryst, in a highly controversial story that asserts the notion that if men can do it, women can do it better.
Next, Norma Shearer is at it again in 1931’s A Free Soul. Also starring Lionel Barrymore and Clark Gable, A Free Soul features Gable in a role that would cement him as a solid leading man. Slapping Shearer around, Gable still gets the girl in the end and the bad guy gets away. With no apologies, A Free Soul shows the bad side of humanity and allows for no repercussions.
Disc 2 features the classic Three on a Match. From 1932, Three on a Match features Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak in an unforgettable turn, and the always compelling Bette Davis. Noted mostly for Dvorak’s controversial role as a character who is leaving her husband and four-year-old son for a gangster, Three on a Match is the story of three women reuniting ten years after high school. It is a poignant and self-aware movie.
Also on disc 2 is Michael Curtiz’s Female, starring Ruth Chatterton. Female is the quintessential tale of the predatory female. Chatterton stars as the president of a car company who exercises her right to engage with her male staffers in any way she pleases. When she meets a strong-willed new employee, the battle of sexual wits that follows is sharp comedy for the ages.
Disc 3 features an unsentimental and dark comedy called Night Nurse. Starring the gorgeous and wonderful Barbara Stanwyck, Night Nurse is a William Wellman film that plunges the depths and almost seems like a pulp fiction story. After discovering a plot to starve two children, Stanwyck’s character must concoct a plan to stop the culprit (Clark Gable) from pulling off his devious scheme.
The Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 2 is a strong set of films from the 1930s. It speaks to the power and the influence of the pre-Code era that the films on this set are still racy, raunchy, and a hell of a lot of fun. The set is beautifully put together, too, and the features are fun. With some trailers and the aforementioned documentary leading the way, the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 2 is a great primer for those interested in looking at Hollywood’s roaring '30s before censorship became rule of law.