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Pre-code Hollywood

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I’ve been reminded of a 1999 book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934 that I want to recommend. Before reading this book, I had heard of the “Hollywood production code”, but didn’t really get the extent of the real honest-to-god censorship that fell on the movie industry for over a quarter century. Basically, the Catholic church set the standards for not just language but topics and plot turns that were acceptable.

Doherty’s book brings this out by examination of the several years before the production code went into effect, and before it was actually enforced. The Marx Brothers probably simply could not have made Duck Soup five years later.

In this telling of the story, the production code was largely discredited as an effective and enforceable code by the brazen disregard of… Alfred Hitchcock. I don’t know if the destruction of this stupid production code nonsense could really be put down to ONE film; that sounds too romantic and cool to be true.

Doherty makes a pretty compelling case that the movie Psycho specifically and egregiously flaunted the production code. He details the ways. Hitchcock and this movie were simply too big to stop. From there, the decline of the Motion Picture Production Code was rapid.

Dang, Psycho was already the shiznit, but looking at it after reading this book, having some idea of the historical significance of the movie politically- that makes it that much sweeter.

Reading this book will also give you better appreciation for the early work of James Cagney, particularly The Public Enemy, and what a truly raw and risque piece of work that was.

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  • http://www.ubersportingpundit.com/hotbuttereddeath/ James Russell

    Some remarkable things went on in the pre-Code era. I’m led to believe the first audible use of the word “fuck” in an American film can be found in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 film “Design For Living”…

  • http://www.whiterose.org/michael/blog/ Michael Croft

    I love pre-code hollywood. There’s nothing like watching Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as a pirate who kills a man to get a ring off his finger.

    Pre-code DVDs are one of my favorite features of Netflix.

  • http://www.well.com/~srhodes Steve Rhodes

    Though there aren’t nearly enough pre-code DVDs. As I mentioned last week, TCM is showing pre-code films every Tuesday night in May and most aren’t available on DVD.

    The best way to see the film of course is in a theater and places like the Roxie and Castro in San Francisco often show pre-code films.

  • http://www.eddriscoll.com Ed Driscoll

    Al,

    There’s an interesting story about the photograph on the cover of Doherty’s book, and some speculation as to how it would be staged today, in a recent Reason article.

    Ed

  • http://www.well.com/~srhodes Steve Rhodes

    Kennet Turan has a piece in the LA Times, sex and lies but no videotape which mentions the TCM Tuesday night films and the Sin Uncensored: Hollywood Before the Code at UCLA through May 31.

  • greg stacey

    people who haven’t seen a pre code film are rather shocked at the explicit nature of the subject matter,even in 2005! human nature hasn’t changed a great deal from the early 1930’s as pre code films show us today. baby face with barbara stanwyck or employees entrance with loretta young are still pretty strong stuff!!