From 1929-1934, Hollywood produced some of the 20th century’s most progressive films. This period of time — and the films that were made within it — is widely known as Pre-Code Hollywood. But what is Pre-Code Hollywood? It was more than just a few years in cinema history — it was a liberal shift in culture. We’re going to look at the history of Pre-Code movies and how it was shut down. But before we get into the Pre-Code examples, let’s remind ourselves of the period’s general history.

Pre-Code Hollywood History

The transition to Pre-Code

There was cinema before, during, and after "the code." But not all films before the implementation of the code are considered Pre-Code movies. Okay, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. “What is this mysterious code?” you may be thinking.

Good question! The code is the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC), more commonly known as the Hays Production Code, or simply ‘the Hays Code.’ All Hollywood films had to comply with the rules of the Hays Code from 1934-1968.

We’re going to touch on the Hays Code in a minute, but first, let’s remind ourselves of how the cinema industry got from the Silent Era to what we refer to as Pre-Code. This next video explains the various technical and logistical reasons why Hollywood moved from silent films to sound.

Breaking the Silence  •  Film History

As a result of the shift from silence to sound, Hollywood pictures started to veer in new, experimental directions. Some films flirted with nudity, others portrayed criminals in a positive light. This brief, yet hugely influential period in Hollywood, is known as the Pre-Code era.


What is Pre-Code Hollywood?

Pre-Code Hollywood is the period in American filmmaking between the Silent Era and the institution of the Hays Code (1929-1934). Pre-Code films have become synonymous with progressive ideals and bold subject matter. Many of the topics and themes addressed in Pre-Code movies wouldn’t return to in American filmmaking until the 1960s. The Hays Code was a rulebook established by Will Hays as an attempt for Hollywood studios to "self-censor" to appease the moral majority.

Pre-Code Hollywood Characteristics:

  • Progressive Ideals
  • Empowering Women
  • Gangsters
  • Social Issues
  • Monsters and Mayhem
  • Commentary on the Church

Types of Pre Code Movies

Pre-code movies and genres

As far back as 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was trying to censor Hollywood. The roaring '20s brought about a radical change in the way the American people viewed sexuality. For the first time in the nation’s history, women were starting to become respected as professionals. It’s important to remember that women were only given the right to vote in 1920.

But whenever too much progress is made in the right direction, there are those who will try desperately to bring things back to the status quo. Several high-ranking members of Christian churches were upset about the direction cinema was going. As such, they paid Presbyterian leader William Hays an enormous salary to work with studios and the government to develop a censorship code.

However, for the early years of the Code’s development, Hays found it near-impossible to enforce the stringent censorship guidelines. These early guidelines are known as the “Don'ts and Be Carefuls.” The full list of rules stated that a myriad of things were either completely prohibited or strongly discouraged. Here are some of the most famous rules:

What is the Hays Code?

Highlights From the Hays Code

The Hays Code prohibited the following:

  • Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture
  • Ridicule of the clergy
  • 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," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled.
  • Special care must be exercised when dealing with: Sympathy for criminals; The use of drugs; and The institution of marriage.

These are just a few of the rules Hays hoped to enforce in the 1920s. However, it just simply didn’t work out. Cinema continued to move into unrestrained directions, largely in spite of those who condemned it. Now that we understand what was going on in Hollywood during this time, let’s jump into some of the most iconic Pre-Code movies.

Pre Code Movies - The Relationship Drama

The Divorcee (1930)

It’s easy to forget just how taboo the idea of divorce was throughout the better half of the 20th century. The Divorcee deals not only with divorce itself, but with the motivations behind it, and the lasting implications that result from it.

This next video gives history to the film and offers a lot of great analysis:

The Divorcee  •  Review and Analysis

The Divorcee was nominated for three Academy Awards and won one (Best Actress for Norma Shearer — who was one of the most famous Pre-Code actresses). Many cinema historians cite The Divorcee as one of the most important films of the Pre-Code era. The film isn’t radical by today’s standards, but considering the time, it was a big step forward for the depiction of realism in relationships, and sexuality.

Pre Code Movies - The Monster Masterpiece

Frankenstein (1931)

James Whale’s Frankenstein adaptation is one of the most iconic films of the Pre-Code era and one of the best horror films ever. Monster movies became incredibly popular during this time due to the advent of sound, prosthetics, and special effects. Frankenstein made great use of all the new filmmaking technology, and it was a big hit with moviegoers.

However, many tried to censor the film, citing blasphemy and content unsuitable for consumption. This scene in particular drew a considerable amount of ire from Hays and the MPPDA:

Precode  •  Frankenstein (1931) Clip

The line “In the name of God? Now I know what it feels like to be God” was considered blasphemous — but, again, we must consider the time in which Frankenstein was produced. The Church had an enormous influence in the court of public consumption — which is something they desperately held onto. Perhaps we can look to a line from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel to explain why, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

Pre Code Gangster Movies

The Public Enemy (1931)

James Cagney was one of the biggest stars of Pre-Code Hollywood. Fortunately, Cagney's career endured far after the Pre-Code era — which is something that can’t be said for a lot of actors. But there’s no doubt about it, Cagney rose to prominence during the Pre-Code years.

The Public Enemy stars Cagney as an American gangster who gets caught up in bootlegging and a cycle of violence.

The Public Enemy  •  Trailer

Gangster movies were incredibly popular in the Pre-Code era — there was something innately alluring about criminal life to moviegoers at the time. Perhaps it was because of prohibition.

Although the sale and distribution of alcohol was illegal from 1920-1933, few people actually adhered to the law. In many ways, prohibition and Hollywood censorship guidelines were incredibly similar. There was an outspoken minority who demanded rules be put in place, but they weren’t followed because the majority didn’t agree with them. Ultimately, The Public Enemy gives us insight into both issues — and it just so happens to be one of the best gangster movies of all time.

Pre Code Movies - Feminist Focus

Red Headed Woman (1932)

Few films of the Pre-Code era are as celebrated as Jack Conway’s Red Headed Woman. Jean Harlow stars in the picture as an ambitious young woman who will do anything it takes to get ahead. Most of the time, she relies on her sexual prowess to advance herself. There wasn’t a lot of Pre-Code nudity, even in the most risque Pre-Code movies, but Red Headed Woman made the Hays office so furious that they started to work with renewed vigor on the enforcement of the Code.

If you’ve seen just one clip from the Pre-Code era, it’s probably this:

Precode  •  Red Headed Woman Clip

Pre-Code Hollywood wasn’t about sexuality per se; it was about the freedom to explore sexuality. Filmmakers commonly explored power dynamics between men and women during this time, and sex was a major bargaining chip between the characters.

Did You Know?

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the first draft of Red Headed Woman with Marcel de Sano. The studio felt that it was too serious though and it was later re-written by Anita Loos.

Pre Code Movies - Social Issues

Baby Face (1933)

Pre-Code Hollywood movies often echoed the real life impact of the Great Depression. Baby Face is one such film. Barbara Stanwyck stars in the picture as a young woman who’s essentially been prostituted out by her father. Eventually, she becomes independent but still uses her sexuality to survive.

Precode  •  Baby Face Clip

Baby Face is very much about the difference between captivity and freedom; structurally, financially, and sexually. Hays and the MPPDA were so upset with the content of the film, they immediately demanded it be pulled from circulation. Despite its enormous influence, Baby Face wasn’t entered into the National Film Registry until 2005.

End of Pre Code Hollywood

The demise of Pre-Code Hollywood

As Hollywood continued to branch in new directions, many of which were considered scandalous by the MPPDA, William Hays found it easier and easier to gain support for enforcing censorship guidelines.

By 1934, a resolution was passed that required that all Hollywood movies going forward would need a certificate of approval to be released. The five major film studios: MGM, RKO, Warner Bros., Paramount, and 20th Century Fox, had no choice but to agree.

This video explains how Hays and the Catholic Church gained control of Hollywood and instituted a multi-decade stranglehold on free-speech.

How the Catholic Church Censored Hollywood

At the time, cinema wasn’t legally protected under the First Amendment. Why? Because the government said so... it wasn’t a good time for constitutional rights. So, the Hollywood Production Code Administration basically ruled Hollywood for a long time, from 1934 to about 1950. By 1968, it was formally dissolved during the New Hollywood revolution.

Legacy of Pre Code Cinema

Remnants of Pre-Code Hollywood

After World War II, radical film movements began to sprout all over the world, such as the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, and Scandinavian Revival. These movements all pushed cinema in new, and daring directions; just like Pre-Code Hollywood did.

Many of the topics and themes from Pre-Code were expounded upon in the works of directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini. Even though these films had their fair share of critics, particularly the Catholic Church and fundamentalists, they weren’t largely censored.

Films have been censored throughout the world from Revolutionary-era Brazil to 1980s U.K. But the censorship of Hollywood by the MPPDA may be the most significant of all censorship periods in film.

Today, much of the spirit of the Pre-Code spirit era lives on in the American independent film movement.


The 'New Hollywood' revolution

The artistic freedom enjoyed by Hollywood filmmakers in the Pre-Code era would once again return decades later. In the mid-60s, the massive cultural shift in America also invaded the film industry. In an unprecedented move, the major studios essentially let auteur filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese run the show. This is the story of how New Hollywood rewrote the rules for mainstream filmmaking.

Up Next: New Hollywood explained →
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  • Chris Heckmann is a Professor of Media & Communication at Roger Williams University and graduate of UCLA’s Cinema & Media Studies Master of Arts program. When he’s not writing or teaching, he’s probably playing video games (or thinking about the next great Boston sports trade).

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