Notebook Primer: Pre-Code Cinema

Pre-Code Cinema packed a punch while highlighting the highs and lows of the years before, after, and during The Great Depression.
Caroline Golum

The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.

In 1920, after a decade trading in carte-blanche sensationalism, California’s growing movie colony was rocked by the first of many scandals: beloved silent comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, known the world over for his girth and grace, was charged with the rape and murder of aspiring actress Virginia Rappé. Two years later, a cadre of movie moguls established the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, with the express purpose of “cleaning up” their nascent industry. It was a fraught decision, made under duress, meant to offset increasing pressure from politicians, social reformers, and religious leaders of all faiths.

Conservatives pointed to cinema’s growing influence as an instigator of violence, promiscuity, and atheism. At a time when sex and, by extension, sexual assault was hardly dinner conversation, public coverage of Arbuckle’s alleged attack became the eye in a perfect storm of moral panic. Historians regard this era as a turning point in American history, but to contemporary critics these loosened mores were a threat to our nation’s moral fabric. Columnists and public intellectuals pointed the finger at Hollywood: no industry did more to celebrate that danger, that lack of moral backbone, quite like the film industry.

Washington soon intervened, forcing this heretofore unregulated business to adopt its first-ever code of conduct. The Harding Administration, still reeling from the Teapot Dome scandal, was eager to distract from its own increasingly public improprieties. In a naked attempt to score much-needed brownie points with an appalled polity, Indiana-born Republican William Hays was hand-picked to head the newly-founded MPPDA. At first blush, the former Postmaster General did not seem like a particularly appropriate choice, but his deep ties to the Grand Old Party proved to be a perfect foil. Who better to reign in an amoral trade populated with immigrants, homosexuals, and communists than a milquetoast one-time Presbyterian minister?

From his appointment in 1922 to his retirement in 1945, Hays was the final word on the storylines and edits of every film coming out of the studio system. The Hays’ Code became the official gospel in 1934, but the films made before its full-blown implementation were far from tame. A one-two punch of technological innovation and economic crisis, combined with Hays’ loosely-enforced constraints, inspired Hollywood studios to creatively address the ills of a nation in flux. Synced sound became the industry standard, creating a market for dialogue-heavy pictures adapted from popular novels and Broadway plays.

The genres we come to associate with Golden Age Hollywood were nurtured here, providing the foundational techniques and narratives that blossomed into a long history of spectacle and influence. Although the code explicitly forbade “unsavory” topics like miscegeny, sex work, abortion, and violence, scenarists and directors developed a series of workarounds: double-entendres, partial nudity, and criminal acts were alright, so long as the films ended with a moral lesson. The products of this blessed twilight time are among the most shocking titles Hollywood ever produced. These “Pre-Code” films catapulted the burgeoning medium into a new level of sophistication and cultural dominance – and introduced controversial progressive ideas into the nation’s consciousness.

From 1929 to 1934, Hollywood studios cranked out hundreds of films at a breakneck pace. And audiences responded in kind, gobbling up everything from drawing-room dramas to hard-boiled morality plays starring urban criminals and wonton women. These quickly-made, usually hour-long films spoke to a new way of American life: hard, fast, and uncertain. Men took the backdoor to success through cons and crimes, and women used their brains and bodies to gain power, security – even romance – in a society at odds with their increasing freedom. No topic was off-limits, turning public attention to the overlapping intersections of our social, sexual, and political lives. It was a world of contrasts, celebrating bootstrap individualism and the power of collective solidarity, noble poverty and vast wealth, deeply moral and ethically flexible.

Pre-Code cinema offers contemporary audiences a crash course in the tug-of-war between our communal obligations and deeply embedded individualism. Although the dialogue and scenarios are very much of their time, the stories themselves are as relevant now as they were nearly a century ago. Old movies can offer a fresh perspective on a culture still plagued by poverty, racial injustice, scandal, and crime. The recommendations below concerned these aforementioned ills, and are categorized as such.

 Escapism and Merriment 

The Broadway Melody (Beaumont, 1929): The first all-talking film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, Broadway Melody established Metro-Goldwin-Mayer as the leader in elaborate productions and technical sophistication. While light on plot, a revolutionary technicolor sequence and Busby Berkeley’s psychedelic choreography inspired a cinematic arms race among the major Hollywood studios. Released just six months shy of the 1929 Stock Market Crash, this sparkling gaiety has since aged into an artifact of an optimism and prosperity shattered by America’s subsequent economic crisis.

42nd Street (Bacon, 1933): The familiar “backstage musical” came into its own during the early years of sound cinema. Based on the popular stage “revue” format, these films used a rising stardom A-plot/cutesy love story B-Plot formula as a vehicle for popular chart-toppers and triple-threat stars. Lloyd Bacon’s definitive film dressed up familiar tropes like financial hardship and women’s liberation in an array of splendid costumes and sparkling wisecracks. This bit of musical misdirection and elaborate dance numbers from choreographer Busby Berkeley provided a much-needed gloss to timely issues just beyond the frame. Unlike their on-stage characters, hoofers Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are depicted as three-dimensional working stiffs, reflecting the audiences’ own experiences during a difficult and joyless time.

I’m No Angel (Ruggles, 1933): Larger-than-life bombshell Mae West already had a well-earned reputation for ribaldry and thirstiness when she ditched Broadway for Hollywood in 1932. Her infamously zaftig figure and liberal attitude toward sex landed her in hot water throughout her career – most notably in a highly publicized obscenity charge in 1926. Eager to capitalize on her scandalous aura, Paramount Studios signed West to a contract, inviting her to bring her trademark bawdiness along for the ride. Starring as burlesque dancer Tira – alongside Cary Grant in this showbiz satire – West delivered a controversial performance as a woman who nakedly used her sex appeal to rise above her humble station. Although the film raised a number of red flags with the Hays Office, her penchant for double-entendre and popularity helped her dodge the censors that hounded her throughout her career.

Sex and Its Discontents

Design for Living (Lubitsch, 1933): Ernst Lubitsch’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s scandalous play is just one of the films that explored changing attitudes toward “free love.” Caught in an old-fashioned love triangle, free-spirited commercial artist Gilda (Pre-Code mainstay Miriam Hopkins), painter George (a very young Gary Cooper), and playwright Thomas (Frederic March, another familiar heartthrob) eschew melodrama in favor of a new arrangement. The two forward-thinking beaux establish a “gentleman's agreement,” accepting Gilda’s sexual adventurousness by sharing her affections.

Rain (Milestone, 1932): A talking remake of the 1928 silent drama Sadie Thompson, Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of the eponymous Somerset Maugham story takes a decidedly modern attitude to “fallen” womanhood. Joan Crawford openly embraces the world-weary cynicism and wontonness of her titular role, defying the judgment of audience and on-screen enemies alike. Making landfall in Pago Pago like a tropical storm, she immediately bumps heads with Walter Huston’s reform-minded minister. The torrid climate, and a nearby naval base crawling with sailors, provides a perfect backdrop for this steamy conflict between carnality and puritanism. In a surprising twist, Milestone’s film reserves its harshest words for the cruel hypocrisy of her stone-faced foe.


Only Yesterday (Stahl, 1933): John M. Stahl’s melodrama is a watershed moment in Hollywood filmmaking and a direct ancestor of the post-World War II “women’s picture.” When debutante Mary Lane (Margaret Sullivan) finds herself “in a family way” after a one-night stand, she flees to the New York penthouse of her middle-aged aunt (Billie Burke). Despite their age difference, the liberated Aunt Julia takes a refreshingly modern attitude to her niece’s indiscretion. The loose adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s 1922 novella Letter from an Unknown Woman was one of the earliest films to sympathetically depict unwed motherhood – evidenced by Aunt Julia’s attack on the sexual double standard: “Today this sort of thing isn’t a tragedy,” she proclaims. “It isn’t even bad melodrama—it’s just something that happens.”

Working Man’s Woes

Our Daily Bread (Vidor, 1934): A growing labor movement and the increasing mainstreaming of socialist policies looms large over King Vidor’s critique of American capitalism. Driven to desperation, young marrieds John and Mary Sims (Tom Keene and Karen Morely, respectively) join the millions of unemployed in a cut-throat competition for basic human necessities. Relief arrives not with a handout, but in the form of a flat tire. Stranded on an abandoned farm, the couple find a little slice of paradise miles away from any governing authority. John is one man, with one pair of hands, but his “men wanted” sign quickly attracts laborers from miles around. In this autonomous community of their own making, the American dream is finally realized: everyone has a roof over their heads, food on their tables, and a sense of purpose.

Wild Boys of the Road (Wellman, 1933): For children and teenagers, the Great Depression was a first-hand lesson in the tenuousness of financial stability. Some left home of their own accord, seeking opportunity and independence, while the unlucky ones were left to fend for themselves. In William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road, a group of dispossessed youngsters grow up fast hopping freight and working odd jobs across the country. Danger awaits at every turn; a young girl in their milieu is raped by a trainyard brakeman, one boy steals a prosthetic leg for his handicapped friend. It’s a timeless story of innocence lost that ends on a surprisingly—and unintended—high note: with a courtroom plea for leniency and compassion.  

Heroes for Sale (Wellman, 1933): Wellman’s early filmography is a Pre-Code primer unto itself, boasting a laundry list of titles that stand alone as hallmarks of their respective genres. Directing Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road in the same year gives a crystal-clear picture of his cynicism and political inclinations. As war veteran Thomas Holmes, Richard Barthelmess personifies the inherent cruelty of market capitalism; his struggles with drug addiction, mental illness, and financial ruin are treated with unheard-of frankness. Prison makes him bitter, and an unexpected windfall makes him a millionaire, but Tom finds true wealth through the love of his fellow man. 

Pride and Prejudice


Hallelujah (Vidor, 1929): One of the first studio films to feature an all African-American cast, King Vidor’s 1929 musical is notable—albeit outmoded—in its attempt to address American racism. Although the then-controversial project faced considerable resistance from his bosses at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the end product still employed the hurtful and popular stereotypes of its day. For all its many faults, Hallelujah deserves credit for performances from theater star Daniel L. Haynes and Blues icon Victoria Spivey. Viewers will no doubt take umbrage at its out-of-date social attitudes, but it behooves us to consider its historical import and impact.

 Imitation of Life (Stahl, 1933): Often eclipsed by Douglas Sirk’s 1959 remake, John M. Stahl’s adaptation of Fannie Hurst's novel is the equal of its successor in every respect. The story of an unlikely friendship between two working-class single mothers addressed racism and colorism while skirting Hays’ rule against on-screen miscegenation. Unlike the remake, Stahl cast an African-American actress (Fredi Washington) as Peola Johnson, a light-skinned girl of multiracial heritage who is desperate to “pass” for white. Never mind whether or not she can: the anger and frustration behind her desire is a foundational part of film’s brilliance—and tragedy.

Counsellor-at-Law (Wyler, 1933): When the 1920 Census conferred a “benediction” of whiteness onto all European emigres, this growing heterogenous demographic turned to assimilation as an inroad to American prosperity. Elmer Rice’s 1933 play Counsellor-at-Law, adapted that same year as a vehicle for John Barrymore, interrogates this timeless push and pull between humble beginnings and driving ambition. Barrymore plays up-and-coming young attorney George Simon, whose early life in the shtetl increasingly obscures his path to prosperity and acceptance. His uneasy balancing act recalls director William Wyler’s own experience as a Jewish immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine. And while Barrymore was as goy as it gets, under Wyler’s expert guidance he brought nuance to a role that is considered among his best.

The Criminal Element

The Public Enemy (Wellman, 1931): Often imitated, but never duplicated, James Cagney’s on-screen persona had a very real origin in the actor’s hardscrabble upbringing. Growing up on New York’s mean streets, Cagney developed a knack for code-switching between rival ethnic gangs and smooth-talking his way out of countless mishaps. His early starring role in The Public Enemy gives us a sneak preview of how this early experience came to define Cagney’s iconic performances. As Tom Powers, he counters the aspiring mobster’s thirst for power with genuine likability and charm. True to the Pre-Code vogue for “gangster pictures,” the sex and violence in William Wellman’s box office success wouldn’t have made it past the censors without a tacked-on “crime doesn’t pay” message.

The Big House (Hill, 1930): By the 1930s, screenwriter Francis Marion had been writing Hollywood films for nearly twenty years. Her credits covered the waterfront: everything from the sparkling comedy Dinner at Eight to the “gritty” Marie Dressler vehicle Min and Bill. In 1930, MGM paired Marion with director George Hill for The Big House, an early “jail break” film inspired by wildcat prison riots that shook the country one year earlier. Like other dramas of the era, the filmmakers used one man’s unjust plight to expose the brutality of America’s criminal justice system. Mainstay Robert Montgomery plays Kent, a respectable man sentenced to ten years on a manslaughter charge. After an especially grueling month in solitary confinement, Kent finally snaps and joins a gang of hardened criminals planning their escape. Written off as poorly-acted and overly melodramatic at the time of its release, The Big House has since become recognized for its honest treatment of prison life and subsequent influence on “genre filmmaking.”

 I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy, 1932): Mervyn LeRoy’s crime drama is another rebuke to the misconception that glittering musicals and slapstick comedies were the sole products of Depression-era filmmaking. In Fugitive, Paul Muni stars as Sergeant James Allen, a veteran whose grand post-War plans are derailed by “shell shock” and a streak of bad financial luck. Further misfortune befalls him after freight-hopping to an unnamed Southern State, where he is inadvertently caught up in—and convicted for—a robbery/homicide. Based on the best-selling autobiography of real-life fugitive Robert Elliot Burns, the film was a commercial, critical, and political success. Audiences responded with outrage at the continued use of chain gangs, and their public outcry directly contributed to its eventual end.


Other Recommended Viewing

Above: Baby Face

Baby Face (1932), Bombshell (1933), Three on a Match (1932), Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932), Taxi (1932), Employees’ Entrance (1933), Gabriel Over the White House (1933), Safe in Hell (1931), The Divorcee (1930), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Freaks (1932), Shanghai Express (1932), Night Nurse (1933)  

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ColumnsPre-CodeEssential Pre-CodeHarry BeaumontBusby BerkeleyLloyd BaconWesley RugglesErnst LubitschLewis MilestoneJohn M. StahlKing VidorWilliam A. WellmanWilliam WylerGeorge HillMervyn LeRoyNotebook Primer
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