Sex and Politics
Two new books
explore pre-code Hollywood

reviewed by Paula Hunt

Pre-code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality,
and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-193
by Thomas Doherty, Columbia University Press, NY

Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood
by Mark A. Vieira, Harry Abrams, NY     

SEX AND VIOLENCE have always been top audience
draws in Hollywood, and they have always drawn the attention
of self-imposed guardians of public morality. Today, Sharon Stone
uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct or Woody Harrelson
and Juliet Lewis blowing up the countryside in Natural Born
have the sociologists and the Bible thumpers bewailing
the breakdown of civilization. Mae West singing "I Love
a Man That Takes His Time" or Paul Muni going down in a
hail of gunfire had the moral authorities of our grandparents’
era wringing their hands. The substance is basically the same,
its just the matter of degree to what the film industry gets
away with.

Outside pressure has been behind the implementation
of all production guide­lines established in Hollywood. From
the beginning, the industry thought that it could out-maneuver
censorship boards and special interest groups by putting a self-imposed
damper on suggestive material. In 1930, the Motion Picture Producers
and Distributors of America accepted a Production Code designed
to provide a moral and ethical framework for films, which they
assumed would solve their problems with state and city censor
boards as well as religious groups. It comes as no surprise that
the film industry policing itself was like having the fox guard
the chicken coop and that their plan was bound to fail, which
it did. In July, 1934, under pressure from many sides, the MPPDA
acquiesced to outside enforcement measures. However, the four-year
period between the implementation and actual enforcement, known
as the "Pre-Code era," has given us some of the most
exciting, delightful and surprising films ever to come out of

Paul Lukas and Jill Dennett in Sing, Sinner,
Sing (1933).

Two new books covering the personalities and territory
of the "Pre-Code era" are out this fall: Pre-Code
Hollywood Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection, in American Cinema,
by Thomas Doherty and Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code
by Mark A. Vieira. Even if you think the history
of this period in Hollywood doesn’t partic­ularly interest you,
the plots, dialogue and characters of the films featured in these
books, as well as the behind-the-scenes moral posturing, will
certainly entertain you. They all demonstrate that when it comes
to Hollywood and the fight for the moral upper hand, times really
don’t change very much.


As far back as 1916, a National Association of
the Motion Picture Industry was estab­lished by the industry
to fight censorship and monitor the – moral content of films.
Five years later, after rumblings from some of the offended,
NAMPI codified 13 items as unsuitable for screen treatment. This
policy, as well as a 1924 mandate requir­ing all films and scripts
to be sub­mitted to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors
of America for approval, was virtually ignored. These window
dressing mandates didn’t keep the nudity out of Cecil B. DeMille’s
Biblical epics or prevent Eric Von Stroheim from sniffing Gloria
Swanson’s panties in Queen Kelly.

Kathlyn Williams and George Bancroft in Blood Money (1933).

In an industry dominated by immigrant Jewish businessman,
it is ironic that the Production Code implemented in 1930 was
written by two Catholics, Father Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest,
and Martin Quigley, a prominent layman and publisher of the Motion
Picture Herald, and administered by another, Joseph Breen (also
a notorious anti-Semite). Although it is com­monly referred to
as "the Hays Office" (after former postmaster Will
Hays, who was its presi­dent), it could more accurately be called "the
Breen Office,"  since Breen was in charge of administering
the policies of the Code. When they read the Catholics" code
of conduct for filmmakers, the MPPDA fig­ured that it was just
what they needed to keep critics quiet and censor boards pacified,
so they ratified it immediately.

HOW SIN GOT IN         

Mark A. Vieira’s Sin in Soft Focus, as the
title of his book suggests, takes a softer, less strictly sociological
approach to the Pre-Code era than Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood:
Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American, Cinema, 1930-1934
is more concerned with describing the ways in which, by inference,
allu­sion and innuendo, studios got around strictures of the
Code. Coming from Abrams, as you can expect, Sin in Soft Focus is
a beauti­fully designed coffee table book filled with luminous
black and white photographs. The book is orga­nized chronologically
and ‘ provides plenty of back­ground (and photos) of the different
genres, actors and topics that caught the attention of Breen
and the censors, like gangster and horror films, Mae West, nudity,
prostitution and off­ color language. Means of getting around
censor boards could include anything from  adapting a notorious
book for the screen and simply changing the title (like A
Woman of Affairs
to The Green Hat) to changing the
character of a prostitute to that of a "dance­hall hostess." As
Viera confirms, audiences were pretty shrewd about decoding the
veiled references, whether it was through costume, atmosphere
or dialogue. Of course, the more flagrantly the film thumbed
its nose at the Production Code, the more pop­ular it turned
out to be.

Joan Blondell and Eddie Woods in Public

Pre-Code Hollywood fixes the Pre-Code era
firmly within the social and political context of the United
States. Doherty cre­ates a parallel narrative between the subject
matter and ideological concerns of films of the time and current
events. For example, the chapter on crime films describes the
mutually reflective obses­sion the Depression era public had
with gangster heroes like John Dillinger and Hollywood’s response
with films like Scarface. Doherty’s rendering of adventure
films like Tarzan and horror films tying in with the public’s
preoccu­pation and standing social beliefs in the white man’s
burden and social codes are especially engaging. While many of
his topics overlap with Vieira’s, Doherty is more con­cerned
with issues like class, newsreels and race than the bare breasts,
sex and other sensu­al no-no’s. It makes Doherty’s book more
serious, but not as fun.


The almost-anything-goes period of sex and sin
came to an end in 1934 when the MPPDA was finally forced to follow
its own code of conduct by the increasing threat of boycotts
by a number of groups, particularly the Catholic Legion of Decency."A
Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures, the
Reasons Supporting It and the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation" including
a "compensating moral values" mantra was put into place.
To ensure this code would actually be followed, the RAMP jury,
which had been making decisions, would be replaced by an independent
panel in New York. The "teeth" inserted for compliance
stated that a script could not be filmed if Joseph Breen, as
Production Code Administrator, didn’t first approve it; if Breen
didn’t like it, it couldn’t get a seal of approval; if a film
didn’t get a seal, no MPPDA theater could show it. If a film
somehow ran the gauntlet of the system and escaped without a
seal, the producer would be fined $25,000. So tight was this
seal that many Pre-Code films could not be re-released after
1934 without substantial edit­ing.

While the Pre-Code films are very tame compared
what’s on the screens today, they do have a naughtiness and cleverness
that’s enter­taining. What you realize when watching these films
is that you don’t have to show everything to get your point across.
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman going at it au natural in Eyes
Wide Shut
isn’t nearly as sexy as the chaste skinny dipping
in Tarzan and His Mate. On the other hand, both films
had their producers running to protect them from censors and
defending them against charges of Puritanism. In that sense,
Code or no Code, things haven’t changed at all in Hollywood. MM