Saturday 19 April 2014

Let's Misbehave

Hello, hello I have a special little treat for you lovely people today, while I am busy beavering away on my SFV project I have a little filmic interlude that I am sure you'll all enjoy.

Today's post is a guest one from the ever so lovely Emma of Lets Misbehave - A Tribute to Precode Hollywood a beautiful blog which looks at, you guessed it, the Precode era of film. An era of films I absolutely adore, the melodramas, the gangsters, the glamour, the sassy sirens and their seductive eyebrows! But I'll be honest as much as I love the films I don't really know much about what Precode means and how it shaped theses early cinematic gems, but never fear Emma is here to teach us all about it. So dim the lights, grab the popcorn and settle down to learn more.

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Misbehaving on Film: 
Everything You Need to Know About Precode

While Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean films are generally seen in the light of ‘popular’ classic movies, pictures from the 1930’s or before are viewed as some kind of irrelevant and archaic art form. Strangely, most people have either heard or seen part of at least one Pre-code film. The original King Kong (1933), Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1931) and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein (1931) feature several iconic and easily recognisable scenes that have become both part of pop culture and the basis for many later horror movies.

But the Pre-code era is much more than monsters and gore, it represents the modernisation of American society through the burgeoning feminism ideology, organised crime (ie. Gangsters), financial depression and a left-wing political movement and a mini sexual revolution. This great combination of history, strong and determined women and the positive view of criminals brought a unique period heralded by Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney and the first words of the divine Greta Garbo.

But what is Pre-code? Contrary to its name, Pre-code, which is generally classified as between the years 1929 and 1934, is not actually before – hence pre – a code at all. In actuality, the era in Hollywood was officially governed by a code or a series of guidelines setup by the major film studios as a kind of self-censorship. Named the Motion Picture Production Code – or the Hays Code – it was created originally in 1922 and updated in 1930 to account for sound pictures. Overseen by Presbyterian elder and Postmaster General, William H. Hays, it acted to prevent more stringent and strict government regulation. Late in the silent era, several provocative and anti-religious films, such as Cecil B Demille’s orgies in Manslaughter (1922) and The Ten Commandments (1923) and The Godless Girl (1929) fuelled fundamentalist religious and virtue group’s fears that an unrestrained Hollywood was corrupting American children. More alarmingly, the incidents and rumours of debauched parties and illegal drug and alcohol consumption within the film community only added to the fears. Occurrences, such as the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle murder trial and the death of director William Desmond Taylor - whose sex life and drug addiction was revealed to the world - made some Americans believe Hollywood was not only immoral on films but in reality.

This code seemed to placate the religious critics who ceased their boycott of several Hollywood films as well as prevent government censorship. However, the guidelines were simply well-placed smoke and mirrors. Hays, far from being an unbiased mediator, was employed and paid by the films studios, up to a gigantic $100,000 a year. He acted as the studio’s spokesperson and by preaching American values and purity, they hoped the interested parties would ignore the sin, sex, and playfulness that was on the screen. Also, they had another ace up their sleeves; namely, by appealing the churches and the government by introducing the plot tactic of justice. Through this avenue, the main protagonist could steal, sleep-around, murder, and drink as much as they like as long as they paid for it at the end – mostly via a tragic death scene.

The code functioned to keep institutions out of Hollywood but wasn’t a substitute for enforceable legislation. So instead of cleaning up Hollywood, the MPPC operated as protection and, thus, a green light for filmmakers to include a wide range of sex, violence, drugs, organised crime and negative depictions of police and political establishments in their pictures. The list of dos and don’ts just provoked film-makers like naughty children to behave the exact opposite and with barely any actual restrictions, it was a free for all. Thus leaving film lovers and historians alike with delicious examples of blatant code breaking. Such as:

The Code: “Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.” 
The Code Broken: Musicals were a great method for directors to include seductive nude or nearly nude scenes and dance choreographer/ director, Busby Berkley, was a common offender. He used interesting camera angles and geometric patterns to fool censors into thinking the chorus girls were more clothed than they actually were.

An obvious example is in Gold Diggers of 1933, when during a musical number, the dancers become drenched and need to change. They undress in levels behind a translucent screen that leaves little to the imagination.

The Code: “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.” 
The Code Broken: Actress, Norma Shearer, has more of a reputation today as the typical ‘good girl’ but in the Precode era she created roles that broke the boundaries of acceptability. Her two best films, The Divorcee (1930) – which she won the Oscar for Best Actress – and A Free Soul (1931), challenge the definition of marriage and fidelity.

The first questions the ultimate gender double-standard; whether it is appropriate for a wife to be philander if her husband can? Shearer stars as a cuckolded wife who gives her husband some of his own medicine, by cheating as well. A Free Soul represents a different take on modern relationships by showing an affair between a spoilt society woman and a gangster that involves sex with no marriage. Both films definitely challenge the Hays code definition of appropriate sexual relationships and the sanctity of marriage.

The Code: “Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.”
The Code Broken: As a director, Cecil B. DeMille, loved pushing the limitations of film and censorship. His picture, The Sign of the Cross (1932) starring Claudette Colbert and Fredric March, is filled with dozens of code breakers.

These include implicit graphic violence, paganism, blasphemous dialogue and loads of near naked woman. The most shocking scene involves an exotic dancer, played by Jozelle Joyner, who performs an extremely paganistic dance called The Dance of the Naked Moon. This includes grinding and moving up against the female Christian character, Elissa Landis, in an overtly sexual way.

The Code: “Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.”
The Code Broken: Surprisingly Precode movies were filled with inferences to ‘sex perversion’, a euphemistic and discriminatory phrase for homosexual characters and behaviours, but there is a handful of intriguing examples. Filmmakers generally used the ‘dandy’ or a male effeminate character for humour or lightness without clearly identifying the person’s sexuality. However, two major films show the flattering use of lesbian conduct, namely, Queen Christina (1933) and Morocco (1930).

Both female leads, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, project androgenic personas by the use of male suits and clothing with neither portrayed negatively. ‘Sex perversion’ is explicitly alluded to in these movies with Dietrich and Garbo both showing the earliest examples of a female kissing another female on the mouth. Strangely, even though the scenes flagrantly ignored the rules and were somewhat condemned by censors, neither the public nor critics generally had any problems with them.

For the next four years before a mandatory guideline was created, the code was the most ignored legislation since the Prohibition and inadvertently shaped an era in which sin, provocation and honestly was the order of the day.

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Thank you, Emma, for a fascinating insight into precode films! I know I will be adding all of the above to my watch list! If you enjoyed this pop over to Emma's blog to find out more, I am certain you won't be disappointed!
Wendy x


  1. Hi Wendy...and Happy Easter......
    did you know about 85000 historical films available to watch free got this info via a FB friend.......thats your viewing sorted for the next decade!!!! Cheers Jeannette...x

  2. Happy belated Easter my dear! Interesting article....almost like the beginnings of film censorship....
    May x

  3. How utterly enthralling! What a fabulous post, I realise now that i know little about that era of film, despite having a few of them on DVD. Emma's blog looks so interesting, I'll have to try and find the time to have a bit more of a read. Thanks for sharing this Wendy! P x