Guest Author - Amber Grey
Drugs, sexual innuendo, prostitution, infidelity, foul language. These words are not commonly used to describe classic films. That is unless you’re talking about the films made before 1934. They are known as “Pre-Code” because they were made before The Hays Code, or more well-known as The Production Code. Before 1934, if Hollywoodland wanted to shoot a woman in her undergarments, they did. If they wanted a plot full of prostitutes with a heart of gold and gangsters with excessive violence, no one stopped them. With film being a brand new medium, Hollywoodland was willing to push the envelope. Until they pushed too far.
As popular as the Pre-Code films were, by 1920, audience members were starting to get sick of the sinful behavior that was deemed entertainment. If that were not enough, scandals began to pop up in the tabloids and newspapers. One scandal has remained legendary. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was charged with rape and manslaughter charges for the death of starlet Virginia Rappe. He was later acquitted but his reputation was forever ruined.. Soon, life was beginning to imitate art in Hollywoodland, or now referred to as “Sin City.”
With risque films being boycotted or censored, the studios decided they needed to take drastic measures to secure the industry’s financial future. They employed Will Hays, a passionate and successful politician to support them. After familiarizing himself with their issues, Hays drew up The Production Code. It was an outline consisting of how taboo subjects would be avoided and should be avoided if they were not essential to the plot of the film. Hays also introduced the studios to “Morality Clauses” in star contracts — a clause Paramount Studios still uses today.
In 1930, The Code was finalized, signifying the beginning of the end for many careers. Lupe Velez, who frequently played the “vamp” in film, was one of them. Thus, last of the Pre-Code films went out with a BANG, such as: “The Divorcee” (1930), which content included such issues as, of course, divorce, but also infidelity and promiscuity. “Queen Christina” (1933) contained a strong narrative of border-line cross-dressing.
In 1934, The Hays Code became the law. If a storyline went against the Code, it was not made at all. If an approved film depicted anything against the Code, the film-makers were sent lengthy letters ordering modification or elimination of offending items from the final cut. Even at the final cut, some films were destroyed altogether. The Hays Code would prove to be effective in curtailing objectionable subject matter for nearly thirty years until the ‘60s. Among such films to slip past The Hays Code was Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Psycho” (1960). Hitchcock was sent a letter about a number of scenes including the infamous shower scene, whereby the Hays “board” claimed a breast could be seen, and the shot was ordered to be cut. Hitchcock would not cut it. He merely returned the reel. The board assumed that he had complied. The shower scene remained intact.
In 1968, a year after The Production Code was proven to be useless in changing times, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) took its place and is currently used to rate films for their content.