A progressive era in Hollywood film-making in the early 1930’s and a lax code of censorship allowed sin to rule the movies.
Violence, actresses with dresses open (and no panties), two men kissing, blood sucking scenes that made women lust after the monster, even an elephant crushing a man’s skull were de rigueur, writes author Mark Vieira in his fascinating new book Forbidden Hollywood, The Pre-Code Era (1930-1934), When Sin Ruled the Movies, published by Running Press.
Very little was off limits if film studios had their way in the four-year period from 1930 until 1934, now called the pre-code era, when film studios ramped up violence, sex and sin to draw in audiences in this post silent movie era.
Movie trailers promised orgies, sexual perversion, violence, and profanity – and they delivered.
After objections from a consortium of churchmen and politicians criticizing the movie industry, a Production Code was created in 1934 and signed by every studio to self-regulate.
‘This Production Code should have kept forbidden elements off the screen, but the Great Depression arrived, emptying theaters. To lure patrons back, producers began to violate the agreement,’ writes author Vieira, whose book will go on sale in the UK on May 30.
Between 1930-1934, a progressive era in Hollywood filmmaking with a relaxed code of censorship allowed sin to rule the movies. Perversion was the order of the day in The Barbarian with a sadomasochistic ‘romance’ between Loy and Ramon Novarro who enjoyed slapping, whipping and kidnapping
Violence, nudity and profanity were rarely off limits in that four-year span, now known as the ‘pre-code era’. A potion turned Dr. Jekyll into Dr. Hyde in the raw, brutal and relentlessly sexual film starring Miriam Hopkins and Frederic March
Sex and sin were used to draw in audiences to the theaters during the Great Depression with movie posters promising promiscuity
Actresses flaunted their charms and flouted the Code.
‘Sin and succeed!’ wrote Variety in one review’.
Author Mark Vieira details the industry’s racy past in his new book Forbidden Hollywood, The Pre-Code Era by Running Press
‘Though some of these films were exploitative, many of them were legitimate works of art,’ writes the author, recognized then and years later.
One example: Howard Hughes’ 1930 classic Hell’s Angels.
‘In a city of egotistical models, he was different. He was not Jewish, self-made, or sociable. He was twenty-four, had millions of dollars and nobody was going to tell him how to spend it’, writes Vieira.
In the film, the star, Jean Harlow appeared in what was viewed as ‘deliberately obscene’ costumes and set out to seduce one of the aviators in a candid manner that began with the line, ‘Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?’
That would be naked.
Hughes ignored criticism by the censor boards that viewed the film as ‘stupid, rotten, sordid and cheap’, with British soldiers and French barmaids open-mouth kissing that seemingly tried to swallow each other, and the girls squealing when the soldiers kissed their ears.
The film made Hughes a studio head and Jean Harlow a celebrity.
When German film star Marlene Dietrich arrived in Hollywood from Berlin, she was billed as ‘The woman all women want to see’.
So it was a shock to filmgoers when director Josef von Sternberg dressed her as a man in the film, Morocco. She was a box office success dressed in a man’s tuxedo and top hat.
Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead and Joan Crawford played shady dames and took glamorous and mysterious to new heights playing heartless creatures and villainesses.
The bad woman – the shady dame is today’s heroine’, writes the author. ‘She has a man’s viewpoint, and a man’s ability to deal with brutal situations’.
The genre of gangster movies appealed to women.
Edgar G. Robinson showed up at the producer’s office at Warner Brothers wearing a homburg, heavy black overcoat, a white evening scarf, and cigar clenched between his teeth – eager to play the title role of the megalomaniac Little Caesar, the story based on Chicago’s Al Capone who had been responsible for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
The G Sisters were one of many provocative acts in Universal’s The King of Jazz (1930). Two women nearly kissing was allowed in this progressive era that saw the films marketing and capitalizing on sex
Johnny Weismuller romanced Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and was so massively successful, it stayed in circulation for five years and spawned a sequel
While working on Tod Browning’s Freaks, Olga Baclanova became friendly with 30 year old Harry Earles. ‘And I make him jump on my lap’, said Baclanova. ‘And I treat him like a baby. But always he say to me, ‘You be surprised
In 1932, even voyeurism got past the Code in The Beast of the City produced by William Randolph Hearst to show the effectiveness of honest cops but those scenes were upstaged by the sex scenes between Wallace Ford and Jean Harlow. After objections from churchmen and politicians who criticized the racy movie industry, a Production Code was created in 1934 and signed by every studio to self-regulate
At the film’s opening in New York, over three thousand people showed up and pressed against the glass doors of the Strand Theatre at Broadway and 47th Street shattering them.
Head of the Motion Picture Division of the State of New York Education Department, Dr. James Wingate, railed against the film and demanded cuts. He believed that ‘Children see a gangster riding around in a Rolls-Royce and living in luxury, the child unconsciously forms the idea that he will be smarter and will get away with it’.
The studio fought back arguing: ‘The more ghastly and the more ruthless the criminal acts are, the stronger will be the audience reaction against men of this kind and organized criminal in general’.
But Wingate won the argument and cut Little Caesar to shreds.
When James Cagney played a gangster in The Public Enemy and seduced women with his glamorous looks and charm, the film broke attendance records despite complaints from groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and Veterans of Foreign Wars who viewed the film as ‘destructive to the morality of our country’.
Studios went through cycles and segued from gangster movies to what was called the ‘dirt phase’ – women aggressively seducing men, slinging one leg over the arm of a chair – being sexually assertive.
‘Women love dirt. Nothing shocks ’em. They want to know about bad women. The badder the better’, Variety wrote.
So the studios released films with the fallen woman, the possessed woman, the kept woman – all selling the immorality of women.
Bright Lights (1925) was another silent film censored for its blatant nudity. Censor boards were costing the Industry $3.5 million a year in review fees, salaries and mutilated prints
Warner Brothers’ 1931 film, Little Caesar starring Edward G. Robinson was hugely successful in some states but cut to shreds by censors in others because of suspected hero worship of the gangster.
Paramount came out with horror film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that was viewed as ‘raw, brutal and relentlessly sexual’ with love scenes between actors Frederic March and Miriam Hopkins smacking of bestiality.
Even movie columnist Louella Parsons liked the film and wrote, ‘It’s by long odds the best picture Paramount has made since Skippy’ – a children’s film.
The Jungle cycle produced Tarzan, the Ape Man starring Johnny Weissmuller who takes on wild beasts and kills natives.
Jane, Tarzan’s one true love, wore a brief loincloth at best and the film stayed in circulation for five years.
MGM turned its back lot into a jungle to make movies with wild beasts, whipping natives and torturing explorers – pursuing a rash of tropical films that still had plenty of sex.
The film, the Freaks, showed a circus sideshow complete with the bearded lady, a human skeleton, a hermaphrodite, pinheads, and an armless man.
It sent some running to the exit when previewed in LA.
Twenty-five minutes were cut discarding the ending that showed freaks castrating the strong man and mutilating the acrobat.
The film broke house records in San Diego and did well in Boston, Cincinnati and Omaha
Movie posters promising promiscuity were used to draw in audiences to the theaters while most of the cinemas were drying up due to the Great Depression
While some movies got past censors, they didn’t necessarily get past exhibitors.
In Cecil B. DeMille’s epic, The Sign of the Cross, an arena scene shows an elephant lifting one leg and resting it on a man and crushing him.
Censors didn’t edit it out but exhibitors did after witnessing viewers put their hands across their eyes and some even fainting.
The scene of an almost nude Christian virgin lashed to a post to await the onslaught by a giant ape and a herd of hungry crocodiles waddling to an arena feast of edible white-flesh Christian girls, disappeared from the film after early runs but a reviewer of the film wrote, ‘They will shudder, they will gasp, they will cry and they will love it’!
RKO released the film, King Kong, the story of simian love for a young girl.
By the spring of 1934, a grassroots movement in the Midwest targeted ‘immoral’ movies and demanded, ‘Purify Hollywood or Destroy Hollywood.’
The Code remained effective until July 1968.
Many of the films that had been cut by the Code – with scenes replaced later – were declared works of art.
And that included King Kong.