Forums - Movies Discussion - When the moral guardians ruined Hollywood

As a notice I don't think they ruined Hollywood, rather than setback Hollywood, but this makes a better title. When we think of those old-time movies from the 1930s-1950s, we generally think of conservative, moral values. The good guy always beats the villain, the police are respected, women are traditional housewives, and there’s not much violence or sexuality. However, there was a period when this wasn’t the case. The period is known as the pre-code era, and it runs from the introduction of sound movies until the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, more commonly referred to as the Hays Code.

In that time period there was a lot of drinking, violence, sexuality, and rebellious behaviour. The loss of sexual content and heavy violence doesn’t matter to me, it was the loss in social commentary. Often criminals were portrayed sympathetically and the characters were morally ambiguous, but after the Hays Code most movies followed a black-and-white morality between the heroes and villains.

In Blonde Venus and Frisco Jenny the main characters resort to prostitution for a living and are portrayed sympathetically, this was because it was released during the Great Depression where audiences empathized with a character who went to that lengths for money. Other movies that involve a woman using sex to gain an advantage include Red-Headed Woman and Baby Face. What the code did: Prostitutes could not be portrayed sympathetically

Women often had stronger roles in the pre-code era. In the movie Female the main character is a woman in charge of her workplace, often bossing around men in the boardroom. In Blondie Johnson, Joan Blondell plays as a woman mobster in charge of her gang, and she doesn’t do it through sex but through her wits. Shockingly, in Design for Living a woman gets to have two boyfriends at once with their consent.

What the code did: Pretty much insured that woman would be in more traditional roles as housewives most of the time.

There were also anti-government and anti-capitalist movies from the time period. During the harshest times of the Great Depression many citizens lost their trust in the government and capitalism. In Cabbin the Cotton workers are pretty much slaves and have trouble defending themselves. At the end the men in charge see their errors and agree to distribute their wealth equally. Gabriel at the White House has a new president, that becomes a competent dictator compared to the previous leaders, and the movie actually paints him positively for that.

What the code did: Capitalism and the government were not supposed to be painted as untrustworthy or incompetent.

Of course there were also the gangster movies that featured a crook that rose to the bottom to the top. The big three movies in this category are Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Scarface. They were antiheroes, and audiences were supportive of them for standing up to the police during the prohibition era and Great Depression. The movies were also incredibly violent for their time period. In another movie, Night Nurse, which features a corrupt hospital with crooked doctors has them intentionally starving children to death. It ends being a gangster who saves the day by breaking into a store to get milk for the malnourished children. What the code did: The gangsters could not have any redeeming qualities and a criminal deed could not be portrayed as good.

Then there’s my favourite pre-code movies: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. A man ends up in in a chain gang prison after being falsely accused of robbery. In there he is treated to a brutal sentence where police have no regard for anybody’s safety and do whatever they want. He ends up escaping, but the judge and police have a crooked scheme that sends him back and his time there the second time is even worse.

What the code did: Authority figures had to be treated with respect. A police officer could be a villain, but it had to be clear that they were an exception rather than the force generally being corrupt.

I wonder what movies we could have gotten if the code wasn’t enforced. If you ever want to watch these movies to get a more realistic situation of life back then, I would recommend you watch some of them. Interestingly horror movies largely escaped the controversy and didn’t remain much different after the enforcement.

Last edited by HomokHarcos - on 03 April 2018

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Hmm, I guess I'll have to check out these movies, I'm unfamiliar with most of them.



Interesting read. I not much of a film historian, and didn't know about the crackdown and censorship that took place after the the creation of that code. I'm glad it didn't last. Just watched Pulp Fiction for the first time in several years last Sunday evening. I think I liked it more than ever!



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Yes, there's a lot that the introduction of the code did to limit what could be done with film. I've only seen a handful of the kind of films from the pre-code era that genuinely pushed the medium further in terms of social and cultural commentary, but it's very easy to see the change that took place when the Hays code was put into effect. If nothing else, it serves as an excellent reminder of what happens when outside forces limit people's ability to create art in the name of morality.



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COKTOE said:
Interesting read. I not much of a film historian, and didn't know about the crackdown and censorship that took place after the the creation of that code. I'm glad it didn't last. Just watched Pulp Fiction for the first time in several years last Sunday evening. I think I liked it more than ever!

It was first introduced in 1930, but the studios just really didn't care about it. That was until 1934 when Catholics decided to boycott the theatres until it was enforced. It mainly stayed this way until the cultural shift of the 1960s. However, even if it wasn't enforced the 1940s and 1950s might have been more conservative anyway due to World War II and the Cold War making it less acceptable to criticize the country and its problems.

I like Pulp Fiction too, pretty good movie.



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VGPolyglot said:
Hmm, I guess I'll have to check out these movies, I'm unfamiliar with most of them.

There's a Wikipedia article just based on the pre code era, I also watched a documentary about the era during the weekend.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-Code_Hollywood