Saturday, September 21, 2013

What the heck is "Pre-Code"?

"So look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man's pride with the rest. From now on, you're the only man in the world that my door is closed to."

This is a hard thing to come up with a short answer to. There have been entire books written about the Production Code, what it was, and how it came to be. (See the reading list in the sidebar.)

But, short version, “Pre-Code” is the period in American sound films from about 1929 to mid-1934 when films were censored after they were completed by the studios. Film censorship was completely legal, because the Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that movies were purely a commercial enterprise and thus did not have any First Amendment protections. 

In the “Pre-Code” period, there was a list of forbidden topics, but studios were allowed to make their films first and defend them to the censors afterwards. This allowed far more freedom in story and visual expression than during the years when Joe Breen ran the Production Code office, when every aspect of a studio film from story to script to publicity shots had to be pre-approved by Breen and his censors before shooting even began.

Pre-Code films give us a very different window into concerns of 1930s America before the Breen office slammed that window shut and pulled the curtains. Poverty, incest, prostitution, crime, drug addiction, murder, suicide … and with none of the easy moralizing that was imposed on films by the Production Code Office after 1934. We see veterans of World War I who have been permanently damaged by their service and divorced women enjoying their newfound freedom. We see girls sleeping with gangsters for the sheer thrill of it and career women sacrificing everything, not for a man, but for their work. We see nice, middle-class girls become thrill-seeking drug addicts while their working-class friends try to help. We see lives ruined not by “sins,” but by society’s refusal to forgive those sins.

Watching these films almost makes me angry, because I can see a maturity and modern adult sensibility trying to raise its head, only to be stepped on by the Breen office and pushed back out of sight to fester underneath. What would American society be like if our most popular art form had not been forced to censor itself and pretend real life didn’t exist? How would America and Americans be different if we hadn’t lied to ourselves about ourselves for 30 years and pretended that we were more moral, more upright, more sane than we actually were?

In this blog, I hope to explore not only the films themselves, but the actors, actresses, producers, writers, and directors who made them. I will occasionally stray out of the period to show that some filmmakers were able to sneak around the Breen office even after it took control, or to show how a Pre-Code film was remade into a safe, sanitized, Breen-sanctioned film.

Most of all, I want to look at these recordings of an earlier time that will help us recognize that there was never a “more innocent time” in America, only a time when our culture lied to us about what was really happening in the world around us.

1 comment:

  1. That a thought-provoking esssay. I agree: what could we become if we were honest with ourselves? It's a never-ending struggle, but there's many elements in society that would be happy to make it impossible.

    I often think "the plan" is to keep putting up impossible standards so it's dead easy to make us miserable for not meeting them.


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