In The Hays Code Era Of Cinema, These Movies Would Not Hold Back
By Stella Crouch
Pre-Code, or Pre-Hays Code films are an incredibly salient and influential era for cinema. However, it is too often forgotten. The time between 1927, when the first talkies were made, and 1934, when the code was enacted, represented a window where taboos could be explored, and little was off the table. As a result, sex, drug use, nudity, and violence were more prevalent during this time. Marginalized people and relationships were shown, such as LGBTQ+ characters and interracial relationships. Women could also be displayed with more independence and being sexual, abortion was shown and written into stories, and disabled characters were present in many of the Pre-Code films.
Beginning in late 1933 and escalating throughout the first half of 1934, American Roman Catholics launched a campaign against what they deemed the “immorality and sinfulness” of American cinema. Will H. Hays, who in 1922 became the first chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, finally had the code passed officially named Motion Picture Production Code. It would subsequently become known as the Hays Code. This code remained in place, although it was slowly loosened until 1968. Here are ten Pre-Code films that deserve another round of appreciation.
10. Three on a Match (1932)
This film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and stars Joan Blondell, Warren William, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis. The film details three women who all went to the same elementary school in New York City. After much time apart, Mary, Ruth, and Vivian meet again as young adults. They each light a cigarette from the same match, noting a superstition that doing so is unlucky. All three women are doing varying things in their lives. Mary is a showgirl who, after spending time in a reform school, has established stability in her life, whereas Ruth works as a secretary and stenographer. Vivian is the wealthiest, having married a successful lawyer, and does not work. Despite Vivian seemingly being the most well off, she is unhappy with her life. She decides to go on an ocean voyage taking her son with her, leaving her husband at home. Three on a Match also released rather “scandalous” promotional photos that would go on to be banned after the code took effect.
9. The Wild Party (1929)
This film stars Clara Bow in her first talkie and Fredric March and is directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of only two prominent women directors in the United States. The Wild Party follows Stella, played by Bow, a popular student at an all-women’s college where the students are more interested in enjoying themselves and partying than studying. Stella falls in love with a young anthropology professor. When Stella attends a local bar and is harassed and assaulted the professor has to rescue her. Gossip and rumors linking the two escalate until Stella proves she is decent by protecting an innocent girl and winning the professor’s respect.
8. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
The film is based on a novel by the same name by German writer Erich Maria Remarque. It’s considered to be one of the first anti-war films in history. Due to its anti-war and perceived anti-German messages, the Nazi Party opposed the film and banned its showing in the country and all occupying territories. All Quiet on the Western Front opened to wide acclaim in the United States. Directed by Lewis Milestone, it stars Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, and Ben Alexander. It was released to wide acclaim and won the second ever best picture award in 1930. Since its release, two remakes have been made, one in 1979 and another in 2022. The film follows a group of German schoolboys who are persuaded into enlisting at the beginning of World War I by their patriot teacher. The story is told completely through the perspective of the young German recruits and highlights the tragedy and trauma of war, especially inside the trenches.
7. Baby Face (1933)
Baby Face is a drama directed by Alfred E. Green, starring Barbara Stanwyck and featuring George Brent. The film centered around Lily Powers, an attractive young woman who worked for her father, Nick, during sex trafficing in a speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her father has been sex trafficking her to his customers since she was 14. Marketed with the suggestive tagline “She had it and made it pay.” This is an example of Baby Face’s open discussion of sex, which made it one of the most notorious examples of the Pre-Code Hollywood era and what could be made. The film also features Theresa Harris, a Black actor who was relegated mostly to the roles of maid and servant.
6. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
This film is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story of the same name. Directed by Robert Florey and starring Bella Lugosi and Sidney Fox, the plot follows Doctor Mirakle, portrayed by Lugosi, a carnival sideshow entertainer and scientist who kidnaps Parisian women to mix their blood with that of Erik, his gorilla. The Murders in the Rue Morgue is considered to have German Expressionist elements and inspirations, particularly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Florey would only go on to make one more feature-length horror film, The Beast With Five Fingers, which also features Caligari-like shadows and dark figures. The film is one of many adaptations of Poe’s short story.
5. The Vampire Bat (1933)
Following on the heels of Mystery of the Wax Museum from earlier in the year and Doctor X from the previous year, The Vampire Bat starred Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, and Dwight Frye. The film tells the story of the investigation into corpses drained of blood that began appearing in a European village, and the town elders suspect a vampire on the loose. The film was a “quickie” horror produced by Majestic Pictures, a company specializing in low-budget production, and was one of the more stable Poverty Row outfits during the 1930s.
4. Grand Hotel (1932)
In another film with an ensemble cast, Grand Hotel starred Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, and Lewis Stone. The screenplay was written by William A. Drake and was based on the 1930 play of the same title by Drake, who had originally adapted it from a 1929 novel titled Menschen “im Hotel” by Vicki Baum. Grand Hotel details the lives of those living in the luxurious Berlin hotel between the wars. One of the most memorable moments in the film is the iconic line “I want to be alone,” delivered famously by Greta Garbo. Grand Hotel won Best Picture in 1932. To date it’s the only film to have won Best Picture without being nominated in any other category at the awards.
3. She Done Him Wrong (1933)
The film, directed by Lowell Sherman, starring Mae West and Cary Grant, follows Lady Lou, a singer in 1890s Manhattan. The film was one of Cary Grant’s first big roles. She Done Him Wrong was nominated for an Academy Award for Outstanding Production (now Best Picture), making it the shortest film, at 66 minutes, ever to be honored. The film is famous for West’s many double entendres and suggestive lines, including the well-known “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” despite West never actually saying the line in the film. Many of these lines had to be censored for television, but they also got the movie banned in countries such as Java, Latvia, Australia, and Vienna.
2. Night Nurse (1931)
The film had a stacked cast composed of Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell, and Clark Gable. Night Nurse follows the live-in nurse Lora Hart, played by Barbara Stanwyck, who is sent to care for two sick children. As her patient’s health worsens, she begins to question the methods of the children’s doctor. Night Nurse was based on the 1930 novel of the same name by Dora Macy, the pen name of Grace Perkins. The film was considered risqué even by pre-code standards, particularly the scenes where Stanwyck and Blondell are shown in their lingerie. Like many pre-code projects, the film was released with many sexually suggestive promotional photographs and posters.
1. It Happened One Night (1934)
It Happened One Night was the last pre-code film to win best picture and the first film to win all five major Academy Awards. Starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable and directed by Frank Capra, the film tells the story of a spoiled socialite who runs away from her extremely wealthy father after eloping with a pilot that only wants her money. While on the run, she meets and falls in love with a reporter. It Happened One Night is notorious in this era because it was rique before the Hays Codes were even in effect. It certainly wasn’t an egregious scandalous film, as it didn’t try to get away with as much as it could have, but it did turn heads. A scene in which the two unmarried protagonists share a hotel room sparked a considerable amount of controversy.
While this is not an extensive list of fabulous pre-code films, this article hopefully gives you an idea of some places to start and why. Pre-code cinema has fascinated many for years, and for good reason. The films pushed boundaries, tackled subjects never before portrayed, and launched many careers in the film industry. While some were more controversial than others, they all represented a time of great change and liberation in cinema. The salience of this time in film and cultural history can not be understated.
It Happened One Night (1934) official Columbia Pictures Trailer
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|In addition to writing for Dead Talk News, Stella has also been published by The National Organization for Women, The Aurora Philosophy Institute, Phase Zero Magazine, and more. She has loved film since she was little, particularly old and obscure films. Stella currently attends The New School in New York City.|