Unchanging Sea, The (1910)

Mary Pickford 1

Mary Pickford Season: FD Cinematheque

The Unchanging Sea (1910)

Director: D W Griffith

Cast: Arthur V Johnson, Linda Arvidson, Gladys Egan, Mary Pickford, Charles West, Dell Henderson, Dorothy West


The Unchanging Sea is a 1910 American drama film that was directed by D. W. Griffith. A print of the film survives in the Library of Congress film archive.[1]

Unchanging Sea, The 7


See also


Unchanging Sea, The 2

Violin Maker of Cremona, The (1909)

Mary Pickford 1

Mary Pickford Season: FD Cinematheque

The Violin Maker of Cremona (1909)

Director: D W Griffith

Cast: Herbert Prior, Mary Pickford, Owen Moore, David Miles, Harry Solter, Marion Leonard, Charles Avery, Mack Sennett


The Violin Maker of Cremona is an American silent short film made in 1909  and directed by DW Griffith . This is Pickford’s first fully credited film. However, it is presently still unclear whether she had extras roles in previous Biograph films.


Cremona held a competition on the best violin. If you win this game, you may marry the beautiful Gianinna. Two people start fighting for her hand.


 Actor Role
Mary Pickford Giannina
Herbert Prior Taddeo Ferrari
Owen Moore Sandro
David Miles Filippo
Charles Avery Worker
Arthur V. Johnson Man in Audience
Anthony O’Sullivan Worker
Mack Sennett Man in Audience

Violin Maker of Cremona 3

One Hundred Percent American (1918)

Mary Pickford 1

Mary Pickford Season: FD Cinematheque

One Hundred Percent American (1918)

Director: Arthur Rosson

Cast: Mary Pickford, Loretta Blake, Theodore Reed, Henry Bergman, Monte Blue, Joan Marsh

14 min


One Hundred Percent American is a silent short film made in 1918 directed by Arthur Rosson and starring Mary Pickford.


A girl wants to go to a ball, admission one Liberty Bond, but rather than go herself, she loans the bond to a girlfriend. A soldier and a sailor find out and take her to the ball with them.

One Hundred Percent American 2


The Famous Players-Lasky Corporation produced this short film that was to advertise the sale of the bonds of the Liberty Loan Committee .


Distributed by Famous Players-Lasky even with the alternative title 100% American , the short film was released in US theaters on October 5, 1918. Since the star Mary Pickford at the time was still a Canadian citizen, in Canada the film was given the title 100% Canadian [1] .

The film has been included in an anthology distributed in October 2007 by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

On NTSC , the DVD box set offers a total of 739 minutes entitled Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film (1900-1934) [2] .


One Hundred Percent American 4

Little Princess, The (1917)

Mary Pickford 1

Mary Pickford Season: FD Cinematheque

The Little Princess (1917)

Director: Marshall Neilan, Howard Hawks

Cast: Mary Pickford, Norman Kerry, Katherine Griffith, Anne Schaefer, Zasu Pitts, WE Lawrence, Theodore Roberts, Gertrude Short, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Loretta Blake, George A McDaniel, Edythe Chapman, Josephine Hutchinson, Joan Marsh, Joe Murphy

62 min


A Little Princess is a 1917 American silent film directed by Marshall Neilan based upon the novel A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This version is notable for having been adapted by famed female screenwriter Frances Marion.[1]

Marshall Neilan 1


As described in a film magazine,[2] Sara Crewe (Pickford) is treated as a little princess at the Minchin boarding school for children until it is learned that her father has lost his entire fortune, and she is made a slavey (a household servant). She and Becky (Pitts), another slavey, become close friends who share their joys and sorrows.

Little Princess The 9

Christmastime draws near and the girls watch the preparations wistfully. Their loneliness arouses the sympathy of a servant of the rich Mr. Carrisford. On the night before Christmas he prepares a spread for the slaveys in their attic. He calls his master Mr. Carrisford (von Seyffertitz) to watch their joy, but both are witness to the slaveys being abused and whipped by Miss Minchin (Griffith). Carrisford interferes and learns that Sara is the daughter of his best friend. He adopts Sara and Becky and in their new home they have a real Christmas.

Little Princess The 4

The film opens with Sarah’s father moving back to London after serving in the British Army in India. She is opposed to leaving the luxurious life of an officer’s child with a large house and many servants, and is initially shy when enrolled in Miss Minchin’s School. Her reputation as “the little princess” precedes her and the other girls are fascinated with her tales of life in India. The girls sneak into Sarah’s room at night to listen to her stories. One night, she tells “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” which becomes a story within a story with elaborate exotic sets and costumes.


Little Princess The 10



  1. Jump up^ Progressive Silent Film List: A Little Princess at silentera.com
  2. Jump up^ “Reviews: A Little Princess. Exhibitors Herald. New York: Exhibitors Herald Company. 5 (22): 29. November 24, 1917.

Little Princess The 8

Dream, The (1911)

Mary Pickford 1

Mary Pickford Season: FD Cinematheque

The Dream (1911)

Director: Thomas Ince

Cast: Mary Pickford, Owen Moore, Charles Arling, William Robert Daly, J Farrel MacDonald, Lottie Pickford

11 min

Dream The 1

The Dream is a 1911 short film, one reel, produced and released by the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP) and directed by Thomas H. Ince and George Loane Tucker. It starred Mary Pickford and her husband Owen Moore after they left working at the Biograph Company. This film is preserved at the Library of Congress, a rare survivor from Pickford’s IMP period. It appears on the Milestone Films DVD of Pickford’s 1918 feature Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley.[1]



The film opens in a fancy restaurant where the husband and a woman who is not his wife are polishing off a bottle of wine. Cut to home, where a dejected wife sits at the dining room table waiting for her husband. She briefly nods off before rousing and checking the wall clock indicating that it’s getting late. Cut back to the fancy restaurant, where the husband settles the check with a large wad of bills. The waiter obliges by helping the husband and his lady companion with their hats and coats. The other woman kicks the husbands hat out of his hand.

Six hours later, the husband strides through the door awakening his wife who is still sitting by the dining room table. He rebuffs her attempt to take his hat, whereupon she points to the wall clock. She draws his attention to dinner, which still sits on the dining table. He upends a few dishes then overturns a chair before collapsing on the sofa, cigarette in hand. Upset, the wife walks off camera and the scene fades to black.

Dream The 2

In the next scene, introduced by a title card stating “HIS DREAM”, the wife returns, clad in a form-fitting dress and a plumed hat. She awakens the husband by jostling his head. Talking animatedly, she downs a couple of glasses of wine from a decanter on the sideboard and tosses the wineglass on the floor. She drop-kicks a plate, lights up a cigarette, flicks the match at her husband, and blows smoke in his face. She pelts him with a pillow that has been lying on the floor, slings her coat over her arm, pulls down the curtains covering the door, and blows the husband a kiss goodbye. A well-appointed gentleman arrives at the front steps to their house a second or two before the wife steps out the front door and they leave together.

Confounded by what he has just witnessed, the husband grabs his hat and coat and leaves. The wife and her gentleman caller arrive by taxi at the fancy restaurant where they are shown to the same table the husband had occupied earlier. The husband arrives hot on their heels, briefly considers confronting them, but then flees, distressed by the whole affair. He stumbles out into the street before returning home. There he rants wildly, repeatedly grasping his forehead before settling down to compose a letter which reads in part “You’re not the woman I supposed you were.” Stumbling to the sideboard, he pulls out a small revolver from a drawer, points it at his abdomen, pulls the trigger, and collapses spasmodically on the sofa.

In the next scene, introduced by a title card stating “HIS AWAKENING”, he falls off the sofa and stands up, clutching his abdomen. His wife enters the scene, this time reclad in her modest attire, and startles him. He recounts his vivid experience, she comforts him and helps him realize it was all just a dream. While she turns her attention to preparing dessert on the dining room table, he pulls his address book from his suitcoat pocket and shreds it. Reconciled, they embrace and then settle down to eat the confection.

Dream The 3




Dream The 5



Sweet Memories (1911)

Mary Pickford 1

Mary Pickford Season: FD Cinematheque

Sweet Memories (1911)

Director: Thomas Ince

Cast: Mary Pickford, King Baggot, Owen Moore, William E Shay, Jack Pickford, Lottie Pickford, Charles Arling, J. Farrell MacDonald, Charlotte Smith

 10 min

hqdefault (1)

Sweet Memories (also known as Sweet Memories of Yesterday and Sweetheart Days) is a 1911 silent short romantic drama film, written and directed by Thomas H. Ince, released by the Independent Moving Pictures Company on March 27, 1911.[1]


Thomas H Ince


Polly Biblett (Mary Pickford), a young lady, tells her grandmother Lettie about her new boyfriend. The news provokes the elderly woman to reminisce about her own sweetheart, long time before. The touching sequence expresses the power of lives going on, the older woman aging as her grandchildren grow and knowing they will soon have children of their own.




In Old Madrid (1911)

Mary Pickford 1

Mary Pickford Season: FD Cinematheque

In Old Madrid (1911)

Director: Thomas H Ince

Cast: Mary Pickford, Owen Moore

11 min

In Old Madrid (1911) is a Mary Pickford film directed by Thomas H Ince.


Thomas H Ince


Don Gomez writes a letter to the parents of Zelda, a young Spanish girl, regretting his inability to pay them a visit, but sends his son, Jose, instead. Jose arrives and is immediately smitten by the charms of Zelda. Zelda indulges in a little flirtation.

Her mother inaugurates a system of espionage that is very inconvenient for the lovers. They are surprised by the duenna-like mother and are driven to desperation.

Zelda has a girlfriend about her age who resembles her and is attired to represent a clever counterpart of Zelda. The mother walks in the garden accompanied by Zelda. Seating herself on a bench, she commands the girl to repose beside her. Finding the vigil rather tiresome, the elder woman lapses into a state of drowsiness, and the companions of Zelda beckon her to join them.

So clever is the disguise of Rosa that Jose is deceived and he kisses her. The father of Zelda discovers the act and hastens to the mother to inform her only to see Zelda yawning beside his wife on the bench. Exhausted, the guardian falls asleep, and Rosa exchanges places with Zelda, who joins her lover. Jose induces Zelda to accompany him to the seashore.

He gathers the girl in his arms, and wades across a stretch of water, and they take a perilous position on the rocks. A search is instituted and Zelda and Jose are discovered on the rocks. Jose has a scheme which he quickly imparts to Zelda and she acquiesces. The irate parents see the daughter and her lover.

Jose is firm and threatens to throw Zelda into the roaring torrent, unless the parents consent to their immediate marriage. The agonized parents relent. The obdurate parents have been outwitted by the scheming lovers.


In Old Madrid

Lonely Villa, The (1909)

Mary Pickford 1

Mary Pickford Season: FD Cinematheque

Lonely Villa, The (1909)

This is one of the earliest surviving prints from the beginning of Mary Pickford’s career. It is assumed to have been her 9th film.

Director: D W Griffith

Cast: David Miles, Marion Leonard, Mary Pickford, Gladys Egan, Adele DeGarde, Robert Harron, James Kirkwood, Florence Lawrence, Owen Moore, Mack Sennett

8 min

Lonely Villa The 3

The Lonely Villa (1909)

The Lonely Villa is a 1909 American short silent crime drama film directed by D. W. Griffith. The film stars David Miles, Marion Leonard and Mary Pickford in one of her first film roles. It is based on the 1901 French play Au Telephone (At the Telephone) by André de Lorde.[1] A print of The Lonely Villa survives and is currently in the public domain.[2]

Lonely Villa The 2


A group of criminals waits until a wealthy man goes out to break into his house and threaten his wife and daughters. They refuge themselves inside one of the rooms, but the thieves break in. The father finds out what is happening and runs back home to try to save his family.


Lonely Villa The 4

Production notes and release

The Lonely Villa was produced by the Biograph Company and shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey.[3][4] It was released on June 10, 1909 along with another D.W. Griffith split-reel film, A New Trick.[2]

See also

Lonely Villa The 5


  1. Jump up^ Choi, Jinhee; Wada-Marciano, Mitsuyo, eds. (2001). Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema. Hong Kong University Press. p. 111. ISBN 962-209-973-4.
  2. ^ Jump up to:a b “Progressive Silent Film List: The Lonely Villa”. Silent Era. Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  3. Jump up^ Koszarski, Richard. Fort Lee: The Film Town. John Libbey Publishing. p. 58. ISBN 0-86196-653-8.
  4. Jump up^ “Studios and Films”. Fort Lee Film Commission. Retrieved May 30, 2011.


Lonely Villa The 6


New York Hat, The (1912)

Mary Pickford 1

Mary Pickford Season: FD Cinematheque

New York Hat, The (1912)

Director: D W Griffith

Cast: Mary Pickford, Charles Hill Mailes, Kate Bruce, Lionel Barrymore, Alfred Paget, Claire McDowell, Mae Marsh, Madge Kirby, Lillian Gish, Jack Pickford, Robert Harron, Dorothy Gish, Mack Sennett

16 min

DW Griffith 2

D W Griffith

New York Hat, The 1

The New York Hat (1912)

New York Hat, The 2

The New York Hat (1912)

New York Hat, The 3

The New York Hat (1912)

New York Hat, The 4

The New York Hat (1912)

New York Hat, The 5

The New York Hat (1912)


The New York Hat (1912) is a short silent film directed by D. W. Griffith from a screenplay by Anita Loos, and starring Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and Lillian Gish.


The New York Hat is one of the most notable of the Biograph Studios short films and is perhaps the best known example of Pickford’s early work, and an example of Anita Loos‘s witty writing. The film was made by Biograph when it and many other early U.S. movie studios were based in Fort Lee, New Jersey at the beginning of the 20th century.[1][2][3]

New York Hat, The 6


Mollie Goodhue leads a cheerless, impoverished life, largely because of her stern, miserly father. Mrs. Goodhue is mortally ill, but before dying, she gives the minister, Preacher Bolton, some money with which to buy her daughter the “finery” her father always forbade her.

Mollie is delighted when the minister presents her with a fashionable New York hat she has been longing for, but village gossips misinterpret the minister’s intentions and spread malicious rumors. Mollie becomes a social pariah, and her father tears up the beloved hat in a rage.

All ends well, however, after the minister produces a letter from Mollie’s mother about the money she left the minister to spend on Mollie. Soon afterwards, he proposes to Mollie, who accepts his offer of marriage.

New York Hat, The 7


New York Hat, The 8

See also


  1. Jump up^ Koszarski, Richard (2004), Fort Lee: The Film Town, Rome, Italy: John Libbey Publishing -CIC srl, ISBN 0-86196-653-8
  2. Jump up^ Amith, Deninis (January 1, 2011). “Before there was Hollywood there was Fort Lee, NJ”. J!-ENT.
  3. Jump up^ The New York Hat at silentera.com
  4. Jump up^ “The New York Hat”. Library of Congress. Retrieved 28 December 2011.

New York Hat, The 9New York Hat, The 10

The Female of the Species (1912)

Mary Pickford 1

Mary Pickford Season: FD Cinematheque

Female of the Species, The (1912)

Director: D W Griffith

Cast: Charles West, Claire McDowell, Mary Pickford, Dorothy Bernard

17 min

DW Griffith 2

D W Griffith

Female of the Species 2

The Female of the Species (1912)

Female of the Species 1

The Female of the Species (1912)

The Female of the Species is a 1912 short film directed by D. W. Griffith.[1]




Female of the Species 3

Pre Code Films

Pre-Code Hollywood

Films made in the pre-Code era frequently presented people in sexually suggestive or provocative situations, and did not hesitate to display women in scanty attire. In this publicity photo, Dorothy Mackaill plays a secretary-turned-prostitute in Safe in Hell, a 1931 Warner Bros. film directed by William Wellman.

Safe in Hell 1

Dorothy Mackaill in William Wellman’s Safe in Hell (1931)

Safe in Hell 2

William Wellman’s Safe in Hell (1931)

Gangster films, such as The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney (pictured here) and Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson, were a mainstay of the pre-Code releases of the Hollywood studios. The anti-hero characters could transgress society’s rules in a way that the audience could not, but always paid for their crimes at the end of the film.

Public Enemy the 21

James Cagney and Jean Harlow in William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931)

Public Enemy the 1

William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931)

The anti-hero characters could transgress society’s rules in a way that the audience could not, but always paid for their crimes at the end of the film.

Pre-Code musicals took advantage of their backstage stories to show women in states of dress – in skimpy rehearsal clothes, changing in dressing rooms, or onstage in tight or revealing costumes – which were beyond those considered decent for women in ordinary life. This shot is from the trailer for Warner Bros.42nd Street, in which auditioning women show their legs for the director.

42nd street 3

42nd Street (1933)

42nd street 2

42nd Street (1933)

42nd street 1


Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the brief era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound pictures in 1929[1] and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines, popularly known as the “Hays Code”, in mid-1934. Although the Code was adopted in 1930, oversight was poor and it did not become rigorously enforced until July 1, 1934, with the establishment of the Production Code Administration (PCA).

Production Code Poster 1

Before that date, movie content was restricted more by local laws, negotiations between the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) and the major studios, and popular opinion, than strict adherence to the Hays Code, which was often ignored by Hollywood filmmakers.

Production Code Poster 2

As a result, films in the late 1920s and early 1930s included sexual innuendo, miscegenation, profanity, illegal drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and homosexuality. Strong female characters were ubiquitous in such pre-Code films as Female, Baby Face, and Red-Headed Woman.


Ruth Chatterton and George Brent in Female, Michael Curtiz/William Dieterle (1933)


Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, Alfred E Green (1933)


Jean Harlow and Chester Morris in Red Headed Woman, Jack Conway (1932)

Gangsters in films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface were seen by many as heroic rather than evil. Along with featuring stronger female characters, films examined female subject matters that would not be revisited until decades later in US films. Nefarious characters were seen to profit from their deeds, in some cases without significant repercussions, and drug use was a topic of several films.


The Public Enemy, William Wellman (1931)


Edward G Robinson in Little CeasarMervyn LeRoy (1931)


Paul Muni and George Raft in Scarface, Howard Hawks (1932)

Many of Hollywood’s biggest stars such as Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell and Edward G. Robinson got their start in the era. Other stars who excelled during this period, however, like Ruth Chatterton (who decamped to England) and Warren William (the so-called “king of Pre-Code”, who died in 1948), would wind up essentially forgotten by the general public within a generation.[2]


Clark Gable with Jean Harlow

7be5a7a3743bfcb74f1c8d06ec2a1179Barbara Stanwyck


Joan Blondell


Edward G Robinson


Ruth Chatterton


Warren William

Beginning in late 1933 and escalating throughout the first half of 1934, American Roman Catholics launched a campaign against what they deemed the immorality of American cinema. This, plus a potential government takeover of film censorship and social research seeming to indicate that movies which were seen to be immoral could promote bad behavior, was enough pressure to force the studios to capitulate to greater oversight.


Wild Boys of the Road, William Wellman (1933)


Origins of the Code (1915-1930)

Will Hayes 1

William Harrison Hayes Sr. (1922–1945), the first chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America

William H. “Will” Hays was recruited, by the Hollywood studios, in 1922, to help clean up their “Sin City” image, after a series of scandals, especially the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle manslaughter trial.[3]

Roscoe Arbuckle 1

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Roscoe Arbuckle 2

Arbuckle Scandal Press Coverage

Earliest attempts for the Code

In 1922, after some risqué films and a series of off-screen scandals involving Hollywood stars, the studios enlisted Presbyterian elderWilliam H. “Will” Hays, a figure of unblemished rectitude, to rehabilitate Hollywood’s image. Hays, later nicknamed the motion picture “Czar”, was paid the then-lavish sum of $100,000 a year (equivalent to more than $1.4 million in 2014 dollars).[4][5][6]

Will Hayes 2

Hayes Code Meetings – Andrew W. Mellon, James J. Davis, Albert Fall, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and William Harrison Hayes. White House, Washington, D.C

Hays, Postmaster General under Warren G. Harding and former head of the Republican National Committee,[3]served for 25 years as president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), where he “defended the industry from attacks, recited soothing nostrums, and negotiated treaties to cease hostilities.”[7] Hollywood mimicked the decision Major League Baseball had made in hiring judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as League Commissioner the previous year to quell questions about the integrity of baseball in wake of the 1919 World Series gambling scandal; The New York Times called Hays the “screen Landis”.[4]

Hays introduced a set of recommendations dubbed “The Formula” in 1924, which the studios were advised to heed, and asked filmmakers to describe to his office the plots of pictures they were planning.[8] The Supreme Court had already decided unanimously in 1915 in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that free speech did not extend to motion pictures,[9] and while there had been token attempts to clean up the movies before, such as when the studios formed the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI) in 1916, little had come of the efforts.[10]

Censorship Certificate 1

The National Board of Censorship – Early Censorship Certification 1912

Motion_Picture_Production_Code 3

Newspaper coverage of movie industry scandals 1921

Motion_Picture_Production_Code 2

1934 Motion Picture Production Code Cover

Creation of the Code and its contents

In 1929, an American Roman Catholic layman Martin Quigley, editor of the prominent trade paper Motion Picture Herald, and Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest, created a code of standards (which Hays liked immensely[11]), and submitted it to the studios.[7][12] Lord’s concerns centered on the effects sound film had on children, whom he considered especially susceptible to their allure.[11] Several studio heads, including Irving Thalberg of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), met with Lord and Quigley in February 1930. After some revisions, they agreed to the stipulations of the Code. One of the main motivating factors in adopting the Code was to avoid direct government intervention.[13] It was the responsibility of the Studio Relations Committee, headed by Colonel Jason S. Joy, to supervise film production and advise the studios when changes or cuts were required.[14][15]

Motion_Picture_Production_Code 4

An Inter-Office memo discussing potential sub-titles and various ideas for Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The Code was divided into two parts. The first was a set of “general principles” which mostly concerned morality. The second was a set of “particular applications” which was an exacting list of items that could not be depicted. Some restrictions, such as the ban on homosexuality or the use of specific curse words, were never directly mentioned but were assumed to be understood without clear demarcation.

Miscegenation, the mixing of the races, was forbidden. It stated that the notion of an “adults-only policy” would be a dubious, ineffective strategy that would be difficult to enforce.[16]

However, it did allow that “maturer minds may easily understand and accept without harm subject matter in plots which does younger people positive harm.” If children were supervised and the events implied elliptically, the code allowed what Brandeis University cultural historian Thomas Doherty called “the possibility of a cinematically inspired thought crime”.[17]

Joan Blondell 1

This 1932 promotional photo of Joan Blondell was later banned, under the then unenforceable Motion Picture Production Code.

The Code sought not only to determine what could be portrayed on screen, but also to promote traditional values.[18] Sexual relations outside of marriage could not be portrayed as attractive and beautiful, presented in a way that might arouse passion, nor be made to seem right and permissible.[14] All criminal action had to be punished, and neither the crime nor the criminal could elicit sympathy from the audience.[4] Authority figures had to be treated respectfully, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Under some circumstances, politicians, police officers and judges could be villains, as long as it was clear that they were the exception to the rule.[14]

The entire document contained Catholic undertones and stated that art must be handled carefully because it could be “morally evil in its effects” and because its “deep moral significance” was unquestionable.[16] The Catholic influence on the Code was initially kept secret.[why?][19] A recurring theme was “throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right.”[4] The Code contained an addendum commonly referred to as the Advertising Code, which regulated film advertising copy and imagery.[20]

Yola D Avril 1

Yola D’Avril in Beauty And The Boss, Roy Del Ruth (1932)


On February 19, 1930, Variety published the entire contents of the Code and predicted that state film censorship boards would soon become obsolete.[21] However, the men obligated to enforce the code — Jason Joy, who was the head of the Committee until 1932, and his successor, Dr. James Wingate — were seen as generally ineffective.[15][22] The very first film the office reviewed, The Blue Angel, which was passed by Joy without revision, was considered indecent by a California censor.[23] Although there were several instances where Joy negotiated cuts from films, and there were indeed definite—albeit loose—constraints, a significant amount of lurid material made it to the screen.[24]

Marlene Dietrich 4

Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Josef Von Sternberg (1930)

Marlene Dietrich 10

Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich on the set of The Blue Angel (1930)

Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Josef Von Sternberg (1930)

Joy had to review 500 films a year using a small staff and little power.[22] The Hays office did not have the authority to order studios to remove material from a film in 1930, but instead worked by reasoning and sometimes pleading with them.[25] Complicating matters, the appeals process ultimately put the responsibility for making the final decision in the hands of the studios themselves.[15]

One factor in ignoring the Code was the fact that some found such censorship prudish. This was a period in which the Victorian era was sometimes ridiculed as being naïve and backward.[14] When the Code was announced, The Nation, a liberal periodical, attacked it.[26] The publication stated that if crime were never presented in a sympathetic light, then, taken literally, “law” and “justice” would become the same. Therefore, events such as the Boston Tea Party could not be portrayed. And if clergy were always to be presented positively, then hypocrisy could not be examined either.[27] The Outlook agreed, and, unlike Variety, predicted from the beginning the Code would be difficult to enforce.[27]

The Nation 5

The Nation attacked the Code

Clara Bow, a popular silent film star who made the transition to sound film, lifts her skirt on the poster for the 1929 film The Saturday Night Kid. Skirt lifting was one of many suggestive activities detested by Will H. Hays.[28]

Saturday Night Kid The 1

Clara Bow in The Saturday Night Kid, Poster, A. Edward Sutherland (1929)

Saturday Night Kid The 2

Clara Bow, Jean Harlow and Jean Arthur in The Saturday Night Kid, A. Edward Sutherland (1929)

Additionally, the Great Depression of the 1930s led many studios to seek income by any way possible. As films containing racy and violent content resulted in high ticket sales, it seemed reasonable to continue producing such films.[14] Soon, the flouting of the code became an open secret. In 1931, The Hollywood Reporter mocked the code, and Variety followed suit in 1933. In the same year as the Variety article, a noted screenwriter stated that “the Hays moral code is not even a joke any more; it’s just a memory.”[15]

Early sound film era

Although the liberalization of sexuality in American film had increased during the 1920s,[29] the pre-Code era is either dated to the start of the sound film era, or more generally to March 1930, when the Hays Code was first written.[1][30] Over the protests of NAMPI,[31] New York became the first state to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s decision in Mutual Film vs. Ohio by instituting a censorship board in 1921. Virginia followed suit the following year,[32] and eight individual states had a board by the advent of sound film.[33][34]

The Board of Censors NYC 1930 6

New York’s state censors in the 1930s. As in many of the seven states with censor boards, most of those doing the actual reviewing of the movies were women. Seated is the head of the Motion Picture Division, Irwin Esmond. Standing, second from right is the popular Canadian actor Walter Pidgeon. Photo courtesy John Crysler, Wilmington, NC

Many of these boards were ineffectual. By the 1920s, the New York stage, a frequent source of subsequent screen material, had topless shows; performances were filled with curse words, mature subject matter, and sexually suggestive dialogue.[35] Early during the sound system conversion process, it became apparent that what might be acceptable in New York would not be so in Kansas.[35] In 1927, Hays suggested studio executives form a committee to discuss film censorship. Irving G. Thalberg of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), Sol Wurtzel of Fox, and E. H. Allen of Paramount responded by collaborating on a list they called the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls”, based on items that were challenged by local censor boards, and which consisted of eleven subjects best avoided, and twenty-six to be handled very carefully. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) approved the list, and Hays created the SRC to oversee its implementation.[36][37] But there was still no way to enforce these tenets.[4] The controversy surrounding film standards came to a head in 1929.[1][38]

The Nation 7

American film producer Irving Thalberg (1889 – 1986), joins producers, Louis B. Mayer (1885 – 1957) & Harry Rapf (18182 – 1949) in a meeting, 1930s

Director Cecil B. DeMille was responsible for the increasing discussion of sex in cinema in the 1920s.[39][40] Starting with Male and Female (1919), he made a series of films that examined sex and were highly successful.[39] Films featuring Hollywood’s original “It girlClara Bow such as The Saturday Night Kid (released four days before the October 29, 1929, market crash) highlighted Bow’s sexual attractiveness.[41] 1920s stars such as Bow, Gloria Swanson, and Norma Talmadge freely displayed their sexuality in a straightforward fashion.[42]

Young De Mille Cecil 1

Young Cecil B DeMille

Cecil B DeMille’s Pre-Code Films Madam Satan (1930) and The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Hollywood during the Great Depression

The Great Depression presented a unique time for film-making in the United States. The economic disaster brought on by the stock market crash of 1929 changed American values and beliefs in various ways. Themes of American exceptionalism and traditional concepts of personal achievement, self-reliance, and the overcoming of odds lost great currency.[43] Due to the constant empty economic reassurances from politicians in the early years of the Depression, the American public developed an increasingly jaded attitude.[44]

Depression 8

USA 1929

The Depression had a profound influence on Pre-Code Hollywood in both financial and artistic terms.

2 Seconds  1.jpg

2 Seconds with Edward G Robinson, Mervyn LeRoy (1932)

The cynicism, challenging of traditional beliefs, and political controversy of Hollywood films during this period mirrored the attitudes of many of their patrons.[45] Also gone was the carefree and adventurous lifestyle of the 1920s.[46]

“After two years the Jazz Age seems as far away as the days before the war”, F. Scott Fitzgerald commented in 1931.[47] In the sense noted by Fitzgerald, understanding the moral climate of the early 1930s is complex. Although films experienced an unprecedented level of freedom and dared to portray things that would be kept hidden for several decades, many in America looked upon the stock market crash as a product of the excesses of the previous decade.[48]

In looking back upon the 1920s, events were increasingly seen as occurring in prelude to the market crash.[49] In Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), lurid party scenes featuring 1920s flappers are played to excess. Joan Crawford ultimately reforms her ways and is saved; less fortunate is William Bakewell, who continues on the careless path that leads to his ultimate self-destruction.[49]

Dance Fools Dance 12

Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance, Harry Beaumont (1931)

Dance Fools Dance 7

Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance, Harry Beaumont (1931)

Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance, Harry Beaumont (1931)

For Rain or Shine (1930), Milton Ager and Jack Yellin composed “Happy Days Are Here Again“. The song was repeated sarcastically by characters in several films such as Under Eighteen (1931) and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1933). Less comical was the picture of the United States’ future presented in Heroes for Sale that same year (1933), in which a hobo looks into a depressing night and proclaims, “It’s the end of America”.[50]

Rain or Shine 1

Joan Peers and Joe Cook in Rain or Shine, Frank Capra (1930)

Heroes for Sale was directed by prolific pre-Code director William Wellman and featured silent film star Richard Barthelmess as a World War I veteran cast onto the streets with a morphine addiction from his hospital stay. In Wild Boys of the Road (1933), the young man played by Frankie Darrow leads a group of dispossessed juvenile drifters who frequently brawl with the police.[51] Such gangs were common; around 250,000 youths traveled the country by hopping trains or hitchhiking in search of better economic circumstances in the early 1930s.[52]

Wild boys of the Road 5

Lobby card for Wild Boys of the Road, William Wellman (1933)

Wild Boys of the Road, William Wellman (1933)

The mob mentality displayed in bank runs was portrayed in films like American Madness (1932), where Frank Capra depicted “the thin line between investor confidence and panic in Hoover’s America.”[53]

American Madness 1

American Madness, Frank Capra (1932)

Complicating matters for the studios, the advent of sound film in 1927 required an immense expenditure in sound stages, recording booths, cameras, and movie-theater sound systems, not to mention the new-found artistic complications of producing in a radically altered medium. The studios were in a difficult financial position even before the market crash as the sound conversion process and some risky purchases of theater chains had pushed their finances near the breaking point.[54]

These economic circumstances led to a loss of nearly half of the weekly attendance numbers and closure of almost a third of the country’s theaters in the first few years of the depression. Even so, 60 million Americans went to the cinema weekly.[55]

Apart from the economic realities of the conversion to sound, were the artistic considerations. Early sound films were often noted for being too verbose.[2][56] In 1930, Carl Laemmle criticized the wall-to-wall banter of sound pictures, and director Ernst Lubitsch wondered what the camera was intended for if characters were going to narrate all the onscreen action.[56] The film industry also withstood competition from the home radio, and often characters in films went to great lengths to belittle the medium.[57] The film industry was not above using the new medium to broadcast commercials for its projects however, and occasionally turned radio stars into short feature performers to take advantage of their built-in following.[58]

Seething beneath the surface of American life in the Depression was the fear of the angry mob, portrayed in panicked hysteria in films such as Gabriel Over the White House (1933), The Mayor of Hell (1933), and American Madness (1932).[53] Massive wide shots of angry hordes, comprising sometimes hundreds of men, rush into action in terrifyingly efficient uniformity.

Gabriel Over The White House 1

Poster for Gabriel Over the White House, Gregory LaCava (1933)

Gabriel Over the White House, Gregory LaCava (1933)

Groups of agitated men either standing in breadlines, loitering in hobo camps, or marching the streets in protest became a prevalent sight during the Great Depression.[53] The Bonus Army protests of World War I veterans on the capital in Washington, D.C., on which Hoover unleashed a brutal crackdown, prompted many of the Hollywood depictions. Although social issues were examined more directly in the pre-Code era, Hollywood still largely ignored the Great Depression, as many films sought to ameliorate patrons’ anxieties rather than incite them.[59]

Hays remarked in 1932:[60]

The function of motion pictures is to ENTERTAIN. … This we must keep before us at all times and we must realize constantly the fatality of ever permitting our concern with social values to lead us into the realm of propaganda … the American motion picture … owes no civic obligation greater than the honest presentment of clean entertainment and maintains that in supplying effective entertainment, free of propaganda, we serve a high and self-sufficing purpose.

Mayor of Hell The 1

James Cagney and Madge Evans in The Mayor of Hell, Archie Mayo (1933)

American Madness 2

Poster for American Madness, Frank Capra (1932)

Social problem films

Under Eighteen 1

Warren William and Marian Marsh in Under Eighteen, Archie Mayo (1931)

Hays and others, such as Samuel Goldwyn, obviously felt that motion pictures presented a form of escapism that served a palliative effect on American moviegoers.[61] Goldwyn had coined the famous dictum, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union” in the pre-Code era.[61] However, the MPPDA took the opposite stance when questioned about certain so-called “message” films before Congress in 1932, claiming the audiences’ desire for realism led to certain unsavory social, legal, and political issues being portrayed in film.[62]

Mouthpiece The 1932

Warren William in The Mouthpiece (1932)

Warren William, described by Mick LaSalle as “one of the singular joys of the Pre-Code era,”[63] played industrialist villains in several pre-Code films, and his gangster-freeing, lowlife character in The Mouthpiece (1932) reflected much of America’s views of lawyers at the time.[64]

The length of pre-Code films was usually comparatively short,[65] but that running time often required tighter material and did not affect the impact of message films. Employees’ Entrance (1933) received the following review from Jonathan Rosenbaum: “As an attack on ruthless capitalism, it goes a lot further than more recent efforts such as Wall Street, and it’s amazing how much plot and character are gracefully shoehorned into 75 minutes.”[66]

Employees Entrance 1

Poster for Employees Entrance, Roy Del Ruth (1933)

Employees Entrance, Roy Del Ruth (1933)

The film featured pre-Code megastar Warren William (later dubbed “the king of Pre-Code”[2]), “at his magnetic worst”,[67] playing a particularly vile and heartless department store manager who, for example, terminates the jobs of two long-standing male employees, one of whom commits suicide as a result. He also threatens to fire Loretta Young‘s character, who pretends to be single to stay employed, unless she sleeps with him, then attempts to ruin her husband after learning she is married.[68]

Films that stated a position about a social issue were usually labeled either “propaganda films” or “preachment yarns”. In contrast to Goldwyn and MGM’s definitively Republican stance on social issue films, Warner Brothers, led by New Deal advocate Jack L. Warner, was the most prominent maker of these types of pictures and preferred they be called “Americanism stories”.[62][69][70] Pre-Code historian Thomas Doherty has written that two recurring elements marked the so-called preachment yarns. “The first is the exculpatory preface; the second is the Jazz Age prelude.”[71] The preface was essentially a softened version of a disclaimer that intended to calm any in the audience who disagreed with the film’s message. The Jazz Age prelude was almost singularly used to cast shame on the boisterous behavior of the 1920s.[71]

Cabin in the Cotton (1932) is a Warner Bros. message film about the evils of capitalism. The film takes place in an unspecified southern state where workers are given barely enough to survive and taken advantage of by being charged exorbitant interest rates and high prices by unscrupulous landowners.[72] The film is decidedly anti-capitalist;[73] however, its preface claims otherwise:[71]

Cabin in the Cotton 8

Bette Davis and Richard Barthelmess in The Cabin in the Cotton, Michael Curtiz (1932)

Cabin in the Cotton 6

Bette Davis and Richard Barthelmess in The Cabin in the Cotton, Michael Curtiz (1932)

The Cabin in the Cotton, Michael Curtiz (1932)

“In many parts of the South today, there exists an endless dispute between rich land-owners, known as planters, and the poor cotton pickers, known as “peckerwoods”. The planters supply the tenants with the simple requirements of everyday life and; in return, the tenants work the land year in and year out. A hundred volumes could be written on the rights and wrongs of both parties, but it is not the object of the producers of Cabin in the Cotton to take sides. We are only concerned with the effort to picture these conditions.”

In the end, however, the planters admit their wrongdoing and agree to a more equitable distribution of capital.[73]

The avaricious businessman remained a recurring character in pre-Code cinema. In The Match King (1932), Warren William played an industrialist based on real-life Swedish entrepreneur Ivar Kreuger, himself nicknamed the “Match King”, who attempts to corner the global market on matches. William’s vile character, Paul Kroll, commits robbery, fraud, and murder on his way from a janitor to a captain of industry.[74][75] When the market collapses in the 1929 crash, Kroll is ruined and commits suicide to avoid imprisonment.[74] William played another unscrupulous businessman in Skyscraper Souls (1932): David Dwight, a wealthy banker who owns a building named after himself that is larger than the Empire State Building.[76] He tricks everyone he knows into poverty to appropriate others’ wealth.[74] He is ultimately shot by his secretary (Verree Teasdale), who then ends the film and her own life by walking off the roof of the skyscraper.[77]

Match King The 2

Lili Damita in The Match KingWilliam Keighley, Howard Bretherton (1932)

Skyscraper Sould 1

Dustjacket for for Skyscraper Souls, Edgar Selwyn (1932)

Americans’ mistrust and dislike of lawyers was a frequent topic of dissection in social problem films such Lawyer Man (1933), State’s Attorney, and The Mouthpiece (1932). In films such as Paid (1930), the legal system turns innocent characters into criminals. The life of Joan Crawford‘s character is ruined and her romantic interest is executed so that she may live free, although she is innocent of the crime for which the district attorney wants to convict her.[64] Religious hypocrisy was addressed in such films as The Miracle Woman (1931), starring Barbara Stanwyck and directed by Frank Capra. Stanwyck also portrayed a nurse and initially reluctant heroine who manages to save, via unorthodox means, two young children in danger from nefarious characters (including Clark Gable as a malevolent chauffeur) in Night Nurse (1931).[78]

Lawyer Man 10

Claire Dodd, William Powell and Joan Blondell in Lawyer Man, William Dieterle (1933)

State's Attorney 1

John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees in State’s Attorney, George Archainbaud (1932)

Paid 1

Joan Crawford in Paid, Sam Wood (1930)

Miracle Woman The 5

Lobby card for The Miracle Woman with Barbara Stanwyck and David Manners, Frank Capra (1931)

Night Nurse 6

Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse, William Wellman (1931)

Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse, William Wellman (1931)

Many pre-Code films dealt with the economic realities of a country struggling to find its next meal. In Blonde Venus (1932), Marlene Dietrich‘s character resorts to prostitution to feed her child, and Claudette Colbert‘s character in It Happened One Night (1934) gets her comeuppance for throwing a tray of food onto the floor by later finding herself without food or financial resources.[79]Joan Blondell‘s character in Big City Blues (1932) reflects that as a chorus girl she regularly received diamonds and pearls as gifts, but now must content herself with a corned beef sandwich.[79] In Union Depot (1932), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. puts a luscious meal as the first order of business on his itinerary after coming into money.[80]

Blonde Venus 1

Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, Josef Von Sternberg (1932)

Blonde Venus 2

Poster for Blonde Venus, Josef Von Sternberg (1932)

It Happened One Night 1

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, Frank Capra (1934)

It Happened One Night 2

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, Frank Capra (1934)

Big City Blues 3

Poster for Big City Blues with Joan Blondell, Mervyn LeRoy (1932)

Big City Blues 5

Joan Blondell and Guy Kibee in Big City Blues, Mervyn LeRoy (1932)

Union Depot 1

French poster for Union Depot, Alfred E Green (1932)

Union Depot 5

Joan Blondell and Douglas Fairbanks Jr in Union Depot, Alfred E Green (1932)

Political Releases

Gabriel Over The White House 11

Poster for Gabriel Over the White House, Gregory La Cava (1933)

In the pre-Code film Gabriel Over the White House (1933), a U.S. President wakes up from an accident possessed by an angel and then changes American law to make himself dictator. The film was part of what the 1930s trade papers dubbed the “dictator craze.” During the early Depression era, many Americans desired politicians who could give them something beyond empty reassurances and hollow promises.[81]

Given the social circumstances, politically oriented social problem films ridiculed politicians and portrayed them as incompetent bumblers, scoundrels, and liars.[82] In The Dark Horse (1932), Warren William is again enlisted, this time to get an imbecile, who is accidentally in the running for Governor, elected. The candidate wins the election despite his incessant, embarrassing mishaps. Washington Merry-Go-Round portrayed the state of a political system stuck in neutral.[82]Columbia Pictures nearly released the film with a scene of the public execution of a politician as the climax before deciding to cut it.[83]

Dark Horse 2

Warren William and Bette Davis in The Dark Horse, Alfred E Green (1932)


Poster for Washington Merry-Go-Round, James Cruze (1932)

Washington Merry Go Round 2

Constance Cummings, Walter Connolly and Lee Tracy in Washington Merry-Go-Round, James Cruze (1932)

Cecil B. DeMille released This Day and Age in 1933, and it stands in stark contrast to his other films of the period. Filmed shortly after DeMille had completed a five-month tour of the Soviet Union, This Day and Age takes place in America and features several children torturing a gangster who got away with the murder of a popular local shopkeeper.[84][85] The youngsters are seen lowering the gangster into a vat of rats when the police arrive, and their response is to encourage the youths to continue this. The film ends with the youngsters taking the gangster to a local judge and forcing the magistrate to conduct a trial in which the outcome is never in doubt.[86]

This Day and Age  2.jpg

Poster for This Day and Age, Cecil B DeMille, (1933)

This Day and Age 1

Lobby cards for This Day and Age, Cecil B DeMille, (1933)

The need for strong leaders who could take charge and steer America out of its crisis is seen in Gabriel Over the White House (1933), about a benevolent dictator who takes control of the United States.[87]Walter Huston stars as a weak-willed, ineffectual president (likely modeled after Hoover) who is inhabited by the archangel Gabriel upon being knocked unconscious.[88][89] The spirit’s behavior is similar to that of Abraham Lincoln. The president solves the nation’s unemployment crisis and executes an Al Capone-type criminal who has continually flouted the law.[88]

Dictators were not just glorified in fiction. Columbia’s Mussolini Speaks (1933) was a 76-minute paean to the Fascist leader, narrated by NBC radio commentator Lowell Thomas. After showing some of the progress Italy has made during Il Duce‘s 10-year reign, Thomas opines, “This is a time when a dictator comes in handy!”[90] The film was viewed by over 175,000 jubilant people during its first two weeks at the cavernous Palace Theater in Albany, New York.[91]

Mussolini Speaks 1

Poster for Mussolini Speaks, Edgar G Ulmer (1933)

Mussolini Speaks 2

Poster for Mussolini Speaks, Edgar G Ulmer (1933)

The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) in 1932 quelled the public affection for dictators.[91] As the country became increasingly enthralled with FDR, who was featured in countless newsreels, it exhibited less desire for alternative forms of government.[92] Many Hollywood films reflected this new optimism. Heroes for Sale, despite being a tremendously bleak and at times anti-American film, ends on a positive note as the New Deal appears as a sign of optimism.[93] When Wild Boys of the Road (1933), directed by William Wellman, reaches its conclusion, a dispossessed juvenile delinquent is in court expecting a jail sentence. However the judge lets the boy go free, revealing to him the symbol of the New Deal behind his desk, and tells him “[t]hings are going to be better here now, not only here in New York, but all over the country.”[94] A box-office casualty of this hopefulness was Gabriel Over the White House, which entered production during the Hoover era malaise and sought to capitalize on it. By the time the film was released on March 31, 1933, FDR’s election had produced a level of hopefulness in America that rendered the film’s message obsolete.[95]

Adolf Hitler‘s rise to power in Germany and his regime’s anti-Semitic policies significantly affected American pre-Code filmmaking. Although Hitler had become unpopular in many parts of the United States, Germany was still a voluminous importer of American films and the studios wanted to appease the German government.[96] The ban on Jews and negative portrayals of Germany in the Fatherland even led to a significant reduction in work for Jews in Hollywood until after the end of World War II. As a result, only two social problem films released by independent film companies addressed the mania in Germany during the pre-Code era (Are We Civilized? and Hitler’s Reign of Terror).[97]

Are We Civilised 1

Poster for Are We Civilised?, Edwin Carew (1934)

Hitler's Reign of Terror 1

Hitler’s Reign of Terror, Michael Mindlin (1934)

Are We Civilised 2

Poster/DVD  Cover for Are We Civilised?, Edwin Carew (1934)

In 1933, Herman J. Mankiewicz and producer Sam Jaffe announced they were working on a picture, to be titled Mad Dog of Europe, which was intended to be a full-scale attack on Hitler.[98] Jaffe had quit his job at RKO Pictures to make the film. Hays summoned the pair to his office and told them to cease production as they were causing needless headaches for the studios.[99] Germany had threatened to seize all the properties of the Hollywood producers in Germany and ban the import of any future American films.[100][101]

Crime films

In the early 1900s, the United States was still primarily a rural country, especially in self-identity.[102]D. W. Griffith‘s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) is one of the earliest American films to feature urban organized crime.[103] Prohibition’s arrival in 1920 created an environment where anyone who wanted to drink had to consort with criminals,[104] especially in urban areas. Nonetheless, the urban-crime genre was mostly ignored until 1927 when Underworld, which is recognized as the first gangster movie,[105] became a surprise hit.

Musketeers of Pig Alley The 1

The Musketeers of Pig Alley, DW Griffith (1912)

According to the Encyclopedia of Hollywood entry on Underworld, “The film established the fundamental elements of the gangster movie: a hoodlum hero; ominous, night-shrouded city streets; floozies; and a blazing finale in which the cops cut down the protagonist”. Gangster films such as Thunderbolt (1929), and Doorway to Hell (1930) were released to capitalize on Underworlds popularity,[102] with Thunderbolt being described as “a virtual remake” of the film.[106] Other late 1920s crime films investigated the connection between mobsters and Broadway productions in movies such as Lights of New York (1928), Tenderloin (1928) and Broadway (1929).[107]

Underworld The 1

Poster for Underworld, Josef Von Sternberg (1927)

Underworld The 2

Evelyn Brent and Clive Brook in Underworld, Josef Von Sternberg (1927)

ThunderBolt 1

Lobby card for Thunderbolt, Josef Von Sternberg (1929)

Doorway to Hell 7

Lew Ayres, Dorthy Mathews and James Cagney in Doorway to Hell, Archie Mayo (1930)

Lights of New York 1

Helene Costello with the nightclub dancers in Lights of New York, Bryan Foy (1928)

Tenderloin 2

Dolores Costelo in Tenderloin, Michael Curtiz (1928)

Broadway 2

Broadway, Paul Feyos (1929)

The Hays Office had never officially recommended banning violence in any form in the 1920s—unlike profanity, the drug trade or prostitution—but advised that it be handled carefully.[8] New York’s censor board was more thorough than that of any other state, missing only around 50 of the country’s 1,000 to 1,300 annual releases.[108]

From 1927 to 1928, violent scenes removed were those in which a gun was pointed at the camera or “at or into the body of another character”. Many shots where machine guns were featured, scenes where criminals shot at law enforcement officers, some scenes involving stabbing or knife brandishing (audiences considered stabbings more disturbing than shootings), most whippings, several involving choking, torture, or electrocution, and any scenes which could be considered educational in their depiction of crime methods. Sadistic violence and reaction shots showing the faces of individuals on the receiving end of violence were considered especially sensitive areas.[109] The Code later recommended against scenes showing robbery, theft, safe-cracking, arson, “the use of firearms”, “dynamiting of trains, machines, and buildings”, and “brutal killings”, on the basis that they would be rejected by local censors.[37]

Scarface 1

Poster for Scarface, Howard Hawks (1932)

Scarface 2Paul Muni Karen Morley in Scarface, Howard Hawks (1932)

The public’s fascination with gangster films in the early 1930s was bolstered by the constant newsreel appearances of real-life criminals like Al Capone and John Dillinger, upon whom characters like Muni’s were often based.

Birth of the Hollywood gangster

James cagney 1

James Cagney and Jean Harlow in The Public Enemy, William Wellman (1931)

No motion picture genre of the Pre-Code era was more incendiary than the gangster film; neither preachment yarns nor vice films so outraged the moral guardians or unnerved the city fathers as the high caliber scenarios that made screen heroes out of stone killers.”[110]

— Pre-Code historian Thomas P. Doherty

In the early 1930s, several real-life criminals became celebrities. Two in particular captured the American imagination: Al Capone and John Dillinger. Gangsters like Capone had transformed the perception of entire cities.[110] Capone gave Chicago its “reputation as the locus classicus of American gangsterdom, a cityscape where bullet-proof roadsters with tommygun-toting hoodlums on running boards careened around State Street spraying fusillades of slugs into flower shop windows and mowing down the competition in blood-spattered garages”. Capone appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1930.[110] He was even offered 7-figure sums by two major Hollywood studios to appear in a film but declined.[111]

John Dillinger 1

A wanted poster for bank robber John Dillinger

Al Capone 1

TIME Magazine Cover, Al Capone, Mar. 24, 1930

Dillinger became a national celebrity as a bank robber who eluded arrest and escaped confinement several times. He had become the most celebrated public outlaw since Jesse James.[112] His father appeared in a popular series of newsreels giving police homespun advice on how to catch his son. Dillinger’s popularity rose so quickly that Variety joked that “if Dillinger remains at large much longer and more such interviews are obtained, there may be some petitions circulated to make him our president.”[113] Hays wrote a cablegram to all the studios in March 1934 mandating that Dillinger not be portrayed in any motion picture.[114]

Little Caesar 1

Poster for Little Caesar, Mervyn LeRoy (1931)

Little Caesar  41.jpg

Poster for The Public Enemy, William Wellman (1931)

Scarface 3

French release poster for Scarface, Howard Hawks (1932)

The genre entered a new level following the release of Little Caesar (1931), which featured Edward G. Robinson as gangster Rico Bandello.[102][115]Caesar, along with The Public Enemy starring James Cagney as Tom Powers and Scarface (1932), featuring Paul Muni as Tony Comante, were, by standards of the time, incredibly violent films that created a new type of anti-hero. Nine gangster films were released in 1930, 26 in 1931, 28 in 1932, and 15 in 1933, when the genre’s popularity began to subside after the end of Prohibition.[116] The backlash against gangster films was swift. In 1931, Jack Warner announced that his studio would stop making them and that he himself had never allowed his 15-year-old son to see them.[117]

Little Caesar, Mervyn LeRoy (1931)

Rico (Edward G. Robinson) confronts Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) when Joe decides to give up the gangster lifestyle in Little Caesar (1931).

Generally considered the grandfather of gangster films,[118] in Little Caesar, Robinson as Rico and his close friend Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) move to Chicago. Joe wants to go straight and meets a woman. Rico, however, seeks a life of crime and joins the gang of Sam Vettori. He rises to the rank of boss of the crime family. After becoming concerned his friend will betray him he threatens him, at which point Joe’s girlfriend goes to the police. Unable to bring himself to kill Joe and eliminate the witness against him, Rico goes into hiding. He is coaxed out by the police, who publish that he is a coward to the press.

Rico is killed in a blaze of gunfire; his last words are “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”[119] Robinson was initially cast in a small role but persuaded the film’s producer to let him play the lead.[120]

Wingate, who then headed New York’s censorship board, told Hays that he was flooded with complaints from people who saw kids in theaters nationwide “applaud the gang leader as a hero.”[121]

The success of Little Caesar inspired Fox’s The Secret Six (1931) and Quick Millions (1931), and Paramount’s City Streets (1931), but the next big Hollywood gangster would come from Warners.[122]

Secret Six 1

Lobby cards for The Secret SixGeorge W. Hill, George King (1931)

Quick Millions 1

Spencer Tracy and Sally Eilers in Quick Millions, Rowland Brown (1931)

City Streets 2

French release poster for City Streets, Rouben Mamoulian (1931)

City Streets, Rouben Mamoulian (1931)

William Wellman‘s The Public Enemy (1931), released by Warner Brothers, features another career-defining performance, this time James Cagney as Tom Powers. The film is similar to the template set in Little Caesar in that it follows Powers from his rise to his eventual fall in the world of crime.

The film was partially based on the real life of Chicago gangster Dion O’Banion.[123] Cagney’s character is contrasted with his puritanical brother who wants him to go straight; their mother is at the center of the conflict. Tom Powers is egotistical, amoral, heartless, ruthless, and extremely violent.[124]

The Public Enemy, William Wellman (1931)

The best-remembered scene in the picture is referred to as the “grapefruit scene”: when Cagney’s girlfriend (Mae Clarke) angers him during breakfast, he shoves half a grapefruit in her face.[124] Instead of scenes from the film, its trailer contained a voiceover warning of the picture’s intensity and showed a gun being fired directly at the camera.[125]

Public Enemy the 8

The infamous “grapefruit scene” in The Public Enemy (1931), with James Cagney and Mae Clarke


The Public Enemy, William Wellman (1931)


The Public Enemy, William Wellman (1931)

The Public Enemy, William Wellman (1931)

Cagney was even more violent towards women in the gangster film Picture Snatcher (1933): in one scene, he knocks out an amorous woman whose feelings he does not reciprocate and violently throws her into the backseat of his car.[126]

Picture Snatcher 1

Poster for Picture Snatcher, Lloyd Bacon (1933)

In April 1931, the same month as the release of The Public Enemy, Hays recruited former police chief August Vollmer to conduct a study on the effect gangster pictures had on children. After he had finished his work, Vollmer stated that gangster films were innocuous and even overly favorable in depicting the police.[127]

Although Hays used the results to defend the film industry,[127] the New York State censorship board was not impressed, and from 1930 through 1932, removed 2,200 crime scenes from pictures.[128]

Scarface 15

French release poster for Scarface, Howard Hawks (1932)

Some critics have named Scarface (1932) as the most incendiary pre-Code gangster film.[129][130] Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni as Tony Camonte, the film is partially based on the life of Al Capone and incorporates details of Capone’s biography into the storyline.[129] The film begins with Camonte working for Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), but he’s dissatisfied with being a subordinate and he’s also attracted to Lovo’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley).

He has an unhealthily controlling relationship with his sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak) – whom he expects to remain chaste—that many critics have described as incestuous.[131] Lovo warns Camonte to leave the North Side alone as it is controlled by a rival mob, but he ignores this warning and launches a series of executions and extortions that result in a war with the North Side gang.

Scarface 4

Poster for Scarface, Howard Hawks (1932)

Camonte then forcefully takes the gang over from Lovo, who tries unsuccessfully to kill him for this. Camonte’s attempt to kill Lovo is more successful, and Poppy happily becomes his girl. When Camonte finds Francesca in a hotel room with his closest friend, coin-flipping gangster Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), he kills Rinaldo in a rage. Afterward, he becomes despondent when he learns that the couple had wanted to surprise him with the news that they had gotten married.

The production of Scarface was troubled from the start. The Hays office warned producer Howard Hughes not to make the film;[132] when it was completed in late 1931, the Hays office demanded numerous changes including a conclusion where Comante was captured, tried, convicted, and hanged[133] and that the film carry the subtitle Shame of a Nation.[128] Hughes sent the film to numerous state censorship boards, saying he hoped to show that the film was made to combat the “gangster menace”.[126] After he was unable to get the film past the New York State censor board (then headed by Wingate)[126] even after the changes, Hughes sued the New York board and won, allowing him to release the film in a version close to its intended form.[133][134] When other local censors refused to release the edited version, the Hays Office sent Jason Joy around to them to assure them that the cycle of gangster films of this nature was ending.[135]

Scarface, Howard Hawks (1932)

Scarface provoked outrage mainly because of its unprecedented violence, but also for its shifts of tone from serious to comedic.[136]Dave Kehr, writing in the Chicago Reader, stated that the film blends “comedy and horror in a manner that suggests Chico Marx let loose with a live machine gun.”[131]

Scarface, Howard Hawks (1932)

In one scene, Camonte is inside a cafe while a torrent of machine-gun fire from the car of a rival gang is headed his way; when the barrage is over, Camonte picks up one of the newly released tommy guns the gangsters dropped and exhibits childlike wonder and unrestrained excitement over the new toy.[126] Civic leaders became furious that gangsters like Capone (who was also the inspiration for Little Caesar)[120] were being applauded in movie houses all across America.[102] The screenplay, adapted by Ben Hecht who was a journalist in Chicago, contained biographical details for Muni’s character in Scarface that were so obviously taken from Capone, and the detail so close, that it was impossible not to draw the parallels.[129]

One of the factors that made gangster pictures so subversive was that, in the difficult economic times of the Depression, there already existed the viewpoint that the only way to get financial success was through crime.[137] The Kansas City Times argued that although adults may not be particularly affected, these films were “misleading, contaminating, and often demoralizing to children and youth.”[138] Exacerbating the problem, some cinema theater owners advertised gangster pictures with a singular irresponsibility. Real-life murders were tied into promotions and “theater lobbies displayed tommy guns and blackjacks“.[139] The situation reached such a nexus that the studios had to ask exhibitors to tone down the gimmickry in their promotions.[139]

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Paul Muni and Ann Dvorak in Scarface, Howard Hawks (1932)

Prison films

Prison films of the pre-Code era often involved men and women who were unjustly incarcerated, and films set in prisons of the north tended to portray them as a bastion of solidarity against the crumbling social system of the Great Depression.[140] Sparked by the real-life Ohio penitentiary fire on April 21, 1930, in which guards refused to release prisoners from their cells, causing 300 deaths, the films depicted the inhumane conditions inside prisons in the early 1930s.[140]

The genre was composed of two archetypes: the prison film and the chain gang film.[141] In the prison film, large hordes of men move about in identical uniforms, resigned to their fate, they live by a well defined code.[142] In the chain gang film, Southern prisoners were subjected to a draconian system of discipline in the blazing outdoor heat, where they were treated terribly by their ruthless captors.[140]

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Paul Muni in I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy (1932)

Paul Muni prepares to have his ankle shackles bent, and thus disabled, via sledge hammer, courtesy of the prisoner in the background in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Based on the autobiographical memoirs of Robert E. Burns, who was himself a fugitive at the time of the picture’s release, the film was a powerful agent for social change.

The prototype of the prison genre was The Big House (1930).[143] In The Big House, Robert Montgomery plays a squirmy inmate who is sentenced to six years after committing vehicular manslaughter while under the influence. His cell mates are a murderer played by Wallace Beery and a forger played by Chester Morris. The picture features future staples of the prison genre such as solitary confinement, informers, riots, visitations, an escape, and the codes of prison life. The protagonist, Montgomery, ends up being a loathsome character, a coward who will sell anyone in the prison out to get an early release.[144] The film was banned in Ohio, the site of the deadly prison riots that inspired it.[145]Numbered Men, The Criminal Code, Shadow of the Law, Convict’s Code, and others, from no less than seven studios, followed.[146] However, prison films mainly appealed to men, and had weak box office performances as a result.[145]

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Poster for The Big House, George W Hill (1930)

The Big House, George W Hill (1930)

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Lobby card for Numbered Men, Mervyn LeRoy (1930)

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Poster for The Criminal Code, Howard Hawks, (1931)

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Poster for Shadow of the Law, Louis J Gasnier (1930)

Studios also produced children’s prison films that addressed the juvenile delinquency problems of America in the Depression. The Mayor of Hell, for instance, featured kids killing a murderously abusive reform school overseer without retribution.[147]

Chain Gang Films

The most searing criticism of the American prison system was reserved for the depiction of Southern chain gangs, with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang being by far the most influential.[148]

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Lobby card for I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy (1932)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which is based on the true story of Robert. E. Burns, is by far the most famous of the early 1930s chain gang films.[149] In the first half of 1931, True Detective Mysteries magazine had published Burns’ work over six issues, and it was released as a book in January 1932.[150]

Decorated veteran James Allen (Paul Muni) returns from World War I a changed man, and seeks an alternative to the tedious job that he left behind. He travels the country looking for construction work. His ultimate goal is to become involved in construction planning. Allen follows a hobo he met at a homeless shelter into a cafe, taking him up on his offer of a free meal.

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Lobby card for I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy (1932)

When the hobo attempts to rob the eatery, Allen is charged as an accessory, convicted of stealing a few dollars, and sentenced to ten years in a chain gang. The men are chained together and transported to a quarry to break rocks every day.

Even when unchained from each other, shackles remain around their ankles at all times. Allen convinces a large black prisoner who has particularly good aim to hit the shackles on his ankles with a sledgehammer to bend them. He removes his feet from the bent shackles, and in a famous sequence, escapes through the woods while being chased by bloodhounds. On the outside he develops a new identity and becomes a respected developer in Chicago. He is blackmailed into marriage by a woman he does not love who finds out his secret.

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Paul Muni in I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy (1932)

When he threatens to leave her for a young woman he has fallen in love with, she turns him in. His case becomes a cause célèbre, and he agrees to turn himself in under the agreement that he will serve 90 days and then be released. He is tricked however, and not freed at the agreed upon time. This forces him to escape again, and he seeks out the young woman, telling her that they cannot be together because he will always be hunted. The film ends with her asking him how he survives, and his ominous reply from the darkness: “I steal.”[151]

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy (1932)

Although based on reality, Chain Gang changes the facts slightly to appeal to Depression-era audiences by making Allen’s return home one to a country that is struggling economically, even though Burns returned to the roaring twenties.[152] The film’s bleak, anti-establishment ending shocked audiences.[153]

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Lobby card for I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy (1932)

Laughter in Hell, a 1933 film directed by Edward L. Cahn and starring Pat O’Brien, was inspired in part by I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.[154]

O’Brien plays a railroad engineer who kills his wife and her lover in a jealous rage, and is sent to prison. The dead man’s brother ends up being the warden of the prison and torments O’Brien’s character. O’Brien and several others revolt, killing the warden and escaping with his new lover (Gloria Stuart).[155][156]

The film, rediscovered in 2012,[157]drew controversy for its lynching scene in which several black men were hanged. Reports vary if the blacks were hanged alongside other white men, or by themselves. The New Age (an African American weekly newspaper) film critic praised the filmmakers for being courageous enough to depict the atrocities that were occurring in some Southern states.[156]

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Lobby card for Laughter in Hell, Edward Cahn (1933)

Laughter in Hell, Edward Cahn (1933)

The titles of pre-Code films were often created with a deliberate intent to titillate. Although violent, the film Safe in Hell (1931) was actually a thoroughly modern, thoughtful film in its social views. Its most likable characters were those portrayed by African-American actors Nina Mae McKinney and Noble Johnson, who spoke in their own natural voices, without having to employ “Negro dialect”.[158][159]

Sex films

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Gloria Stuart

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Jean Harlow

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Barbara Stanwyck


As films featuring prurient elements performed well at the box office, after the crackdown on crime films,[160]Hollywood increased its production of pictures featuring the seven deadly sins.[161]

In 1932, Warner Bros formed an official policy decreeing that “two out of five stories should be hot”, and that nearly all films could benefit by “adding something having to do with ginger.”[162] Filmmakers began putting in overly suggestive material they knew would never reach theaters in hopes that lesser offenses would survive the cutting-room floor.

MGM screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart said that “[Joy and Wingate] wouldn’t want to take out too much, so you would give them five things to take out to satisfy the Hays Office—and you would get away with murder with what they left in.”[163]

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Donald Ogden Stewart

Films such as Laughing Sinners, Safe in Hell, Merrily We Go to Hell, Laughter in Hell, and The Road to Ruin were provocative in their mere titles.[161] Studios marketed their films, sometimes dishonestly, by inventing suggestive tag lines and lurid titles, even going so far as to hold in-house contests for thinking up provocative titles for screenplays.[164]

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Poster for Laughing Sinners, Harry Beaumont (1931)

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Dorothy Mackaill in Safe in Hell, William Wellman (1931)

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Lobby cards for Merrily We Go To Hell, Dorothy Arzner (1932)

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Promo still for Laughter in Hell, Edward L Cahn (1933)

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Poster for The Road to Ruin, Dorothy Davenport, Melville Shyer (1934)

Commonly labeled “sex films” by the censors, these pictures offended taste in more categories than just sexuality.[161] According to a Variety analysis of 440 pictures produced in 1932–33, 352 had “some sex slant”, with 145 possessing “questionable sequences”, and 44 being “critically sexual”. Variety summarized that “over 80% of the world’s chief picture output was … flavored with bedroom essence.”[162] Attempts to create films for adults only (dubbed “pinking”) wound up bringing large audiences of all ages to cinemas.[165]

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Publicity photos like this (Ina Claire in a publicity still for the 1932 film The Greeks Had a Word for Them AKA Three Broadway Girls, Lowell Sherman 1932), with a woman posing suggestively in her nightgown on a bed, provoked outrage among civic leaders.

Posters and publicity photos were often tantalizing.[166] Women appeared in poses and garb not even glimpsed in the films themselves. In some cases actresses with small parts in films (or in the case of Dolores Murray in her publicity still for The Common Law, no part at all) appeared scantily clad.[167]

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Chorus Girls in The Common Law, Paul L Stein (1931)

Hays became outraged at the steamy pictures circulating in newspapers around the country.[168] The original Hays Code contained an often-ignored note about advertising imagery, but he wrote an entirely new advertising screed in the style of the Ten Commandments that contained a set of twelve prohibitions.[169]

The first seven addressed imagery. They prohibited women in undergarments, women raising their skirts, suggestive poses, kissing, necking, and other suggestive material. The last five concerned advertising copy and prohibited misrepresentation of the film’s contents, “salacious copy”, and the word “courtesan“.[28]

Studios found their way around the restrictions and published increasingly racy imagery. Ultimately this backfired in 1934 when a billboard in Philadelphia was placed outside the home of Cardinal Dennis Dougherty. Severely offended, Dougherty took his revenge by helping to launch the motion-picture boycott which would later facilitate enforcement of the Code.[170]

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Lobby card for White Woman, Stewart Walker (1933)

A commonly repeated theme by those supporting censorship, and one mentioned in the Code itself[171] was the notion that the common people needed to be saved from themselves by the more refined cultural elite.[172]

Despite the obvious attempts to appeal to red-blooded American males, most of the patrons of sex pictures were female. Variety squarely blamed women for the increase in vice pictures:[173]

“Women are responsible for the ever-increasing public taste in sensationalism and sexy stuff. Women who make up the bulk of the picture audiences are also the majority reader of the tabloids, scandal sheets, flashy magazines, and erotic books … the mind of the average man seems wholesome in comparison. … Women love dirt, nothing shocks ’em.”

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Poster for Parole Girl, Eddie Cline (1933)

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Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow was described in the Encyclopedia of Hollywood as “the reigning sex symbol of the 1930s.”[39] Harlow was propelled to stardom in pre-Code films such as Platinum Blonde, Red Dust, and Red-Headed Woman. This image is from the cover of Time from August 19, 1935.

Pre-Code female audiences liked to indulge in the carnal lifestyles of mistresses and adulteresses while at the same time taking joy in their usually inevitable downfall in the closing scenes of the picture.[174] While gangster films were claimed to corrupt the morals of young boys, vice films were blamed for threatening the purity of adolescent women.[165]

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Hundreds of Jean Harlow pictures, plus thousands more at http://www.morethings.com/pictures

Jean Harlow

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Jean Harlow

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Jean Harlow


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Darryl F Zanuck

In pre-Code Hollywood, the sex film became synonymous with women’s pictures — Darryl F. Zanuck once told Wingate that he was ordered by Warner Brothers’ New York corporate office to reserve 20% of the studio’s output for “women’s pictures, which inevitably means sex pictures.”[175] Vice films typically tacked on endings where the most sin-filled characters were either punished or redeemed. Films explored Code-defying subjects in an unapologetic manner with the premise that an end-reel moment could redeem all that had gone before.

Vice films typically tacked on endings where the most sin-filled characters were either punished or redeemed. Films explored Code-defying subjects in an unapologetic manner with the premise that an end-reel moment could redeem all that had gone before.

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Norma Shearer

Vice films typically tacked on endings where the most sin-filled characters were either punished or redeemed. Films explored Code-defying subjects in an unapologetic manner with the premise that an end-reel moment could redeem all that had gone before.[176] The concept of marriage was often tested in films such as

The concept of marriage was often tested in films such as The Prodigal (1931), in which a woman is having an affair with a seedy character, and later falls in love with her brother-in-law. When her mother-in-law steps in at the end of the film, it is to encourage one son to grant his wife a divorce so she can marry his brother, with whom she is obviously in love. The older woman proclaims the message of the film in a line near the end: “This the twentieth century. Go out into the world and get what happiness you can.”[177]

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Lawrence Tibbett and Esther Ralston in Prodigal, Harry A Pollard (1931)

In Madame Satan (1930), adultery is explicitly condoned and used as a sign for a wife that she needs to act in a more enticing way to maintain her husband’s interest.[178]

In Secrets (1933), a husband admits to serial adultery, only this time he repents and the marriage is saved.[178] The films took aim at what was already a damaged institution. During the Great Depression, relations between spouses often deteriorated due to financial strain, marriages lessened, and husbands abandoned their families in increased numbers.[179]

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Kay Johnson in Madam Satan, Cecil B DeMille (1930)

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Leslie Howard and Mary Pickford in Secrets, Frank Borzage (1933)

Marriage rates continually declined in the early 1930s, finally rising in 1934, the final year of the pre-Code era, and although divorce rates lowered, this is likely because desertion was a more likely method of separation.[180] Consequently, female characters, such as Ruth Chatterton‘s in Female, live promiscuous bachelorette lifestyles, and control their own financial destiny (Chatterton supervises an auto factory) without regret.[175]

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Ruth Chatterton in Female, Michael Curtiz (1933)

In The Divorcee (1930), starring Norma Shearer, a wife discovers that her husband (played by Chester Morris), has been cheating on her. In reaction, she decides to have an affair with his best friend (played by Robert Montgomery). When the husband finds out, he decides to leave her.

After pleading with him to stay, the wife unleashes her frustrations upon him, and in a moment of inspiration reveals her desire to live a fearless, sexually liberated life without him.

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Lobby card for The Divorcee, Robert Z Leonard (1930)

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Norma Shearer in The Divorcee, Robert Z Leonard (1930)

The Divorcee, Robert Z Leonard (1930)

According to at least one film historian,[who?] this was the motion picture that inspired other films centering upon sophisticated female protagonists, who stayed out late, had affairs, wore revealing gowns, and who basically destroyed the sexual double standard by asserting themselves both within society and in the bedroom.

From The Divorcee onward, there developed “a trend toward a sophistication in women’s pictures that would continue unabated until the end of the Pre-Code era in mid-1934.[181]

One of the most prominent examples of punishment for immoral transgressions in vice film can be seen in The Story of Temple Drake, based on the William Faulkner novel Sanctuary.

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Lobby cards for The Story of Temple Drake, Stephen Roberts (1933)

In Drake, the title character (Miriam Hopkins), a cold, vapid “party girl”, the daughter of a judge, is raped and forced into prostitution by a backwoods character, and according to pre-Code scholar Thomas Doherty, the film implies that the deeds done to her are in recompense for her immorality.[182]

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Lobby cards for The Story of Temple Drake, Stephen Roberts (1933)

Later, in court, she confesses that she killed the man who raped and kept her. She faints after this confession, upon which her lawyer carries her out, leading to a “happy ending”.[183]

The Story of Temple Drake, Stephen Roberts (1933)

In the RKO film Christopher Strong, Katharine Hepburn plays an aviator who becomes pregnant from an affair with a married man. She commits suicide by flying her plane directly upwards until she breaks the world altitude record, at which point she takes off her oxygen mask and plummets to earth.[184]

Strong female characters often ended films as “reformed” women, after experiencing situations in which their progressive outlook proved faulty.[175]

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Lobby card for Christopher Strong, Dorothy Arzner (1933)

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Katherine Hepburn in Christopher Strong, Dorothy Arzner (1933)

Katherine Hepburn in Christopher Strong, Dorothy Arzner (1933)

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Marlene Dietrich

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Marlene Dietrich

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Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich, who was open about her bisexuality, wore men’s clothes in public. In a society still markedly against homosexuality and cross-genderism, this caused quite an uproar. In 1933, her studio, Paramount, signed a largely ineffectual document stating that they would not allow women in men’s clothes to appear in their films, both to quell the backlash and generate publicity.[185]

Female protagonists in aggressively sexual vice films were usually of two general kinds: the bad girl or the fallen woman.[186] In so-called “bad girl” pictures, female characters profited from promiscuity and immoral behavior.[187]

Jean Harlow, an actress who was by all reports a lighthearted, kind person offscreen, frequently played bad girl characters and dubbed them “sex vultures”.[188] Two of the most prominent examples of bad girl films, Red-Headed Woman and Baby Face, featured Harlow and Stanwyck. In Red-Headed Woman Harlow plays a secretary determined to sleep her way into a more luxurious lifestyle, and in Baby Face Stanwyck is an abused runaway determined to use sex to advance herself financially.[189]

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Jean Harlow and Chester Morris in Red Headed Woman, Jack Conway (1932)