Pre-Code: Sex Sells in Hollywood

Updated: Jul 26, 2018



Advent of Sound Spices Up the Big Screen

Before moral codes forced married couples to separate their beds on the big screen, the advent of sound created a transitional period that blurred the lines of what was considered acceptable for Hollywood viewers. With spoken dialogue a novel idea, topics of adult nature, such as sexual innuendos and profanity, began to find their way onto the silver screen. In addition to the racy dialogue, films of this era often included violence, illegal drug use and promiscuity. It was a spicy time in Hollywood! As dedicated film buffs, we at The Film Detective are delighted to bring you this insight into one of the most fascinating eras in Hollywood — The Pre-Code Era!


So, what is “Pre-Code” anyway, and why is it so controversial? Strictly speaking, Pre-Code is the brief era of Hollywood between the addition of sound in film in late 1927 to the enforcement of the “Production Code” in mid 1934. Prior to this time period, Hollywood had already attempted to enforce censorship among its filmmakers. This was in effort to rehabilitate Hollywood’s image in the wake of a number of shocking scandals. Controversial events that stand out range from Mary Pickford's divorce of her husband to marry Douglas Fairbanks in 1920, to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckel’s rape and murder charge of an actress in 1921 (he was found not guilty, but was blackballed, nonetheless). Other prominent scandals of the period include the 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor, and the shocking reveal that he had been involved in numerous affairs with several well known actresses. Not to mention the numerous instances of drug abuse, like the morphine overdose that took the life of actor Wallace Reid in 1923!


Though these shocking scandals pressured the film industry towards thinking of restoring Hollywood’s image, the final push was when film began to reflect real-life events and showcased a then-unfamiliar level of sexual freedom. In an effort to censor film and save their image, studios came together and created the Motion Picture Producer & Distributors Association, a group that would work towards censoring film and putting moral clauses into talent contracts.


However, after the stock market crash caused a major dip in ticket sales, studios looked to the oft-used mantra “Sex sells” to bring viewers back to the theater; in other words, profits trumped enforcement of strict censorship laws. With this mindset, films began to see a rise in more adult topics. Films featuring infidelity, violence and homosexuality became common.During this period, films like, The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932) began to explore the criminal underbelly of society — dramatizing the lives of gangsters and criminals, and portraying such characters as antiheroes. Moreover, which was shocking at the time, strong female characters came out of the woodwork in films like, Red-Headed Woman (1932), Female (1933) and Baby Face (1933).

By the mid 1930s, the previously created MPPDA was pressured by religious groups to adopt The Hays Code, a code that created strict regulations on the depictions of sex and violence as well as the use of any profanity. The code was adopted shortly after The Catholic Legion of Decency — an organization that worked to identify objectionable content from the point of view of the Catholic Church — began using their own rating system, which saw them label films they did not approve of “Condemned.” Because of this, Christian viewers would often avoid condemned films, not wanting to challenge the Catholic Church.

Profits again swayed studios, and The Hays Code was enacted for fear of losing customers. Eventually, films featuring crime, profanity, and sex were forbidden from the silver screen, ending the Pre-Code era and heralding a more conservative Hollywood.


With one of the hottest months still coming up, we’re proud to bring our Detectives a spicy playlist that features many of our Pre-Code favorites! Though we can't reveal all of our new titles just yet, check below for some big features we are excited about, coming your way this August!


Topping our Pre-Code playlist is a hit that has all of the elements of a racy film from the early 1930s! Featuring an affair, alcoholism, and even murder, there's also plenty of innuendos to keep you going with Millie (1931). Helen Twelvetrees stars as the title character who is married to a wealthy businessman, Jack Maitland (James Hall). Expecting a happy future, her life is turned upside-down when she discovers her husband has an unexpected secret.


 In Big News (1929), an early talkie, Robert Armstrong and Carole Lombard carry a story about a reporter who is dealing with alcoholism and a crumbling marriage — not to mention being accused of a murder he didn't commit! Also new to the app will be The Big Chance (1933), an old-school gangster flick which sees a crime boss fixing fights for a young prizefighter. Directed by Albert Herman, and starring John Darrow as the young boxer, this dicey film was a natural pick for our Pre-Code playlist!


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