There is no Pre-Code Hollywood
"Pre-Code Hollywood" is a term that's generally used to refer to movies made between the advent of sound in the late 20s and the establishment of the Production Code Administration in mid-1934. But by 1934 the studios had already been operating for a decade under a series of increasingly stringent content restrictions adopted by the trade organization Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA).
The MPPDA had been created by the studios themselves to deflect criticism about the depiction of sex, violence, alcohol (Prohibition was still in effect until December 1933), drugs, and religion in films. Will Hays, a former chair of the Republican National Committee and a devout Presbyterian, was hired by the studios in 1922 to head the MPPDA because he could convincingly seem to represent middle-American values. Hays' first guidelines were written in 1924, so there is no period in the sound era when studio filmmakers were operating without content proscriptions: there is no pre-Code Hollywood.
The appearance of self-regulation was used by the studios to undercut attempts to impose government censorship. As Mark Vieira points out in Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, the studios were mainly concerned with their long-term financial interests. They wanted to avoid any public ill-will that might lead to anti-trust legislation aimed at the studios' monopolistic practices such as vertical integration, block-booking and blind buying.  (Vertical integration was studio ownership of movie theaters; block-booking was the distribution of desirable movies to independent theater owners only as a package with other, less popular movies; blind buying was the practice of forcing theaters to bid on movies on the basis of a sketchy prospectus before the films were even produced.)
When sound became widely adopted in the late 1920s, the moral panic surrounding movies reached a new pitch. Catholic priest Daniel Lord later wrote, "Silent smut had been bad. Vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance."  The studios responded by adopting a new set of guidelines in early 1930 as "A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures." The Production Code, popularly known as the "Hays Code," was primarily authored by Lord and Exhibitor's Herald World editor Martin Quigley. It was promoted as governing filmmakers' approach to any controversial material.
...but pre-1934 movies are different
The studios were placed in a double bind: self-censorship made for good press, but sensationalism sold tickets. Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, told one of his executives that "the public now knows that we stand for clean pictures and that invariably they are too damn clean and they stay away on account of it."  So it was in the studios' short-term financial interest to circumvent their own guidelines, and they did it regularly. Before mid-1934 adherence to the MPPDA's guidelines was voluntary, and the organization had no enforcement power. Hays' role was primarily one of public relations, while the content rules he promulgated were often skirted or ignored outright. Until mid-1934, Hollywood filmmakers continued to push the boundaries of what was permissible.
The justification for including forbidden content was "compensating moral values"—a conclusion in which the sinful repent, the erring make sacrifices, and the incorrigible are punished. Thus, the phenomenon of the Hollywood ending: a final scene that slaps a moralistic denouement on all the eyebrow-raising events of the previous 90 minutes.
The Production Code and its discontents
Among the prohibitions of the Code:
"I. Crimes against the law: These shall not be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime...Illegal drug traffic must never be presented."
"Vi. Costume: ...Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot."
Night Nurse (1931, directed by William Wellman, screenplay by Oliver Garrett and Charles Kenyon, based on a novel by Dora Macy) inspires sympathy for not one, but two crimes: bootlegging and murder. Sinister chauffeur Clark Gable is apparently plotting to marry party-girl divorcée Charlotte Merriman and starve her two children to death so that he can seize control of the kids' trust funds. The only thing standing in his way are Merriman's conscientious day and night nurses, Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck.
The compensating ending—spoiler alert, the first of too many to note individually, so be forewarned that the spoilers are in the final paragraph of each film summary—is the killing of Gable by gangster cronies of Stanwyck's affable booze-smuggling boyfriend Ben Lyon. So much for the restitution of the moral order. Along the way we get to see Stanwyck and Blondell frequently stripping down to their lingerie while changing into and out of their nurses' uniforms. Undoubtedly these scenes were essential to the
"VII. Dances: Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene."
"II. Sex: ..Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden."
Three on a Match (1932, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, screenplay by Lucien Hubbard) features periodic montages of newspaper and magazine headlines accompanied by film footage to establish the passage of time. For the year 1925, under the headline "What I Found Out About My Daughter of Fourteen" from the (fictional?) True Facts magazine, there's a shot of two women dancing in each other's arms while lasciviously grinding their hips together. The film is another "child in peril from an unfit mother" plot: this time, Ann Dvorak's cocaine-sniffing, alcoholic mother is in an adulterous relationship with Lyle Talbot, her supplier and a compulsive gambler. It was as though the filmmakers set out to violate as many provisions of the Code as they could in one movie.
Dvorak must redeem herself through sacrifice. She and her son are held captive by gangsters led by Edward Arnold and a snarling Humphrey Bogart, who are trying to recover money that Talbot has borrowed and lost at the card tables. After scrawling a message in lipstick on her negligée identifying the location of her son, Dvorak delivers it to the police by leaping out of a window and plummeting to her death in the street below.
"II. Sex: The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing."
Female (1933, directed by Michael Curtiz, screenplay by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola) demonstrates that auto-company president Ruth Chatterton can run a company, drive, and shoot the bowls off of phallicly erect clay pipes as well as any man.
|The castrating woman? Ruth Chatterton in Female.|
|Chatterton's bared teeth are a nice touch.|
As this mock-family drives off into the sunset—Brent, of course, at the wheel of Chatterton's car—she tells him that she will turn over the business to him, stay home and raise "nine babies" (presumably not counting the pig). Because, of course, a woman's social, economic and sexual equality must be subsumed to her real needs: a take-charge man, motherhood and domesticity.
"Dominant, even primitive" men, though, could also threaten marriage and domesticity. In A Free Soul (1931, directed by Clarence Brown, screenplay by Becky Gardiner and John Meehan, based on a novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns), Norma Shearer is shown to be in sexual thrall to manly mobster Clark Gable. She breaks her engagement to "clean, fine" polo player Leslie Howard to shack up with Gable, whose character reveals his "mongrel" origins by consorting with his Irish, Chinese, and black employees. When Shearer finally tries to break it off with Gable, he threatens her...with marriage.
The compensating moral ending? As in Night Nurse, it's another murder: Howard shoots Gable, and then is acquitted on Shearer's tearful testimony of her own sexual guilt. But there's no marriage: Shearer needs to take some time to get Gable "out of her blood." Evidently it didn't work: in the following year's Strange Interlude, Shearer's character, married to another man, deliberately gets pregnant by Gable.
In The Divorcée (1931, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, screenplay by Nick Grinde, Zelda Sears, and John Meehan, based on a novel by Ursula Parrott), on discovering that her husband Chester Morris has been unfaithful to her, Norma Shearer "evens the balance" by spending a tipsy night with his best friend Robert Montgomery. A divorce ensues, and, it's strongly implied, both Shearer and Morris bed multiple other partners, including (in Shearer's case) a married man.
As in the later Female, though, sexual freedom outside of marriage could not be shown to bring a woman fulfillment. When Shearer encounters Morris again one New Year's Eve, they decide to give marriage another chance. After all, it worked out so well the first time...
"XII. Repellent subjects...[include] a woman selling her virtue."
Waterloo Bridge (1931, directed by James Whale, screenplay by Benn Levy and Tom Reed, based on the play by Robert E. Sherwood) features Mae Clarke as a kind of poor woman's Barbara Stanwyck. An unemployed chorus girl without family or friends, Clarke turns to picking up soldiers on leave in WWI-era London and cadging rent and food money from them the morning after.
One night she encounters Kent Douglass, an earnest volunteer who is unaware of the way she's keeping body and soul together. He falls in love with her, introduces her to his wealthy family, and wants to marry her. But Clarke confesses her past (in fact, her present) to Douglass's sympathetic but sharp-eyed mother Enid Bennett because she feels that she can never marry; she can never bring her shame into the family of the man she loves.
But her resolution wavers as Douglass is about to return to the front, and in a tearful goodbye on Waterloo Bridge he convinces her to marry. Instead, though, immediately after they part Clarke is killed in a Zeppelin raid. As in the later Three On A Match, apparently the only compensation for some transgressions is death.
Although if your transgressions are more upmarket, perhaps repentance will do. In the notorious Baby Face (1933, directed by Alfred E. Green, screenplay by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola) Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way from the street-level personnel office of the Gotham Trust Bank floor by floor to the penthouse apartment of its president, George Brent. In a famous series of tracking shots, the camera actually follows her progress up the side of the building. (Among her early stepping-stones is a young John Wayne; also notable is Stanwyck's loyalty to and friendship with her black maid Theresa Harris.)
In the final seconds of the film, though, after the bank fails and Brent attempts suicide, Stanwyck embraces the role of devoted wife and rejects her former material values (although when rejecting material values it helps to be carrying around a case filled with jewels and a half-million dollars in cash). For me, Baby Face wins the prize for the most patently tacked-on last-minute compensating reversal.
"VI. Costume: Complete nudity is never permitted...Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden...Transparent or translucent materials and silhouette are frequently more suggestive than actual exposure."
There is no last-minute compensating reversal, though, in Red-Headed Woman (1932, directed by Jack Conway, screenplay by Anita Loos, based on the novel by Katherine Bush). This is one film that does not end with moral restitution by repentance, sacrifice, punishment, or death. Along the way it violates pretty much every section of the Code, including a brief glimpse of its heroine Jean Harlow's bare breast; in virtually every scene she's dressed in diaphanous lingerie or a clinging evening gown.
Harlow uses her overwhelming sexual power to wreck the marriage of small-town bigshot Chester Morris, marries him herself, then dumps him for New York industrialist Henry Stephenson. While exulting in the role of Stephenson's mistress, she's simultaneously bedding his suave chauffeur Charles Boyer. When Morris passes incriminating photos of Harlow and Boyer to Stephenson, Harlow confronts Morris. Finding him planning to return to his ex-wife Leila Hyams, Harlow shoots him (wounding him critically but not fatally).
Does a scandalous trial ensue? Prison? No—in the final moments of the film we see Harlow in Paris snuggling with her latest elderly sugar daddy in the back seat of a limousine. In the final shot the camera pulls back to show the professionally impassive driver—Boyer.
Then everything changed
Everything changed in mid-1934, when the Production Code began to be taken seriously. In response to threats of boycotts and blacklists by the Catholic Legion of Decency, the film studios created the Production Code Administration (PCA) to enforce the Code's strictures. As of July 1, 1934, films produced by the major studios were required to receive a certificate of approval from the PCA, which was headed by Hays appointee Joseph Breen. The hard-nosed Breen was given censorship power over stories, scripts and finished footage, and did not hesitate to use it. They really couldn't make 'em like that anymore.
Which may not have been entirely a bad thing. As Bollywood films (which are still subject to censorship) often show, suggestion can be much sexier than depiction. And because movies could no longer rely as heavily on lurid or sensational stories, they had to find other ways to bring in audiences: the next few years saw genres such as the romantic comedy and the musical flourish. I have to confess that if the film archives caught on fire and I only had enough time to save one Jean Harlow film, I would run right past Red-Headed Woman to grab 1936's Libeled Lady, a film produced under Breen's rigid censorship.
And there were occasional (if rare) exceptions to the formulaic application of the Code. In the comedy Too Many Husbands (1940), Jean Arthur's first husband Fred MacMurray, believed lost at sea, inconveniently returns six months after she's married MacMurray's friend and business partner Melvyn Douglas. While the men compete to share her bed, Arthur finds that she can't decide between them. As I wrote in part 2 of the post on The films of Jean Arthur, Too Many Husbands features "amazingly risqué dialogue, and an ambiguous ending that manages to offer the suggestion of a continuing ménage." Breen must have suffered a momentary lapse of attention.
In the 2012 Sight and Sound critics' poll of the 250 top films of all time, six were released by major Hollywood studios in the eight years between 1927 and 1934; fourteen—more than twice as many—were released by major Hollywood studios in the eight years between 1935 and 1942. As film historian Thomas Doherty writes, "The inconvenient truth is that Hollywood's output...reveals no ready correlation between freedom of expression and aesthetic worth." 
So-called pre-Code Hollywood films can be highly entertaining; they offer glimpses of major stars such as Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in their formative roles, as well as early stars such as Chester Morris, Mae Clarke and Ann Dvorak whose careers faded a few years after the Code began to be enforced. They are also often surprising and even sometimes still shocking. As Lord wrote, "The stories are now concerned with problems. They discuss morals, divorce, free love, unborn children, relationships outside of marriage, single and double standards, the relationship of sex to religion, marriage and its effects on the freedom of women...These subjects are fundamentally dangerous."  Such dangerous subjects were treated far less frequently and openly after 1934.
The Code's demise was slow and painful. It began in the 1950s with the breakdown of the studio system, the rise of television, and Breen's retirement. Doherty suggests that the 1960 release of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho by Paramount Pictures "killed off" the Code. "The notorious montage of murder in the bathroom of the Bates Motel is the scene of the crime," he writes, "the place where Joseph Breen's moral universe went swirling down the drain."  The Code was formally abandoned with the advent of the Motion Picture Association of America rating system in 1968.
The relaxation of censorship corresponded with the emergence of a new generation of directors in the 1960s and 1970s (Kubrick, Scorsese, Altman, and Coppola, among others) and what is widely considered a renaissance in American filmmaking. But that's a story, perhaps, for another post.
All of the films discussed in this post can be seen in what are generally the most complete prints available in the excellent "Forbidden Hollywood" series released by Turner Classic Movies.
The photograph at the top of the post, "Thou Shalt Not," was created in 1941 by studio photographer A. L. Schafer to satirize the prohibitions of the Production Code.
1. Mark A. Vieira, Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999, pp. 7-13.
2. Quoted in Vieira, p. 13.
3. Quoted in Vieira, p. 14.
4. Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934, Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 345.
5. Quoted in Vieira, p. 55.
6. Doherty, p. 343.