Modern Films Thank Pre-code Films

Paper by Brenna Valenzuela.

The “pre-code” era is widely known within the film industry, as it discusses a time when there were restrictions amongst films. This time was considered a time of great creativity within the film industry. The Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, was created in 1930, to regulate films, but it was not enforced from the years 1930-1934 (Maestu). During this time, films had a certain “freedom,” in which they were able to show alcohol use, sexualize individuals (most commonly women) and other inappropriate concepts for this time. Looking at the pre-code films She Done Him Wrong (Cowell Sherman, 1933) and Red Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932), there are various similarities between these films that demonstrate the short and long term effects of the pre-code movies through the years in the US film industry. The Hays Code created many challenges to film making, however, during the pre-code years of 1930-1934, films did not have to adhere to the Hays Code guidelines. Instead many films, such as She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933) and Red Headed Woman (Conway, 1932) bypassed these rules and are good examples of how movies showed what were considered controversial topics. This is relevant because the Hays Code and pre-code movies have impacted on the types of movies made in this modern era and contributed to the evolution of the U.S. film industry.

As pre-code was not enforced at this time, we see films create historical moments within the U.S. film industry. The pre-code films (1930-1934), had both short and long term effects within the US film industry. It began with “studios resisting the code,” that made the pre-code movie industry what it was in the early 1930s (Lewis, 115). Resisting the code was a risk at the time, but because it was new and filmmakers continued to desire to create “risky” films, the lack of a strict code did not prevent movie studios from creating films that are well-known in cinema today.

I have found that the connection between the pre-code era and modern films are highly related to one another. For example, Mae West, a well-known actress of this time, developed the character of Lady Lou, which was a very good representation of a pre-code eran movie, She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933). Lady Lou is a representation of sexualizing women and how lax the code was at this time period. This has translated to many modern films, where women are often sexualized. Additionally, She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933) used forms of profanity and “inappropriate” scenes to tell the story; another translation to many modern films. The U.S. film industry has evolved from the characters in this movie and has gained more freedom to show women such as Lady Lou in modern films. As pre-code films were “ ‘the series of wildly unconventional films- a time when censorship was lax and Hollywood made the most of it’ ” (Doherty, 4), Lady Lou was a large reason women can act the way they can on screen today.

The Hays Code originated from Will H. Hays, who was known for his plan to set regulations on films through studios and he eventually created the Motion Picture Production Code in 1930 (Film Reference). The Motion Picture Production Code was the beginning of what was going to be a memorable and historical time within the film industry. Due to a combination of controversial beliefs, the Hays Code was used to “protect” audience members from the very controversial topics that films can display. As mentioned, films were not supposed to show the sexualization of women, drinking alcohol or any other inappropriate content. However, that is why the pre-code era remained controversial and a time where films did not have restrictions– the beginning of modern era films.

The concept of the Hays Code, partially originated from religious beliefs, (Maestu). The National Legion Agency, consisted of Catholics wanting restrictions amongst films and that is why the code was finally enforced in 1934, likely because the films being created from the pre-code era contained too much content that was not family friendly (Wikipedia). Religious beliefs drove the origination of the Production Code, not giving freedom to filmmakers, actors, writers and other members within the film industry/community. That is why the four years of the code not being enforced upon filmmakers was highly important at that time and for modern films. The pre-code films were able to contradict the beliefs of the National Legion Agency and take control of how movies were made and what type of characters were in the films. In She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933), Sherman is able to display alcohol use and present the racy character of Lady Lou, whose character rejects the standards of the Production Code. Furthermore, other films, such as Red Headed Woman (Conway, 1932), King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B Schoesack, 1933), or Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) also violated these regulations that were supposed to be set upon them, ultimately having a larger impact on the U.S film industry today.

Currently, the U.S. film industry has grown from the pre-code films to modern films. Current films are able to demonstrate what was deemed inappropriate during the enforcement of the Production Code. The privilege and liberty filmmakers have gained, comes from the fight that pre-code films went through. She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933) is only one of the many films that showed things that would bring the pre-code toward its end. These films are a demonstration of what freedom is to the U.S. film industry and how they can produce what is desirable for them and what they believe can attract an audience. If it were not for the strict regulations, these films would have continued past 1934, the ending of pre-code. Although current films in the film industry do not know the alarming aspect of going against film regulations or of not being able to produce films anymore because they are deemed inappropriate, there are still audiences and organizations that will do anything possible to not have a film shown or to have a film be hated. Filmmakers, actors, and other members in the U.S. film industry have learned to persevere and create the films that are going to be memorable for them and developed a greater message for the audience, such as the pre-code films once did.
At the end of the pre-code era, of course, films were finally restricted and were strictly managed. The U.S. film industry suffered the consequences of the lack of freedom within the film industry. Most commonly, filmmakers and actors were troubled and were neglected because their creative freedom was finally taken away. It was not until years later that the Production Code would be terminated. The ending of the Production Code from the “motion picture industry” was in 1968, but went through a lot before it finally came to an end (PBS). This was the beginning for the U.S. film industry.

It was not until the United States Supreme Court decision in 1952, that brought the Hays Code to an end (PBS). Furthermore, the years from the end of pre-code (1934) to 1952, brought difficulties within the U.S. film industry. The lack of freedom was detrimental to audience members except to those who thought that the code was meant to “protect” individuals. The lack of liberty gave a negative notion towards the U.S. film industry and rights being taken from individuals was brought to the Supreme Court, as mentioned. The beginning of the Supreme’s Court decision to terminate the Production Code was the entrance into a new chapter of films. These films were no longer restricted to requirements that used to be placed in the United States.

The Supreme Court’s decision deemed that the Production/Hays Code was unconstitutional, as it went against the freedom of speech (PBS). Once abolished within the U.S. film industry, a new series of films began and it was the ending of an “era.”

The ending of the Hays Code would bring the film industry together to create unspeakable films. The hardships within the film industry would bring modern films where they are today. Pre-code films eventually were remembered, eventually affecting the film industry forever. The freedoms of pre-code will be remembered, even though the scenes within these films were seen as both controversial and inappropriate.
As mentioned, She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933) was the gateway for films today because it was a key pre-code film. It was similar to the film Red Headed Woman (Conway, 1932), where women were highly sexualized and was, too, a controversial film for this time. Red Headed Woman (Conway, 1932) was a film where “there ‘was’ every indication that the MPPDA was aware of the nature and extent of criticisms being directed at Hollywood ” (Jacobs, 69). There were no actions taken to prevent the film from showing, demonstrating the carelessness of the Production Code.

The importance of Red Headed Woman (Conway, 1932) demonstrates how modern films came to be what they are today in the U.S. film industry. Such as She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933), it took a risk in showing the protagonist as a flawed female character. As mentioned earlier, Lilian does not fear demonstrating her sexuality throughout the film. Her confidence in seduction and with herself was the beginning of how women are perceived in modern films. An example of this can be seen in the movie Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990), Vivian is very comfortable with her sexuality and uses it to her financial advantage because she is a prostitute. The parallels of Red Headed Woman (Conway, 1932) and modern films are clear in the sense that women are still perceived in the same manner throughout films. However, as the US film industry progresses, women are becoming a little less objectified and filmmakers are allowed the freedom to create characters and scenes the way they desire with much fewer limits.

The pre-code film, She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933), has demonstrated the evolution of film, but most importantly, the “looseness” of the Production Code. This film accentuates the stereotypical qualities of both men and women of this time. One of the beginning scenes discusses the nude painting of Lou. This represented the “wisecracks of questionable taste at least by standards of the time” (Lewis, 115). It goes against all standards within Hollywood film and provides an example of this “rule-breaking time,” that other films, such as Red Headed Woman (Conway, 1932), were also able to experience.

She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933) discusses the story of Lou, who is a commonly known singer and discovers difficulties throughout her singing career. Her boss, Gus Jordan (Noah Beery) gets himself in trouble as he owns a prostituon ring. The reason for his ownership of a prostitution ring both started and continued for Lou. As seen throughout the film, Lou wears a lot of jewelry and jewels to add to her long, beautiful dresses. Men are known for giving her things because of her high beauty. In the situation of her boss, he is highly aware of her beauty, as the other men are, and needed a lot of money to give her the high-class jewelry that she desires. The social norms of both men and women display the time of pre-code well. Furthermore, the segment of when Lou goes to the jail is key on displaying the time of pre-code.

This segment begins when Lou is entering the jail, already a part that does not go well with the Production Code. She is wearing something very flirty, sexy, and high-fashion for the time. Lou uses her sexualization as her advantage, which is prevalent in the jail segment. It consists of her talking to various individuals in jail, men in particular. The men are captured by her essence and are highly attracted to her. Men being highly attracted towards women, visible on screen, is a peak of the pre-code era.

The U.S. film industry was able to use stereotypes and sexualize women without any consequences. Moreover, the jail segment provides how this is demonstrated perfectly. The men in the jail cells all have previously known her and talk to her for a short period of time each. They ask for favors or simply flirt with her because they are highly encaptivated by both her appearance and her attitude. Her slow walk can be seen as both sexual, seducive, innapropiate, scandalous– everything pre-code. After she is done talking to all of the men in their jail cells, she enters the very last cell. The shadows glance upon her, showing the high tension. The last cell she enters is of Chick Clark (Owen Moore), her once boyfriend. He begins to talk to her rather than her talking to him. He threatens her if she talks to other men while she is gone and of course, knowing the character of Lou, it becomes an issue. Pre-code allowed for men to be displayed this way, where men can talk to women in a threatening manner, especially when women become a threat to other men in a sexual manner. This parallel can be seen in Red Headed Woman (Conway, 1932). Lillian (Jean Harlow) is a woman who has the power which becomes a serious threat to men, but she uses her sexuality as her advantage. Furthermore, Red Headed Woman (Conway, 1932) had a character that “sold their bodies to the higher bidder” (Benshoff and Griffin, 181). Nowadays, modern films are able to show women doing similar things because of the intensity of women being sexualized in pre-code films.

The segment of when Lou enters the jail, talks to Chick and is threatened by him shows the “pessimistic view of America, and to some degree, a critique of capitalist ideology” (Benshoff and Griffin, 37). The pre-code consists of this “capitalist ideology” (Benshoff and Griffin, 37) that men and women are supposed to act in a specific way. As Chick is threatening Lou, the close-up camera shot shows Lou in an uncomfortable position as a woman. At the end of the segment, Lou finally begins to talk about her life. She discusses her career as a singer and who she works for, Gus. Chick finds Gus as a threat because he does not know a lot about her and continues to threaten her. He is displayed as an ex-boyfriend that has a lot of control over Lou. During this time gender norms were still applied and men were still seen as more powerful. The segment ends with Chick and Lou getting close, but they must part alast. They have to both wait a year each to see each other outside of jail, and Lou seems as if she is going to wait. However, her reputation precedes her and she is likely to choose more jewels than that one man.

Pre-code films demonstrate the ability to change gender roles and allow women to have the power instead of the men. In the jail segment, although Chick appeared to have power over Lou, he did not. She was not in jail and her acknowledgement to every man was only a small way of showing her connections. Since pre-code was not enforced, this segment was allowed. The way Lou dresses was highly inappropriate, her sexualization, and the “switch” of gender roles, would not have been allowed by the MPPDA.

She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933) was more controversial than any other pre-code film, but it led the way for modern films. Modern films have been able to grow with other popular women figures that have paralleled the journey of Lou. For example, Marilyn Monroe can be seen as a great figure from Lou. Once the end of the pre-code came to an end, movies faced hard times, as mentioned earlier. Although She Done Him Wrong (Sherman, 1933) was a well-known pre-code film, its controversies continued after the pre-code era, such as many other films. It contained various troubles, but Paramount fought for the film not be removed because it was believed that without it, it would spark too much hate (Jacobs, 69). It was a film that had “comedic elements… ‘but’ the comedy itself would offset the offensive aspects of the characterization of the gold digger (Jacobs, 82). The gold digger was popularly shown in pre-code films, but this film used the concept and created a film captivating the misogynistic society of this time. Red Headed Woman (Conway, 1932) was another way of showing how women desired money, power, and used the men around them to gain it all. The U.S. film industry has the ability to create these highly memorable films, but only because the pre-code was abolished and because these characters and the inappropriateness of pre-code was the beginning of how rules, guidelines, and social boundaries can be broken no matter the controversy that will be placed upon the film industry of today.

Works Cited
Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and
Sexuality at the Movies. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. “Censorship.” Film Reference, AMERICAN-FILM-CENSORSHIP.html.
Culture Shock: The TV Series and Beyond: Hollywood Censored: The Production Code.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,
Doherty, Thomas Patrick. Pre-Code Hollywood : Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934. Columbia University Press, 1999.
Jacobs, Lea. The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942. University of California Press, 1997.
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. W.W. Norton, 2019.
“National Legion of Decency.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Jan. 2022, Unit 6: Lecture, Reading, Clips, Links (Nico Maestu)

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