skip navigation
The Pre-Code Era
share:
Remind Me
,Safe in Hell

The Pre-Code Era - 7/31 (Daytime)


The Pre-Code era in Hollywood was that time in American filmmaking between the advent of sound in the late 1920s to the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in mid-1934. William Hays, Hollywood's chief censor at the time, setup what was known informally as the "Hays Code," a set of guidelines governing the content of movies at the time.

Known for its raciness, overt sexuality and bold tackling of taboo topics, the Pre-Code era continues to be celebrated by fans of classic films. TCM celebrates this uninhibited period by devoting a morning to pre-Code films featuring a number of stars who gained recognition during the height of the era.

Loose Ankles (1930) is a romantic comedy starring the youthful Loretta Young as a beautiful heiress who can only inherit her fortune if she avoids any taint of scandal and marries a man who meets the approval of her prudish family. Annoyed, she deliberately sets out on a scandalous affair with a gigolo (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). The racy storyline includes frequent disrobing and public drunkenness.

Blonde Crazy (1931) has frequent pre-Code costars James Cagney and Joan Blondell as a pair of working-class con artists. He's a bellboy, she's a chambermaid and together they scheme to bilk hotel guests out of their money. The comedy-drama also features Ray Milland as the man Blondell marries when she tires of waiting for Cagney to propose. This one features casual sexuality (and an at the time scandalous scene of Blondell in a bathtub), along with a lighthearted view of the couple's crimes.

Footlight Parade (1933), a hit musical of its day with numbers staged by Busby Berkeley, again teams Cagney and Blondell, along with another popular pre-Code pair, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Cagney plays a theater producer challenged to create three new live shows as "prologues" for movie theaters. Berkeley's spectacular "By a Waterfall" number is the highlight of a film with a freewheeling attitude toward sexuality, booze and race relations.

Safe in Hell (1931) is a dramatic thriller starring Dorothy Mackaill as a prostitute who is falsely accused of murder. With the aid of her sailor boyfriend (Donald Cook), she seeks refuge in the Caribbean island of Tortuga, only to find herself exploited by the island's jailer and executioner (Morgan Wallace). William A. Wellman directed the film, which is filled with racy situations and frank dialogue, along with admirable respect for black characters played by Clarence Muse and Nina Mae McKinney.

Downstairs (1932) stars John Gilbert in a story he wrote for himself, one in which he plays a charming but ruthlessly scheming chauffeur who creates chaos in his new employer's Austrian household, seducing and stealing from female members of the staff and blackmailing his master's wife. Only a short time later, the frank portrayal of the sexual liaisons and Gilbert character's amoral attitudes would not have been allowed in a Hollywood film.

Faithless (1932) was Tallulah Bankhead's last of a handful of pre-Code films; she would not appear in movies again until more than a decade later. In this one, the star plays a spoiled socialite who learns some tough lessons after she loses her fortune during the Great Depression. After almost starving, she is forced into a life of prostitution. Robert Montgomery costars as Bankhead's loyal working-class boyfriend.

Hell's Highway (1932), produced by David O. Selznick for RKO, is a drama that was created as an expose about brutal conditions in U.S. prisons. Richard Dix stars as the leader of a chain gang in an unnamed southern prison whose plans for escape from his hellish life gets thwarted when his younger brother becomes the newest member of the gang. Elements that would later have been censored include graphic depictions of brutality, and sexual and racial references.

Jewel Robbery (1932) was the fifth of seven pre-Code films starring the romantic team of William Powell and Kay Francis. This one, set in Vienna, is a comedy-mystery in which Powell is an enterprising jewel thief who steals wealthy, bored Francis away from both her husband and her lover. In the jaded atmosphere of this film, infidelity, thievery and marijuana use are some of the subjects treated with casual insouciance.

Three on a Match (1932) is a crime drama starring Joan Blondell, Bette Davis and Ann Dvorak as three childhood pals who meet again years later and become entangled in each others' lives. Warren William is the lawyer who divorces one of the women and marries another, and supporting roles are played by Humphrey Bogart and Edward Arnold.

She Had to Say Yes (1933) is another vehicle for Loretta Young, this time playing a secretary forced to deal with sexual advances when she dates her employer's clients as part of her job. Sexual harassment of women in the work place was a common theme in Depression-era films, and this one is typically forthright with its risqué storyline, sexual situations and frank dialogue.

by Roger Fristoe