Sunday 15 April 2012

In the Beginning....

Perhaps you have seen a few early 1930’s films or a couple of Marlene Dietrich or Jean Harlow pictures; but what are Precode films and what made them so provocative? Well, contrary to its name, Precode is not actually before (pre) the code; the code being a list of guidelines for directors and producers to follow when making films. The Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code was created in 1930 to stop the explicit scenes and themes shown in some films of the silent era. Just watch some of the famous Cecil B. Demille ‘orgies’ in Manslaughter and Madam Satan or the provocative Eric von Strohiem films and you will understand.
                                               The famous Manslaughter (1922) 'orgy'

This was also impacted by rumours of sex, drugs and heavy partying that plagued Hollywood’s image. Most notably the trial of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, accused of murdering a struggling starlet at a boozing late night party. Also the suspicious death of William Desmond Taylor that seemed fuelled with a cocktail of drugs, alcohol and two famous actresses. 

As a result, film moguls became increasing pressured by religious and social groups to curb the scandals rife in the film community both on screen and in reality. The conflict became an ultimatum – self-censor or be censored. So the moguls chose the easiest route: to formulate a list of guidelines and the promise that it will be fully enforced. At the public helm the moguls installed, Will H. Hays, a Presbyterian elder and the perfect man to present an image of virtue and conservatism. This seemed reputable, but their was one problem; Hays and his employees worked and financially benefited from the film studios – for that period a whopping $100,000 a year. He became an agent answering only to the film corporations. Instead of enforcing the code, Hays job was simply to give the appearance he was enforcing it.

                                                                William H. Hays

The main ways he did this was by appealing to the churches through the retribution avenue, ie. a female character could murder, steal, bed-hop and drink as much as she liked as long as she paid for it in the end. If you look at a film called, Frisco Jenny (1933), Ruth Chatterton plays an unwed mother during the San Francisco Earthquake. After the death of her lover, she becomes a prostitute out of financial necessity. She soon becomes a successful madam but must give up her son for his protection. Although she reunites with him in the end, Chatterton does not admit that she is his birth mother and, thus, loses her child because of her sin.
                                                      Ruth Chatterton Frisco Jenny (1933)

Even though, the code seemed implacable to people outside Hollywood, inside the city of dreams it was the most ignored policy since Prohibition. For the next four years sex, drugs, violence and sin dominated pictures creating the most provocative and frank era of film history.  

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