Monday 2 March 2015

Pre-code Nudity Update and Film Guide

Nudity whether in glimpses, through clothes, in silhouette or in the distance was strictly banned by the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code. According to the code nudity in any form was “immoral” and should be completely avoided. Despite this, Pre-code films are full of it. Instead of straight “in fact” nudity, directors became sneaky but attempting to make the nudity tantalisingly quick or part of the plot. Several actresses, like Jean Harlow and Norma Shearer created screen legends based on what they or didn’t wear. Thankfully, this clever film making has been preserved and audiences today can view scenes that Joseph Breen and code makers would later ban from cinemas for over fifty years. Let’s take a look at the methods this generation of Hollywood directors, writers, cinematographers and actors used to bypass the code:  

1. Taking a Bath
Since silent films and the glorious Gloria Swanson, directors have been using swimming and bathing scenes as a source of decadence and undue exposure. Surprisingly, unlike other forms of Pre-code nudity, several male actors get into the act.  
What the code says:
3. Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.
Top Examples:
1) Tarzan and his Mate (1934) and Bird of Paradise (1933): Both these films include extensive nude swimming scenes with both Maureen O’Sullivan (or her body double) and Dolores del Rio taking the plunge with their male co-stars.

Tarzan and his Mate
2) Night After Night (1932) and Search for Beauty (1934): A little look at male nudity with George Raft taking a revealing bath in Night After Night and Buster Crabbe showering in Search for Beauty (1934).
George Raft in Night After Night
3) Sign of the Cross (1932): If the conservative Claudette Colbert knew what the camera was capturing at the time she would be shocked. The bathing scene pretty much shows all of poor Ms Colbert’s breasts.
Claudette Colbert in Sign of the Cross
4) Barbarian (1933): Although apparently in a nude coloured body suit, Myrna Loy bares all in this nude bathing scene.
Myrna Loy in Barbarian
5) Blonde Crazy (1932): Joan Blondell takes a bath with James Cagney in the room, its definitely Pre-code!!
Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy
6) Red Dust (1932): Jean Harlow cements her screen persona as a bombshell after she takes a bath in a barrel.
Jean Harlow in Red Dust
Honourable Mentions: Maltese Falcon (1931), Beauty and the Boss (1932) and King Kong (1933).     
Beauty and the Boss

2. Existent – but really non-existent – Clothes
Wearing clothes doesn’t necessary limited the chance of nudity in Pre-code films. In many cases, certain actresses became notorious for wearing clothes that covered little or appearing to wear no visible undergarments.

What the code says:
5. Transparent or translucent materials and silhouette are frequently more suggestive than actual exposure.
Top Examples:
1) Hells Angels (1930): Jean Harlow wears a slinky, thin dress for much of the film leaving nothing to the imagination.
Jean Harlow in Hells Angels
2) A Free Soul (1930): Norma Shearer in ‘that dress’.
Norma Shearer in A Free Soul
3) Tarzan and his Mate (1934): Maureen O’ Sullivan wearing a ‘barely there’ brown costume.

Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan and His Mate
4) Search for Beauty (1933): Chorus girls in thin white costumes.
Search For Beauty
5) Smarty (1934): Joan Blondell teases her husband and ex-husband by strutting around in a very skimpy black dress and then has it ripped off.
Joan Blondell in Smarty
Honourable Mentions: Basically every other Jean Harlow film and shots from the deleted and unfortunately lost scenes of Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931). 
Greta Garbo in Mata Hari
3. In Musicals
Pre-code musicals are a great source for unexpected nudity. Film-makers and performers, such as, Busby Berkley, Eddie Cantor and Wheeler and Woolsey often used provocative clothing and situations accompanied by dance and music to titillate audiences.  

What the code says:
4. Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden.
Top Examples:
1) Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933): Often used as a classic example of Pre-code at its best by film historians, Gold Diggers includes the notorious musical number Petting in the Park which features chorus girls clearly undressing behind a thin screen.

Gold Diggers of 1933
2) Murder at the Vanities (1934): A really confronting murder mystery/ musical film with a musical number titled Marijuana. It includes a number of scenes with barely clothed dancers and women with strategically placed objects.
Murder at the Vanities
4) Roman Scandals (1933): Eddie Cantor’s comedic nod to the ancient Roman civilisation Includes his usual frivolity, double entendres and women clothed only in their long blonde locks.
Roman Scandals

5) Hips, Hips Hooray (1934): A film that I believe probably escalated the coming of the enforced code, Wheeler and Woosley almost take it too far in this film. Lots of girls in bath tubs, suggestive leather costumes and more double entendres then I could catch in one sitting.

Hips Hips Hooray
6) Meet the Baron (1933): Pretty dull movie but includes a long musical number with chorus girls singing about having a shower while in the shower.   
Meet the Baron
4. In Silhouette (its art really)
With MGM’s logo “art for art sake”, directors used this to the maximum with the use of artist’s models and sculpture to show sneaky glimpses of nudity.  

What the code says:
1. Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
Top Examples:
1) Song of Songs (1933): Marlene Dietrich becomes an artist’s model with the artist using her physique to craft a full (and very lifelike) body sculpture.

Song of Songs

2) The Common Law (1931): This time Constance Bennett plays the model to painter Joel McCrea who poses her nude and semi-nude.
The Common Law

4) Sign of the Cross (1932): Although not art related, this film shows a poor Christian women tied to a pole, covered only in vines about to be attacked by a gorilla.
Sign of the Cross

5) Scarlett Empress (1933): I haven’t seen this film in ages, but I am told there is distant shots of nude women in silhouette.  
Scarlett Empress (from Precode.com)

5. While Dressing
It was difficult to narrow down a list of films for this category, its everywhere. Directors used this ploy in every film none of which were essential to the plot.

What the code says:
2. Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot.
Top Examples:
1) Under 18 (1931): The beautiful Marion Marsh becomes a model with many outfit changes.
Marion Marsh in Under 18

2) Footlight Parade (1933): Although a musical, this film includes lots of chorus girls in skimpy outfits as well as actresses doing quick costume changes between musical numbers.
Footlight Parade

3) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931): Miriam Hopkins spends an excessive amount of time undressing seductively for Fredric March and then hops into bed.
Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

4) If I Had a Million (1932): Another excessive undressing scene featuring Wynne Gibson before bed time.

Wynne Gibson in If I Had a Million

Honourable Mention: Every gangster film, musical, romance, and drama – pretty much every film with a female in it.

6. Blatant Exploitation
Some films shot during the Pre-code era were classified as part of the ‘exploitation’ genre. These, in many cases, used nudity to draw in audiences under the guise of educating people about topics like nudism and other cultures. Warning this films are shocking and blatantly exploit other cultures for financial gain.

What the code says:
1. The effect of nudity or semi-nudity upon the normal man or woman, and much more upon the young and upon immature persons, has been honestly recognized by all lawmakers and moralists.
2. Hence the fact that the nude or semi-nude body may be beautiful does not make its use in the films moral. For, in addition to its beauty, the effect of the nude or semi-nude body on the normal individual must be taken into consideration.

3. Nudity or semi-nudity used simply to put a "punch" into a picture comes under the head of immoral actions. It is immoral in its effect on the average audience.

Top Examples:
1) Elysia Valley of the Nude (1933): An ‘educational’ film about nudism and nudist societies; so, full of naked people.

Eylsia Valley of the Nude
2) Tabu (1931) and Blonde Captive (1932): Both films where so-called documentary crews travel to distant, exotic locations to film and study “savages”. Very dull and very offensive.
The Blonde Captive




  1. There are relatively few examples of Pre-Code male nudity--actual or suggested--of which I'm aware, but Search for Beauty really tries to make up for it! For #4 "In Silhouette," I wonder how important those adjectives were ("licentious," "suggestive," "lecherous") because one could make a case for Song of Songs that the nudity was purely artistic.

  2. Just saw the classic film, "Wings" for the firs time. There is a tiny flash of a Clara Bow breast in a dressing scene in that film, in addition to some male (back) nudity in the exam room at the army air corps sign-up.

  3. You missed Harlow's nip in Red Headed Woman when Una Merkel hands her a nightgown

  4. I'm a TCM fan and I watch many older movies. I can often see through starlet's tops, and nipples very common visible in my opinion. It's quite erotic, as they are often hard. Just saying : ) Garbo was Hot!

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