The Movie Waffler 10 Must-See Movies Of The Pre-Code Era | The Movie Waffler

10 Must-See Movies Of The Pre-Code Era

safe in hell
10 classics from the days before Hollywood got censored.

Words by Eric Hillis

In the decades following the birth of film, cinema was a moral free for all, unencumbered by censorship and classification. The movies of the silent era, most of which were European in origin, regularly featured a level of nudity and violence that would make a Game of Thrones fan blush.

In the US, audiences flocked to watch movies from the liberal cultures of Germany, France and Scandinavia. As movies were silent, language wasn’t an issue, so American cinemagoers couldn’t care less about the origin of their entertainment. This all changed, however, with the introduction of sound in the late 1920s. Overnight, audiences began to shun silent cinema, and became unwilling to listen to foreign dialogue while reading subtitles. It was the birth of Hollywood’s dominance.

While American audiences no longer cared for European cinema, they still desired the risque elements that had made those movies such a draw, and Hollywood was eager to satisfy those desires. The first couple of years of the '30s saw the rise of horror movies, gangster thrillers, and melodramas featuring women of loose morals. It all came to an end with the introduction of the Hays Code.

The Catholic Church in the US had been opposed to Hollywood for decades, but Tinseltown ignored the outrage emanating from the nation’s pulpits. Catholics were a minority, and had little influence in US society, but by the '30s, thanks to the large Irish, Italian and Polish communities in the big cities of the East Coast, they formed a significant portion of America’s cinemagoers. Worried that a large chunk of their audience could be dissuaded by the disapproval of their local priests, Hollywood was forced to listen to the Catholic Church, who in conjunction with leaders of the nation’s many Protestant denominations, demanded that Hollywood movies conform to a moral code.

This was implemented in the form of the Motion Picture Production Code, more popularly known as the Hays Code, after America’s first Chief Censor William Hays.

The code, with its strict rules on what could and couldn’t be shown on screen, changed American cinema overnight, and remained in place until 1968.

Looking back at the movies that slipped through the net in the first few years of the '30s, it’s all too clear how much Hollywood cinema changed. Here are 10 of the best movies from that short-lived era of unregulated freedom.

Little Caesar (1931)
little caesar
Portrayed with malevolent relish by Edward G Robinson, Caesar Enrico Bandelli is still to this day one of the most despicable sociopaths ever to carry a movie. When we first meet him he’s executing a clerk at a service station, before enjoying supper at a nearby diner. The movie charts his violent rise through the Chicago underworld, and few mainstream movies since have revelled in such nihilism. Caesar’s misogyny has led many critics to conclude the film contains a homosexual subtext.

The Public Enemy (1931)
the public enemy
Like Christopher Walken after him, Jimmy Cagney began his career as a dancer, but after this gangster epic made him a star, most of his dancing was done on the heads of his foes. The film’s most famous scene features Cagney cruelly shoving a grapefruit into the face of Mae Clarke, but the most historically interesting scene is the film’s climax, scored by a rendition of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,’ the earliest instance of ironically scoring a brutal scene with cheerful music, something that’s now become one of cinema’s greatest cliches.

Street Scene (1931)
street scene
Racial tensions explode in a multi-ethnic New York neighbourhood on the year’s hottest day. If that sounds familiar, then you’ve probably seen Spike Lee’s 1989 drama Do the Right Thing, but King Vidor beat him by 58 years. The conflict here is between Catholics and Protestants rather than blacks and whites, but the similarities are otherwise striking. Woody Allen seems to have borrowed the opening - a musically accompanied montage of New York street scenes - and closing - a rebuttal of an older man by his more emotionally mature younger lover - scenes for Manhattan.

A Free Soul (1931)
a free soul
If your only familiarity with Clark Gable is the romantic leads he played in films like Gone With the Wind and It Happened One Night, you’ll be shocked by his performance here as a mob boss. With his bulky frame, he’s an intimidating presence, but for young Norma Shearer, as the daughter of the alcoholic lawyer who got him off a murder charge, he’s irresistible. After the introduction of the code, such bad boy types could never be portrayed as sexually attractive again. Lionel Barrymore collected an Oscar for his performance as the lawyer here, and the climactic courtroom scene features some delightfully over the top acting on his part.

Illicit (1931)
illicit 1931
At a time when a woman’s place was very much in the home, Barbara Stanwyck shocked audiences by playing a girl who dared to dream of more than just getting married. Content with being a friend with benefits, she is forced to marry her “lover” when society tongues begin to wag, but the marriage is a loveless one. Stanwyck would become known for playing such strong females, and she’s magnificent in this early role. Her character attempts to stand up to society, but is ultimately broken down and forced to conform.

Safe in Hell (1931)
safe in hell
Wrongly believing she killed one of her clients, a prostitute flees to a remote island, populated by sweaty males who all want to get their hands on her. This movie opens with a shot of lead actress Dorothy MacKaill in her underwear, and continues in seedy fashion as she finds herself manipulated by a series of sleazebags. Not until Klute 40 years later would a Hollywood movie feature a lead character employed in the world’s oldest profession.

Thirteen Women (1932)
thirteen women
When 13 sorority sisters each receive a horoscope predicting their death, they succumb one by one to the doomed prophecy. It sounds like an '80s horror flick, but Thirteen Women is considered to be the first slasher movie, with a template that would be rediscovered decades later by exploitation filmmakers. The film is notable for featuring a single mother as its heroine, something that’s still rare today. On the day of the film’s release, star Peg Entwistle took her life by jumping from the Hollywood sign, an incident immortalised by Steely Dan in their song Peg.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)
island of lost souls
Adapted from HG WellsThe Island of Doctor Moreau, this is monochrome horror at its wildest. Following a shipwreck, Richard Arlen finds himself washed up on an island where Charles Laughton has been conducting experiments, creating human-animal hybrids. There’s an undercurrent of bestiality running through the film, with Arlen coming close to indulging in a bit of slap and tickle with a panther woman. The film was remade twice, in the '70s and '90s, but the original has had the greatest cultural impact. In Jim Jarmusch's recent drama Paterson, the lead characters visit a cinema to catch a screening of the movie; Irish-American hip-hop outfit House of Pain took their name from a reference in the film; and New Wave group Devo borrowed a phrase for the title of their debut album Are We Not Men? We Are Devo.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
the most dangerous game
Again, a shipwreck leads to Joel McCrea and Fay Wray seeking refuge on a remote island, this one ruled over by a mad Russian Count (Leslie Banks) who enjoys hunting human prey. The influence of this film can be seen in countless movies, from Deliverance to The Hunger Games. This was shot concurrently with King Kong and utilised that movie’s jungle sets to great effect as McCrea and Wray are chased through the undergrowth. Banks set a template for screen villainy with his unforgettable moustache twirling performance.

Freaks (1932)
Arguably the most notorious movie ever to come out of Hollywood, Tod Browning’s movie portrays the lives of the inhabitants of a travelling “freak show.” It’s far from the exploitative portrayal you might expect, as the “freaks” are the heroes of the film; it’s the “normal” folk who are shown as cruel, bigoted and ugly. Prior to its release, 30 minutes of footage was excised and the negative destroyed by MGM studio head Irving Thalberg, so repulsed was he by its content. Soon after release, the movie was banned, and remained so for three decades.