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19/05/2014 10:09 BST | Updated 18/07/2014 06:59 BST

Pre-Code Hollywood: The Forgotten Genre

There is a film genre you probably haven't heard of. It encapsulates everything that is great about cinema - it challenges conventions and tells amazing stories. It's deeply philosophical yet laugh-out-loud hilarious. It can be violent, it can be socially sensitive, it can be political, it can be fantastical. It has both the broadest and narrowest definition and has gone unexplored by the mainstream for far too long. This is the cinema of Pre-Code Hollywood.

Like a lot of people, Black and White cinema didn't do much for me growing up. My access point was through the Universal Monster movies, leading in to Hitchcock and as I got older, I found myself able to sit through Truffaut and Ozu and eventually I came to embrace films of a greyer palette.

Black and White had always seemed to split into three distinct categories; there were silent films; the playful kittens of cinema - young, cute and poetic in their naïve handcranked charm, desperately pushing boundaries, inadvertently poignant. Then there were the almost-colour films, the films made in a time when colour was available and storytelling had become more sophisticated but Black and White was, perhaps a stylistic or budgetary choice - The Night of The Hunter, Psycho, Godzilla. Finally there was what I considered the general slurry of films made between 1930 and the mid-fifties. That era when the visual poetry of silent cinema was jettisoned for boring, unambitious, stagey little films reliant more on expositional dialogue than composition to convey the story. And, I have to admit that, with notable exceptions, my prejudices against this quarter-century of cinema's brief history went unquestioned until a couple of weeks ago.

When the BFI announced its Pre-Code season 'Hollywood Babylon', it took me a while to understand what that actually meant. I had heard the term Pre-Code before but had assumed it meant gangster films. As no fan of films where men in suits talk fast and say 'you see?' after every sentence, the question as to which code this title even referred had never troubled me. Being the BFI's AV Producer and committed to providing a documentary piece to complement the season, I began to research what turned out to be one of the most curious yet clearly-defined genres that even my most intensely cineaste friends seem to know little about.

In 1930, with silent films consigned to history, the studios were now able to use dialogue to tell their stories in a more dense and complex manner. Actors could express themselves vocally, without the need of the camera's assistance and the manner and language they chose to do that in was no longer pantomime. The studio heads were aware that conservative government legislation couldn't be far away so elected to cut it off at the pass by voluntarily installing a system of self-regulation. They formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) organization and hired the U.S. Postmaster General Will Hays as its president. He drafted the United States Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 - also known as The Hays Code - a list of rules and guidelines for the studios to adhere to.

The code was broad and prescriptive. Reading it today, it flits between appearing ludicrously frigid and commendably, if eccentrically, progressive. Amongst the myriad taboos it covered: profanity, nudity, substances, sex, religion, racism, the flag, crime, brutality, gruesomeness, death, sympathy towards perpetrators of crimes or away from institutions of justice, prostitution, seduction, infidelity, surgery and lust.

The code was agreed and lauded by the studios who, rather proud of the emphatic (yet entirely toothless) moral protection they had adopted, immediately set about testing it to its very limits.

Giddy with hubris, the liberal creative minds at work in Hollywood took every opportunity to challenge, if not mock, the code.

In 1934, Hays appointed ultra-conservative Joseph Breen as 'chief' of the code. He decided to actually enforce it. When the studios resisted, Breen became censor. No film was allowed to legally be shown unless it had the stamp of his newly created Production Code Administration. The studios might have been able to sidestep this had Breen not been so well-connected to various religious groups around the country. Organising boycotts and protests, he hit them where it hurt - in their pockets. Hollywood quickly fell in line and the split which still exists between conservative mainstream and titillating exploitation films was forever cast.

That technically defines what a Pre-code film is - a film made between 1930 and 1934 which challenges the guidelines of The Hays Code. But what really defines a Pre-Code is infinitely more ephemeral.

For this four year period, film routinely did that rare thing of combining populist entertainment with progressive philosophy and intelligent, adult themes. One of the more worrying rules - the restriction on presenting law breakers in a sympathetic light - was begging to be challenged and transgressed as part of the questioning discourse any society needs to pursue. The oppressively puritanical attitude towards sex and the human body similarly demanded testing and exploration. In a country racked by The Great Depression, these films questioned prohibition and the government which had allowed such poverty. For a creative art still in its infancy, it was also important to work out boundaries of taste in regard to visually repulsive material. I was shocked by some of the imagery on display - grisly suicides and murders, upsetting overdoses and accidents, all the more shocking in the context of the well-dressed, clipped voiced world of old Hollywood.

What you end up with is this incredible discarded petri dish of film culture. These films are completely distinct from other films of the post-sound-pre-uncensored era in their promotion of attitudes and perspectives which would not resurface in Hollywood for another three decades. The likes of Red-Headed Woman and The Public Enemy both questioned criminality and potentially presented their perpetrators as heroic. Three On a Match refused to present its drunken, neglectful female protagonist as anything but sympathetic, was challenging, smart and groundbreaking. One of the stranger films of the genre was Gabriel Over The White House in which Walter Huston plays the US president who, following a car accident, instils what can only be described as a socialist dictatorship and is portrayed - perhaps worryingly - as a people's hero. Even in today's cinema, a film which wholeheartedly presented fascism as a welcome option would be considered radical and dangerous. This was released by Warner Brothers.

The saddest effect of the enforcement of Pre-Code was the stunting of what could have given women significantly more power in the Hollywood system. Pre-Code is rife with early feminist vim. Female leads were prominent with films built around talent such as Joan Blondell, Norma Shearer and Barbara Stanwyck, whose stars faded as the strong roles they had defined became obsolete. A common template for Pre-Code dramas and comedies featured women challenging male hegemonies and succeeding in a meaningful way. Both Baby Face and Employees Entrance see their female leads attaining and retaining wealth and power through navigating the moral and sexual weakness of their male bosses. The Divorcee sees a sensitive yet defiant Norma Shearer, shocked by her husband's infidelity, playing the field and defying society's demure expectation whilst never losing the audience's respect.

The combination of applied censorship and the studio concessions to a vocally puritanical public clipped cinema at its roots and its only by watching these films that we get an inkling of where cinema could be now had it been allowed to blossom. The kind of films and subject matter which we label as independent and arthouse could well have been the basis for commercial mainstream cinema. Certainly when you compare what Hollywood currently labels as drama, it pales in scope, ambition, spirit and intelligence when compared to what they were offering between 1930 and 1934.

Here's a video guide to Pre-Code that I put together for the BFI: Hollywood Babylon: A Guide to Pre-Code Cinema