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Murder, Prostitution & What It’s Like to be God: Five Films from Pre-Code Hollywood

Joan Blondell in a 1933 Warner Bros. promotional still
Actress Joan Blondell, suggestively showing skin in a 1932 promotional still

The early years of talking motion pictures were not the glory days of wholesome family values. To the contrary, films of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood showed as much skin, violence, and all-around debauchery as your average gangsta rap video. Oh, and there were plenty of gangsters, too. And prostitutes. And murderers. Even a doctor who thought he was God.

Ginger Rogers in Rafter Romance
Ginger Rogers and “a glimpse of stocking” in Rafter Romance (1933)

In the period often referred to as “pre-code” Hollywood, a good motto for filmmakers would have been “Anything Goes (https://www” — a Cole Porter song of the period.  Indeed, for an actress like Ginger Rogers, “a glimpse of stocking” was really, nothing shocking in the 1930s, and — as early the 1920s, when “damn” was common in the intertitles of silent movies — writers did “use four-letter words.” Released in 1934, “Anything Goes” was an extremely successful musical, and the song, popular at parties. But the party for Hollywood would soon be over, as 1934 was also the year that enforcement of the restrictive Hays Code (https://en NULL.wikipedia began.

William H. Hays
William H. Hays, looking about as happy as you would think a guy like this would

Former Postmaster General Will Hays — for whom the code is named — started his crusade in 1922, during the age of silent films. Themes were quite adult in the age of the silent film. A world war and criminal element that came with Prohibition had hardened hearts to scenes of violence; and the roaring twenties brought with them a sexual promiscuity that had never before been seen in American society. But scandals like the arrest and trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on manslaughter charges enraged moralists; Arbuckle was aquited, but not before the newspapers of the day sullied his reputation and put all of Hollywood on trial. Social reformers, the clergy, and much of middle America began to blame Hollywood for societal ills. Bolstered by religious and civic leaders aghast at the content of (now) talkies, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) began to take notice. And Hays became its president.

In agreement that some restrictions be put in place, the film industry met with Hays’s office; the result was the introduction of his “Formula” in 1924. It asked that filmmakers to provide plots of films be provided to his office before production began. His efforts were somewhat futile at the beginning, but public sentiment forced the hands of studio heads just a few years later.

Photo by A.L. Schafer
A.L. Schafer’s (in)famous 1940 photograph entitled “Thou Shalt Not”

In 1927, the studios came together again to establish a list of thirty-six self-imposed “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls.” These included everything from “licentious or suggestive nudity” to “ridicule of the clergy.”  But there were no penalties or enforcement. Other crusaders like  Martin Quigley (editor of the Motion Picture Herald) and a Catholic priest named Daniel Lord tried to impose their own codes in 1929. Of course, the Great Depression was more of a concern for most folks, and Hollywood saw itself as producing needed escape from the drudgery of daily life. For a few short months, no code would be enforced. But that all changed in 1930. In February of that year, several studio heads — including Irving Thalberg of MGM — met with Lord and Quigley. After some revisions, they agreed to the stipulations of a revised code. One of the main motivating factors in adopting this code was to avoid direct government intervention. So on March 31, 1930, the MPPDA agreed it would abide by the revisions.

Still, Hays had no real power.

In 1931, The Hollywood Reporter mocked the code, quoting an anonymous screenwriter who said “the Hays moral code is not even a joke… it’s just a memory.” For at least a few years, then, Hollywood’s little secret was that, pretty much, anything goes.

But by June 13, 1934, an amendment to the code established the Production Code Administration (PCA) which required all films released on or after July 1 of that year to obtain a certificate of approval before being shown.

Among the more infamous films made before June, 1934, the following five stand out as perhaps the most controversial.


Safe in Hell
Safe in Hell advertisement from the Daily News Standard, January 6, 1932

Billed as a comedy, SAFE IN HELL tells the story of a New Orleans prostitute named Gilda (Dorothy Mackail, whose photo is seen in the marquee area of this post). Early on, she accused of murdering Val, the man who led her into prostitution. To help her evade the authorities, old boyfriend, Carl, helps smuggle her to safety on a Caribbean island. They are to marry, but he must leave on business, promising to return. Meanwhile, a Mr. Bruno — the island’s self-described jailer and executioner — makes advances on Gilda, as do many of the criminals on the island; Bruno even intercepts money and letters from the boyfriend in an effort to crush her spirits.

Soon, the audience learns that Val is not dead. Gilda is terrified, and given a gun by Bruno to protect herself. It comes in handy when Val tries to rape her. She kills him and then is put on trial for murder. A sympathetic jury is about to acquit her when Bruno threatens, regardless of verdict, to arrest her for possessing the murder weapon (it makes little sense, I know, but remember, Bruno pretty much controls the island). The sentence would have Gilda at his mercy, with the implication that she would have to perform sexual favors. Defying Bruno, Gilda returns to the judge and gives a false confession of killing Val. Presumably, she is so embarassed and humiliated byt the situation (and the movie itself), that she prefers execution. The film ends with Gilda being taken to the gallows.

Criticized in the press for being implausible, sordid — even depressing — the film did not receive many good reviews. Tonally, it is quite dark. Rape of the main character is a repeated threat throughout, and the ending is quite a downer. How anyone could have ever promoted it as a comedy is beyond me.


"Now I know what it's like to be God!"
“Now I know what it’s like to be God!”

The plot of Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN is (or at least should be) well known. Sure, there’s the monster (innocently?) drowning a little girl (a scene cut from the original release in many states, including NY, MA, and PA) and the unease of costumed Karloff in a young woman’s boudoir, but it is when Colin Clive’s monster comes alive that the public was shocked — and not just by Jack Pierce’s brilliant makeup. Instead, it is Clive’s cry of “now I know what it’s like to be God,” that was scandalous.

The aforementioned states of New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania removed the line altogether from the film. The state of Kansas removed even more.  FRANKENSTEIN was banned outright in several foreign countries — all of which makes one wonder which was worse to the audiences of the 1930s: a little girl’s murder, or a man who got a little too excited when he resurrected the dead.


Seduction. Blackmail. Attempted murder. RED-HEADED WOMAN finds Jean Harlow (known, actually, for being blonde) as Lilian “Lil” Andrews, a woman from Ohio with little prospects who is determined to improve her station in life — even if it means destroying relationships along the way.

Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman
Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman

First, she breaks up her wealthy boss Bill’s marriage. The affair leads to her marriage to Bill. which Lil then uses as a stepping stone to be accepted in high society. But when the scandal doesn’t fit well with the high society types, Lil moves on and bedding Charles, a coal tycoon. When said tycoon throws a lavish party for her, Lil is humiliated by still not being accepted by the high society crowd (they apparently have really high standards). She then moves to New York, where she has yet another affair — this time with a French chauffeur named Albert. Bill has followed her, and after hiring a private detective, now has proof of his wife’s affairs. He confronts Charles with the evidence.

When Lil learns that Charles has become aware of her latest affair, she returns to Bill — only he has reconciled with his ex-wife. Filled with rage, Lil shoots him. Bill survives, but out of feelings for her, refuses to press charges. He does, however, divorce her.

Years pass, and Bill eventually sees Lil again, this time at a racetrack in Paris. in the company of an old Frenchman (the implication being that, yes, she has moved on to her next affair). The movie ends with Lil and her elderly companion getting into a limousine driven by Albert, who apparently is either not bothered by the new arrangement, or is maybe part of a threesome (ok, maybe I was the only one thinking that).

Poster for Red -Headed Woman
Poster for Red -Headed Woman

In its review, The Motion Picture Herald wrote: “Sexy, racy, bristling with snappy dialogue, funny, Red-Headed Woman is loaded with dynamite that can be dynamic entertainment, or an explosion of objections unless you handle it properly…” The film was a success, and oddly enough created a popular anti-hero out of Lil as an independent woman and female libertine. So confident in her skin, she spends much of the film in various states of undress. But it was the suggestion that a loose woman could succeed by acting so badly (pun intended) that rubbed some audience members the wrong way.


A Wild Streak!

A film that created a commotion before filming even began, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE was based on a highly controversial novel (Sanctuary) by William Faulkner.

In the film adaptation, the titular character, a young woman from a prominent Mississippi family, is raped and forced into prostitution by a bootlegger named Trigger.  Trigger, a sort of backwoods gangster, is such a bad guy that he not only rapes Temple, but murders a young boy who tries to protect her. When another man is charged with the murder, Temple tries to leave Trigger,  but he threatens her with bodily harm. She grabs his gun, and shoots Trigger dead.

After returning to her family, Temple is persuaded by a kindly lawyer to tell the truth about the first murder in front of a jury in order to save the defendant’s life. But Temple is ashamed of the rape and her time as a prostitute. She perjures herself in court, resulting in the execution of an innocent man.

From the Beatrice Daily Sun, Nebraska

Modern film critics and theorists have spent some time over the years debating if Temple’s actions are to be seen as the tragic result of being victimized, or the evolution in sin for a woman who enjoyed being a gangster’s moll but was ashamed of her own decisions. Certainly, the promotional materials of the time did not know how to “sell” the film. She is referred to as “the dramatic victim of her own desire” in an ad from the Beatrice Daily Sun in August 1933. Made to be the archetypal bad girl, she is given little sympathy and made to appear as if she brought the tragic events of her life on herself. The novel on which the film is based blurs such lines even further. But with rape and murder essential to their respective plots, it is easy to see how filmgoers and fans of the Hays Code would question if there were any clearly defined lines of morality at all?

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933)

Ginger Rogers n Gold Diggers of 1933
Ginger Rogers is “…in the Money”

Busby Berkeley’s lavish production numbers in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 left little of the female form to the imagination. Costumes were deemed too skimpy, and dance routines, lewd.  Ginger Rogers, dressed in little more than glittering coins shows off her, um, assets during her (quite literal) solo: “We’re in the Money.”

Based on a play that ran between 1919 and 1920, as well as a silent film in 1923 then a successful talkie in 1929, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 was one of the highest grossing pictures in the year of its release. A fun-filled spectacle, it was light entertainment for an audience dealing with the Great Depression. In fact, many references to the Great Depression are made in the film, raising the ritz and glitz of the picture above the stark, depressing realities of everyday living.  So how could this kind of entertainment raised the ire of those who wanted to institute a code of conduct for filmmakers?

Easy. The suggestion of easy women, to be precise.

The plot is pretty simple. Trying to find work in an industry out of step with everyday societal woes, four showgirls compete for roles in a new Broadway revue. When the show becomes a success, the girls find themselves accused of being gold diggers by the high society crowd. One girl, Carol (played by former vaudeville actress Joan Blondell), is outright labeled “cheap and vulgar.”

It all ends happily with three of the four girls married. But not before four major lavish musical numbers involving women in various stages of undress.

"Pettin' in the Park" screen scene
“Pettin’ in the Park”‘s screen scene

Some states heavily censored the racy “Pettin’ in the Park” routine where girls get soaked in the rain and have to change clothes behind sheer screens. Later, dozens of women lay about in the grass, getting groped by their suitors. A 9-year-old Billy Barty — who would later go on to television fame as the dwarf in Spike Jones’ ensemble — almost loses his ball up a woman’s skirt. It’s a little bizarre. And while it may seem innocent by today’s standards, the voyeurism and sexual  innuendo were in definite violation of the code.

A year after the film’s release, the Code went into effect. More innocent musicals and light-hearted comedies would become popular. Much of sexuality and violence was implied, and truly adult themes were kept to the shadows.

Thus, the age of Pre-Code Hollywood came to a close. Films of the late thirties and nineteen forties were relatively tame. Moralists were happy that few couples shared beds, bad guys always got what was coming to them (often, off-screen), and bad girls? They were few and far between.

But, as it always does, culture shifts. A second world war would shake things up. Film noir, with its femme fatales, reintroduced the truly bad guy, and the sultry bad girl — like Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946). Post-war cinema laid the groundwork for the more mature offerings of the 1950s and 60s. A new wave of European cinema along with competition from a medium built for more wholesome entertainment — television — meant the Hollywood would once again openly challenge social mores. In all practicality, the return of sex, violence, and other adult themes to movies may have been motivated by the need to simply compete with TV and get butts back in the seats.

The Moon is Blue (1953)

Otto Preminger alone would push boundaries with three of his films in the nineteen fifties: The Moon is Blue (1953) — with its adult themes of sexuality; The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) — openly about drug abuse; and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) — which dealt with rape and, as the title makes clear, murder.  But it is with The Moon is Blue that Preminger came up against the Hays Code. From 1934 to 1954, Joseph Breen was the administrator appointed by Hays to enforce the code. The Breen office told Preminger that his screenplay violated the code for its open “treatment of illicit sex and seduction.” Preminger made changes. Breen’s office still objected, and Preminger went ahead and made the movie anyway.

Come the 1960s, more films challenged the code: Psycho (1960) — with its violence; The Pawnbroker (1964) — with nudity in, of all places, a concentration camp; and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) — full of what was deemed at the time to be foul language. Woolf? had the distinction of being the first to bear the “Suggested for Mature Audiences” label. The fact that it also won several Academy Awards (http://www NULL.tcm NULL.html) meant that, by 1966, filmmakers were becoming aware that audiences were ready for a change.

The Hays office would none too coincidentally close the year that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was released, and the MPAA film rating system we know today went into effect soon thereafter,

For the Love of Beauty: Tod Browning’s Freaks life of the sideshow
“”The story of the love life of the sideshow””

Few would argue that Freaks (1932) is one of the more uncomfortable films to watch in cinema history. An MGM pre-Code horror film from Tod Browning, Freaks, as released, ran abridged at 64 minutes. Its 90 minute original version — of which no versions exist — was deemed too much to bear for audiences of its day. It was banned in Britain until the 1950s, and is, perhaps, one of the most controversial films of all time. Oddly billed in the promotional poster of its day as “the story of the love life of the side show,” it is more a study of the extremes of human behavior — as well as physical form — but it’s certainly not a traditional love story by any means.

Coming off of the success of 1931’s Dracula (https://en NULL.wikipedia, producer and director Tod Browning was inspired to make Freaks after reading a magazine story called ‘Spurs” in which a circus-performing little person falls in love with a beautiful bareback rider who agrees to marry him upon finding out he has inherited a great deal of money. Browning’s idea was to tell a similar tale using real “freak show” attractions — not actors in Lon Chaney-esque prostethics or makeup. He himself had run away and joined the circus at age 16. He knew the lifestyle and the people of the circus, and, by all accounts, genuinely wanted to showcase the widest possible range of human emotion and physical differences.

Indeed, characters with physical disabilities had appeared in two of Browning’s silent films — 1927’s The Unknown (https://en NULL.wikipedia (where Lon Chaney is an armless knife thrower) and 1925’s The Unholy Three (https://en NULL.wikipedia (where one of the titular characters is a little person). It would seem that events of his life, the trajectory of his career, and his interest in telling stories of characters on the fringe of society coalesced in Freaks. His heroes would be the sideshow performers that many find shocking. His villains would be the so called “normal” people.

The prologue to the film provides more than a hint to Browning’s attitude toward his subject matter: “For the love of beauty is a deep-seated urge which dates back to the beginning of civilization.” Before we’re even introduced to the circus performers, we are challenged to accept the premise that trust and pursuit of the beautiful is part of our nature. So what happens when we are presented with the ugly and the grotesque — not as monsters, but as people? People that are meant to shock and simultaneously entertain us with their deformities? Browning makes it clear: these are people, no matter what their deformities. And as for beauty, it can hide malformations of its own.

Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) with Harry Earles (Hans)
Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) with Harry Earles (Hans)

Following its prologue, the movie opens with a barker drawing attention to a sideshow where a woman looks into a box and screams. It seems this horror in the box was once a beautiful trapeze artist named Cleopatra. She had seduced and married a dwarf named Hans after learning of his sizeable inheritance. Conspiring with “strongman” Hercules, Cleopatra plans to murder Hans and inherit his wealth. At their wedding reception, Cleopatra poisons her groom’s wine while the circus freaks now celebrate her as one of their own. “One of us, one of us,” they chant. But the ceremony unnerves the inebriated Cleopatra, and she reveals that she has been having an affair with Hercules. She mocks the assembled freaks, while Hans, humiliated, takes ill.

The newlyweds feign reconciliation while Cleopatra secretly plots to provide more poison to her husband, disguising it as medicine. But Hans has secret plans of his own: he plots with the other freaks to get revenge. In the end, the freaks attack the adulterers during a storm, brandishing knives and guns. In the process, they truly become monsters.

The "freaks" of Freaks
The “freaks” of Freaks

In turning the freaks into bloodthirsty killers, Browning effectively turns the tables for a second time on the audience. These so-called freaks — pinheads, bearded ladies, siamese twins, dwarves with missing limbs and all manner of other men and women with deformities — they are just like you and me. Only they aren’t. Their physical form is unsettling at first. But Browning softens us on them. Normalizes them — until, that is, they turn to violence. It begs the question: is violence inherent in the human condition no matter what the form? If so, what exactly is “normal” then?

Leila Hyams as Venus
Leila Hyams as Venus

Juxtaposed with the seemingly normal but conniving Cleopatra and once innocent — now murderous — freaks,  are a genuinely kind-hearted couple: a seal trainer named Venus and her clown boyfriend, Phroso. They may be the only example of true love in the film. Though outsiders themselves, they are physically “normal” — thus muddying the waters of what the relationship is between true love and normalcy.

Regardless, the climax of the film hinges on the knowledge the couple has: Venus and Phroso know about Hans’ revenge plot, and when Hercules finds out that they do, he wants nothing more than to kill them. His plans are thwarted, however, as Hercules is chased by the freaks during a raging storm, and is never seen from again. Reputedly, he is castrated in Browning’s original cut of the film.

"The Duck Woman" and Director Tod Browning
“The Duck Woman” and Director Tod Browning

As for Cleopatra, she is terribly transformed into a human duck. Little more than a tarred and feathered torso with deformed hands that now resemble webbed feet, she is, as it turns out, the horror behind the opening scene.

Freaks promotional poster
Freaks promotional poster

And so it ends. Beauty is ruin. The freaks are vengeful murderers. The audience can assume Venus and Phroso survive. But they are not the celebrated lovers of the movie poster. Instead, oddly enough, Hercules and Cleopatra are seen, again and again, in the promotional materials —dressed in evening wear, like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire! It was as if MGM’s publicity department couldn’t stomach the reality of the picture and its depiction of what normalcy is — or is not.

Although most prints end with the revelation of what happened to Cleopatra, MGM apparently went so far as to eventually insert a final scene for a more traditional, happier ending. In a mansion, Hans is living a millionaire’s life. Venus and Phroso visit, bringing Frieda, to whom Hans had been engaged before meeting Cleopatra. Hans at first refuses to see Freida, but she eventually assures him that she knows he tried to stop the others from their revenge. The others may have become murderers, but Hans remains an innocent “freak.” In essence, he becomes the hero of the movie, and as he starts to cry, Freida comforts him.

It’s a forced ending, but the only one MGM could possibly tolerate in what would otherwise be a depressing end to a subversive film. The epilogue itself exists in two different versions, one with dialogue, one without. All three endings are included on the Warner DVD (https://www

Browning would go on to direct two more horror films: Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil Doll (1936) along with two more pictures: a drama, and a mystery. But his career was effectively over. The projects he truly wanted to make were never seriously considered by any major studio following the box office failure and stigma of Freaks.

In 2012, TCM showed Freaks as part of “A History of Disability in Film Festival.” One of the programmers, Lawrence Carter-Long wrote:

The importance of showing ‘Freaks’ in 2012 is that it takes those conventions of who we’re supposed to identify with and where our sympathies lie and turns everything upside down. Our sympathies aren’t with the buxom blond non-disabled woman. From the beginning, your sympathies are with the freaks themselves. That’s the impact of the film. The audience is rooting for characters who look like what is traditionally the villain in a film. It challenges you to reconsider the outsider.

The lasting impact of Freaks, however, is not just that it challenges us to “reconsider the outsider” as sympathetic. It is to realize that they are just like everyone else — capable of kinship, compassion and love, yes, but also violence, revenge, and hate. No matter what form the body takes, the human condition is forever the same. Capable of extremes of behavior and emotion, humanity is both beautiful and ugly — inside and out.

And it is “for the love [and blind pursuit] of beauty [and perfection]” that many of us suffer.