Dorothy Mackaill in Safe in Hell (1931)

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

Pre-code 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 lurid content as 1970s exploitation films — full of criminals, prostitutes, and murderers. Even a doctor who thought he was God. It was a period often referred to as “pre-code” Hollywood, and it gave us some great films

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

During this “pre-code” era, a good motto for filmmakers could have been “Anything Goes” — 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 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 the 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 acquitted, 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.

DO’s and DON’Ts
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.

Pre-code “don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” were still quite common. 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, but to little avail.

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 pre-code practices would stay — and 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.

The age of pre-code Hollywood was pretty much over. But not before some brilliant films were made.

Among the more infamous pre-code 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

A rather depressing tale, 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 is 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 embarrassed and humiliated by 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.

"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.


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

Pre-code 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. In typical pre-code fashion, she is referred to suggestively as “the dramatic victim of her own desire” (see 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 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 (the picture, in fact, ends with a stirring number entitled  “Forgotten Man” that drives home the depression-era theme of now unempoyed post war soldiers needing work).  So how could this kind of entertainment raise the ire of those who wanted to institute a code of conduct for filmmakers? Why is it thought to be a prime representation of pre-code Hollywood?

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. It was pretty much the last hurrah of pre-code pictures.


As the age of Pre-Code Hollywood came to a close, films of the late thirties and nineteen forties became 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) or Marilyn Monroe in Niagra (1953) — but the sex was suggested more than outight shown. Still, post-war cinema laid the groundwork for the ever 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 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.

Now, pre-code films seem somewhat dated. From our twenty-first century perspective, these films seem quite tame on the surface. But dig a little deeper into the subject matter, and the suggestion of deviance in all its many forms is there. Pre-code motion pictures are more sophisticated than they would first appear to be. Pre-code actresses more provocative.

It is the reason these films still continue to hold sway over movie-goers. Facebook groups are devoted to pre-code Hollywood. And actresses like Joan Blondell and Jean Harlow are celebrated for their unabashed sexuality.

A good thing, too. As pre-code pictures tell us a lot about who we were, who we are, and who we will continue to be as a culture that is still split on matters puritanical and risqué.