Pre-Code Hollywood

Man and Woman in Same Bed: Verboten After 1934 (Madam Satan)

Hollywood films released after July 1, 1934 were heavily censored by the Breen Office of the MPAA for adherence to community morality standards, especially with regard to S-E-X. That is partly because between the onset of the Great Depression and that date, Hollywood released numerous pictures that violated the prevailing morality.

Pictures like Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930) for MGM with its Art Deco orgy aboard a Zeppelin. Or Warner Brothers’ Baby Face (1933) with a social-climbing Barbara Stanwyck intent on avenging past slights on the entire male gender. According to film scholar Eddie Muller, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Paramount’s The Story of Temple Drake (1933), starring Miriam Hopkins based on a lurid William Faulkner novel in which her character murders her rapist.

I recall a scene excised from many prints of Josef Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930) of a bare-breasted native girl smiling at the camera as a column of French Foreign Legionnaires marches past. (In all honesty, however, there are numerous glimpses of breast in many of the silent Jesus pix of the period. Thank you, Mr. DeMille.)

This Film Was Dynamite with Its Immoral Heroine

Several weeks ago, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) showed a program of four pre-code Warner Brothers films that are a good place to start if you want to see what the era was all about:

  • Two Seconds (1932) with Edward G. Robinson
  • Employees’ Entrance (1933) with Warren William and a hot Loretta Young
  • Blessed Event (1932) with Lee Tracy and Mary Brian
  • Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck

Lee Tracy and Ruth Donnelly in Blessed Event

The prints that TCM showed looked pristine. That is because the originals were stored at the Library of Congress, which took good care of them.

Pre-code stars included, in addition to the above mentioned, actors like Clark Gable, Ruth Chatterton, James Cagney, Mae West, Jean Harlowe, Joan Blondell, Paul Muni, and Mae Clarke.

I regard the Hollywood films of the early 1930s as a happy hunting ground for interesting films that dared to do what no film until the modern day did. In this era of free porn on demand, that might not seem like much, but it does provide a more realistic glimpse of an interesting era in America.

Zeppelin Orgy

Book Based on the Movie

No one could say that it’s a good movie, but it certainly is an outrageous one. Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930) starts out as a fairly standard bedroom farce and ends with an hour-long orgy aboard a zeppelin that starts out being tethered at a New York airport, and ends up being destroyed in a sudden electrical storm. Oh, and by the way, it’s a musical.

I first saw the film when it was screened by the Dartmouth Film Society in the mid 1960s. More than half a century later, I was still amazed by the film, which was screened tonight by Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

The zeppelin sequence begins with a song and dance number which, no doubt, was considered very advanced for the time:

An “Electrical” Song and Dance Number Aboard the Zeppelin

Cecil B. DeMille was famous for, on one hand publicly adhering to Puritan morality, and on the other pushing the “sin” routines for all they’re worth. The film was released well before the Motion Picture Code was adopted in 1934. Between the advent of sound and the censorship of the Hays Office, Hollywood produced some pretty racy films such as Red Dust (1932) with Jean Harlow, Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck, and King Kong (1933) with Fay Wray.

I remember seeing a racy outtakes reel from the latter film in which Kong exposes Fay Wray’s breasts and crushes a black native underfoot as if he were a cockroach.

The pre-code talkies produced by Hollywood tried to walk a straight and narrow path of Protestant morality, but had a little hypocritical fun doing it. The result is at times curiously sexy.