Hollywood studios faced a great dilemma in the early ’30s. A Production Code was on the books to get the studios to rigidly restrict the depiction of nudity, violence, premarital sexuality, prostitution, disrespect for law and “correct standards for life”, alcoholism, drug use and adultery in their films. Yet as the Great Depression deepened and box-office receipts declined, the studios had to find ways to put more bodies in theater seats.
In a case of commerce — and some might say art and honesty, as well — triumphing over censorship, the studios decided to either ignore the Code or challenge its implementation. This resulted in the production of hugely popular, and violent, gangster movies like 1931’s Little Caesar and The Public Enemy and socially conscious films depicting prison brutality, such as 1932’s I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.
But it was primarily in the area of sexuality that Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934 took on the censors and served up the kind of steamy and racy fare that wouldn’t be seen again from the studios until the ’50s and `60s. The era became known as “Pre-Code Hollywood” even though the Production Code already existed because it wasn’t seriously enforced until 1934.
Five of these pre-Code films are packaged in TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 2, a fascinating collection of early `30s films, accompanied by an excellent documentary feature, Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood. This follows the release last year of Volume One, which included Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman, and Waterloo Bridge.
Here’s a quick look at the movies included in Volume 2.
The Divorcee (1930): Not to be confused with the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical The Gay Divorcee, this controversial film was a direct challenge to the Code by its studio, MGM, and actually resulted in a best actress Oscar for its star, Norma Shearer. She plays a devoted wife who learns that her husband (Chester Morris) has been having an affair with another woman. Her response is to reject the double standard affecting men and women in such situations and sleep with her husband’s best friend — and that’s just for starters.
Even though Shearer’s character eventually reconciles with her husband, the film represents for its time a remarkable depiction of female empowerment and sexual expression. As film critic Molly Haskell states in the DVD documentary Thou Shalt Not, “Women had a lot of sexual freedom” in pre-Code Hollywood.
A Free Soul (1931): Shearer again, this time playing as free-spirited San Francisco socialite who dumps her upper-crust fiance (Leslie Howard) after she gets one glimpse of the rugged gangster (Clark Gable) her lawyer father (Lionel Barrymore) is defending in a murder trial. A good-girl-falls-for-bad-guy melodrama, Shearer becomes Gable’s mistress and has some steamy love scenes with him. But Shearer dumps her no-good boyfriend after she makes a pact with her alcoholic father: she won’t see Gable anymore if he’ll give up drinking.
Shearer is as appealing as ever, and Barrymore won the best actor Oscar for his performance, but it’s Gable, in one of his first major roles, who stands out.
Three on a Match (1932): Filled with alcoholism, drug abuse and child neglect, director Mervyn LeRoy’s film is about three childhood friends from different social strata who grow up to become Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak. As a wealthy woman who deserts her kind husband (Warren William, playing against type as a decent man) and young son for a life of debauchery, Dvorak has the showiest and raunchiest part. Humphrey Bogart appears in one of his early screen roles, playing a gangster.
Female (1933): Sort of a romantic comedy from director Michael Curtiz, what distinguishes this film is its sexual role-reversal: Ruth Chatterton stars as the president of a large automobile corporation who is also sexually voracious — she sleeps with various men in her employ before meeting her match in a new employee (played by George Brent, who was Chatterton’s real-life husband at the time).
Night Nurse (1931): From William Wellman, the director of The Public Enemy, this is an odd and quirky film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell as young nurses. Part comedy, filled with wisecracks from the fast-talking female leads, and part melodrama, it’s about Stanwyck’s character discovering a plot to murder the two children she has been hired to care for. The bad guys include a drunken, drugged-out and neglectful mother, a dishonest doctor and the mother’s evil chauffeur (Clark Gable, even badder than in A Free Soul, as he punches Stanwyck squarely on the jaw) who’s behind the whole thing. In a twist on the usual Hollywood morality tale, it’s Stanwyck’s bootlegger boyfriend (Ben Lyon) who provides justice, rather than the police.
Another notable feature of Night Nurse and films from this era is discussed by film historian Thomas Doherty in his book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934. Doherty writes: “Finding innovative ways to reveal women in states of undress and dishevelment was a creative challenge in pre-Code Hollywood met unblushingly … Night Nurse concocts repeated occasions for Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell to disrobe, slipping from civilian clothes to nurses uniforms and back again.”
Given the lurid and titillating nature of the films included in Volume 2 of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, one can’t quite make their DVD debuts a landmark event in the triumph of art over censorship. While some of these films represent a fascinating type of proto-feminism, others are just manipulative, sexist tripe and shallow morality plays, however interesting they are in their historical context.
Yet considering what came later with the enforcement of the Code in mid-1934 — a decades-long era of timidity in the depiction of sexuality, violence and social problems on the screen, as well as, Frank Miller points out in his book Censored Hollywood a banning of the re-release of films like Little Caesar The Public Enemy, and Mae West’s ribald She Done Him Wrong and the forced cutting of scenes of a violent or sexual nature from classic movies like All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, and King Kong — the Forbidden Hollywood Collection is a cogent reminder of what was lost.