Before Grand Theft Auto. Before 2 Live Crew. Hell, even before Elvis.
Yes, before all these abominations shattered our innocence and corrupted our youth, there was the unholy mother of all debauchery, debasement, and depravity.
Of course I’m referring to Pre-Code Hollywood: those films Tinseltown churned out before the Production Code (aka the Hays Code) was put into effect in 1934.
Starting this Thursday, the transgressors at the American Cinematheque will present Why Be Good? Pre-Code Hollywood Films, a film series at the Egyptian Theater whose highlights include: William Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931) starring Barbara Stanwyck; Frank Capra’s Forbidden (1932) also starring Stanwyck; and Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930) starring Kay Johnson and Reginald Denny. Also screening on Friday night is Elaina Archer’s documentary Why Be Good? Sexuality and Censorship in Early Cinema (2007).
Photo: The type of salacious activity to be screened at the Egyptian. Courtesy of the American Cinematheque.
Looking for the most immoral bang for the buck? Try Thursday night’s flappers-gone-wild flick, Three on a Match (1932), which the Cinematheque describes as a “freewheeling saga of three schoolgirls and their lives growing up in the Roaring Twenties.”
Or try Saturday night’s Skyscraper Souls (1932), a melodrama that, according to the Cinematheque, “practically shouts its amorality from the rooftops,” and tells the story a hell-bent financier determined to maintain control of his 100-story tower. And you know what they say about guys with 100-story towers, right?
So what happened to make Hollywood shelve this riskier and risqué-ier type of entertainment?
To paraphrase William Shatner from the Wrath of Khan: “Haaaaaays!”
The Hays Code, named after the man in charge of cleaning up Hollywood, was a self-imposed set of rules that Hollywood enacted to keep the federal government from regulating the movie industry. The code lasted until 1968 and extolled these general principles:
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
If you’re interested in reading the whole damn thing, click here. It’s a fun read.