The term "pre-Code" - denoting the Hollywood films of the early talkie era, before full enforcement of the Production Code was imposed in 1934 - has been enjoying the kind of currency previously attained by "film noir," and for similar reasons: it is at once a promise of buried pleasures and shorthand for an aesthetic aura that is complex enough to encompass both campy artifice and rough-edged immediacy. It is not, of course, news that to the early 1930s we owe the most enduring mythic figures of talking pictures: the gangsters incarnated by Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, the iconic fright masks of Frankenstein and Dracula, and the Marx Brothers and Mae West. But these represent only the glittering surface of a legacy with many hidden layers.
After 1934 many pre-Code movies were either put on the shelf or reissued in censored form, and it is only in recent years that we have seen a flood of television screenings, restorations, and reissues that have instilled a wider taste for movies like Baby Face, Employees' Entrance, and Night World. It is not simply that these films evoke a lost world; they also reflect a singular moment in filmmaking. They start up out of the narcotic trance of late silent cinema into a world of noise and verbal aggression; yet they retain for the moment all the imagist power and associative poetic logic of the silents. They have a directness and intensity still capable of astonishing. Had there been something in the water (or the bootleg hooch) in 1932 that gave to its films a magic compounded equally of gum-chewing, corner-of-the-mouth verbal byplay, musical numbers of unparalleled geometric splendor, unbounded leaps into exotic fantasy counterbalanced by stark, dead-on glimpses of prison corridors and city streets worthy of Walker Evans, and (not least) a mood of erotic impudence that afterward, it might seem to a casual viewer, had so suddenly and mysteriously vanished?
That vanishing was, if sudden, hardly mysterious. The sea change undergone by Hollywood filmmaking on July 1, 1934, when the amended "Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures" came into effect, marked the culmination of a political and cultural struggle that had simmered since the early 1920s.
The original Production Code was formally accepted by the industry in 1930 in an effort to placate the opposition. When it became apparent that the Code was not being seriously enforced, a more concerted movement took shape. Grandstanding politicians introduced bills calling for a federal censorship commission to control film content, and social researchers blamed movies for youthful delinquency and sexual misconduct. Most significantly, the Roman Catholic Church put its full weight behind – in the words of a papal spokesman – "a united front and a vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema."
The Code is a fascinating piece of work and it shows clearly that the code's formulators never intended merely to black out the occasional glimpse of nudity or inappropriate swear word. It was a vision not merely of art but of life, based on the premise that "wrong entertainment lowers the whole living condition and moral ideals of a race." It called for films in which "evil and good are never confused and … evil is always recognized clearly as evil," films that would never "leave the question of right or wrong in doubt or fogged." The overwhelming concern was with sexual conduct. The overheated tone of the Code's language would be amusing had not the implications of this document dominated American filmmaking, and by extension American culture, for decades afterward.
Pre-Code movies offered a distorted, partial, often absurd and contradictory depiction of a world that nevertheless actually existed. The most extreme melodramas were imbued with harsh emotional knowledge. This was a cinematic world in which, not infrequently, men flouted morality and yet prospered; in which American cities and factories were sites of endemic factional struggles and maneuverings for advantage; in which the institution of marriage was frequently inadequate to satisfying the needs of husbands and wives alike (and in equal measure). Adultery was rife; prostitution flourished. Seemingly decent people could be corrupted or embittered with disturbing casualness; there was never any telling how things might turn out. After the Code Hollywood movies elaborated something like a parallel world of such foreordained moral clarity that few endings could surprise.
In Pre-Code movies, elements arise that would not be seen again for decades in American movies: the abundant instances of near nudity; the exaggeratedly gay characters who turn up; the interracial love stories; the sexually independent women; and the sympathetically portrayed "good bad girls." In film after film, rapacious capitalists revel in free-market scheming and sexual exploitation; workers and unemployed youths exact violent justice from their oppressors; innocent victims are condemned; and racketeers, con men, and cynical reporters function as a wisecracking chorus making light of every form of homespun virtue and naive idealism.
The early talkies revel in a certain baldness of exposition. The shock of the speaking voice cuts through all the luxuriant poetry cultivated by the silent screen in its final years, even as the poetry lingers on in the form of Art Deco interiors, glistening silken fashions, and camera movements. There is often a jarring juxtaposition of visual delicacy and verbal brutality. The characters have to talk loud enough to drown out the noises suddenly audible: cars honking, guns firing, planes taking off, and dance bands jamming to the tune of "Hot Voodoo."
All of a sudden movies needed words, lots of them, and they got them wherever they could find them: on the street, on the radio, in pulp detective stories and romance novels, in plays, in jazz songs, and the newly frank sexual advice of lonely hearts columnists. Taken all in all the pre-Code movies constitute an overflowing repository of American speech and vernacular American writing, a sort of literary treasure, captured on the run.
With the emergence of James Cagney you can feel how utterly the talkies transformed what it meant to see a movie. The impact of Cagney's physical grace can hardly be separated from the way the tones and rhythms of his voice register split-second mood changes: it is all one effect, at once fantastically exaggerated and as real as a grapefruit in the face.
Language may have had as much to do with the imposition of the Code as the glorification of vice and the sheer silk negligees of Jean Harlow and Norma Shearer. It was language that emanated from urban centers and some of it was too fast and too modern for audiences in middle America.
It is amusing to define these movies by how they offend the Production Code: to stay on the alert for words and deeds and images that would have fallen under the sanctions of 1934. But what was truly anomalous was what followed: a rigidly enforced control of moral implications whose deforming effect lingered long after the Code's demise. The regularizing of morals turned out to be inseparable from the regularizing of aesthetics. In its tidying up of loose ends, the Code encouraged a cookie-cutter approach to structure and character that is with us yet, to which the anarchic unpredictability of the early 1930s offers a bracing corrective.
Geoffrey O’Brien is Editor-in-Chief of the Library of America. This text was originally published in a different form in The New York Review of Books.