Pre-code Cinema: a world of sexual deviance and taboo

Even the most casual film fan knows their fair share of classic movies; whether that be Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life or a Charlie Chaplin film. But beyond that Hollywood made thousands of films during its golden age – from the 1920s to the early 1960s – yet most of us know nothing about them. Perhaps the reason for this is the popular misconception that any film pre-1970s is tedious, bland or, worst of all, silent.

Of course it’s different to modern cinema; you’d think looking at an eighty-year-old film to see eighty-year-old values, when in fact during the 1920s and 1930s Hollywood was home to some of the most visionary filmmakers, who were untamed by boundaries. From 1929 to 1934 no censors were enforced. Which lead to all types of edgy material. This “Pre-Code” era was buzzing with films about taboo subjects. It was pioneering in its efforts to discuss the undiscussed. Sex. Violence. Social dilemmas.

Quintessential pre-Code cinema The Divorcee, released in 1930, covers the taboo subject of sex. It follows a woman who gets back at her cheating husband by sleeping with his best friend, living an independent life and refusing to be submissive, like other stereotypical women of the age. The portrayal of a smart, sassy, sexually liberated woman was a refreshing change from the usual female characters of the time, and is still relevant.

In some ways the same obscene beauty standards still apply to women in Hollywood. Directors still focus on actress’ looks rather than their talent. So when ‘The Divorcee’ rejects her on-screen husband’s proclamation that ‘you’d go all the way and back for me’ and finally says no to double standards, it’s a victory for women across the ages. Luckily this theme would take flight in the post-Code era, producing witty comedies like His Girl Friday and The Women (the latter of which had an all-female cast) which championed the independent woman.

Outside of Hollywood, German director G. W. Pabst was breaking boundaries. In 1929 he made two films with American actress Louise Brooks; Pandora’s Box, where Brooks plays Lulu, the mistress of a newspaper owner whose destructive behaviour results in carnage; and Diary of a Lost Girl which follows an innocent young girl whose fate forces her into prostitution. Both films touch on several forbidden themes of violence, misogyny and sexual identity; which of course was outrageous for the time. These ideas might be familiar to us now, but that doesn’t make these films any less intriguing.

Of course Classic cinema isn’t for everyone, but it’s unfair that it is never given the chance to shine. Once in my GCSE media class, someone objected to watching a black and white film. According to them, it was a foregone conclusion that it’d be “boring”. Sadly this seems to be the general consensus when the truth is, these aren’t just museum pieces, they’re just as relevant and entertaining as today’s films and in some cases even more so. Once you take a glimpse of classic cinema its essence is hard to forget, it seems to hold that “magic of the movies” which few modern films do – hence “Golden Age”.

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