old movies

Classic Features: Bette, Joan, and scandalous pre-code movies

Pre-code naughtiness in film makes for must-watch movies from days gone by.

By Chris Vizzini

Recently Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had the gays atwitter all over again. They had us tuning into FX on Sunday nights to watch the actresses light it up and blow it out vis-à-vis Feud: Bette and Joan, the latest series from Ryan Murphy.

In it, we watch with perverse delight as the two former beauties further slip from their glory days in Hollywood, leaving them at each other’s throats as they fight like alley cats on steamy New York asphalt. It’s gooey delicious drama queen action that has us gay boys eating every moment with a spoon.

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange nail their parts as Davis and Crawford, respectively, who were notorious liquor swilling, chain smoking, foul mouth bitches who got what they wanted in Old Hollywood. Often, it came at their rival’s cost with a twinkle in the eye of the victor and daggers from the eye of the defeated. Throughout the years, the pair were in constant battle stance over scripts, men, money and power, but none was so important as the coveted spotlight.

Feud has reignited a blaze of interest in the tawdry side of early sound film called “talkies.” There is a break in the cinematic timeline that’s Pre-and Post-Code. This break would ultimately come to be The Motion Picture Production Code, colloquially known as the Hays Code and the dawn of censorship in film.

William Hays, a Republican and Presbyterian leader, was enlisted by studio heads to clean the risqué reputation from the on- and off-screen behaviors of Hollywood in 1922. He was paid a then-hefty sum of $100,000, today $1.4 million, to sweep up the “morally bankrupt” movie-making community of the Roaring ‘20s.

In 1924, Hays introduced “The Formula” of suggestions, but it was largely ignored by filmmakers. After being blatantly rebuffed, Hays suggested a committee that resulted in 1927’s “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls,” a set of 25 codes of conduct rules. Again, they were ignored.

Without much traction, by 1929, tensions were high between Code and film-makers. In 1930, with the help of a Catholic editor, a Jesuit priest, and the ever-growing apprehension of studio heads, they all came to an agreement on rules for film conduct as not to “lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

It wasn’t until 1934 that Code Approval Certification was required before a film’s release.

The Code, finally and unfortunately, was enforced. However, even in Post-Code films of that era, you can still hear the voice of risqué in the dialogue by way of crafty writers sneaking in agendas and their voices via clever writing. In some ways, it made for better movies, because audiences had to read between the lines.

It’s fun to listen to, and some have even made that a drinking game: “Sexual innuendo! Drink!”

Let’s step back in time and indulge ourselves in some Pre-Code naughtiness!

A Free Soul (1931)

a free soul
Norma Shearer and Clark Gable star. Shearer plays a free-spirited woman who toys with Gable’s character who is up for murder charges. Shearer’s character famously quips when asked why she doesn’t like to talk, “Men of action are better in action.”

Night Nurse (1931)

Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell star as two nurses. The former not shy to disrobe during this sinister crime drama plotting to murder two ill children.

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Jean Harlow stars as a sexually charged social climber that explores overt sexuality and domination, both sexually and in her multiple relationships with men, married or not. Brief Nudity.

Rain (1932)

Joan Crawford plays an alcohol-guzzling flapper who comes head to head with a bible-thumping preacher challenging her morals, in this great film. Her character, Sadie Thompson, stands up and tells him exactly where she’ll end up on her own terms.

Design for Living (1933)

design for living
Gregory Peck, Miriam Hopkins, and Fredric March star. Miriam’s character is having affairs with both men, and she can’t choose between them, so they all move in together to give that a whirl.

Female (1933)

Ruth Chatterton stars as an automobile tycoon who sleeps with whomever and wherever she chooses. Feminism shows far ahead of its time. Chatterton’s character, Alison Drake, firmly states, “A long time ago, I decided to travel the same open road that men travel. So, I treat men exactly the same way they’ve always treated women.”

Baby Face (1933)

Barbara Stanwyck stars in this sexually explosive and innuendo filled film as the daughter of a speak-easy owner who flexes her sexual muscles to use men then discards them at the first sign of emotion. At the top of the list in racy Pre-Code movies after being banned in many cities.

1 Comment

    1. I LOVED this article. I musta read it 4 times and had friends read it too. Thanks Chris Vizzini for writing it and giving me a must watch list (I’m almost done watching all the ones mentioned). Rain will always be a favorite. Loved the movie, loved watching it with a good friend. Good memories!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *