San Diego Classic Film Calendar

Friday, September 12, 2014

Diggin' on the TCM Friday Night Spotlight: Classic Pre-Code

I gotta say, even though we're only one week in, I'm totally into TCM's Friday Night Spotlight: Classic Pre-Code. I've been into classic movies for quite a while, but probabaly until this year, I knew very little about Pre-Code movies. Sure, I knew that before 1934, movies could get away with way more than they could afterwards. 

Even a cursory glance at early 1930s films shows that they were pushing the envelope:


One of my favorite Pre-Code actresses,
the lovely Joan Blondell
  • Early Busby Berkeley musicals – Showed lots and lots of skin, literally dozens and dozens of women in various stages of undress.
  • Tarzan and His Mate – The swimming scene where Jane, okay Maureen O'Sullivan's body double, is skinny dipping in front of the camera.
  • King Kong – Everybody's favorite giant ape taking off Faye Wray's clothes and chewing up natives

But it was more than just skin, drug use, adultery, homosexuality, crime, every aspect of immorality was explored. Now, I'm no expert on the period, but I will try to briefly sum it up.

Pre-Code generally refers to the period from roughly the start of talkies to the middle of 1934, when the Hays Code started being enforced. A little background, up until the early 1930s, the film industry had been very profitable. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the film industry had just invested in new equipment to make and show talking motion pictures. With country in the throes of the Great Depression, movie attendance dropped by about half and about a third of the nation's movie theaters closed. For the first time Hollywood was losing money. The studio bosses knew then what we still know now, sex sells, so they started making movies more racy to lure people back into the theaters, and it worked. 

The Hays Code written in 1929 and adopted in 1930 spelled out what could and couldn't be done, but enforcement was lax and demands for changes were largely ignored. This led to an environment where filmmakers could and did get away with almost anything. If you want to learn more, there was great documentary on the subject, Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood. TCM is re-showing it September 19, 11:15 pm Pacific.



Gotta love the Pulp feel of this poster for
Employees' Entrance playing later this month

Back to this month's TCM Friday Night Spotlight, first it goes way beyond just Friday night. They're showing Pre-Code films all day every Friday this month. Friend and #TCMParty cronie Will McKinley tweeted last Friday night that he was on his 12th movie that day. He posted about about his 17-hour Pre-Code binge on his Cinematically Insane blog. Good on ya, Will. If I could spare the vacation days, I would would be right there with him every Friday this month.

In light of that and a DVR that is bulging at the seams, I'm trying to pick my battles. I'm working on the assumption that the TCM programmers are showing the best of the best in the evenings. Thus, I'm recording anything in the evening I know I might not be home to watch and then trying to cherry pick what to record for the rest of the day.

Today, outside of what they are showing in primetime, I'm thinking two Jean Harlow pictures will get the nod:


  • Bombshell – 1933 comedy about a movie star, based on the life of Clara Bow, although not all that far off from what Harlow herself was going through at the time.
  • Red Headed Woman – Harlow as a Ginger trying sleep her way to the top.

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