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Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934 Paperback – August 15, 1999

3.9 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Who says the world of classic Hollywood moviemaking was never risqué? We tend to think of black-and-white movies as representing a sanitized world, where crime never paid, ladies of the evening had hearts of gold, and married couples slept in separate beds. But in fact, censorship in American cinema didn't begin in earnest until 1934, when Will Hays and Joseph Breen began enforcing the legendary Hollywood production code. In this revelatory book, Thomas Doherty looks at sound movies of 1930-34--what is now known as the "pre-code" era.

This was a Hollywood of loose dames, hot whoopee, and coked-up killers who'd do anything for a pot of jack. It was a world that was often amoral and anarchic--an industry that allowed James Cagney and Paul Muni wild orgies of violence, openly flaunted the sexuality of Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, gave King Kong permission to crush cars and eat people, and allowed Tod Browning to make Freaks, one of the ghastliest, most sensationalistic, and greatest American movies.

Doherty's book captures this mad universe beautifully, describing films in such delightful detail that you may find yourself tossing it on your couch and racing to the video store. He also documents the downfall of the period, the outrage that was leveled against early sound films, and the emerging code that repressed American movies for almost 30 years. Film fans reveling in the debauchery of Hollywood's naughtiest era will also want to see Mark A. Vieira's Sin in Soft Focus. --Raphael Shargel

From Publishers Weekly

In early 1930s America, weighed down by the Depression, a vice-ridden, wise-cracking, anarchic antiauthoritarianism ruled Hollywood. Doherty's exhaustive cultural history of the films produced in the last years before the enactment of the Motion Picture Production Code reveals how the ascendancy of sound and a plummeting economy led to four years of wildly edgy films (1930-1934), radically different from the spic-and-span products of classic Hollywood. Most of the films chronicled hereAsporting titles like Eight Girls in a Boat, Call Her Savage and Merrily We Go to HellAhave been both forgotten by film historians and unavailable to generations of late-night TV viewers. Doherty begins with the misery and discontent gripping the U.S. in the 1930s, explaining how these forces shaped a motion picture industry just learning how to use the power of sound. He organizes the later chapters around a colorful, trashy array of genres: anarchic comedies; horror, gangster and vice films; over-the-top newsreels; and expeditionary films set in dangerous territory. Doherty's plot summaries at times grow tiresome, but he rarely fails to enliven them with gossip, quips or anecdotes. Ultimately , he shows how the fun came to a crashing halt when the National Legion of Decency and the Production Code Administration, spearheaded by Joseph Breen, launched a massive and astonishingly successful crusade to clean up "the pest hole that infects the entire country with its obscene and lascivious moving pictures." Given the politics swirling around Hollywood's edgier fare in the wake of the shootings in Littleton, Colo., this lurid and all too short-lived chapter of Hollywood history has never seemed more germane. (Sept.) FYI: A series at New York's Film Forum, The Joy of Pre-Code, running from August 20 to September 14, 1999, will feature more than 40 precode films, including many discussed by Doherty.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press; 2nd edition (August 15, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231110952
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231110952
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #260,352 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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This is a good book, but it doesn't capture the excitement of its subject matter. All kinds of wild & crazy things were happening in pre-code (1930-1934) Hollywood movies (extramarital affairs, prostitution, robbery, violence, etc.), & they happened for the most part without moral judgment on the parts of the movie makers. But this book presents this exciting period in a rather dry, humorless way. It contains lots of useful information about the era & its surrounding politics, but also leaves out a lot of things that should be mentioned. On the plus side, it contains a complete version of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (which is referred to in so many books, but hard to find a copy of). The photos are great, but small in size & printed on the same porous paper used for the text (which results in less sharpness than if printed on glossy paper). The biggest negative, in my opinion, is that a number of important pre-code movies are not even mentioned in this book (for example, Norma Shearer's "The Divorcee"). And why the author spends 4+ pages analyzing "Congorilla" (a 1932 African documentary that was made during the pre-code era but has little to do with Production Code censorship) is beyond me; it's a good analysis but perhaps belongs in a different book!
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Format: Paperback
I love this era, and I love reading about this era, but even so, I gave up reading this book about halfway through. There are better books about pre-Code, at least two or three. Geoffrey Blake has a great book about how the Code came to be, and Mick LaSalle and Mark Vierra also have excellent books about the artistry and the gossip and the history. This one is OK, but I'd recommend it only to people like me who just can't get enough. And even then, I found out, I can.
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Format: Paperback
This is a very respectable but uninspired treatment of the pre-Code era. Its virtues come mainly in the beginning, with an interesting introduction. Its weakness stems from the fact that the author seems more fascinated by the politics of the era than with the movies -- and that he fails to connect the politics with the movies in a way that ultimately illuminates THE FILMS, on an artistic level. I don't think he has a feel for the ART of the era at all, and as a result the best chapters are about Franklin Roosevelt and the newsreels of the day. A decent treatment, but better books are out there.
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Format: Paperback
Thomas Doherty's Pre-Code Hollywood (Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930 - 1934) is a wonderful study of Hollywood and the movies it produced before the Production Code gained its censorious teeth and bloodied them on celluloid. The most significant and interesting aspects of the book were the politics involved, both in the production of the movies and the movies themselves. Movies looked at vice, poverty, and politics, for example, with eyes wide open and this frightened many people in power who led a successful campaign against the industry. This book tells that tale very effectively. It is a joy to read.
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Format: Paperback
Most film afficionados know about the milestone films that lead the Hays Office to establish a type of censorship code of ethics for the major film studios. This well researched book goes beyond the Mae West and gangster films, and offers a penetrating look at many forgotten films that were aimed at an adult audience in the time period between the advent of sound in the late 1920's and 1934, when the Hollywood Production Code was written and adhered to. Before Hollywood went "Hollywood" to present a fairy tale portrayal of 1930's depression America, a surprisingly high number of films addressing realistic social issues and sexual mores were written, filmed, and released to a wide audience. It would be almost thirty years before Hollywood would return to, and go beyond, its pre-code roots.
Doherty includes discussions of many well-known films in his narrative, but also does justice to long-forgotten films rarely seen since their original release. Although films stars such as Barbara Stanwyck and James Cagney established their screen presence and characters in the pre-code films, we usually remember them for their later work, with a few rare exceptions like Cagney's Public Enemy. Doherty recalls the early films of stars like these, and also remembers actors and actresses unknown to the current generation of filmgoers.
Many of the films covered in this book were ventures with low or moderate budget ventures, but they had a strong impact on audiences. Comparing a pre-code Warners musical like 42 Street to one of its post-code counterparts, like Golddiggers of 1935 illustrates the major change in tone and attitude films acquired as a result of the code. Pre-code language was stronger, more skin was shown, and plots were not sugar-coated with mandatory happy endings. Doherty paints a strong picture of a movie era too often glossed over in most film histories.
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While there may be no more fascinating subject in film history, this book just does not capture its magic. Most of the book consists of plot summaries, and the social analysis contains a lot of specious correlations between film content and the transition between the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. The author doesn't really seem to like pre-Code films all that much--rather he seems to find them sociologically interesting. This is hardly a bad book. A lot of research clearly went into it. But this is not the book to make non-aficionados interested -- or lovers of pre-Code enlightened.
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