In honor of TCM's upcoming new book Forbidden Hollywood: When Sin Ruled the Movies, we wanted to know your questions about the genre. Now, fifteen of your questions have been answered by author and film historian Mark Vieira! Check out the answers below and if your name is on the list, congrats! You'll be receiving Forbidden Hollywood in the mail. (Please note: some of these questions were asked by multiple Backlot Members, so the one chosen to be answered was the first one we received.)
Josephine Perkins asks:
Did you have much trouble gathering the info for the book? Any roadblocks? Were there any names/backers that were difficult to obtain?
Mark Vieira: I’ve been gathering material for this book since I was a child visiting the Oakland Public Library, but the breakthrough for pre-Code research occurred in 1983, when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave the files of the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., the original association) to the Academy Library.
These files included all correspondence between producers and the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) and later the Production Code Administration (PCA). No book could be written about the Code without these files.
And, as I proved in my 1999 book Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, no authoritative book could be written without (1) seeing the important pre-Code titles; and (2) interviewing veteran censors of the PCA. I was fortunate to be able to do both.
Jeff Monachino asks:
Many pre-code films were controversial. But can you point to any one specific film or film(s) that directly led to the set-up to the Hays Code? "The straw that broke the camel's back," so to speak.
Mark Vieira: The film that galvanized the grassroots revolt against so-called “Immoral movies” was not a film starring Mae West or Jean Harlow. It was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross.
Joshua Schrecongost asks:
Why are the years of 1927 through 1929 not considered part of the pre-Code era?
Mark Vieira: Pre-Code was the era when filmmakers flouted an existing Code. We cannot include those early years — there was no Code to resist until March 1930.
Megan Patterson asks:
What do you attribute the rediscovery of pre-code films to? I've read that the films were initially pulled from theatrical rerelease by Breen and later blocked from television due to their racy content. Considering that theatrical rerelease and television contributed significantly to keeping interest in certain classic films and genres alive, when and how did pre-code films reemerge in academic and public circles?
Mark Vieira: As I relate in Forbidden Hollywood, the avalanche of vintage film on local television from 1957 on was the primary factor in the eventual designation of “pre-Code.” Baby Boomers who saw pre-Code films on the Late Show became film programmers at colleges and repertory theaters in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
No pre-Code film was ever blocked from release to television. That is totally wrong. Some 16mm prints were cut, but no film was held back or banned. There was simply no agency at the syndication level to accomplish that. Whether to air the films (and in what form) was left to the discretion of the local TV station. Cutting a ninety-minute film to fit a sixty-minute slot usually took out anything that might have offended the PCA.
Morgan Duncan asks:
Who, in your opinion, is the face of pre-Code Hollywood?
Mark Vieira: Jason Joy, the head censor of the SRC, is to me the face of pre-Code, even though he never appeared on film (unlike Joseph Breen). But Joy ran the department from the 1920s through 1932, and he approved the release of many of the pre-Code films we regard as classics: All Quiet in the Western Front, Mata Hari, Grand Hotel, Red-Headed Woman, Call Her Savage, A Farewell to Arms, and The Sign of the Cross.
But if you want to know which actor I consider the “face of pre-Code,” I will say Jean Harlow. She made more pre-Code films than Mae West, Joan Crawford, or Norma Shearer, and wore fewer clothes. And after pre-Code, she became a different entity altogether.
Kathleen Burkhart asks:
Were the pre-code movies made so racy in a deliberate attempt to sell (which has always been a goal of the movie business) or were they just a reflection of the times (women were becoming more free, clothing was very relaxed, sex was more out in the open) much in the same way that movies in the 1960s changed to a more gritty, lifelike style?
Mark Vieira: If women were not becoming more active in society and culture, there could not have been films depicting this, but for the film companies, the primary motivator was (and has always been) box office. While visiting the studios, the censors heard producers describing sexy scenes as the best way to boost attendance.
Jennifer Churchill asks:
What, in your opinion, was the most scandalous, debauched thing ever portrayed in a pre-Code film?
Mark Vieira: In Rasputin and the Empress, there is a scene in which Rasputin (Lionel Barrymore) attempts the seduction of the princess Maria (Jean Parker), who is under age. The scene did occasion comment in the trade papers, and it did cause audience members to register complaints.
Charles Culbertson asks:
Obviously someone thought Hollywood's output needed to be regulated through censors. But how did the public at large react to pre-Code movies? Was there enough general outrage that a code of censorship had to be established?
Mark Vieira: It was the public at large that effected the reconstitution of the Code: letter writing, editorials, meetings with club women and churchmen, picketing, bumper stickers (in car windows), demonstrations, and finally boycotts. It was not the federal government, which had been threatening censorship for ten years.
Jennifer Togher asks:
Even though the moral codes enacted after 1934 could be viewed as stifling and puritanical, many believe that paradoxically it forced the studios to come up with cleverer scripts and better roles for women across several genres. What do you think?
Mark Vieira: It’s possible to name at least three films a year after 1934 that dealt with adult themes. They could be made. They just couldn’t come out and say it or show it, if it was something like a prostitution a sidewalk. Clever scripts? Better roles for women? These depended on one thing: the willingness of the public to watch them.
If you have ever watched B films made by Paramount, Columbia, or Twentieth Century-Fox after 1934, you quickly realize what was lost to the Code: the sexy wisecracks, the vulgar touches, the hints of nastiness. These films are boring and flat. This colorful material resurfaced to a certain extent in film noir, but not until the late 1950s did the grit of pre-Code return.
Richard Prince asks:
Why is Convention City a lost film? Is there any chance of finding a print in the Library of Congress or a private collection?
Mark Vieira: I was told in 1998 by Warner Bros. that Jack Warner was constantly being pestered by conventioneers who wanted to rent Convention City. He couldn't rent the film without getting into trouble with the PCA, so he supposedly destroyed all prints, the negative, and the fine-grain positive. Yet the film shows up in newspapers through the late 1930s (although the prints could have come from local exchanges). And there exists a Warners lab report from 1948 that the negative had just succumbed to nitrate decomposition. What is the truth? We’ll never know. Is there a print (or a dupe) hidden somewhere? If so, it would be in a convention town, where the film would be illegally run for years after it had been withdrawn. No one knows. No established archive has ever had a print. The late Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project checked every single one. But the search goes on.
Danny De La Paz asks:
Were the filmmakers of this "pre-Code" period aware of the boundary pushing that later was to define this time in cinema history...or were they just working with their own moral compass navigating unknown waters?
Mark Vieira: People were frightened. The country was in danger of economic collapse. Panic made them bold. Not to sound like Joseph Breen, but the filmmaking community was not overly concerned with religion or moral values. The two overriding concerns were money and power.
Michael Donegan asks:
Has anyone noted the irony that the censorship czar Will Hays worked for the Harding administration, which was perhaps one of the most scandalous in American history. Did the pre-Code era contribute to Harding’s scandalous behavior?
Mark Vieira: There is no irony. For politicians and bureaucrats, ethics are negotiable. Hays went with the prevailing current. If there had been a grassroots movement to shut down the Code and have Tarzan show frontal nudity, you can bet your Blu-rays that you’d have a copy of Tarzan Unclothed. By the way, Warren G. Harding died in 1923, six years before any of these conflicts occurred.
Christopher Hawley writes:
What was the attitude of actresses in Hollywood as the industry transitioned to the new Production Code? Was there a sense of relief or did they not consider the risqué nature of earlier films as demeaning or exploitative?
Mark Vieira: I saw Bette Davis on a talk show in 1970, saying that she’d done a nude scene in a pre-Code film, but the only thing she was concerned about was keeping the stagehands from peeking around the backdrops. Doing the scene was part of her job, she said. However, if such a scene exists, I’ve never seen it or heard of it.
Some actresses enjoyed the exhibitionism. Miriam Hopkins and Ruth Chatterton did nude scenes in films after the Code. It’s true. Dodsworth, Hollywood Horror Hotel.
Martin Friedenthal asks:
What happened when pre-Code films were re-released after the Code was enforced? Could you give us some examples of specific films that were affected on re-release?
Mark Vieira: From 1934 through 1953, if Joseph Breen found objectionable scenes or lines in a pre-Code film that was up for reissue, he made the studio cut them — not from prints, not from fine-grain positives, not from dupe negatives — from master camera negative.
This was done to All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Crackers, Mata Hari, Monkey Business, Public Enemy, Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mata Hari, Shopworn, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Beast of the City, Blonde Venus, Love Me Tonight, The Sign of the Cross, A Farewell to Arms, The Bowery, State Fair, The Eagle and the Hawk, Counsellor-at-Law, King Kong, 42nd Street, Manhattan Melodrama, Tarzan and His Mate, and Viva Villa!
Karen Hannsberry asks:
Which five pre-Code films would you recommend to a newcomer to best expose them to this era of filmmaking?
Mark Vieira: These are the pre-Code films I would recommend because they could not have been made at any other time. And they’re excellent films.
Call Her Savage
The Sign of the Cross
Search for Beauty
The Scarlet Empress
Thank you Mark and thank you to everyone who sent in questions!