Forbidden Hollywood: The Wild Days of Pre-Code Cinema

Blonde Venus_cover_blog
Production still from Blonde Venus 1932 / Director: Josef von Sternberg / Image courtesy: Universal Pictures, British Film Institute

This spring, the Gallery’s Australian Cinematheque at GOMA presents a curated cinema program which focuses on the pre-Code films of early Hollywood.

Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound cinema in the early 1930s delivered some of the most risque films seen onscreen until 1934, when the Hollywood studios were forced to adopt a code of moral standards known as the Motion Picture Production Code.

Often referred to as ‘pre-Code’, these films offered audiences a diversion from the grim economic climate instigated by the crash of Wall Street in 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Transitioning to sound had come at a high financial cost to the Hollywood studios and, faced with falling ticket sales, their films became increasingly salacious, pushing the boundaries of social acceptability in a bid to attract audiences. By 1934, conservative groups who had railed for years against what they saw as Hollywood’s attack on traditional family values had succeeded in making studios adhere to the censorship guidelines of the Production Code, a move that would affect audience viewing until 1968, when it was abandoned in favour of a rating system.

A mix of realism and glamour, these films tackled issues of sexuality, crime, social criticisms, and a growing mistrust of authority with gleeful enthusiasm. Strong women dominated the screen, scorning the prevailing Victorian-era ideals of passiveness and purity. Stars like Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow epitomised the modern woman, unapologetic in her desires and achieving her independence by any means necessary. Newspaper headlines also provided studios with storylines as the Prohibition gang wars came to a close in 1929. Inspired by real‑life events, the first gangster films emerged, such as Little Caesar 1931, The Public Enemy 1931 and Scarface 1932.

While it has now been 80 years since the enforcement of the Code, the films which preceded it have been delighting audiences with their wit and earthy frankness since they were rediscovered by film historians in the 1990s.

Forbidden Hollywood: The Wild Days of Pre-Code Cinema’ screens at GOMA from 26 September to 2 November 2014.