Pre-Code movies - two words that thrill cinema buffs and make their hearts beat faster. The term, pre-Code, relates to films made between 1930 when two men wrote the Motion Picture Production Code, and, July 1, 1934, when studios finally enacted the Code; however, pre-Code is a misnomer. Moving pictures were still a nascent industry when regional censorship boards tried to dictate on-screen content. In 1915, filmmakers went to the Supreme Court with the case of the Mutual Film Corporation verses the Industrial Commission of Ohio. The highest court in the land ruled against Hollywood, declaring that the movies were a business and not an art form entitled to First Amendment protection. That ruling may have opened the film industry up to the mandates of local blue stockings but the studios managed to work around them. From the 1910s through the 20s and into the early 30s, nudity, drug and alcohol addiction, along with explorations of hedonism, vice and sexuality were common elements in motion pictures.
Faith-based censorship groups may have tsk-tsked the images on the screen but the films they condemned reflected the outré aspects of American life. Sexual relations outside of wedlock and between the races were part of American society as were gambling halls and brothels. Silent dramas reflected them. Filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille partnered with his mistress, writer Jeanie Macpherson, on a number of contemporary melodramas that DeMille peppered with as many provocative scenes as possible. He even managed to slip a bare breast or shapely calf into his famed religious spectacles.
Although miscegenation among whites and blacks was a “no no,” DeMille made a matinee star out of Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa who worked opposite white actresses and attracted a huge female following despite his race. Mexican actors Ramon Novarro, Lupe Velez, Gilbert Roland, and Dolores Del Rio achieved a degree of stardom in the 20s and 30s that was unmatched until Jennifer Lopez and Selena Gomez came on the scene decades later.
Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong’s career spanned the silent era and beyond playing “Oriental temptresses,” but no studio cast her opposite the great male stars of the period. Miss Wong watched as Caucasian actresses donned yellow-face to play roles she would never be considered for. She eventually left Hollywood for Europe.
The one ethnic group Hollywood couldn’t shape into matinee heroes or heroines were African Americans. With the exception of the child actors in the Our Gang comedies, move studios stripped black performers of any semblance of sexuality and relegated to roles as servants.
Filmmakers faced catering to regional differences in taste and the ambivalence of the American public towards provocative subjects. Scenarios that sophisticated audience in New York City eagerly embraced faced heavily censorship in Omaha, but the studios were undeterred. Hollywood however, would periodically confirm the worst fears of prudes who saw movies as a moveable feast of celluloid sin and vice. In 1920, Olive Thomas, a former showgirl married to Mary Pickford’s wastrel brother, died after accidentally ingesting mercury bichloride.
A few months later in 1921, on Labor Day weekend in San Francisco, comedian Roscoe Arbuckle was a guest at an afternoon soiree. An actress and fashion plate named Virginia Rappe attended the party and died four days later from peritonitis. The tabloid press painted the bash as a drunken orgy and labeled the comedian a rapist and sadist although he had nothing to do with the woman’s death. The notoriety almost destroyed Arbuckle’s career (Arbuckle worked as a director before his acting career rebounded briefly in the talkie era) and allowed morality groups across the country to point a Puritanical finger at degenerate Hollywood.
These same self-appointed guardians of the nation’s morals labeled Hollywood licentious and immoral for the slightest misstep but remained silent about lynching, the rampant racism, sexism and anti-Semitism of the period and the mistreatment of the American worker by big business. It’s not a stretch to suggest that anti-Semitism played a large role in the indignation over the “debauched” behavior of those in the film community. Powerful anti-Semites like Henry Ford feared Jewish power and raged against Jews in a rag he financed called The Dearborn Independent. Other voices joined Ford including the virulently anti-Semitic radio personality, Father Charles Couglin. The Klan and Christian extremist groups promoted visions of gentile virtue sacrificed on an altar of Jewish lust.
In January 1922, the studios found a buffer between censorship boards, holier than thou evangelists and the industry, His name was Will H. Hays, the former chairman of the Republican Party and an ex-Postmaster General. Hays was a ‘by gosh by golly’ straight arrow, a Presbyterian deacon from Indiana and the perfect person to convince local censorship boards to leave the movies alone. He took the helm of the newly formed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) at the perfect time.
There were two more major scandals after the Arbuckle debacle brewing on the horizon, one in 1922 and 1923, and they were a double whammy for Hollywood. Someone murdered director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 and the mystery surrounding his death adversely affected the careers of the two women closest to him, comedienne Mabel Normand and ingénue, Mary Miles Minter. The studios managed to handle the hot potato, but Taylor’s murder compromised both Normand and Minter. The dust hadn’t begun to settle from the Taylor murder when there was another catastrophe. Leading man, Wallace Reid, died in private sanitarium of pneumonia and heart failure while trying to kick his addition to morphine. A fall injured the handsome actor while shooting a motion picture and he turned morphine, a legal drug at the time, for relief. Like thousands of Americans, including veterans of W.W.I, Reid became addicted. A sanctimonious press spun his unfortunate death into another tale of Hollywood as a cesspool of vice. Luckily, Hays and the studios were able to skirt the line of provocative fare for another eight years.
Even a cursory glance of films from the 20’s yields a number of provocative silent dramas. The titles are legend - Manslaughter, The Ten Commandments, Flesh and the Devil, Hula and The Wedding March among many more. Producer Samuel Goldwyn even briefly flirted with filming The Captive, a lesbian drama that the New York police raided during its Broadway run. A few more premature deaths including Barbara LaMarr from tuberculosis, Jeanne Eagels, and Alma Rubens from drug overdoses, led to more finger pointing, but it was the advent of talking pictures that signaled the beginning of the end to artistic freedom.
In 1927, the Hollywood “problem” exacerbated with the coming of talkies. Now the public could hear racy dialogue along with seeing provocative images. Sound, especially Vitaphone, made the job of local censorship boards more difficult since it was impossible to remove offending scene when sound engineers recorded the audio disk. Cutting the offending footage from a Warner Brother’s film would throw the movie out of sync. The end of 1929 saw the Great Depression and more problems for Hollywood. Studios had to up the ante to attract audiences but not go too far. Hays assembled list of don’ts compiled from the suggestions of local censorship boards, but the studios often ignored their ideas were still largely ignored. Finally, the Catholic publisher of motion picture trade newspaper, a pious fellow named Martin Quigley turned to Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest whom Cecil B. DeMille employed as a consultant on King of Kings. The Catholic Church had the distinction of being the largest Christian church in the country yet in the past had left censorship issues to their Protestant brothers and sisters - no longer. There was power in numbers and the Church exploited them.
Like many moralists around the country, the idea of the potential of talking films to destroy American values terrified Father Lord and he seized his entry into controlling popular culture. With the fervor of a member of the Spanish Inquisition, the sex-phobic padre declared, “Silent smut has been bad, vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance!” Father Lord gave his recommendations to Hays in 1930 who promptly set up another impotent group, the Studio Relations Committee.
The Pre-Code era was born.
Father Lord was right about one thing - sound opened the floodgates to adult entertainment. Warner Brothers started with a half-silent musical called The Jazz Singer then brought the charismatic gangster into movie theaters. In the persona of stars like James Cagney and George Raft, thugs became sexy. New personalities like Mae West, Fredric March, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich emerged and actors who put their sexual personas front and center. Hollywood turned to the Broadway stage for teleplays with mixed results; the acting may have been static but the subject matter was tantalizing. On-screen patter became snappier and movies reflected the American zeitgeist. Pre-Code movies examined the issues of the day, the Depression, the police, big business, and the plight of the workingman and woman as never before.
The pre-code talkies opened the floodgates to the unbridled sexuality stars like Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, and Ramon Novarro appeared nude on screen in the silent and pre-code era. Still, the action was tame by modern standards. 1930s Hell’s Angels featured a scene of open-mouthed kissing and raised eyebrows with phrases like “for Christ’s sake”, “goddamn it,” and “son of a bitch,” but even in the most daring films, foul language or simulated sexual acts were verboten - it was the mere suggestion that offended. Actresses like Harlow, Dietrich, West, Shearer, and Stanwyck blurred the line between virtuous lady and sinner, portraying women as three-dimensional beings who were unapologetic about their independence and sexuality. Studios continued to skirt the code but there were a few sacrificial lambs along the way. 1933’s Convention City, a comedy about drunken conventioneers, was pulled from theaters and the original negative destroyed.
Censorship in the guise of the Catholic Legion of Decency reared its head and rather than face a boycott by a huge church group, the studios relented and began adhering to the code. Hays hired the pugnacious, Joseph I. Breen, a.k.a. “Mean” Joe Breen to become his enforcer as head of Production Code Administration. In July of 1934, the Pre-Code years ended led by a mean-spirited bigot who was not above getting physical with those who questioned his authority. Breen struck director Woody Van Dyke for questioning him about edits he had ordered in a film. The 1934 version of Imitation of Life raised his racist hackles because of hints of miscegenation, and Breen did everything to torpedo the production. As Censor in Chief, he was determined to protect the world from anything tainted by “Jewish lust.” He contacted the Jesuit priest, Wilfred Parsons, S.J., editor of the Jesuit weekly, America, and declared, “These Jews seem to think of nothing, but money making and sexual indulgence.” The inmates were indeed in charge of the asylum.
Generations of moviegoers grew up with the flash of the PCA certification. The studios were forced to edit movies like King Kong and Tarzan and His Mate. Mae West found herself censored and her sex appeal blunted. For next thirty years, the code constrained an American art form that had an unbelievable influence on world culture. Under Breen’s watch, sexuality was off the table and the work of geniuses like Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner were effectively spayed and neutered. As far as race, namely relations between blacks and whites, under the dictatorship of Breen whom moviemakers called the Hollywood Hitler, the film industry remained fixed in the days of petticoats and mint juleps. African American beauties like Nina Mae McKinney and Fredi Washington, along with the elegant Paul Robeson had truncated Hollywood careers as a result.
Who knows how many films died in the womb during the Breen watch? Breen finally passed away in 1965, and the code died three years later. Years of repression ended.
Books of interest include Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-code Hollywood By Mark A. Vieira: Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty: Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood by Jill Watts: Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man also by Mick LaSalle
Makeup has a long theatrical history. The early film industry naturally looked to traditional stage techniques, but these proved inadequate almost immediately. One of makeup's first problems was with celluloid. Early filmmakers used orthochromatic film stock, which had a limited color-range sensitivity. It reacted to red pigmentation, darkening white skin and nullifying solid reds. To counter the effect, Caucasian actors wore heavy pink greasepaint (Stein's #2) as well as black eyeliner and dark red lipstick (which, if applied too lightly, appeared white on screen), but these masklike cosmetics smeared as actors sweated under the intense lights. Furthermore, until the mid-teens, actors applied their own makeup and their image was rarely uniform from scene to scene. As the close-up became more common, makeup focused on the face, which had to be understood from a hugely magnified perspective, making refinements essential. In the pursuit of these radical changes, two names stand out as Hollywood's progenitor artists: Max Factor (1877–1938) and George Westmore (1879–1931). Both started as wigmakers and both recognized that the crucial difference between stage and screen was a lightness of touch. Both invented enduring cosmetics and makeup tricks for cinema and each, at times, took credit for the same invention (such as false eyelashes).
Factor (originally Firestein), a Russian émigré with a background in barbering and was a wig maker for the Russian court, arrived in the United States in 1904. He moved to Los Angeles in 1908, where he set up a perfume, hair care, and cosmetics business catering to theatrical needs. He also distributed well-known greasepaints, which were too thick for screen use and photographed badly. By 1910, Factor had separated the theatrical from the cinematic and continuously experimented to find appropriate cosmetics for film. His Greasepaint was the first makeup used in a screen test, for Cleopatra(1912), and by 1914 Factor had invented a twelve-toned cream version, which allowed for individual skin subtleties, and conformed more comfortably with celluloid.
In the early 1920s panchromatic film began to replace orthochromatic, causing fewer color flaws, and in 1928 Factor completed work on Panchromatic MakeUp, which had a variety of hues. He was responsible for the signature look for leading ladies of the 30, cupid bow lips and baby doll eyebrows. In 1937, the year before he died, he dealt with the new Technicolor problems by adapting theatrical "pancake" into a water-soluble powder, applicable with a sponge, excellent for film's and, eventually, television's needs. It photographed very well, eliminating the shine induced by Technicolor lighting, and its basic translucence imparted a delicate look. Known as Pancake makeup, it was first used in Vogues of 1938 (1937) and Goldwyn's Follies (1938), quickly becoming not only the film industry norm but a public sensation. Once movie stars, delighting in its lightness, began to wear it off screen, Pancake became de rigueur for fashion-conscious women. After Factor's death, his empire continued to set standards and still covers cinema's cosmetic needs, from fingernails to toupees.
The English wigmaker George Westmore, for whom the Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild's George Westmore Lifetime Achievement Award is named, founded the first (and tiny) film makeup department, at Selig Studio in 1917. He also worked at Triangle but soon was freelancing across the major studios. Like Factor, he understood that cosmetic and hair needs were personal and would make up stars such as Mary Pickford (whom he relieved of having to curl her famous hair daily by making false ringlets) or the Talmadge sisters in their homes before they left for work in the morning.
He fathered three legendary and scandalous generations of movie makeup artists, beginning with his six sons—Monte (1902–1940), Perc (1904–1970), Ern (1904–1967), Wally (1906–1973), Bud (1918–1973), and Frank (1923–1985)—who soon eclipsed him in Hollywood. By 1926, Monte, Perc, Ern, and Bud had penetrated the industry to become the chief makeup artists at four major studios, and all continued to break ground in new beauty and horror illusions until the end of their careers. In 1921, after dishwashing at Famous Players-Lasky, Monte became Rudolph Valentino's sole makeup artist. (The actor had been doing his own.)
When Valentino died in 1926, Monte went to Selznick International where, thirteen years later, he worked himself to death with the enormous makeup demands for Gone With the Wind (1939). In 1923 Perc established a blazing career at First National-Warner Bros. and, over twenty-seven years, initiated beauty trends and disguises including, in 1939, the faces of Charles Laughton's grotesque Hunchback of Notre Dame (for RKO) and Bette Davis's eyebrowless, almost bald, white faced Queen Elizabeth. In the early 1920s he blended Stein Pink greasepaint with eye shadow, preceding Factor's Panchromatic. Ern, at RKO from 1929 to 1931 and then at Fox from 1935, was adept at finding the right look for stars of the 1930s. Wally headed Paramount makeup from 1926, where he created, among others, Frederic March's gruesome transformation in Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde (1931). Frank followed him there.
Bud led Universal's makeup department for twenty-three years, specializing in rubber prosthetics and body suits such as the one used in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Together they built the House of Westmore salon, which served stars and public alike. Later generations have continued the name, including Bud's sons, Michael and Marvin Westmore, who began in television and have excelled in unusual makeup, such as in Blade Runner (1982).
MGM was the only studio that the Westmores did not rule. Cecil Holland (1887–1973) became its first makeup head in 1925 and remained there until the 1950s. Originally an English actor known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces" before Lon Chaney (1883–1930) inherited the title, his makeup abilities were pioneering on films such as Grand Hotel (1932) and The Good Earth (1937). Jack Dawn (1892–1961), who created makeup for The Wizard of Oz (1939), ran the department from the 1940s, by which time it was so huge that over a thousand actors could be made up in one hour. William Tuttle succeeded him and ran the department for twenty years. Like Holland, Chaney was another actor with supernal makeup skills whose horror and crime films became classics, notably for Chaney's menacing but realistically based disguises. He always created his own makeup, working with the materials of his day—greasepaint, putty, plasto (mortician's wax), fish skin, gutta percha (natural resin), collodian (liquid elastic), and crepe hair—and conjured characters unrivalled in their horrifying effect, including his gaunt, pig-nosed, black-eyed Phantom for Phantom of the Opera (1925) and his Hunchback in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), for which he constructed agonizingly heavy makeup and body harnesses.
There was a reason filmgoers once referred to cinema as “the silver screen.” Audiences were enchanted with images that looked as if a master metallurgist had etched each frame from liquid silver. Directors worked with cinematographers to paint the screen in light and shadows and their brush was a movie camera loaded with celluloid film. Filmmakers created stunning images with a look of argent fluidity that no process can duplicate today. Unfortunately, as beautiful as nitrate stock films were, there was a sinister side to the artistry. Like the oleander plant whose flower has a dulcet fragrance and is pleasing to the eye, yet is poisonous in the extreme, the film stock used from the 1880 to 1953 to create stunning images in shades of pewter, black and white, that greatly enhanced the movie going experience, was dangerous.
The medium that made up the film stock base was nitrate, a combustible compound used in guncotton and some types of dynamite. Nitrate stock was not only inflammable if exposed to heat or a direct flame, it had the potential to spontaneously combust.
Film projectionists and negative cutters quickly became aware of the perils of working with nitrate. Projection booth fires like the one dramatized in the Italian classic, Cinema Paradiso, were commonplace in picture palaces across the globe. In the early days of film, movie theatres were slap-dash affairs and projectionists were often ignorant about the inherent dangers of handling nitrate film. An errant cigarette, improper storage, or even an overheated light bulb as the film passed through a projector’s film-gate could cause a conflagration. Several incidents of resulted in audience deaths from fire, smoke inhalation or the crush of a stampede of people fleeing the theater.
In his book, Nitrate Won’t Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States, film historian Anthony Slide details a number of horrific episodes involving nitrate stock in places other than theaters – film exchanges, schools and conflations started while screening home movies. Undoubtedly, the most infamous case of a nitrate fire catastrophe occurred in Quebec in January of 1927. A small fire in the projection booth at the Laurier Palace Cinema in Montreal caused pandemonium. Seventy-seven children died in the ensuing chaos either from suffocation or from the crush of the panicked crowd. The tragedy led Quebec to a prohibition on children under sixteen from cinemas, a law that stayed in effect until 1967.
Once nitrate film stock started burning, there was no way to stop it. Water, sand and foam were useless since nitrate supplies its own oxygen and burns with abandon; submerging the reel in water was no help since it burns under water. After numerous accidents, fire departments in larger cities mandated that theater owners construct projection booths of concrete and steel. Wooden furniture was strictly verboten and the law barred anyone other than the projectionist from the booth. Theaters installed safety doors so that in the event of a nitrate fire, the only one incinerated was the poor projectionist.
In the early years of film, movie studios had no way of knowing that as the nitrate stock decayed, it transformed from glossy celluloid into a foul-smelling gooey substance that dried into a brown powder and intensified the likelihood of auto-ignition. Studio heads were also negligent in preserving the original negatives of their films in film libraries. Prior to television, VHS and DVDs, studios considered movies a disposable commodity that they tossed in the garbage like a week-old casserole. Films would have an initial release then possibly a second, third and sometimes, a fourth run. The print would pick up more battle scares with each successive screening and eventually the only thing of value was the silver content. Studios dumped old film stock in the ocean, forgot it in trash heaps, or even tossed numerous reels in an abandoned Yukon swimming pool.
There were fatal nitrate fires in MGM's storage areas in 1955 and 1960. Those conflagrations finally led the Culver City Fire Department to order MGM to purge their lot of nitrate films. The year 1978 was the annus horribilis for film archivists and made many question if nitrate stock could be stored safely. The United States National Archives and Records Administration and George Eastman House both suffered devastating losses when their film vaults self-immolated. The fire destroyed three hundred twenty nine original negatives stored at the Eastman House, while the National Archives lost millions of feet of newsreel footage.
The clock continues to tick for thousands of films. Negatives and prints of countless movies have already burned in fires, decayed, or disappeared over the years, and not just standard studio programmers: the original negative of the classic, Citizen Kane, perished years and ago and more classic films are in peril. Film archivists are working at a feverish pace to transfer films into non-nitrate copies. Their efforts have not yet caught up to the digital age, forcing preservationists to make copies onto cellulose acetate, another medium that also decays. Those involved in film preservation are in a race to prevent more treasures from the earlier years of filmmaking from vanishing. Film archivists estimate that 85% or more of films made prior to the advent of sound are gone, though not forgotten.
Two authoritative books on the subject of nitrate films are Nitrate Won’t Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States written by film historian and archivist, Anthony Slide, and This Film is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film, a compendium of articles and essays on nitrate film and its dangers edited by Roger Smither and Catherine A. Surowiec.