Hollywood movies

The Most Important Pre-Code Hollywood Movies, Ranked

If you’ve never gone to film school or aren’t a fan of film history, you probably don’t know much about the difference between pre-code Hollywood and post-code Hollywood. Let’s start with the “code” itself: what is the Hays code? The Motion Picture Production Code (nicknamed the Hays Code after the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, William Hays) was developed in 1930 to regulate what could be shown on screen, but did not not applied for a few years.



The pre-coded films, especially the sound films, were much more modern and open than one would expect from the early films. Pre-Code films were honest about taboo subjects and much more liberal with language and even nudity. The Hays Code sought to overwrite that and focus on good Christian values ​​in filmmaking. While the document itself was not overtly religious, the code language contained deeply Christian undertones (and was originally brought to the studios by a Catholic layman and a Jesuit priest). While the studios adhered to the Hays Code, it was not forcefully implemented until 1934; the Great Depression had affected cinema in various ways, partly by inspiring darker themes, and also by forcing studios to release slicker, grittier movies in order to get people to pay for movies at a time when the economy had collapsed.

The Code was finally removed from the cinema criteria in 1968 and replaced by the movie ratings we know today (PG, R, etc.). This allowed filmmakers to produce what they wanted and audiences to choose what they wanted to watch based on ratings. However, the pre-code era produced a massive amount of great classic movies that can be surprisingly modern and risque, so let’s take a look at the best ones.

5 The divorce

A film about divorce and one woman’s revenge was outrageous at a time when divorce was taboo (and could excommunicate a person from the Catholic Church). movies like The divorce are thus representative of the pre-Code era. In 1930, a film in which a woman avenges her husband’s infidelity, a woman who may think and get upset that her husband has cheated on her, is quite controversial but nevertheless very successful and popular with the public.

The film helped usher in a new era of women’s rights (given that women only got the right to vote 10 years before this film was released) and showed women in a whole new light, a where women could also be womanizers and could do anything. otherwise their husbands might do. With the level of sexual equality and freedom for women and men in the divorcee, it’s almost hard to believe it was made nearly 100 years ago and not just 15.

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4 The jazz singer

The jazz singera film about a Jewish man who wants to be a jazz singer against his family’s wishes, is perhaps the best-known film of the pre-Code era, and essentially changed the trajectory of cinema for the rest of history. Not only was the music in the film synchronized (because it’s a musical), but all the dialogue was synchronized with the actors themselves. The jazz singer created the era of “talkies” and left behind much of the silent film era, influencing how films would henceforth be made. The film’s focus on the real life conditions of poverty and in Jewish and black communities was also indicative of the harsh realities that pre-Code films could display.

Related: The Best Jewish Comedy Movies

However, The jazz singer was by no means the perfect walkie-talkie; the film itself contained only about two minutes of synchronized dialogue. It’s also extremely offensive to some people, as it features Al Jolson (a white Lithuanian-American) wearing a blackface, which certainly doesn’t pass the tests of political correctness for contemporary society. However, there has been fascinating critical analysis and film theory that highlights the use of blackface in The jazz singer; as Corin Willis writes in “Meaning and Value in The jazz singer“,

Unlike the racial jokes and innuendos evident in its later persistence in early sound films, blackface imagery in The jazz singer is central to the film’s central theme, an expressive and artistic exploration of the notion of duplicity and ethnic hybridity within American identity. Of the more than 70 examples of blackface in early sound films from 1927 to 1953 that I have seen (including the nine blackface appearances Jolson made subsequently), The jazz singer is unique in that it is the only film where blackface is central to narrative development and thematic expression.

Looking at The jazz singer at first glance for the impact he had on the industry and his bold decision to focus on the suffering of the Jewish and black communities, one can certainly see a lot of good in that.

3 The public enemy

You know that gangster movie you watched and loved last weekend? It only exists because The public enemy was made in the pre-code era. The public enemy created the gangster genre as we know it today, the only reason it was created was because it existed before the Hays Code. The Code hasn’t exactly promoted movies that romanticize crime like those in the gangster genre. However, as fans of the genre know, gangster movies deal with the inner workings of criminals’ minds and the politics of crime. The gangster-like movies made during the Hays Code didn’t have the same impact as those made in the pre-Code era, and arguably not before the Scorsese and Coppola movies of the 70s. beloved genre of gangsters, created by public enemy, was almost lost all together because of the code.


2 red headed woman

As mentioned earlier, the pre-Code era was much more open with taboo topics, especially around sex and nudity. red headed woman is a prime example of the use of overt sexuality in older films, at a time when many thought of filmmaking as a very buttoned-up, low-key industry. red headed woman is about a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants from the men in her life. She is able to use her feminine prowess to achieve her goals in life, which seems extremely taboo in 1932.

Related: These 5 Movies Sparked Religious Controversy

It’s the epitome of the pre-Code era, films that, in plot and theme, feel wildly out of place for the time they were made. Except they’re not out of place (and the 20s and 30s were hardly so innocent); that’s what cinema was like back then, before the Hays Code felt the need to ruin that for viewers and filmmakers.


1 Frankenstein

Frankenstein is one of the most iconic and beloved films of the pre-code period. If you haven’t seen the original Frankenstein, it’s a staple and a great example of the pre-Code era of cinema. While modern horror fans don’t usually find old horror very scary or fun due to ever-changing technology, the original Frankenstein is a masterpiece in its own right. The film contained lines that were later cut in the post-Code era because they insinuated atheistic ideas (including supposedly blasphemous dialogue where Dr. ‘be God!”), and were therefore offensive. to the Christian public. Frankenstein as a monster and as a movie is a pinnacle in movie history and the pre-code era that is still important to movie history.