Melbourne Cinematheque: Pre-Code Hollywood

7 Sep


The Story of Temple Drake

By Eleanor

A one-off at Cinematheque this week looking at three pre-code Hollywood films.

‘Pre-code’ of course is in reference to the films made before the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code) in the 1930s. Whilst this code was introduced in 1930, it was generally not upheld until 1934 for movie content, classification and censorship was largely worked out between the studios and local distributers. Many of the early sound films included elements of sexual promiscuity, glorified gangsters, anti-religious sentiments and not the happy Hollywood ending that came to be expected after 1934. After the introduction of the Code many of these films were banned or heavily censored and it was not until the 1970s, after the Code was replaced in 1968, that many of these films were rediscovered.

To begin the evening is The Public Enemy (1931) which follows the rise of Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) in the prohibition-era crime world as they graduated from stealing watches as children to gangland murder. The film also manages to juxtapose the material wealth that Tom has acquired whilst his war-veteran, straight-laced older brother has seemingly nothing to offer from his ‘wholesome’ life.

In 1941 the film was re-released with three scenes cut- the victims being an effeminate tailor, a couple on a bed and a seduction scene- having been deemed ‘unsuitable’. In 1954 the film was re-released yet again with a written prologue advising the audience not to glorify the actions of gangsters or criminals.

Next is The Story of Temple Drake (1933), a film that has been labelled one of the main reasons for the Code crackdown for both its display of immorality within the plot and that a major Hollywood studio (Paramount) would make such a film. Based on the equally scandalous novel by William Faukner, Stephen Roberts’ film follows Temple Blake (Miriam Hopkins), an upper-class and sexually adventurous girl whose grandfather is a judge and who finds herself in the midst of a gang of bootleggers whose leader lusts after her, determined to make her his at any cost.

And finally, to end the night, is Hell’s Highway (1932) which looks at prison chain-gangs and life behind bars. When ‘Duke’ Ellis’ (Richard Dix) younger brother is brought into prison Duke must change his plans of escape, thus presenting the viewer with a raw, dirty and most likely accurate look at the life of inmates and chain-gang workers at the time.


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