The Hays Code was introduced in 1930 to regulate the morals of the US motion picture industry and influenced film production up until 1968.
Before it was introduced censors were independent in each State, meaning that different films could be banned, cut or shown to differing degrees in different parts of the country. This caused a lot of animosity towards the censors from within the industry as shown by this quote published October 1922’s PhotoPlay magazine. It describes the censors as “ruthlessly mutilating, stunning and destroying. There is not one single logical argument in favour of censorship of any kind – and never will be… There is no excuse for censorship and it will never be anything but intolerance. Censorship is the hooded Klu Klux Klan of art.”
The same article states examples of scenes featuring baby clothes being torn out of films because they’re suggestive of the act which created the children, and even Treasure Island being banned in Ohio because the censors feared it might teach piracy to children.
The protection of public morals during the 1910s and 20s was a very regional thing. You weren’t allowed to allude to the birth of a child or mention infidelity in Pennsylvania, show cigarettes in Kansas, show bathing girls in New York or Kansas, or even admit that feminine limbs exist in most of the states. And as for depicting murder, arson or kissing. You should be so lucky!
The Hays Code (also known as the Motion Picture Production Code) clamped down on all of this and provided a nationwide set of strict rules for the movie industry. Things which were banned included profanity (not even mild swearing was permitted), licentious or suggestive nudity, drugs, white slavery, venereal diseases, childbirth, and ridicule of the clergy, amongst other things. There were also very specific rules of what was acceptable regarding any kinds of threat, violence, sex or crime.
The code was introduced at the start of the decade but wasn’t strictly enforced until 1934, which is why Bird of Paradise and The Sign of the Cross (below) were able to slip through the net.
Here are some of the more shocking or salacious movies which made it into production before the Code cracked down on pretty much everything!
I think all on-screen adaptations of Cleopatra have been a visual feast, but none were quite as risque as the 1917 silent movie starring Theda Bara. With costumes barely covering her assets, the movie was an enormous commercial success but has since sadly been lost. After the Hays Code was implemented the film was judged as being too obscene to be shown. You can see more of Theda Bara’s amazing Cleopatra costumes here.
A Daughter of the Gods (1916)
A Daughter of the Gods was a silent movie starring actress and swimming star Annette Kellerman. It was the first movie to include a nude scene by a major star, although her nudity was covered (to a certain extent) by her long hair.
The film was a major production and one of the first movies to cost $1 million to make. It is thought that approximately 20,000 people were employed in its production. The movie is now considered as lost, as with so many movies from this time, but a series of stills exist from the movie including the risque photo of Kellerman from her nude scene below.
Hula was one of Clara Bow‘s last silent movies before she moved into Talkies. She plays a strong controversial character who wears trousers and seduces a married man who takes her fancy (by performing a sexy hula dance for him), but the biggest scandal was caused by a scene at the start of the movie where she swims naked (see the publicity photo below).
The Branding Iron (1920)
The Branding Iron was a controversial movie in lots of ways. It deals with the subject of an insanely jealous husband who brands his wife to show that she is his property. However this wasn’t the part that the censors objected to. The bathing scene below was cut from the movie and the movie itself was later banned because it dealt with the subject of infidelity. Personally I think the idea of branding your wife is more shocking than either infidelity or a skinny dip, but what do I know..?
Bird of Paradise (1932)
This movie shocked the censors with its nude bathing scene by major movie star Delores del Rio. Despite the nudity and a great plot (take a look at the plot summary below) the film lost an estimated $250,000 at the box office.
“As a yacht sails into an island chain in the South Pacific, a large number of natives in pontoon boats sail out to greet them. The natives dive for the trinkets the yacht’s crew throws them. A shark arrives, scaring most of the natives away. In an attempt to catch a shark by throwing it bait that has been tied to a harpoon-sized hook, Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) accidentally steps into a loop that tightens around his ankle. The shark takes the bait, and the rope grows tighter, causing the rope to yank the young man overboard. Luana (Dolores del Río), the daughter of the chief, saves his life by leaping into the water and cutting the rope.
It is not long before they meet in the middle of the night. Swiftly falling in love, they discover she has been promised by her father to another man – a prince on a neighboring island. An arranged wedding with an elaborate dance sequence then follows. Johnny appears at the nick of time, runs into a circle of burning fire, rescues her as the natives kneel to the fire.
They travel to another island where they hope to live out the rest of their lives. He builds her a house with a roof of thatched grass. However, their idyll is smashed when the local volcano on her home island begins to erupt. She confesses to her lover that she alone can appease the mountain. Her people take her back. When Johnny goes after her, he is wounded in the shoulder by a spear and tied up. The people decide to sacrifice both of them to the volcano, but on the way, the couple are rescued by Johnny’s friends and taken aboard the yacht.
Johnny’s wound is tended to, but his friends wonder what will become of the lovers. Luana does not fit into Johnny’s world. When Johnny is sleeping, Luana’s father demands her back. She goes willingly, believing that only she can save her people by voluntarily throwing herself into the volcano’s mouth.” Source
The Sign of the Cross (1932)
This Cecil B. DeMille Roman epic was released before the code was being strictly enforced, and contained scenes including seduction, an erotic lesbian ‘Dance of the Naked Moon’, gladiatorial combat and a scene including naked women being sacrificed by wild animals in a gladiatorial arena (below). These scenes were cut after 1934 but added back in in more recent releases.
Auction of Souls / Ravished Armenia (1919)
This last movie was rather different in subject matter to the usual films which were banned by the censors for using nudity for titillation. Auction of Souls depicted the 1915 Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire as written by a survivor of the atrocities. It was cut by the censors, particularly a scene involving the flogging and nude crucifixion or women but still shown to a wide cinema audience in an attempt to raise awareness and support for persecuted minorities.
Image source and copyright: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, This media file is in the public domain
Really fine reportage here, -who knew what the culture was like then- wish I could see some of the movies! Meanwhile, must try out those Theda Bara brows….
The Pre-code era spanned from 1929 until 1934. Please read up on things before you write about them. Most of these films, especially the silent ones are not considered Pre-code.
Richard L Pniewski
You are technically correct but it’s interesting to read about these films anyway.
They are not strictly of the pre-code era as it is usually defined, but anything before the code is technically pre-code — from the beginning of recorded time to 1934. Given the wealth of obscure information here it seems churlish to complain so harshly about a technical point.
None of this information is obscure. Just repackaged. Anything before the code is NOT technically Pre-Code. Look it up. There have been many books written about the subject and I have read most of them. In every scholarly work about the subject, the Pre-Code era is defined as lasting from 1929 until the middle of 1934. Silent films, however risqué, are not Pre-Code. They are from the silent era. Sorry if I am being churlish in your opinion, but these are the facts and now we are going to have people who might read this article and not know any better that may go around believing Pre-Code includes silent films. The title of the article is very misleading and doesn’t match the content.
By “technically pre-code” I mean they are, quite literally “pre” the “code.” I looked it up.
I assuming that the start of what you classify as the Pre-code area 1929 is based on the Talkies. So I also assume that the silent film industry was dead by 1934. But the Hays code also included the showing of the racy silent movies and any risque movie made correct? So the correct term for your era if you want to exclude silent films should be “Talkies Pre-code era”.
The code was enforced after the Catholic Church convinced it’s parishioners that the Jews who controlled the movie industry were trying to destroy america’s morals. I think there was even a meeting with the studio heads to agree to the thing.
That is still true today. It is a shame no one calls out hollywood for what it is doing.
Did you by chance receive the message sent you two days ago. There is no way for me to tell if it went thru.
william h scheil jr
there is a 40’s cowboy movie with either roy rogers or geneautry that includes a wedding scene with an extremely scooped bridal dress – do you know the movie because i cannot remember it?
Mr Scheil, I can usually find any film from the tiniest clue given to me (ask my Mom’s friends, they call me weekly to ask where they can find some movie they saw when they were five. “It had a cat in it!” . But I need more to go on if you are truly looking for a film. If you just want to see a dress, maybe Google it. But with more info, I can find it. I have been a Film Historian for over 20 years.
So basically you are a couch potato.
Um…. Well I will just say this to the Blogger. “Pre -code” films are some of my favourites, but none of my favourite films are in your list. The late ( this still makes me cry) Robert Osborne, who was a fabulous lover of films and was the host of Turner Classic Movies (network) really helped me start learning about Pre -code. He was a class act, never trashy, always kind, knowledgeable…. I wish he were still here, hopefully TCM saved his film intros and outros. But the films I learned about were films with Norma Sheared and Clark Gable. And everyone was very much dressed.
I encourage you to read “Complicated Women” by Mick LaSalle, and the follow -up, “Dangerous Men”. They have longer titles, but that should be enough to get you started.
Those books and the great films that inspired them are fantastic. The things mentioned here are kind of just people with no clothes on. And probably no storyline. 🙂 So if you are interested in Pre -code, I highly recommend those books, and please see the films! You can actually view many on the TCM website.
I enjoy your site, it’s fun! I love old movie stars and times, more innocent and charming then today, that’s for sure! Thank you for it!
At the end of 1934’s “The Thin Man,” Myrna Loy wears a translucent nightgown. Also, the woman in the Spanish language re-shoot of “Dracula” shows up in one as well.
I love silent and Pre- Code movies as well.
This is before Christians tried to make the naked female body sinful.
Hello. I’m about to teach (January, 2021) a six week course on pre-Code films through Tufts (Boston) Osher Lifelong Learning, adult education. I’m wondering how often you update or add to this site? Is it actively monitored and updated with more information? Thank you for the great information here.