cover image Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930--1934

Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930--1934

Thomas Doherty. Columbia University Press, $83.5 (400pp) ISBN 978-0-231-11094-5

In early 1930s America, weighed down by the Depression, a vice-ridden, wise-cracking, anarchic antiauthoritarianism ruled Hollywood. Doherty's exhaustive cultural history of the films produced in the last years before the enactment of the Motion Picture Production Code reveals how the ascendancy of sound and a plummeting economy led to four years of wildly edgy films (1930-1934), radically different from the spic-and-span products of classic Hollywood. Most of the films chronicled here--sporting titles like Eight Girls in a Boat, Call Her Savage and Merrily We Go to Hell--have been both forgotten by film historians and unavailable to generations of late-night TV viewers. Doherty begins with the misery and discontent gripping the U.S. in the 1930s, explaining how these forces shaped a motion picture industry just learning how to use the power of sound. He organizes the later chapters around a colorful, trashy array of genres: anarchic comedies; horror, gangster and vice films; over-the-top newsreels; and expeditionary films set in dangerous territory. Doherty's plot summaries at times grow tiresome, but he rarely fails to enliven them with gossip, quips or anecdotes. Ultimately , he shows how the fun came to a crashing halt when the National Legion of Decency and the Production Code Administration, spearheaded by Joseph Breen, launched a massive and astonishingly successful crusade to clean up ""the pest hole that infects the entire country with its obscene and lascivious moving pictures."" Given the politics swirling around Hollywood's edgier fare in the wake of the shootings in Littleton, Colo., this lurid and all too short-lived chapter of Hollywood history has never seemed more germane. (Sept.) FYI: A series at New York's Film Forum, The Joy of Pre-Code, running from August 20 to September 14, 1999, will feature more than 40 precode films, including many discussed by Doherty.