Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) censorship guidelines. Although the Code was adopted in 1930, oversight was poor and it did not become rigorously enforced until July 1, 1934. Before that date, movie content was restricted more by local laws, negotiations between the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) and the major studios, and popular opinion than strict adherence to the Hays Code, which was often ignored by Hollywood filmmakers.
As a result, films in the late 1920s and early 1930s included sexual innuendo, references to homosexuality, miscegenation, illegal drug use, infidelity, abortion and intense violence. Strong women dominated films such as Female, Baby Face, and Red-Headed Woman. Gangsters in films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface were more heroic than evil. Along with featuring stronger female characters, films examined female subject matters that were not revisited until much later in Hollywood history. Nefarious characters were seen to profit from their deeds, in some cases without significant repercussions, and drug use was a topic of several films.
The Pre-Code era featured shorter films, usually running little more than an hour. Many of Hollywood’s biggest stars such as Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson got their start in the era. But it also contained stars like Ruth Chatterton, Lyle Talbot, and Warren William (the so-called “king of Pre-Code”) who excelled during this period but are mostly forgotten today.
Beginning in late 1933, and escalating throughout the first half of 1934, American Catholics launched a campaign against what they deemed the immorality of American cinema. This, plus a potential government takeover of film censorship and social research seeming to indicate that so-called “bad” movies could promote bad behavior, was enough pressure to force the studios to capitulate to greater oversight.