MOVIES : Forbidden Pleasures : Return with us now to those titillating days of yesteryear--before the 1934 Production Code cracked down on cinematic carnality--when the men talked tough, the women talked tougher, and the negligees were negligible.


Think of it as a tawdry and tarnished golden age, a five-year period, unprecedented in Hollywood history, when a single studio turned out dozens of raffish, exuberant films made with a frankness not seen before or since. It’s an era that’s become known as “Forbidden Hollywood,” and it’s easy to see why.

Though they were produced only from 1930 to 1934 and usually lasted barely more than an hour on screen, the films turned out by Warner Bros. and its subsidiaries were considered such strong stuff that they led directly to the enforcement of an industrywide censorship mechanism known as the Production Code that effectively snuffed out any kind of cinematic candor for the next 30 years.

In fact, the code did its job so effectively that the existence of these pre-code movies, which cheerfully shattered taboos about sex, violence and drug use, has been largely unknown except to devotees. Now, however, with a generous, monthlong 48-film series beginning Thursday at the Nuart in West Los Angeles (plus a strong reissue program undertaken by MGM/UA Home Entertainment), “Forbidden Hollywood” can be experienced in all its distinctive glory.


As befits any self-contained universe, these movies had a distinctive cast of characters. Some performers--like Ruth Chatterton, Lyle Talbot and the ever-smooth Warren William, a.k.a. “the king of pre-code”--did their best work in this period and are consequently little known today. Others--Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and even John Wayne--were just getting started and are visible in fascinating roles as near-beginners.

And while some prominent pre-code directors, like William Wellman, went on to major careers in later decades, others, like Mervyn LeRoy, who directed a heroic 26 features during the period, and the underappreciated Roy del Ruth, who directed 22, were not quite as successful outside its confines.

Hitting their stride just after the 1927 Al Jolson-starring “The Jazz Singer” thrust an unready and unwilling industry into the sound era, pre-code movies are characterized by the kind of verbal brashness we associate with precocious children, so excited to discover how well they have learned to talk that they refuse to shut up.


Epitomized by Lee Tracy, who played rakish newspapermen who could have won Pulitzer Prizes for nonstop chatter in both “Blessed Event” and “Love Is a Racket,” pre-code movies are filled with torrents of snappy repartee. And their clever, sarcastic and wised-up characters--given to saying things like “You are the limit,” “On the level, sister” and “What’s the gag?”--are loaded with verbal attitude and don’t care who knows it.

What everyone talked about as often as not was sex. In a way that the Production Code would scrupulously stamp out, people in these films leered, flirted and very obviously lusted after one another in the most carnal way. Married couples had affairs, single folks slept around, and no one was at a loss for a provocative line of chat.

In “Beauty and the Boss,” for instance, a banker chides his secretary with a “don’t squirm, I know you have hips,” and she comes back with “when you dictate so fast, I never know where my skirt is.” In other films, an innocent “you look familiar” would be answered with an eyebrow-raising “I’d like to be.” And if a woman on the prowl could claim, “I’m all alone and going to waste, hanging over your head like a ripe peach,” a man in a similar mood might say, “Must it always be the great love? No little detours?”


This kind of glib frankness extended, in a way that now looks quaintly sexist, to the visuals as well. In no period of American film was as much screen time given to backless gowns and elaborate, revealing negligees. Women were forever hopping in and out of tubs or changing their clothes, and when Barbara Stanwyck is caught in dishabille by a leering intern in “Night Nurse,” he cracks, “You can’t show me a thing, I just came from the delivery room,” and she responds with a blase: “I guess everyone around here’s seen more than I’ve got.”

Other areas that the Production Code was to make taboo were also fertile ground for pre-code films. Murderers could go scandalously unpunished in these films, heroes could turn bad (as in the Paul Muni-Mervyn LeRoy classic “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang”), homosexuality was acknowledged, albeit in a cliched way, and drug use was as well. In “Three on a Match,” for instance, Humphrey Bogart makes a hand-to-nose gesture indicating another character is a woebegone user.

And if these films were not afraid of sex, they weren’t timid about melodrama either. Absurd, preposterous plots gave no one pause, and if things got slow, characters could be counted on to swallow poison, leap out of high windows or even steal milk to feed starving children. Those were the days.

Opening the Nuart series are a pair of the most enjoyable and representative of the pre-code films, “Employees’ Entrance” and “Baby Face,” two tales that have an especially contemporary feeling.

“Employee’s Entrance,” directed by Roy del Ruth, stars Warren William in a remarkably abrasive and compelling performance as the heartless manager of a major department store who regularly lives up to his “smash or be smashed” motto.

Given to ruining lives without a second thought, he casually forces a hungry Loretta Young to trade sex for a job and then tries to alienate her from her husband, Wallace Ford, by turning him into a workaholic. The ensuing battle for Ford’s soul has a remarkably modern tone to it.


Even more notorious was the Barbara Stanwyck-starring “Baby Face,” one of the most outrageous of the pre-code films with a tag line of “She had IT and made IT pay.” Forced to be a tramp by her speak-easy-running father, Stanwyck decides to take revenge by turning her sexual attractiveness into a weapon to ruin every man in town. And New York is a very big town.

Stanwyck, whose role here prefigures her performance in “Double Indemnity,” can also be seen in “Night Nurse” as a sister of mercy going toe-to-toe with a mustache-less Clark Gable. Also getting a workout in sex-object parts was Bette Davis, cast as a society glamour-puss hooked on the thrill of crime in “Fog Over Frisco” and a svelte working girl in “Three on a Match.”

And though she apparently hated the result (“A piece of junk; my shame was only exceeded by my fury”), Davis also had one of the most interesting women’s roles, as an artist who loves her work and wants to live her own life in “Ex-Lady.” “I don’t like the word right ,” she informs lover Gene Raymond. “No one has any rights about me but me.”

Probably the most eye-opening of the pre-code independent woman films was “Female.” It starred Ruth Chatterton as a decisive titan of industry who used the handsome men in her company as sexual toys, dismissing them with bonuses when she got bored. When a school chum asks, “Is it old-fashioned to want to be decent?” the unmoved Chatterton merely shrugs.

Though the pre-code films had a strong fantasy content, and liked to feature men in tuxedos and women in fancy gowns, they also tended to reflect the tenor of the times. Gangsters and bootleggers figured prominently, as did speak-easies where booze was drunk in teacups and taxi dance emporiums where dime-a-dance veterans didn’t ask too many questions.

Especially suited to playing this end-of-the-Jazz-Age despair was Edward G. Robinson, giving little-known but memorable performances as a steelworker who marries the wrong kind of woman in “Two Seconds” and a newspaper editor who callously trashes the lives of decent folks in Mervyn LeRoy’s forceful “Five Star Final.”

In fact, two of the best known of the pre-code films (both directed by William Wellman) unflinchingly reflected the killing desperation spawned by the economic depression the country was living through.


The best known of the pair is “Wild Boys of the Road,” starring Frankie Darrow as one of a small army of young people forced to become vagabonds because of impoverished parents. Basically good kids, they are overwhelmed by the miasma of joblessness and end up fighting anarchic pitched battles with unfeeling police. “Ain’t you afraid?” Darrow asks a young lady riding the rails alone. “Wouldn’t do me any good if I was” is her edgy reply.

Even more tough and gritty is Wellman’s “Heroes for Sale.” It stars sad-eyed silent film hero Richard Barthelmess as a World War I veteran who gets a morphine addiction instead of the medals he deserves and then experiences bread lines, labor unrest and the scrutiny of the sour-faced Red Squad. An impressively honest if far-fetched film, “Heroes for Sale” actively explores the idea that Depression America was close to total collapse.

Though the movie industry’s Production Code had nominally taken effect in 1930, it wasn’t until 1934, after these films and their brethren had so outraged the Catholic Church that it threatened nationwide boycotts and formed the Legion of Decency, that Hollywood acquiesced and finally put teeth into the document. Almost overnight, “Wild Boys of the Road” gave way to Andy Hardy, and realism began a 30-year retreat from the screen.

(Almost simultaneously with this pre-code series, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is putting on an intriguing “Censorship in Hollywood” program, showing familiar films like “The Outlaw,” “From Here to Eternity” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” as well as rarities like “The Story of Temple Drake” and “Rain,” all of which ran afoul of the implacable censorship bureaucracy.)

Although in terms of nudity, profanity and bloodshed considerably more is allowed on today’s screens than the pre-code films could have imagined, the freshness of these Warner Bros. movies, their casual and unfettered sophistication, enables them to feel surprisingly more adult than Hollywood’s current predilection for lead-footed sex and violence. Breezy, inconsequential and proud of it, these films knew better than to take themselves too seriously, and even 60 years after the fact, it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance.

Hollywood: Before the Code

‘Forbidden Hollywood’

Thursday-Friday: “Employees’ Entrance,” “Baby Face.”

Saturday: “Dangerous Female” (a.k.a. “The Maltese Falcon”), “The Kennel Murder Case.”

Aug. 7: “42nd Street,” “Wonder Bar.”

Aug. 8: “Two Seconds,” “The Hatchet Man.”

Aug. 9: “Under Eighteen,” “Beauty and the Boss,” “The Keyhole.”

Aug. 10: “High Pressure,” “The Mouthpiece.”

Aug. 11: “Three on a Match,” “Fog Over Frisco.”

Aug. 12-13: “Female,” “Lady Killer.”

Aug. 14: “The Mystery of the Wax Museum,” “Doctor X.”

Aug. 15: “Jewel Robbery,” “One Way Passage.”

Aug. 16: “Taxi!” “Lawyer Man,” “Upperworld.”

Aug. 17: “The Mad Genius,” “The Public Enemy.”

Aug. 18: “Heroes for Sale,” “Wild Boys of the Road.”

Aug. 19-20: “Night Nurse,” “Blessed Event.”

Aug. 21: “Golden Dawn,” “Golddiggers of 1933.”

Aug. 22: “The Finger Points,” “Five Star Final.”

Aug. 23: “Safe in Hell,” “Mandalay,” “Love Is a Racket.”

Aug. 24: “Blonde Crazy,” “The Mind Reader.”

Aug. 25: “Ladies They Talk About,” “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.”

Aug. 26: “The Little Giant,” “Little Caesar.”

Aug. 27: “Cabin in the Cotton,” “Ex-Lady.”

Aug. 28: “Bureau of Missing Persons,” “Easy to Love,” “I’ve Got Your Number.”

5 * Nuart Theater , 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, just west of the San Diego Freeway. Information and starting times: (310) 478-6379.


‘Censorship in Hollywood’

Saturday, 8 p.m.: “A Woman of Affairs,” “The Wind.”

Aug. 13, 8 p.m.: “Our Dancing Daughters,” “Flesh and the Devil.” Guest appearance by Anita Page.

Aug. 20, 4 p.m.: Pre-Code Marathon: “Tarzan and His Mate,” “The Story of Temple Drake,” “Red Dust,” “Rain.”

Aug. 27, 4 p.m.: After-Code Marathon: “Camille,” “Dante’s Inferno,” “The Devil Is a Woman,” “Klondike Annie.”

Sept. 3, 8 p.m.: “The Outlaw,” “Johnny Belinda.”

Sept. 10, 8 p.m.: “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “From Here to Eternity.”

Sept. 17, 8 p.m.: “Peyton Place,” “Baby Doll.”

Sept. 24, 8 p.m.: “Lolita,” “The Graduate.”

5 * Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Tickets: $6-$4. Parking is available across the street. Information: (213) 857-6010.