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Hays Code: The Most Important Pre-Code Hollywood Movies, Ranked

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Jean Harlow in Red Headed Woman

If you have never gone to film school or are not a film history buff, you probably don’t know much about the difference between pre-code Hollywood and post-code Hollywood. Let’s start with the “code” itself: what is the Hays Code? The Motion Picture Production Code (nicknamed the Hays Code after the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Diistributors of America, William Hays) was developed in 1930 to regulate what could be shown on screen, though wasn’t enforced for a few more years.

Pre-code films, especially sound films, were much more modern and open than one may expect from early films. Pre-code films were honest about taboo issues and much freer with language and even nudity. The Hays Code sought to crush that and focus on good Christian values in film. While the document itself was not openly religious, the language of the code contained deeply Christian undertones (and was originally brought to the studios by a Catholic layman and Jesuit priest). While studios abided by the Hays Code, it wasn’t forcefully implemented until 1934; the Great Depression had affected cinema in a variety of ways, partly by inspiring darker themes, and also by compelling studios to release racier and more tawdry films in order to get people to pay for movies at a time when the economy had collapsed.

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The Code was finally removed from the criteria of filmmaking in 1968 and replaced with the film audience ratings we see today (PG, R, and so on). This allowed filmmakers to produce what they wanted and allow audiences to choose what to watch based on the ratings. However, the Pre-code era produced a massive amount of great classic films that can be surprisingly modern and risqué, so let’s take a look at the best.

A film about divorce and a woman’s revenge was scandalous in a time period when divorce was taboo (and could excommunicate a person from the Catholic Church). Films like The Divorcee are representative of the pre-Code era in this way. In 1930, a film in which a woman avenges her husband’s infidelity, a woman who can think and be upset that her husband cheated on her, was pretty controversial but nonetheless very successful and enjoyed by audiences.

The film helped ushered in a new era of women’s rights (considering women gained the right to vote only 10 years before this film was released) and showed wives in a whole new light, a light where women could be philanderers too, and could do anything else their husbands could do. With the level of sexual equality and freedom for women and men alike in The Divorcee, it is almost hard to believe that it was made almost 100 years ago and not just15.

The Jazz Singer, a movie about a Jewish man who wants to be a jazz singer against his family’s wishes, may be the most well-known film of the pre-Code era, and essentially changed the trajectory of filmmaking for the rest of history. Not only was the music in the film synced (as it is a musical), but all the dialogue was synchronized with the actors themselves. The Jazz Singer created the era of ‘talkies’ and left behind much of the silent movie era, influencing how movies would be made from then on. The film’s focus on the real living conditions of poverty and in Jewish and Black communities was also indicative of the harsh realities pre-Code films could display.

Related: The Best Jewish Comedy Movies

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