Precode Movies 101: TCM Offers a Primer for Beginners

We’ve acknowledged that the precode era is one of our favorite era in movie history. For those that might not know, precode movies are those made after the ascent of sound but before the Hayes code, which greatly restricted the plot, language, and attitudes that Hollywood pictures were allowed to portray, began to be strictly enforced by the Breen office in 1934.

That quaint, wholesome quality you may associate with old movies? The pictures of the 1930s and ’40s that might convince you, if you don’t already know better, that life was simple, pure and uncomplicated back in the good old days? Those came after the code kicked in. Precode movies are another thing altogether.

Some pictures that typify the precode era are playfully bawdy; others are downright gritty, sometimes even a bit shocking today (though rarely very graphic, by our standards). Tomorrow (Tuesday, July 31st), TCM is giving precode neophytes the chance to do some serious catching up, as they’ll be airing precode favorites all day long, from 6am till 8pm. If you’ve ever wondered what the fuss was all about, here’s your chance to educate yourself.

If it’s gritty you’re looking for, we’d recommend Safe in Hell (1931) and Three on a Match (1932); if you’re just looking for a little salty fun, give Jewel Robbery (1932) and Blonde Crazy (1931) a look. But honestly, we recommend loading up your DVR with every one of these entertaining pictures; they all have something to recommend them.

Here’s the line-up (all times Eastern):
6:00 am — Downstairs (1932)
7:30 am — Loose Ankles (1930)
8:45 am — She Had to Say Yes (1933)
10:00 am — Faithless (1932)
11:30 am — Hell’s Highway (1932)
12:45 pm — Safe in Hell (1931)
2:00 pm — Jewel Robbery (1932)
3:15 pm — Three on a Match (1932)
4:30 pm — Footlight Parade (1933)
6:30 pm — Blonde Crazy (1931)

Hollywood Shorts: Tarzan Clutches

Charles Ray was a popular juvenile star in the 1910s and ’20s, but by the ’30s, his career was on the rocks, and he turned to writing. Here’s another in a series of offerings from his book Hollywood Shorts, a collection of short stories set in Tinseltown.
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Ven yuh make it sexy, make it sexy, an’ I don’ mean riddles! Dis is de age of hot mamas an’ varm-up papas. It’s de boxhoffice vot writes de ticket of de nation. Since de world var, everythin’ is boom-boom, hotsy-totsy, an’ knee-action.”
“But we have to be a little careful, Max,” his staff chief explained ruefully at every special meeting.
“Careful!” Max raved. “Careful from vot yuh tell me? Yuh vant ve should make it failure from hunger? Make vit guts a situation, I tell yuh! Make de pichers ring true from heart appeal. No afternoon dresses. Make it situations vot show a man makin’ hot love to a voman in negligee. An’ no pajama business. Give ’em a quick look at something nifty. Now give me a look,” he always concluded when ready for an exit, and winked a huge financial eye.
“I tell you what we better do, boys,” the scenario chief began, with censorship in his mind. “We better try and be more artful—you know—imply more.”
“Dot’s it!” Max screamed elatedly. “Apply more.”
The chief grimaced. “You don’t quite understand me, Mr. Steinbalm.”
With hand on the door knob, Max advised, “Sure I do! Dot’s good fellas. Make it hot from pepper,” and closed the door quickly in order to have the last word.
Weeks passed.
Another picture was released, brandishing its sensationalism before the moralists. And as a red flag incenses a bull, they rushed to the attack.
A letter from the Hays organization demanded some attention. Max was still adamant, however, and did plenty of storming before a vacillating staff.
“De Hays! De Hays!” he shouted. “Always you are talkin’ about de Hays office vanting us to be more so. Piff! I tink you have gone softing. I ask yuh how can I sell a picher vitout he-men and she-goils? Does de Hays organization pay mine losses. No. But de dictates from de office makes it look I should make a man a pansy, an’ de goils shouldn’t be a cling to de vine any more. Oye, am I seek. Some states make it a censorship for an oncoming mama to knit up little yarn shoes. Udder states von’t let ‘er glence at an oncoming calendar. Oye, am I seek! Vot is dis? Absitively I’m blotto!”
“But, Mr. Steinbalm—“
“Don’t intrepret me! I’m de von who is hot! Jus’ enswering all my questions vit a positive or a yes, quick! Very vel den.”
“But, Max,” the chief pleaded, “this letter only suggests that they’re against these hot Tarzan clutches between men and women.”
“Ha! Ve should fake it our pichers vit dummies? Enswering me dot again vit some quick no’s. Do ve vant synth—“
Failing with the word synthetic, Max used fake again, and strutted up and down the room to exemplify his financial wound. When he said “Piff!” the chief knew it was time for thim to say something.
“Then you think—“
“I tink it’s hokay by me to take the bull by de teeth. It’s such as dot should make de picher business no more a racket. Ooo, am I seek! Censors have no financial appreciation.” He moaned as if he had invented the moan and said, “I rest my case!” like a great lawyer. He sat for a brief moment, then rushed to the door for a dramatic exit, got balanced, and concluded: “Huh! No more Tarzan clutches, hey! Vel, ve ain’t in such a jem vit out picher full of boxhoffice. I say write me stories it should wrack vit life. Vot yuh tink, I should fade out on Cupid necking Jackie Cooper? Look, ve get hotter and hotter! Ve use clutches like dot snake in Vild Cargo.”
He slammed the door, then opened it again, and winked coyly to show respect for his staff.
But Max was forced to listen to outside demands. His hot situation brought hot reactions of a different sort. After many hot letters from hot mothers (not mamas) and hot fathers (not papas), he listened to hot commands from his superiors in the business. Somewhat subdued, he ordered a special scenario to conference in his office.
An anxious staff assembled itself, ready to listen to what promised to be nothing short of a Gettysburg address. With the spirit of Will Hays within him, Max Steinbalm rose to express his desires.
“Boys,” he began solemnly, “I have jus’ had a nice chat vit Mr. Vil Hays. He talked tuh me like a pel, a bosom pel. An’ believe me he’s a good feller. Jus’ like us. Boys, he’s right! Vot dis country needs is uplift, vit a capital UP. Ideas tuh tink about vot’s on de upward ten—” Failing with the word tendency, he carried on with road. “The upper road. Ven a picher gets tuh de end, it should be strong from uplift—downright reform. From now on dose are de clean ethics vot is de acme from us.”
The chief started a little applause. The rest of the staff thought it better to join in quickly.
But Max lifted his hand like a statesman, to neutralize the plaudits. The spirit of Will Hays pervaded him. After smacking his lips, he posed for conclusion concerning his new moral policy.
“Now in dis new story you are composin’,” he began sincerely, “I’ll stand for de goil in de picher shootin’ de man an’ stealin’ all his money, but she must still remain, at de end, a nice goil.”

A tiny icon of a pinecone

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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Fourteen

The fourteenth chapter from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant of masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood (but actually ghost-written for Sylvia by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker), tells the tale of how actress Grace Moore, upon her arrival in Hollywood, tried to knock Gloria Swanson off her Tinseltown pedestal.


Grace MooreIT SEEMS that the first thing for a high-power beauty to do when she gets into the movies and comes to Hollywood si to go up and give Gloria Swanson a big shove and say: “Yah!”
I don’t know why this is, but they all do it. They don’t pick on Garbo, or Chatterton, or Shearer. No; they all come into town and go up to the hotel and wash their faces, and beat it out to Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Drive, where Gloria’s front lawn comes down to the sidewalk, and get out and walk up and down and sneer and yell: “Come out and fight! I can lick you!”
Why, even Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the London actress who is so veteran that she used to play for one of the Edwards—the VII, I think—even this old-timer had to get a rush of rivalry to her venerable head and take a fall out of Gloria. It was a rather nasty fall, too.
Mrs. Pat saw one of Gloria’s films and was all excited about it and went around Hollywood begging to meet “that perfectly charming gel.” And Gloria’s friends began to set up the drinks and celebrate, because Mrs. Pat knows Bernard Shaw and that makes her opinion worth its weight in salt. They threw a reception for the woman who has been the toast of London so long, and were tickled to death—until Mrs. Pat, who had been waiting for this spot, added to her honeyed flattery of Gloria the little bit of wormwood which she had been waiting to spill all the while.
“Yes, a dee-lightful creature, this Swanson girl; really a pippin, as you Americans say. You know, I’ve been wondering what it was that struck me most about that gel and her most striking smile, and I’ve just hit on what it is. Really, my dears, she ought to be told to file down her teeth!”
I GUESS the reason for all the resentment is Gloria’s pull with men. Other movie queens in Hollywood can give Gloria their arguments on picture grosses and the size of their fan mail, but Gloria’s front porch is the place where all the boys go on the night off. And Hollywood hostesses have learned not to give parties in competition with Gloria, because if they do, they only men they’ll get are local movie critics and assistants in the Hays office.
So the newcomers hear about this and decide that it’s about time to make a change. And they set out the drinks and the sandwiches, and put on the low-back gowns, and light up the front parlor and leave the shades up, and turn on the radio, and say to themselves: “This’ll fetch the boys.” And give a sigh for poor old Gloria and think that she’s going to be pretty lonesome up in that big old house when the sports get wise to the new attraction—but it serves her right for hogging the trade.
But the same thing happens every time. Along about midnight the newcomer puts the sandwiches in the ice box and crawls into bed and lies there wide awake for the next few hours, gnawing her knuckles and listening to the male chorus doing Sweet and Low in twelve verses on Gloria’s veranda.
Usually the newcomers calm down after a while and leave Gloria alone, figuring, who wants to take her bunch of amateur tenors away from her, anyway? But every once in a while a born scrapper comes to town who picks herself up after the first knockdown, shakes her head, and squares off to make a finish fight of it. Then Gloria, according to the rules of the game, has to put up her Most Popular Girl championship and accept the challenge.

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