PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD by Thomas Doherty


Sex, Immortality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934
Age Range: 0 - 231
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paper 0-231-11095-2 Early sound film is revealed as a morally lax medium ready for the boundaries of the Code and the steadying presence of FDR. In the opening chapter, Doherty (American and Film Studies/Brandeis; Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II, 1993) sets the scene for the wild era, showing how the Great Depression and the transition to sound technology created nervous studios and cynical, antiauthoritarian audiences. He then surveys popular genres—adventure, gangster, horror, prison, and sex movies, comedies and newsreels, preachment yarns—and illustrates the antigovernment sentiment, sexual ambiguity, and vice that dominated the screen in films such as Wild Boys of the Road, Scarface, and The Sign of the Cross. Although the Production Code was introduced in 1930, it was not until 1934, with the threat of federal regulation and the “calming equilibrium” of President Franklin Roosevelt, that it was adopted by the film industry. For studios, the code’s effects were positive: immediately after the establishment of the Production Code Administration, movie attendance increased and studios rebounded. For pre-code headliners, the effects were mixed, as Doherty’s analyses of the Marx Brothers and Mae West attest. Just as the need for national unity during the Great Depression gave reason for the Production Code, so postwar prosperity allowed Americans the personal freedom and “wider selection of moral options” that killed it. Ironically, the death knell came from a Hollywood insider: Alfred Hitchcock, with Psycho (1960), the shocking film that left the Code “walking dead.” Scholarly but at ease with a Hollywood aside or period slang, this book sits in style between Andrew Bergman’s We’re in the Money and Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness, two other codifications of film eras or genres. As for what was missed, why not have examined the pre-code continental wantonness of Lubitsch films, which make moral and criminal liberties second nature? Providing a nearly complete chronicle and casting unifying light on an unexplored era in film, this may become a standard. Useful appendices include the text of the Production Code. (67 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-231-11094-4
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2000


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