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Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood

I’m reviewing all five films in the Forbidden Hollywood volume two box set:  Review of Night Nurse

Thou Shalt Not is a 2008 TCM documentary and DVD supplement on the Forbidden Hollywood volume two collection.  I don’t generally watch DVD features, especially not on movies I rent considering rental periods and all but I’m all for seeing a documentary that focuses on pre-Code films and their history.  At a little over an hour the film presents a pretty basic overview of films, and films specifically owned by Warner Brothers and on other Forbidden Hollywood DVDs making the scope even more limited but for a DVD feature it’s a fun Idiot’s Guide worth watching.

The documentary discusses the various “taboos” of the pre-Code era mostly revolving around female sexuality but also touching on violence and drug use.  Throughout this time the films didn’t just rely on exploitative elements but in highlighting the changing social mores of the time period itself.

Again for an hour documentary on a DVD you can’t fault this for not being as intricate as other documentaries and/or books written specifically on the subject.  Thou Shalt Not focuses mainly on the roles of females in this film with just a small section devoted to the social commentary aspects revolving around the gangster films of the period.  The only film I think with a male star that’s given more than a minute discussion is I Am a Prisoner From a Chain Gang and it really only highlights the fact it inspired changes in the jail system.  I would have preferred further exploration on other genres instead of purely “women’s pictures” since it becomes ironic how the pre-Code films had to focus purely on women….when this doc does just that!  Speaking of male characters, there is one instance that I thought was astonishing to see and it opens the film; it’s a clip from Bosko’s Picture Show, an animated cartoon, where a character says a dirty word.  I’ve included the clip below…imagine Mickey Mouse saying this and it’s proof that pre-Code times were when every genre saw fit to press the envelope.

With that clip the doc did touch on something I didn’t know about during the time, that swearing was the first taboo broken during the pre-Code era.  I don’t know why I didn’t think language would be seen during this time when we had sex and other taboos being thrown around indiscriminately but I did enjoy hearing how movies would have characters start to curse only to be shushed out and other similar tactics.

Mentioned during one of the interviews is the idea that the Jazz era was the first “sexual revolution” and that statement’s àpropos considering the legacy of these films now.  As discussed above, the focal point of this documentary is on the sexual themes and roles of women during the pre-Code era.  Audiences today are quick to assume that movies established a particular set of gender roles but the pre-Code era of films are still painfully relevant today and did attempt to subvert those ideas.  The Divorcee, a film included in this volume of films and that I’ll be reviewing tomorrow, is cited for emphasizing the double standard between men and women regarding fidelity.  It’s further illustrated through lead actress Norma Shearer playing against type as a women content to cheat after her husband has.  Many pre-Code films allowed the women to lead lives of freedom, but were forced to take it all back by the end.  The films used in the documentary all show a woman gaining freedom before having to sacrifice it for a greater good (a child, the love of her life, etc.).

By that same token the pre-Code era was a time for women!  Despite being given tragic ends the majority of these films starred women, and the most enduring actresses of the Hollywood era spent time making their pre-Code mark including Shearer, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Loretta Young all of whom are seen in the documentary. The films used are mainly ones in the Forbidden Hollywood collection and I’m so happy that I have Three on a Match as the clips utilized were fantastic, can’t wait to watch that one!

Director Busby Berkeley is often cited as the greatest offender of the Code

The final segment of Thou Shalt Not deals with the dark end of the pre-Code era that lead to it being enforced.  It’s discussed that Will Hays, the creator of the Hays Code, goes down in history for censoring films and yet he also used his political connections (being the former Postmaster General) to squash legislation that would have forced rigorous censorship.  It’s something else I didn’t know and while Hays is often vilified for the films that had to skirt around reality, it’s nice that this goes the extra mile of showing the good for Hollywood he did.

With the implementation of the Code directors, producers, and screenwriters had to get creative with the way they showed and discussed things that were banned.  Audiences and critics often mention how erotic the post-Code films are considering how issues had to be side-stepped and as audiences became wise to the tactics used the movies still made money.  There was still animosity among religious groups including the Legion of Decency.  The Legion has a fascinating history that’s briefly analyzed here but there’s a great moment where it’s told that churchgoers were told to sign cards saying they wouldn’t see films condemned by the Legion under pain of mortal sin.  Yes, being told you’ll go to Hell if you see a movie!  There’s further hostility that turns anti-Semetic by story’s end as particular groups advocating for censorship felt that Jewish studio heads were trying to pervert Catholic values.  It’s a rather dark time by this point and a longer documentary would have fleshed this out further.

Taking into account that I don’t normally watch the features on DVDs I enjoyed this.  It’s obviously a TCM production and it’s a briefly thorough look at the pre-Code era.  The films aren’t too varied, and none are ones that haven’t been found in other documentaries on the subject, but if you’re watching the Forbidden Hollywood DVD and want context, it’s worth it.

Grade: C+

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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