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Vice vs. Virtue in Pre-Code Hollywood

A new and remarkable energy animated the American cinema between the coming of sound at the end of the 1920’s and the strict enforcement of the 1934 Production Code censoring "unwholesome" onscreen behavior. During the pre-Code era Hollywood found commercial and critical success in a series of films that radically expanded the previously acceptable thresholds for exploring sex and crime related themes. The twilight of the Jazz Age and the Great Depression encouraged directors and screenwriters to seriously examine the moral and sociopolitical underpinnings of the changing nation through frank and, quite often, extremely graphic stories designed to titillate and shock. Encouraged by the box office, Hollywood produced startling depictions of infidelity, prostitution, drug use, crime, homosexuality and miscegenation. The injustices of corporate capitalism and the sexual experimentation of the period, particularly by women, were also newly exploited as fitting subjects for the screen.

The frequent mythologization of the pre-Code cinema as an apogee of daring and uncompromised studio filmmaking often obscures the fact that the compromise of the Production Code was, in fact, self-imposed by the studios themselves. Although Hollywood directors and screenwriters would ultimately discover a creative friction working with and against subsequent censorship rules, the films of the pre-Code era reveal the potential of a decidedly unruly cinema largely unrestrained by the mores of polite society. In tribute to and in celebration of this unique and fertile period in American film history the HFA presents a selection of films from pre-Code Hollywood designed to enlighten, shock and entertain.

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