PRE-CODE FILMS: 1930-1934

By Phillip López Jiménez

What exactly are “Pre-Code” films, you might ask. Well, for those of you not familiar with the term, it means films made between 1929-1934 when Hollywood squeaked by their self-imposed restrictions and unleashed more risque and violent pictures to film-hungry audiences everywhere.

Not all films of this era were provocative, but many films were, and very much so. Once the Hays Code became very strict, cinema lost something that really never came back, mainly mature stories staring women with real problems and real lives; the other things eventually came back.

In this article I’ll be going over some of the more surprising films that came out of the studio system, at least the ones I could find at my local library as I’m on a budget these days.

Although there were pictures dealing with taboo subjects such as REEFER MADNESS, COCAINE FIENDS and THE MANIAC, these pictures were made outside the studio system and often played in carnival sideshows with burlesque dancers; pre-grindhouse if you will.

David F. Friedman’s book A YOUTH IN BABYLON: CONFESSIONS OF A TRASH FILM KING goes into great detail on this subject and I highly recommend it, but for this article I’ll be focusing on mainstream Hollywood pictures as these were really under scrutiny much the way comic books were in the “wholesome” 1950’s or music in the uptight and prurient 80’s.


In 1915 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that movies were considered merchandise and therefore not protected by the first amendment. This gave rise to prurient groups that blamed cinema for all society’s ills. Censorship boards popped up around the country leading to a referendum to approve a mandated censorship board.

Throughout the 20’s films were becoming more and more provocative. Actor Ramon Navarro posed nude in the film BEN-HUR and its publicity photos and the film HUMAN WRECKAGE showed actress Bessie Love shooting junk.

It wasn’t just films that were upsetting people but also the creatives making them. The “Fatty” Arbuckle rape trial, major film star Wallace Reid’s morphine addiction from an injury, and the mysterious unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor (as late as 1968 director King Vidor spoke with a retired detective about the case and was told that they “were told to lay off.” Sounds like a case for novelist James Ellroy!) these stories made the headlines and actually hurt Hollywood financially tarnishing an already bad reputation. So, to keep Big Brother out of Hollywood the studio bosses (made-men as I often refer to them as) got together and formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) and to run it they chose uptight, corrupt Presbyterian William H. Hays. His first assignment was to squash the referendum and he did this with propaganda films and good ol’ fashioned bribes and it worked.

As a former chairman of The Republican National Committee, Hays was no stranger to bribery; he was part of the Teapot Dome Scandal where, as I understand it, he was “loaned” $180,000 worth of liberty bonds from oil magnate Henry Ford Sinclair and, until Watergate, this was America’s largest political scandal. After resigning in disgrace it was only natural for crooked Will to work in Hollywood, where I’m sure he fit right in.

Despite what most people believe, Hollywood is far from liberal, it’s a very right-wing industry; people just like to say they’re “Libs” because it gets them chicks to grope. Try asking for health benefits and see what happens, I did, I was blessed with a stroke, don’t even get me started on race.

Will Hays set up shop on the east coast while the well-liked and mild mannered Colonel Jason Joy would be the face or liaison with the studios ,called Studio Relations Committee (SRC). The Col. went over well with producers as he came up with many creative solutions to get around the censors. Col. Jason Joy would eventually become a PR man at FOX in the 40’s.


The production code had no single author but was created by committee to serve the needs of many; studios needed to keep the censors at bay, Will Hays needed to keep the growing voice of the mid-western protestants happy. At the time they were getting more vocal than the Catholics. Film investors didn’t want the boat rocked with boycott’s, which ruined financial returns on several pictures.

Here is the code:

    The Production Code enumerated three “General Principles”:

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Specific restrictions were spelled out as “Particular Applications” of these principles:

  • Nudity and suggestive dances were prohibited.
  • The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.
  • The depiction of illegal drug use was forbidden, as well as the use of liquor, “when not required by the plot or for proper characterization.”
  • Methods of crime (e.g. safe-cracking, arson, smuggling) were not to be explicitly presented.
  • References to sex perversions such as homosexuality and venereal disease were forbidden, as were depictions of childbirth.
  • The language section banned various words and phrases that were considered to be offensive.
  • Murder scenes had to be filmed in a way that would discourage imitations in real life, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail.
  • “Revenge in modern times” was not to be justified.
  • The sanctity of marriage and the home had to be upheld.
  • “Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.”
  • Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.
  • Portrayals of miscegenation were forbidden.
  • “Scenes of Passion” were not to be introduced when not essential to the plot.
  • “Excessive and lustful kissing” was to be avoided, along with any other treatment that might “stimulate the lower and baser element.”
  • The flag of the United States was to be treated respectfully, and the people and history of other nations were to be presented “fairly.”
  • “Vulgarity”, defined as “low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects” must be “subject to the dictates of good taste.”
  • Capital punishment, “third-degree methods”, cruelty to children and animals, prostitution and surgical operations were to be handled with similar sensitivity.

Since this wasn’t a government mandated thing the studios in a way were still Hays’ employer and all this was really just a public relations venture that they all agreed to follow, but not really. In a nut shell, everybody wanted the government out of censorship.

Now that we got the history out of the way lets get back to the movies.

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Women were the main attraction in pre-code films, not just story wise but they also had star billing; just look at any poster from the period, Garbo, Crawford, Bow, Sheare, and Davis all had their names emblazoned on the marquees, their images the largest in the artwork. It wasn’t a girl power thing either, people where just more drawn to the fairer sex. The stories where mature and surprisingly sophisticated as well.

Many pre-code films had plots that you just would not see during the code, like BABY FACE with Barbara Stanwyk, about a woman who sleeps her way to the top; that one is filled with jaw droppers, and THE DIVORCEE with Norma Shear, about a woman, upon hearing of her husband’s infidelity, sleeps with her husband’s best friend and everyone else, “My door is open to everyone except to you.” Once the draconian code was completely enforced in late ’34 women where forced back into the kitchen and at their man’s side. 

d. Josef Von Sternberg
w. Manuel Komroff based on the diary of Catherine II
s. Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Luise Dresser and Sam Jeffe

Films like Josef Von Sternerg’s THE SCARLETT EMPERESS are the reason why the gods gave us cinema. From the lighting, the costuming, the baroque sets, cinematography and editing; Von Sternberg created a stunning film.

The film is about the rise of Catherine The Great (Marlene Dietrich) and the coup d’etate of her “half witted” husband, Peter (Sam Jaffe). The picture, made in the final days of the laxed code, is filled with plenty of debauchery and sexuality. Early in the picture there is a montage of tortures that the emperor had put his people through, a nude woman coming out of an iron maiden another nude woman tied to a wooden wheel and spinning around; whippings, beatings, the whole lot, and Von Sternburg’s camera revels in the excess.

Before she becomes Catherine The Great, she is Sophia Frederica, given over to Empress Elizabeth to be her son Peter’s bride and to conceive an heir. Before Elizabeth, she is given an exam, her the doctor sticks himself in her dress and is harshly asked questions from Elizabeth, with each question she replies “Yes, your majesty,” with each “yes” becoming more and more orgasmic.

Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress

At first Frederica is wide eyed and innocent but that all changes when trying to escape from her home and forced marriage; she beds a guard and bares the male child that was wanted from her. She then pretty much beds all the men in her army, “I’ve heard quite a bit about you…” she looks down at the captain’s crotch “…from the ladies.” and she uses them to her advantage to become the new empress Catherine The Great.

Marlene Dietrich’s performance is one of her finest, she’s at her best early on; as the more naive Frederica and she plays her with an innocent charm and looking like a grown-up version of Shirley Temple. The only issue I had with the picture is the same I have with most period pictures made at the time and that’s the very American inflection and slang that always takes me out of the film. One can almost expect to hear one of the Cossack guards say “Listen you mugs, pipe down, her majesty’s approaching!” Dietrich’s costumes are excellent but, again, they look more fitting on a catwalk than the steps of Odessa.

THE SCARLETT EMPRESS is one of my favorite of Dietrich’s and Von Sterberg’s collaborations and Dietrich’s very frank promiscuity could never be made later that year as the code became much more stringent. I’m sure all the publicity photos with Dietrich and her horse weren’t lost on producers either, as Catherine The Great’s rumored death was on account of…shall we say, an amorous affair with her horse.


Anyone calling themselves a cinephile but doesn’t watch musicals is doing themselves a disservice as the musical is perhaps the most cinematic of all genres, especially the ones made in the 1930’s.  These pictures had what most other pictures at the time did not have: rapid camera movement, creative transitions, glittery close-ups, clever editing and, if Busby Berkley was involved, spectacular choreography, and in light of this subject of pre-codes, the musical was no stranger to sexuality and double entendres.

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933  (1933 Warner Bros.)
d. Mervyn LeRoy
s. Joan Blondel, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Aline MacMahon and Ginger Rogers
Choreography: Busby Berkley

Directed by the legendary Mervyn LeRoy, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 showed that, not only could Warner Bros make great gangster pictures, but they could also create brilliant musicals and with a social conscience too, that’s why my favorite musicals come from Warners.

Three show girls, wholesome Polly Parker (Ruby Keller), sexpot Carol (Joan Blondell) and the wise cracking Trixie (Aline MacMahon) live together while they pursue their stage careers. Their director is hurtin’ for funds for their next production and he needs dough, and fast. Enter Brad (dapper Dick Powell) a struggling songwriter who lives across their building and has the eye of Polly. Brad claims he can help fund the show with a $15,000 donation, Trixie’s pre-code comment “What does he use? I’ll smoke it too.” with the donation the show goes on. When it is later revealed that Brad comes from old money, his older brother who controls his funds doesn’t want him cavorting with show girls and that’s were the zaniness comes in as the girls try to put the men in their place, and put on a show.

Like most pre-code pictures GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 is most famous for the opening number “We’re In The Money.” choreographed by Busby Berkley. The number “Pettin In The Park” caused some issues lyrically and visually and alternate versions were shot. The number features a very young Billy Barty as a baby trying to get naked glimpses of the showgirls as Dick Powell tries to get Ruby Keeler out of her metal corset with Barty handing him a can opener.

The final number is the more serious “Remember My Forgotten Man”  about homeless veterans which was very topical at the time as the Bonus Army riots happened that year.

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Remember these codes…?

The Production Code enumerated three “General Principles”:

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

You think a guy who built a flying boat cares about the rules?

d. Howard Hawks
s. Paul Muni, George Raft, Ann Dvorak

If you’re only familiar with Brian DePalma’s excellent remake you will be surprised to know that it follows the 1932 original quite closely; Instead of Cuban refugee Tony Montana, it’s Italian immigrant Tony Camonte. It has all the major plot details; young thug, along with his best pal Rinaldo (George Raft), become hired goons for a bootleg peddler Johnny Lovo

-(Osgood Perkins), starts making his own moves, Johnny tries to double cross him but it goes wrong, Tony then whacks him and takes his hot wife Poppy (Karen Morely)and excels in his own operation, he has a psycho-sexual obsession with his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) who secretly marries his pal Rinaldo. When Tony finds out he immediately kills him and it all comes crumbling down, but in the original it’s the coppers who bring him down (the code). Tony even looks at a sign that seems to speak to him The World Is Yours it reads.-

Howard Hawk’s Scarface is the greatest gangster picture made in the golden era of Hollywood, in fact I would place it on the top 5 greatest gangster pictures ever. Although Hawks made DAWN PATROL two years earlier, SCARFACE is the film that really made Hawks and before the decade was over he had a stellar list of credits including BARBARY COAST, BRINGING UP BABY, and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and would go on to be one of the greatest directors ever; he’s definitely one of my favs. There is absolutely no fat in this picture, it is absolutely lean and mean. Like the musical, the gangster picture was meant for sound.

Paul Muni as Antonio “Tony” Camonte

On SCARFACE Jason Joy advised Hughes, saying “Under no circumstances is this film to be made! If you should fool hardly make Scarface this office will make certain this film is never released.” Hughes immediately sent his director Howard Hawks a memo. “Screw the Hays office. Start the picture and make it as realistic, as exciting, as grisly as possible.” and that is just what Hawks and his actor Paul Muni did.

To appease Jason Joy, Hughes had a scene shot where Scarface turns yellow without his gun. Joy happy that Hughes was now playing ball, informed him that now it would pass the very strict New York State Censors office, but instead James Wingate rejected the film in total. Howard Hughes’ publicity director, Lincoln Quarberg sent Hughes a memo “As you undoubtedly realize by now; the men who are actually running the motion picture business, including the big shot Jews, particularly the MGM moguls, are secretly hoping you’ve made your last picture. They are jealous of your successful pictures and have resented your independence, and your entrance to the industry from the start.” 

Paul Muni and Ann Dvorak

Howard Hughes arranged a press screening with The Hollywood Reporter, who hailed it “A Masterpiece!” He went ahead and released the picture where it was critically and publicly accepted, but it still upset many censor boards. Local states started chopping out scenes, Hughes frustrated with censors and Hollywood in general focused more on his aviation ventures, he would, however, return to cinema once in a while, most notable with THE OUTLAW, where again he faced censorship. As for SCARFACE, after the Hays office got strict in ’34 SCARFACE was seen as pretty much un-releasable, Universal Pictures bought the film in ’37 and it was unseen until 1980.  


There were quiet a few genres that where once popular but have faded away like High Seas Adventure films (MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS),

d. King Vidor
m. Max Steiner
s. Dolores Del Rio, Joel McCrea,

I first saw this film on TV with my mom when I was little -it amazes me about all the cool movies they used to play on regular TV-  BIRD OF PARADISE has everything: exotic locales, adventure, volcanoes, beautiful cinematography, a lush score by Max Steiner and a very nekkid Dolores Del Rio. About the only thing it doesn’t have is much of a plot.

What little plot there is concerns a sailor named Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) who after falling over board is rescued by native girl, Luana (Dolores Del Rio), why are jungle girls/cave girls always named Luana? After an exotic dance from Luana, Johnny starts to get the hots for her, but she is the chief’s daughter meaning she is taboo. They go off any way and go skinny dipping where we get to see all of Luana as nature intended. The two fall in love and go off to another island to live together in sin, much like in the 80s film THE BLUE LAGOON. Her old man finds out and he captures the two of them. Johnny escapes but Luana is sacrificed to Pele the volcano god.

The film has some funny lines like when one of the sailors see all the lovely native girls and says “Where are we?” Johnny replies “Probably one of the Virgin islands.” he responds “God, I hope not.”

Dolores Del Rio

David O Selznick made no secret about wanting to make “adult fare.” and ,despite the fact that neither he nor his director King Vidor liked the play it was based on, went ahead and made the picture. The picture was specifically groomed for star Dolores Del Rio. The Mexican actress spoke with a heavy accent, so there isn’t much dialog for her other than the usual faux-Polynesian speak. It’s a shame that many modern reviewers say she was of limited talents, they obviously haven’t seen the films she made in Mexico in the 40’s for director Emilio Hernandez (who was the model for the Oscar statue) like RIO ESCONDIDO and my favorite MARIA CANDALARIA, which took the 1946 Palm d’Ore at Cannes Film Festival.

What really makes this film though is Max Steiner’s lush score. Most pictures in this period did not have orchestral scores as studio heads thought that audiences were distracted by them; think of the Universal Horror pictures, there is no music in them outside of the music during the opening titles, DRACULA and THE MUMMY both use Swan Lake. For many years BIRD OF PARADISE was believed to have been the first full film score but there were a couple others that preceded it. It’s Steiner’s score for KING KONG that would change things as he created leitmotifs for all the principle characters, so, you can say that Max Steiners work for RKO was a real game changer.

MAX STEINER: The RKO Years (1932-1935) : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

MAX STEINER: The RKO Years (1932-1935)RKO OrchestraMax Steiner, conductor1. Symphony for Six Million (1932)2. The Bird of Paradise (1932)3. King Kong…

d. Cedric Gibbons
s. Johnny Weissmuller Maureen O’ Sullivan, Neil Hamilton

Edgar Rice Burroughs had failed at just about everything he tried to do to support his family, then one day while reading a pulp magazine he thought to himself “I can write something better than this.” and he did; It was called Dejah Thoris, The Princess of Mars and he sold it to All-Story magazine. They cut him a check “For all rights” but he immediately returned insisting it read “First magazine rights.” The publishers replied “well, what other rights could there be?” “I don’t know, maybe motion pictures”. This was 1912 and the publishers were like, whatever.

His next creation came with the same deal and TARZAN was an even bigger success, Since he retained all rights he licensed the name to just about everything including films and this made Burroughs very wealthy. By the time the first MGM Johnny Weissmuller TARZAN THE APE MAN in 1932, there had already been five Tarzan pictures made. This new one, however, was not to Burroughs liking as this is the picture where Tarzan became a monosyllabic muscle hunk “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”, a far cry from the multi-lingual, intelligent John Clayton; raised by Lord Greystoke, not by gorillas but by the Mangani, kind of like Bigfoot-type creatures with their own language, Tarzan meaning white ape.

The impetus for MGM making TARZAN THE APE MAN was their version of Alfred Aloysius’ novel TRADER HORN that became a hit. They sunk a half a million bucks on this new version of Edgar Rice Burroughs beloved character and it proved to be a wise investment. They went on to build a jungle set and had zoo full of animals, in fact all the studios decided to build jungles on their back lots, Warner Bros still has theirs; I used to love going through it while I walked off my burrito when I worked there.

Other shooting locations were Sherwood Forest in the Santa Monica Mountains and Whittier in Orange County. TARZAN THE APE MAN had a few issues with the censors but not as much as its follow up, the bigger budgeted(over a million), and superior film TARZAN AND HIS MATE. This one concerns white hunters wanting to plunder ivory from an elephant graveyard, but really its about Tarzan wrestling animals and Jane (again played by Maureen O’ Hara) running around in her, very, revealing loin cloth. This unmarried couple sleeps in the same tree house and enjoy skinny dipping. Future BATMAN Commissionaire Gordon, Neil Hamilton, returns again to convince Jane to return to England. Censors cut out around 14 mins of footage as Jane’s two-piece is quite revealing at times, and most famously, her nude swim.

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In 1929, old-man Laemmle made his 21 year old son Carl Laemmle Jr. Head of Production for Universal Pictures. Universal was known for its vast land an its limited budgets and, when the old dark house picture THE CAT AND THE CANARY (see the article on lost films for more info) was a major hit, the junior Laemmle suggested to pop that perhaps they should make a big budgeted horror picture. Pops reluctantly gave him the O.K. Laemmle Junior grabbed a copy of Bram Stokers 1887 Gothic masterpiece DRACULA and handed it to his readers who where like “No way!” This story is too gruesome, the censors would have a field day and audiences, quite frankly, would be appalled.

Junior went ahead and made it anyway, he’ll worry about Col. Jason Joy and his office later. In fact Tod Browning’s DRACULA, upon completion, actually had no problems with the Col. who said that it was “quite satisfactory from the standpoint of the code.” About the only problems the junior Laemmle encountered with the picture was from director Tod Browning. At the time Browning was one of MGM’s star directors having made several hits together with Lon Chaney, but Universal was no MGM and were much more fiscally conservative and denied Browning with much of his demands, especially Browning’s desire to shoot the picture as a silent; Browning absolutely hated the bulky sound equipment and it shows, as the film is very much shot like a stage play with very little camera movement.

Dracula premiered, just in time for Valentine’s Day on Feburary 12, 1931 and was a massive hit, but when stories started coming out that some people were fainting the Col. Said “Is this the beginning of a new cycle that ought to be retarded or killed.” You betcha, and Laemmle Jr. knew he had to capitalize on it and quickly; he immediately began on a second monster flick FRANKENSTEIN.

FRANKENSTEIN did have some issues again, not with the Col. but with its stars. Actors Boris Karloff and Mae Clark both objected to the drowning of the little girl that Frankenstein’s creation encounters. Karloff wanted to play the scene as a gentle giant who accidentally kills the child but director James Whale wanted Karloff to pick her up and throw her into the lake. To the horror of Junior, when the film previewed October 29, 1931, audience members walked out, then back in, then out again, then in again (sounds like my mom when she took me to see Halloween 2 in ’81).

Junior thought for sure he had a flop on his hands but he went ahead and released it where it would out-gross the studio’s DRACULA, which had been released just a few months earlier. Unfortunately the mid-west and east coast censors had a field day with it, wanting to excise Henry Frankenstein’s blasphemous soliloquy “In the name of God, now I know what it means to be God!” as well as the drowning of the little girl. Junior knowing he had a hit on his hands sent out the Col. to chill them mother f’ers out. Sadly, upon re-release in ’37, Universal cut them out of the negative and these moments were lost until they were restored, from a print, and placed back in the 80s.   

With these two pictures being the top grossers, no pun intended, Universal continued to make more horrors like THE MUMMY, however their lower- budgeted and lower-tiered pictures are melodramatic sleaze fests and some of my favorites from this period.

d. Robert Florey
s. Bela Lugosi, Sydney Fox

Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story of the same name, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is considered the first detective story as it was published over 20 years before Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone; Another book that is considered the first detective novel, The Moonstone gave use the “who done it.” while Poe gave use the brilliant detective that solves the crimes through insight and observation and the story is narrated by his unnamed gentleman who’s sharing a room with C. August Dupin. A lot of the devices and character traits were used by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the creation of Sherlock Holmes and his narrator & fellow lodger Dr. John Watson.

So, what does this have to do with the movie? Absolutely nothing as the writers Tom Reed, Dale Van Every, and a young John Huston pretty much tossed out the detective stuff and focused instead on the horror aspect. Here, C. August Dupin, now called Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames, billed as Leon Waycoff) is out at a carnival with his date Camille (Sydney Fox) where they go and see sideshow barker Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) who has a gorilla named Erik with whom he can communicate; he speaks about evolution and how we all come from primordial slime.

Off stage, however, the deranged Dr. wishes to mix the gorilla’s blood with a woman’s i.e. mate. His first try at it is with a prostitute (Arlene Francis) This, which is a bit morbid, upset the censor but nowhere near how pissed off they were about the earlier lecture on evolution. Needless to say the prostitute’s blood is of no use and he dumps her body and goes after the virginal Camille by having Erik abduct her and a chase along Parisian rooftops ensues.

MURDERS ON THE RUE MORGUE was given to director Robert Florey after he was let go on FRANKENSTEIN and replaced by James Whale, but one has to wonder why as the film is much more disturbing and the production design is incredible, the sets are very expressionistic and remind one of Tim Burton’s A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.

,Some stuff is a bit goofy especially Eric the gorilla, mainly the close-ups using a real ape, they should’ve just stuck with the costume created by Carlos “Charles” Cruz Gemora “King of the Gorilla men.” Charles’ gorilla costumes have shown up in pictures by the Marx Brothers, The Little Rascals, Laurel and Hardy., Abbott and Costello and many others and, since he was of small stature, he often played them as well; In fact, Charles’ gorillas and make-ups have made appearances in many of the films in this article including the next film…

d. Erle C. Kenton
s. Charles Laughton, Richard Arlene, Arthur Holm

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In ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, Paramount pictures really pushed the limits of the code and in the process made one of the most disturbing pictures of the thirties. After the huge success of Universal Pictures DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN all the studios wanted in on the horror chills action and Paramount Pictures, known mostly for their comedies, dove right into the horror business and with gusto; first with 1931’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, another great pre-code filled with lurid sexuality, and then they followed it with the chilling reworking of H. G. Welles’ 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. The script written by first time screen writer Philip Wylie, who had just written the sci-fi novel Gladiator, a book that was an inspiration for Superman; and Waldemar Young, who was already known for writing twisted melodramas for director Tod Browning on pictures like THE UNHOLY THREE, THE UNKNOWN and WEST OF ZANZIBAR and the now re-titled ISLAND OF LOST SOULS would be more in keeping with Brownings type of picture than the source novel.

The basic premise of the novel is a  shipwrecked man is rescued by a man named Montgomery who is transporting animals to an island. Once at the island he meets Dr. Moreau who is vivisecting animals and trying to make them human. On the island there are “beast folk” who are taught not to eat flesh nor crawl on fours, “That is the law, are we not men?”, or they will go to the house of pain.

In the book the crazed Doctor is killed early on in a fight with a panther woman, and this is were the film differs. In the film, the crazed Doctor, (played with sleazy delight by Charles Laughton), hopes to have his most perfect creation, Lota (Katherine Burke), mate with the shipwrecked Parker (Richard Arlen) to see if his creation can be completely human. When Lota’s fingers start to revert to a panther after she’s aroused, it puts Moreau’s plan to a halt, that is until Parker’s fiance Leila (Ruth Thomas) arrives at the island to rescue her lover. Once Moreau gets a look at her blonde beauty he instructs one of his ape-men to rape her; a bit that was excised from later prints but has now been restored.

H.G Welles’ book was written as a protest against vivisection.

The panther woman was strictly an invention of the film, a marketing ploy that paid off. There was a country wide search for the panther woman prior to filming. Kathleen Burke won a contest with 60,000 applicants to get the roll.

The overall sadism got this film outright banned in England until the 60s when cuts were made. Universal bought it and many other Paramount films in the 50s, which is why it’s sometimes mixed with their monsters collection, at least in the VHS days.

d.Charles Brabin
s. Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Myrna Loy

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU has had a long history of censorship, first in its original release for its sadism and racism, then again in the 70s for it racism; and it was the latter version that was most often seen until its DVD release. I used to see pictures of this in mags like Famous Monsters of Filmland, but didn’t actually see the movie until VHS and, boy, what a surprise that was!

British Secret Service commissionaire Nayland Smith seeks to go to the gobi desert to uncover the lost tomb of Genghis Kahn once there he believes he can find the sword of power but the fiendish Fu Manchu wants it first. With it he can unite the Asian people’s and destroy the white devils. 

Racial stereotypes are more often than not cruel and unsettling and can take one right out of a film, but in this case it is so obnoxious and over the top that it’s outrageously hilarious, like a Mel Brooks film; It also helps when the actors know that what they’re doing is absurd and just ham it up, in particular Myrna Loy as Fu Manchu’s “…Ugly and insignificant daughter”, Fah Lo See.

Fu Manchu was the creation of novelist Sax Rohmer, an interesting man himself, he was a member of the Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn and a Rosicrucian; his stories of Scotland yard commissioner Naylan Smith fighting his arch nemesis Dr. Fu Manchu against world domination really caught on with the public in the early 1900s and, like fellow pulp heroes Doc Savage, The Shadow and Tarzan, continued to be reprinted in paperbacks into the 70’s . THE MASK OF FU MANCHU was an obvious inspiration on John Carpenter’s BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.

The film is filled with insane dialog.
Fu Manchu: “Conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!”

Fa Lo See: “He is not entirely unhandsome, is he?”

Fu Manchu: “for a white man, no.”

Fu Manchu: “You cursed son of a white dog, I’ll flail you for this.”

Just be warned for every “White dog” comment there is “You yellow monster!”

When the racial stuff isn’t happening, there’s Fa Lo See’s sadistic nympho. As she has young hero Terrence (Charles Starrett) whipped she insatiably shouts “faster! faster! faster!” Manchu has a lab filled with all kinds of torture devices: a pit of alligators, a chamber of spikes and a ringing bell torture device.

This was distributed by MGM but it was made by Cosmopolitan Productions, yes, THAT Cosmopolitan. Cosmo was owned by William Randolph Hearst to make movies for his wife Marion Davies and originally had a deal with Paramount. Paramount head Adolph Zukor made this deal so that Paramount could have story rights from magazines Hurst owned, Harper’s Bizarre and Cosmopolitan. Hurst pulled out of his deal because of Paramounts un-ethical practices of block booking films, which the Supreme Court put an end to in the 40s.

Blu-ray Case

Blu-ray Single Disc Case. These cases come with a full outer sleeve and inside literature tabs. Push-button hubs.


A good chunk of these pre-code films can be found on disc, Warner Bros. alone has several volumes of their FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD line which is good considering that the studio now has quite possibly the largest film library around, and between their DVD and Blu-Rays they also have their Warner Archive on demand DVD-Rs and BD-Rs. Now other studios have followed suit, so, one can now purchase many pre-codes instead of looking at bad transfers on YouTube. Many of these were on the great streaming service FilmStruck, but alas, it’s no longer, too bad because it would’ve helped me out with this piece.


Sin In Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood Mark A. Vieira 1999 Harry N. Abrams Inc.  Publishing

Complicated Women; Sex and Power In Pre-Code Hollywood Mick LaSalle 2000 St. Martin’s Press

Films of The Thirties Jerry Vermilye 1982 Citadel Press

Tarzan of The Movies: A PictorialHistory of More Than 50 Years of Edgar Rice Burroughs Legendary Hero by Gabe Essoe 1968 Citadel Press

We’re In The Money: Depression America and It’s Films Andrew Bergman 1971 Elephant Paperbacks

The Hollywood Professionals vol. 5 King Vidor, John Cromwell, Mervyn LeRoy Denton Canham 1976 The Tantivy Press