Although "Pre-Code" is a period rather than a genre, the following common style characteristics can be discerned:
- Cynicism - brought on by the Depression
- Sparse storytelling, short running time - usually just over one hour (meant for a double-bill) - and inexpensive production
- Open treatment of prostitution (often shown to be caused by economic necessity), adultery, and pre-marital sex, combined with lots of sexual innuendo.
- Many steamy "vice" films with scantily dressed actresses - the studios and theaters had heavily invested in expensive sound equipment and despite the Depression wanted desperately to attract viewers. Take Jane performing a naked underwater ballet in Tarzan and His Mate (1934), inconceivable in what during the Hays Code in fact became a children's film.
- Violence - gangs are treated with sympathy, as in Scarface (1931) and horror films also get their start with Frankenstein, Dracula and Freaks.
- Strong women, often with a "gold diggers" theme, or women literally "sleeping" their way from poverty to the top, as in Baby Face or The Red-Haired Woman. "This is the twentieth century. Go out into the world and get what happiness you can."
In all, with their cynicism and lack of a moral stance, as well as their "grown-up" way of treating love and life's problems, these films at their best are surprisingly modern.
As is clear from the above, "Pre-Code" is not a genre, but a period style. There were comedies, adventure films, horror films, crime films and so on. But the horror and crime films of this period are already famous enough in their own right, and as the religious zealots behind the Hays Code in the first place pointed their arrows at "vice," we will pick our best films from those with a liberal admixture of that juicy element - in other words the "Pre-Code films in the narrow sense of the word," those that were forbidden and could not be shown in public in the years that the Hays Code was enforced between 1934 and 1968:
- Trouble in Paradise (1932) by Ernst Lubitsch, and with Mariam Hopkins, Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall. A gentleman pickpocket and a lady thief join forces to rob the beautiful owner of a perfume company. More sophisticated than the usual Pre-code film and foreshadowing the Screwball genre in its witty dialogues, but all the same forbidden by the Hays Code and not publicly shown in the U.S. between 1934 and 1968. (10)
- Design for a Living (1933) by Ernst Lubitsch, and with Miriam Hopkins, Frederic March and Gary Cooper. A poet and a painter both fall in love with the same woman and the trio agrees to try living together in a menage-a-trois. A sophisticated and gracious film, but the unresolved love triangle crashed against the Code's sensibilities. Compare this to the Code-film Hands Across the Table (1935), where a similar love triangle can't be resolved anymore in the same grown-up way. (9)
- The Red-Headed Woman (1932) with Jean Harlow. A sexpot secretary resolved to get higher up breaks up the marriage of her rich boss. After she marries him, she has an affair with his even richer business relation but also seeks consolation with the French chauffeur. Outrageous film about a stone-hard social climber who succeeds. Great is the scene where she bares her leg to show that her garter has a portrait of her boss affixed to it. By the way, the script was written by Anita Loos with F. Scott Fitzgerald. This film offended so many moral zealots with its adultery, promiscuous sex (such as a steamy scene in a telephone booth) and Harlow in garters that it was instrumental in bringing about the strict Hays Code enforcement of 1934. (9)
- Blonde Crazy (1931) by Roy del Ruth and with Joan Blondell and James Cagney. In this grifters flick, a wisecracking bellhop and feisty chambermaid join forces to fleece other lawbreakers, but themselves become the victim of a double deal. Amoral movie with slick dialogue, frequent face-slapping and racy scenes. (8.5)
- Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck. Lurid and fast-paced. A penniless young woman literally sleeps her way to the top in a corporate skyscraper. Fascinating amoral tale about a woman who uses sex remorsefully for advancement and considers the men in her path only as so many dumb stepping stones to success, negating all romantic notions about "love." Barbara Stanwyck's sexual energy splashes off the screen in this audacious flick that almost single-handed brought about the strict censorship of the Code. (8.5)
- Night Nurse (1931) by William Wellman and with Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell and Ben Lyon. A lurid and fast-paced mix of hospital film, gangster film and comedy that strangely enough works very well, also thanks to Stanwyck's scene-stealing performance. A night nurse discovers a plot to murder two children for their inheritance and enlists the help of her bootlegger buddy to save them. The Code must have objected especially to the frequent scenes where Stanwyck and Blondell appear in their underwear, but the whole film is pulpy, violent and sexy. (8.5)
- Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) by Frank Capra and with Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther. An American missionary is captured by a Chinese warlord and finds herself falling in love with the cultivated gentleman. Caused an uproar (especially among women from the religious right) because sexual relations between different races were forbidden at the time. (7)
- Forbidden (1932) by Frank Capra and with Barbara Stanwyck and Adolphe Menjou. On a cruise, a librarian falls for a mysterious married man who later appears to be a district attorney an his way to political greatness. She bears his child, but he refuses to divorce his crippled wife, and adopts the daughter as his own. The censored elements of adultery and the unmarried mother are not relevant anymore today, and all that remains is a rather soapy melodrama, despite the presence of Barbara Stanwyck. (7)
- The Divorcee (1930) with Norma Shearer. Often called "the first Pre-Code film." When a wife discovers her husband is cheating on her, she pays him back in kind - exposing the double standard, for while her hubby thought his own peccadillo "didn't mean anything," her faux-pas is too much for him to stomach. The ending is conventionally gender-conforming. (6.5)
- A Free Soul (1931) by Clarence Brown and with Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard and Lionel Barrymore. An alcoholic lawyer who successfully defended a notorious gambler on a murder charge objects when his free-spirited daughter becomes romantically involved with him. Sexually charged melodrama.
- Skyscraper Souls (1932) with Maureen O'Sullivan and Warren William. A ruthless empire builder wants to erect a skyscraper to his own ego. Pulpy film about capitalistic greed and women who do everything necessary to get what they want. But what goes up, must go down, too.
- Midnight Mary (1933) by William Wellman and with Loretta Young. A young women an trial for murder reviews her past life of crime. Contains some suggestive scenes but is not really risqué.
- Wild Boys of the Road (1933) by William Wellman. In the depths of the Depression, two teenage boys take to the road to help their struggling parents, but things are tougher than expected. Energetic and vivid time capsule, realism mixed with social commentary. Peppered with some strong stuff.
- Story of Temple Drake (1933) with Miriam Hopkins and Jack La Rue. A wild Southern belle falls into the hands of a gang of bootleggers and is made into a sex-slave by the gang leader. Based on Sanctuary by William Faulkner. Another "scandalous" movie that helped the acceptation of the Hays Code.
- [She Done Him Wrong (1933) with Mae West and Gary Cooper. New York singer and nightclub owner Lady Lou has lots of male friends but unfortunately one of them is am escaped criminal. Based on a racy 1928 play, this is an example of a film that was heavily toned down to get by the Code and that went on to be nominated for an Academy Award. Still, there are some innuendos and double-entendres left. Fast-paced and atmospheric, although also rather cartoonish. Just added here for comparison.]