Pre-Code Horror Censorship

I joined the Turner Classic Movies Facebook group which I thoroughly enjoy. Talking about our favorite films, creepiest, classic vs. neoclassical films and which should be shown on TCM.

In our conversation on creepy movies,  “The Black Cat”, Universal 1934, was mentioned and the fact that this member didn’t realize pre-code films had this type of content; mummified women’s bodies in the basement, the proposed torture of skinning Boris Karloff alive, etc. If you haven’t seen it, put it at the top of your must-see list.

In the comments, I suggested in addition to “The Black Cat” to also check out “Mad Love”, Universal, 1935. It stars Peter Lorre and is a total freak fest. Another must-see flick. It stars Peter Lorre as the mad Dr. Gogol who’s obsessed with the wife ( Frances Drake) of a renown pianist whose hands he’s transplanted after a train wreck. Gogol has a definite fetish side and will do anything to have Miss Frances Drake.

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“Mad Love” – Peter Lorre  (Dr. Gogol)

I love Pre-Code films because they had so much leeway in terms of subject matter, even wardrobe. I always recommend adding Pre-Code to your film history education. By definition Pre-Code films:

Refers to the brief era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound pictures in 1929 and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines, popularly known as the “Hays Code”, in mid-1934.

In 1922, after some risqué films and a series of off-screen scandals involving Hollywood stars, the studios enlisted Presbyterian elder William H. “Will” Hays, a figure of “unblemished rectitude”, to rehabilitate Hollywood’s image. Hays, later nicknamed the motion picture “Czar”, was paid the then-lavish sum of $100,000 a year (equivalent to more than $1.4 million in 2015 dollars). (Wikipedia)

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William “Will” Hays

As a result, films in the late 1920s and early 1930s included depictions of sexual innuendo, profanity, illegal drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and homosexuality.

Unlike silent-era sex and crime pictures, silent horror movies, despite being produced in the hundreds, were never a major concern for censors or civic leaders. When sound horror films were released, however, they quickly caused controversy. Sound provided “atmospheric music and sound effects, creepy-voiced macabre dialogue and a liberal dose of blood-curdling screams” which intensified its effects on audiences, and consequently on moral crusaders.

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein(1931).

The monster’s brutality, and the doctor’s declaration that “”Now I know what it feels like to be God!”, shocked many moviegoers. By the time of Bride of Frankenstein(1935), the Code was in full effect.

The Hays Code did not mention gruesomeness, and filmmakers took advantage of this oversight. However, state boards usually had no set guidelines and could object to any material they found indecent. Although films such as Frankenstein and Freaks caused controversy when they were released, they had already been re-cut to comply with censors. (Wikipedia)

So, the next time you or anyone else believes that black and white films are a bore, remember to check out “The Black Cat”, or “Mad Love”. If you do, leave a comment; I’d be intrigued to read your thoughts.


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“You Can’t Take it With You” 1938

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I enjoy classic television just like classic films so I’m hooked on a tv station called METV. Perry Mason with Raymond Burr is one of my favorites so I usually catch an episode daily. I love the convoluted storylines and the less than plausible show ending of the murderer jumping up in court and hysterically coping to the charge; a full confession no less.

I say all this because an episode the other day featured the scenario of the rich father trying to eliminate his son’s less than a suitable new bride; “There’s $50,000 in the safe for you to fly to Paris and get a divorce.” That’s quite the offer.

Anyhoo, that got me thinking about the brilliant, “You Can’t Take it With You” the 1938 American romantic comedy film directed by Frank Capra, and starring Jean ArthurLionel BarrymoreJames Stewart and Edward Arnold.


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Cast with Director Frank Capra


Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hartthe film is about a man (Jimmy Stewart) from a family of rich snobs who becomes engaged to a woman (Jean Arthur) who speaks her mind and is from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family.

The film received two Academy Awards from seven nominations: Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Capra. An iconic director, this was Capra’s third Oscar for Best Director in just five years, following It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). It was also the highest-grossing picture of the year.

I love Jean Arthur’s character (Alice) because she is a strong woman who knows who she is and isn’t afraid to tell Jimmy Stewart (Tony) that his family can go to the blazes because they aren’t better than hers; as a matter of fact, her family understands what Jimmy’s doesn’t, that money isn’t everything and you can’t take it with you. Friends and family are what gives your life worth.


Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur


Alice, sensing that her engagement to Tony will not be well received by his parents informs Tony that if their engagement is to go forward, he must invite his parents to the house to meet her family. I’m not sure what Tony was trying to prove but, he gives his parents the wrong date so the house is in disarray with the usual family “madness” in full view. (I said they were eccentric.) 😁


Just another Tuesday night at the Sycamore house.

For me, the lesson of the movie is to live life to the fullest and cherish your family and friends. Don’t worry about being judged by others, they’re probably just jealous of how happy you are and how miserable they feel.


In the words of “Auntie Mame” from the 1958 movie.