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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Halloween – Friday Night Frights!


TCM Horror Fridays in October

In my countdown to Halloween, I’ve already started watching my Friday night fright movies with help from my favorite classic film channel Turner Classic Movies. Fridays in October at 8:00 pm, they’re featuring theme-based horror flicks. The theme for Friday, October 9th is ‘Rogue Body Parts’. (sounds like fun!) To help other fans with fright flick selections, I’ll be recommending my DVR worthy choices for the TCM Horror Fest. So fire up the DVR, grab your favorite go-to snack and settle into the Halloween spirit!


Mad love

Mad Love (1935) – Peter Lorre, Frances Drake


My DVR choice of movies featured in the ‘Rogue Body Parts’ theme, is “Mad Love” (1935) directed by German filmmaker Karl Freund and starring Peter Lorre, Frances Drake and ‘Dr. Frankenstein’ himself, Colin Clive. An adaptation of Maurice Renard’s story The Hands of Orlac, it’s probably one of the most bizarre movies you’ll ever see.


Peter Lorre as Dr. Gogol

“Mad Love” was so disturbing for the time that the studio released the film with an opening disclaimer that began, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer feels that it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning….” The Hays censorship office had objections to the showing of the train wreck or any “gruesome” images. It also had issues with the torture scenes and a shot of Dr. Gogol fondling the wax replica of Yvonne. Oops!


This movie is Lorre’s American film debut and he portrays the strange Dr. Gogol – his name alone evokes an unsettling mood. Well, Gogol seems to have a thing for sadomasochism which he enjoys at the ‘Théâtre des Horreurs’. Actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) is the object of Dr. Gogol’s obsession as she embodies his fantasy on stage in the theater company’s latest torture production.

So sorry Dr. Gogol but Yvonne is married to Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) – accomplished concert pianist – but anyway, she is so NOT into this creepy little man who has a standing box seat and has attended every performance. Gogol is so obsessed with Yvonne that he buys the wax figure of her after the show’s final performance. Mind you this is a life-size replica that he enshrines in his home so he can “always possess her.” Told you he was creepy.

Yvonne Orlac in wax – Dr. Gogol

The brilliant Dr. Gogol is a renowned surgeon with whom Yvonne, in desperation, must plead with to save her successful pianist husband’s hands and career after a gruesome train wreck. Well, of course, he’ll help his love but during emergency surgery on Stephen he comes up with the twisted idea to graft the hands of a knife-wielding killer who has just been put to death on the guillotine. (And of course, Gogol attended the decapitation.) However, soon afterward Stephen begins to suspect that something is seriously wrong with his new found extremities.

This is where we add another level of freaky to the plot. I’m not going to give anything away – that goes against every film fan rule. So, check it out and let me know on a scale of 1 – 10 the creep/freak factor in the comments. Also, be sure to stay tuned for next week’s DVR worthy fright flick. Theme – ‘Scary Kids’.


Happy Viewing!