Our Rating: ★★★★☆
L Factor: Minor lesbian content
Short Take: ‘Sin’ in cinema in the early 1930s
Alternate Titles:
Year: 2008
Duration: 68 min
Language: USA/English
MPAA: Not Rated
Writer: Steven Smith
Starring: Valerie Spencer, John Landis, Jonathan Kuntz, Joseph Breen, Camille Paglia, Hugh M. Hefner, Jack Valenti, Will H. Hays
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Thou Shalt Not Sex Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code HollywoodIn 2008, Turner Classic Movies put together a “Forbidden Hollywood Collection” of pre-code Hollywood films. Volume two includes a disc with Night Nurse, starring Barbara Stanwyck and a villainous Clark Gable, plus the documentary, Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood. The pre-code era was the time before censorship took over and severely limited what could be shown in Hollywood films.

The documentary focuses on the period from 1930 to 1934, when sex and violence were front and center in many films. The effects of the Depression meant that the big studios were on the brink of financial ruin, but the films that ramped up the “sinful” content still brought in audiences.

In particular, this was a time when leading women were allowed to be adulterers, divorcees or single women with complex sexual and social lives. Examples include Norma Shearer in The Divorcee and A Free Soul; Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis in Three on a Match; Ruth Chatterton in Female; and Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse.

There were rules in place, but until 1934, they were not enforced across the board. Each state often did its own editing before films were shown in the theater, so that what you saw in Massachusetts was a different film than the one you saw in Mississippi.

This applied to gay and lesbian content as well as anything else. The code in place stated, “Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden,” and homosexuality was generally illegal in most of the United States in the 1930s. This didn’t stop films from including a number of flaming gay male characters, especially as a source of humor. Clips are shown from films like Manhattan Parade, Dipolmaniacs, The Public Enemy (with Jimmy Cagney), Hell’s Highway and Wonder Bar.

Clips of lesbian characters are shown from Ladies They Talk About (Barbara Stanwyck) and Queen Christina (Greta Garbo).

During the making of Queen Christina, a figure would arise who would have a profound effect on Hollywood films in the coming years. Will Hays appointed Joseph Breen to oversee the production code office, and he would be instrumental in organizing Catholics across the country in a boycott of Hollywood films. It is the powerful (at the time) organized, Catholic movie going public who would finally force Hollywood to accept stringent guidelines in 1934 and actually follow them. The studios essentially gave in to a religious lobby who hit them in the pocketbook.

This documentary does a good job of both showing clips from representative films in this 1930 to 1934 era, as well as explaining how Hollywood came under such censorship. Until the code was replaced with a ratings system in the 1960s, movie roles for women were generally much more straight-laced and conservative. Breen was also concerned that films did not question authority or promote violence.

Although the time frame it covers is shorter, I found this film more coherent than Why Be Good? (AB)