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‘Two out of five stories should be hot’: why pre-code cinema was a golden age for women

Prior to the proscriptive Hays Code, films were populated by adulterous, marijuana-smoking gold diggers – wildly entertaining and more modern than the roles that came next We are all familiar with the limits of the Golden Age Hollywood happy ending: lovers united in marriage, criminals punished, women returned to home and hearth. Once upon a time, the dream factory used to have a much racier imagination. A celebration of pre-Hays Code cinema, subtitled Rules Are Made to Be Broken, launches this month at the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol, recalling the days before conservative censorship held sway over the biggest mass entertainment medium of the 20th century. It was a far more exciting time to be a woman on screen, or in the audience, than we would see for decades. The trouble started in 1922, when Hollywood was beginning to get a bad reputation. After series of scandals involving A-list stars, the studios hired a redoubtable Presbyterian, William Hays, to banish the “sin city” image. Hays had plenty of ideas about what should and should not be allowed on screen – he called it the “formula” – but it was another job getting the studios to play along. By 1929, the Catholic editor of Motion Picture Herald and a Jesuit priest were so incensed by the persistent inclusion of inappropriate material that they submitted a “code” of rules to the studios that would ensure that in any film “throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right”. Continue reading...

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