Forbidden Hollywood: How an Irish Catholic put a stop to titillation in Tinseltown

Book review: Juicier sex scenes, bloodier violence and racier dialogue being lapped up by cinema goers came to a shuddering end in 1934

1932: Paul Muni (1896 – 1967) as Tony Camonte and Ann Dvorak (1912 – 1979) as his sister Cesca Camonte in Scarface, a film based on the life of mob boss Al Capone. Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1932: Paul Muni (1896 – 1967) as Tony Camonte and Ann Dvorak (1912 – 1979) as his sister Cesca Camonte in Scarface, a film based on the life of mob boss Al Capone. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anybody who has, over the past few decades, taken even a vague interest in cinema history will have come across the term “pre-code”. Relating to the four years between the widespread adoption of sound in 1929 and the strict enforcement of censorship guidelines, the hyphenate is now as rooted in the cinematic lexicon as “film noir” or “rom com”. It is used to describe not just films, but actors, directors and writers. Good luck getting through your first term of cinema studies without it.

One lesser achievement of Mark A Vieira’s beautifully produced book on the era is to confirm older readers’ suspicion that the ubiquity of “pre-code” is relatively recent. The author suggests that it was used first by programmer Bruce Goldstein in the late 1980s. The book is, thus, about a millennial reconsideration of an inter-war period.

Mae West publicity portrait for the film She Done Him Wrong, 1933. Photograph: Paramount/Getty
Mae West publicity portrait for the film She Done Him Wrong, 1933. Photograph: Paramount/Getty

Forbidden Hollywood will have revelations for those who buy the caricature of the era as an unrestricted orgy of decadence. He deals with the sex comedies of Mae West. He has fun with the “kept woman” cycle that included films such as The Easiest Way (1931). He revels in the delicious excess of Marlene Dietrich’s work with Josef von Sternberg. But Vieira’s book is, as much as anything else, a history of “pre-code” censorship.

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