Every classic Hollywood fan knows (and resents) the infamous code. And for good reason. The Hays Code was put in place to pacify religious audiences in the ’30s. It forbade films from showcasing interracial relationships, sex, nudity, gore, drugs, and anything that could be potentially offensive… AKA the stuff that made films fun! Luckily for us, we can still watch the best of Hollywood from when the women were badass, the themes were controversial and the entertainment was guaranteed. If you’re looking to delve deep into this magnificent era of cinema, here are 10 pre-code films you can’t afford to miss:
Baby Face (1933)
If there’s one film that sums up the pre-code era perfectly, it’s Baby Face. Sex, murder, infidelity – Nothing is off-limits for Lily Powers! Barbara Stanwyck’s character takes every negative stereotype about being an attractive woman and turns it into badassery! This is definitely a film that will make you realize just how much cinema has regressed in the last eighty years.
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
As the name suggests… Or blatantly states, Gold Diggers follows a few gold diggers, one of whom is Ginger Rogers! Add some eyebrow-raising songs like Pettin’ in the Park and The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re in the Money), and you have the quintessential pre-code film!
Imitation of Life (1934)
Many modern films have taken on racism. However, none of them have been as bold and successful as Imitation of Life. An African-American woman who attempts to pass for white, strained family relations and a unique employer-employee dynamic are what make this film a must-watch!
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
You don’t know horror until you’ve watched a pre-code horror movie. And you don’t know pre-code horror until you’ve watched Island of Lost Souls. The film, based on HG Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, is based on an island where human-animal hybrids are the norm. Bestiality and rebellion are just two of the film’s themes that made people clutch their pearls.
The only thing better than Alfred Hitchcock is pre-code Alfred Hitchcock. Take our word for it. Take the scariest parts of the most chilling thrillers you’ve seen and add some not-so-subtle racial metaphors, and you have one of Hitchcock’s finest films. Now, that’s saying a lot!
20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)
Murder, suicide and the death penalty. These are some of the more tame things tackled by 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. What happens when a run-of-the-mill goon is put behind bars? He finds himself tangled in a web of crime, lies and deceit, far worse than he could ever have imagined. This film is a brazen look at what really goes on beyond bars.
Thirteen Women (1932)
What happens when thirteen sorority sisters’ horoscopes predict the same thing? And what happens when that thing is death? One of Hollywood’s first slasher films, Thirteen Women features a myriad of characters that would put every "strong female character" in contemporary films to shame! Add some unabashed gore and the element of originality, and you have the perfect pioneer!
We’ve all been brainwashed into believing that a strong, ambitious, career-oriented woman who enjoys her flings is a ruthless monster. Ruth Chatterton’s portrayal of Alison Drake perfectly shatters these stereotypes. In Female, the actress portrays the modern woman who is a go-getter but isn’t a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out. You go, girl!
Safe In Hell (1931)
Prostitution isn’t a topic that filmmakers have been too eager to take on. The last pre-code film to feature a protagonist who relies on it for a living is 1931’s Safe in Hell. In fact, no other wide-released film would dare to take on the topic as bravely as 1971’s Klute. This film embodies crime and passion as we know them, and isn’t that the very essence of a pre-code film?
Born to Be Bad (1934)
Circumstances force some people into lives of crime. But what about those who are born into crime? Born to Be Bad is the story of Mickey Strong, who is raised to cheat his way through life, no matter what it takes. Sure, Hollywood has treated us to stories of mothers who’ve guided their children in life. But how many of them have taken on the very real incidences of children being mere meal tickets? Only in pre-code Hollywood!