The Ragtag CinemaCafe has started another series of films from the Pre-Code era–The Creature from Forbidden Hollywood. For the next four Wednesdays, they will be showing a short series of horror films from the late 1920s and early 1930s, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Island of Lost Souls, The Unknown starring Lon Chaney, and King Kong. Many of the people attending this series are film buffs who have already seen these and more films of the era, but not perhaps on the big screen as they were intended to be seen. But for people like me, who are seeing some of these classics for the first time, we are very fortunate to have Lokke Heiss to set the context and guide us through discussions after the viewing.
The Hays Code technically went into effect in 1930, but it was not strictly enforced until 1934. The films that were banned or censored under the Hays code were not necessarily banned for their explicit sexual content, although there was plenty of that back in the day. Many of the films included sexual innuendo, promiscuity, prostitution, abortion, infidelity, but they also portrayed illegal drug use, organized crime, gangsters, violence, homosexuality, domestic violence, and other social and psychological issues. Films showed people breaking common standards of morality and getting away with it. Women were often powerful. The bad guys and the wanton women did not necessarily get punished. Sometimes crime did pay. Sometimes the gangsters were more heroic than villainous. Communities feared that such films would send the wrong message and encourage bad behavior.
Even by today’s standards, some of these films are shocking. But I find them especially shocking when I think about how my grandparents would have viewed them, if given the opportunity. No wonder the Baptists were opposed to movies! All four of my grandparents were young adults during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, living in small towns in Kentucky. I have no idea if any of them ever watched movies, but I am fairly certain that their parents would have disapproved if they had.
My maternal grandparents graduated from college in 1920. For several years they taught in rural high schools and private academies. Later, they taught college: Grandmother taught sociology, marriage and the family, and her favorite, courtship and marriage. Grandaddy taught business and economics. My paternal grandmother was a teenager in the nineteen-twenties, growing up in the mountains, and heavily involved in local and state politics. Pappaw, a merchant, was a few years older than Mammaw and ran grocery stores throughout his life. I suspect all of them would have been horrified at the content of the films of the day.
The first film of the Forbidden Hollywood series was Dr. Jekyll (pronounced Jee-kil) and Mr. Hyde (1931) starring Fredrik March, which raises all kinds of disturbing questions about the dual nature of humans, about evil, about man’s relationship to God, about domestic violence, and more.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the basic plot, here is Bugs Bunny’s interpretation in Hyde and Hare.