These early movies were mostly free of censorship and contain all kinds of things like near-nudity, violence, portrayals of women that violated the conservative norm (running businesses! doing drugs! sex with non-husbands!), and difficult topics like rape, abortion, incest, abuse, addiction.
Unfortunately, the drawback to many of these earlier films is they are terrible. They have weird, pointless plots, bad acting, continuity issues, and, worst of all for me, stupid and convenient endings. Still, I love them best. I watch them over and over because there are so many small details and I love absorbing all of the sets, street scenes, clothes, slang. They seem like much truer reflections of life than glossier, more edited films.
Since the code was enforced from the mid 1930s to the late 1960s, I would guess most people probably haven't seen films made before it. My first exposure to pre-code movies was FEMALE (all caps for emphasis, as in, not a lady but a-), which is a story about the fall of a corporate titan who learns the same lesson that all women learn in these films: being independent will ruin your entire life. Societal constraints for women are for their own good! Examples:
The Divorcee (1930): A wife learns that her beloved husband has cheated on her with someone named Janice, for god's sake. She gets very drunk and sleeps with his best friend as payback. He divorces her and she's never happy again. Until he takes her back.
A Free Soul (1931): A girl is raised by her libertine father whose lack of conservative parenting lands her in the bed of a mobster who looks a lot like Clark Gable. Clark tries to ruin her life and Leslie Howard rescues her and brings her back to the prim world she should have occupied all along.
Three on a Match (1932): A bored and fickle housewife leaves her goodguy husband for some scumbag she meets on a cruise. She gets addicted to heroin and the boyfriend abducts her child from the ex-husband to ransom him for money to pay off his debt to the mob. A very young and vicious looking Humphrey Bogart is one of the bad guys who decides to just kill the child, which the mother prevents by jumping out of a window with a note to the police about the kid's whereabouts written on her dress.
Starting to get the idea? I think it's safer in the house, babe.
Another thing that shocked me about the pre-code films is seeing big stars playing some scandalous roles as younger women. One day I was searching for photos of Claudette Colbert in her Cleopatra outfit, as you do, when I found this clip from The Sign of the Cross, another crazy early film. I thought the Cleo dress was risque for her, but apparently not. Here she is, playing an Arab princess and bouncing around topless in a milk bath. Well, she is French.
I was also surprised to see Norma Shearer in similar roles, although they apparently couldn't get her to take her clothes off, and the extent of her sex scenes are outside shots of some drapes closing, or of her being in a man's house in the morning, which tells you all you need to know about her night.
Edit: OH MY GOD, Universal has gone through and had all the clips from The Sign of the Cross taken down! Don't they have better things to do? But I did find this, in case you didn't believe me earlier:
|A few years later, she'd become America's considerably more modest sweetheart in "It Happened One Night"|