Book Review: ‘Forbidden Hollywood’ by Mark Vieira

Have you ever been watching an old movie and the characters onscreen do or say something that makes you jump back and go “I didn’t think they were allowed to do that back then!”? Congratulations you have just been introduced to what is dubbed a Pre-Code film. From 1930-1934 studio executives had to bring people into the theater despite the Great Depression, and they did this with the good old-fashioned draw of sex and violence. The way they saw it, box office receipts outweighed the need to adhere to the moral code of the era. This period in movie history is covered thoroughly in Mark Vieira’s new book Forbidden Hollywood: When Sin Ruled the Movies.

Vieira’s book takes readers to a time before Hollywood’s moral code created by William Hayes had teeth, and censorship edits were often decided on a local level. Year-by-year we get a detailed look at the movies the major studios were releasing and how the enforcers of the Hayes Code struggled to keep up with what was coming at them. These flicks heavily featured; empowered women, violent gangsters, and horrific monsters, while filmmakers were constantly trying to see what they could get away with. These tawdry flicks were not simply exploitative works thrown out for a quick buck either, but were productions the studios heavily invested in featuring top-named stars. Hollywood icons like; Norma Shearer, Bela Lugosi, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck , James Cagney, Boris Karloff, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, and countless others experienced major career peaks during this period. With the advent of talkies, William Hayes and his enforcers of onscreen morality, struggled to figure out what role they should play in this evolution of the film industry. For example with the 1931 release of Dracula, Vieira tells how despite the sexual overtones and macabre nature of the film Hayes wondered if forcvrthey could or should do anything because technically the title character responsible for all this horror was not human. With each watershed film of the early 1930’s from; Public Enemy to Frankenstein to Red-Headed Woman and beyond, readers see the struggle the studio and their filmmakers had against the national and regional censorship boards. Forbidden Hollywood also includes exerts from letters written by average moviegoers to various film magazines and trade publications to gauge where the national mood was regarding what they were seeing onscreen. The reader gets to see firsthand how even a sophisticated New Yorker could be shocked at Joan Crawford in revealing attire, while a working mother in South Dakota is alright with her child seeing a movie about a brothel. Perhaps the most interesting of these is from Al Capone who criticized the popular Depression-era gangster flicks for being a bad influence on impressionable viewers. Towards the end of the book, Vieira chronicles an oft-overlooked moment of movie history where the entirety of the Catholic church boycotted Hollywood hitting the studios hard in their wallets until they agreed to strictly follow the Hayes Code enforcers.

Forbidden Hollywood is a prized addition to any cinephiles library, giving an in-depth look at a beloved period in movie history. Vieira not only looks at the landmark movies of the Pre-Code Era but also examines what was going on around them; from the studio politics to social sentiments. He tells the story of a time period where the major studios pushed envelopes to see just how far they could go.