Why we can’t have nice things: Silent movie mischief before the Code

Most classic film fans know that after 1934, the movies were toned down considerably. What they may not know is that the crazy tug-of-war between censors and filmmakers extended all the way back to the dawn of film.

The silent era was freewheeling even after Will Hayes came to town in the aftermath of a few particularly lurid scandals. Hayes tried but he never really clamped down on the cinematic naughtiness the way scolds of the day would have liked. The crackdown came later and once the Code began to be enforced in earnest, there were a few things that were no longer allowed in the movies. (As usual, I will provide a link to my review of the GIF’s source.)

You couldn’t have this:

mystery-of-the-leaping-fish-opium(The Mystery of the Leaping Fish and, no, they are not being euphemistic.)

Or this:

(Not without paying a fine, anyway)
(Not without paying a fine, anyway)

(M’Liss telling it like it is.)

And certainly not that:

wildcat-kiss(Pola Negri in The Wildcat. Mr. Breen would have fainted.)

And we certainly couldn’t have this:

toll-gate-kill-you(William S. Hart strangles his enemy and tosses him off a cliff in The Toll Gate, which strikes me as literal overkill. I have a warped sense of wordplay.)

And absolutely none of this:

cheat-bloody-walls(Some very stylish bloodwork from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat.)

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project. Be sure to check out the other great posts!

10 Replies to “Why we can’t have nice things: Silent movie mischief before the Code”

  1. Fritzi! Such blatant gifs! I’m clutching my pearls and reeling about the room, aghast.

    Intellectually, I know that the Silent Era wasn’t as hemmed-in as the sound era, but I still find some of the images surprising. A very cheeky bunch they were in the early film days, no?

    Thank you for spearheading this terrific blogathon once again. It’s always a pleasure!

  2. I love your list here because it shows how typical the movies were before Hays went all czarist on the town. It makes me wet to put the song on “I get no kick from cocaine…”

    1. The Code really was bizarre because the toning down of sex, drugs and violence was not its only aim. HEAVEN FORBID a nice, clean cut Chinese guy should date a white chick and the idea of married couples sharing a bed… Oh, I shall surely faint! And then there was Breen’s bizarre demand that NAZIS not be portrayed as such bad guys in “Man Hunt”… Sigh.

  3. Wow, very interesting! The gifs do a great job of explaining what was taken out after the code. I never realized the silent movies could be so scandalous! ๐Ÿ™‚

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