From the Mitchell brothers to Kink.com, San Francisco has always been a little…uncensored.
So it's only fitting that a local festival celebrating pre-Code films -- those made after the introduction of sound but before the enforcement of the Hays Code censorship guidelines -- would be thoroughly celebrated.
Starting this Friday, San Francisco's Roxie Theater will present "Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films for a Nasty-Ass World!" -- a pre-Code film festival highlighting three themes: sex, crime and horror. (Obviously, we're in.)
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In a fabulous write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle summed up the spirit of pre-Code film:
The term pre-Code refers to a small window of time, approximately five years, between Hollywood's widespread adoption of sound and the coming of censorship in the form of the strict Production Code, which came down like an ax on July 1, 1934. Before that, only one thing held studios back, and that was their sense of what an audience would tolerate.
Fortunately for us, audiences in the early 1930s -- coming off the social rebellion of the 1920s and in the midst of a devastating Depression -- were in the mood for sophisticated, grown-up entertainment.
The result: a collection of risk-taking films that cared more about truth in expression than appeasing the right people.
Included in the Roxie's festival are classics like George Abbott's deception-laced drama "The Cheat"; Tod Browing's cult classic "Freaks," a grippingly sincere film about physically deformed circus performers (starring actual circus performers); and the 1932 original bloodbath, "Scarface."
All bets are off with pre-Code, so expect the works: drugs, nudity, violence, torture and generally disturbing material. But unlike today's Blockbusters, pre-Code films don't make it pretty.
Visit the website for a complete list of films and showtimes, and check out a few of our favorites in our slideshow below:
This blistering pre-code gangster saga towers over the rest--an unnerving portrait of a brutally evil and immoral man (patterned very loosely after Al Capone) obsessed with the power that crime and other perversions have carved out for him. Blissfully violent and sexually profane, SCARFACE sears itself onto your unsuspecting brain like few other films can. Starring Paul Muni, Ann Dovrak, Boris Karloff, Karen Morley. Directed by Howard Hawks. In B&W. 35mm Studio Archive Print. 93 mins. --The Roxie
Three young women, friends since childhood, reunite after years of separation. But the random hand of fate has determined that at least one of them will descend into the depths of drugs, depravity and death before the breathless pace of this tragically exciting sixty-three minute pre-code melodrama has exhausted itself. Starring Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. In B&W. HQ Digital. 63 mins. --The Roxie
On a desolate uncharted island, a demented scientist conducts ungodly experiments in evolution leading to the creation of a race of mutant human abominations! Before long he establishes himself as the ruling god of these unearthly beings, bringing about a reign of agonizing terror! One of Hollywood's strangest, most disturbing horror classics! Starring Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Leila Hyams, Richard Arlen. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. In B&W. 35mm Studio Archive Print! 70 mins. --The Roxie
This completely uninhibited blend of murder mystery and movie musical was released just weeks before Hollywood's self-imposed production code went into effect, taking full advantage of its fleeting moments of censorial freedom! An opening night on-stage murder at Earl Carroll's Vanities sets things in motion, giving way to lots of scantily clad dancers and some wildly suggestive dialog. Duke Ellington provides much of the musical panache; the "Sweet Marijuana" number usually brings down the house! Starring Jack Oakie, Kitty Carlisle, Gertrude Michael, Carl Brisson. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. In B&W. 35mm Studio Archive Print! 89 mins. --The Roxie
One of the most shockingly profane pre-code films of all time! A group of freaks at a circus sideshow band together to exact a terrifying vengeance on those who have cruelly exploited one of their own. At once a uniquely perverse horror story as well as a beautifully and poetically rendered plea for tolerance. An unforgettable experience on the big screen! Starring Wallace Ford, Olga Baclanova, Leila Hyams, Harry Earles. Directed by Tod Browning. In B&W. 16mm film print. 64 mins. --The Roxie