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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Kellow Fiorini

The Making of the Modern Man in Pre-Code Cinema.

Left to right, Richard Barthelmess, James Cagney, and Clark Gable

Although societal shifts for women from the teens through the 1920s and ’30s were monumental in every sense of the word, there were changes for men too, and those changes played out across movie screens in the pre-Code era. In the coming months we look at some of the men in pre-Code film — men whose careers took off during this period and whose popularity both influenced and reflected new manhood.

The old Guard

Social changes for men started in the early 1900s. Economically, America moved from small business to bigger conglomerates. Men in the early part of the century were optimistic, self -made, and rigid. They believed that self-denial was a key component of ideal manhood. As strange as it sounds, they believed abstaining from sex outside of having children meant they could harness that energy and channel it into work. Their social and work lives gave them strong bonds with other men, but their lives didn’t intersect much their wives who existed primarily to work in the home and care for children.

The masculine ideal changed post World War I. Young men felt the war was the fault of the previous generation and wanted nothing to do with them. They figured they couldn’t do any worse by completely changing social norms. Their attitudes were further cemented by two more events that left them cynical and jaded —the Flu Epidemic of 1918 and The Great Depression. They distrusted institutions and valued individuality. Women were in the workplace, and young men had camaraderie with them. Interactions between men and women were completely new in ways their fathers couldn’t fathom. Their fathers didn’t need to be sexy to get a girlfriend or a wife, they just needed to be hardworking and confirmative.

A live-life-to-the-fullest attitude that came from surviving the Great War and all that followed, lead to a fetishism of youth. Forget about waiting all your life for success, youth was rebranded as “intuitive wisdom.” The new young men were individualistic anti-heroes who broke the rules to win the game of life. The system had sent them to war to die and crashed the banks — you had to beat the system, and the system was rigged. Rules were for schmucks. In pre-Code films you will often hear men saying, “What am I, a chump? A sap?”

Public enemies, and new heroes

James Cagney would help to invent the gangster genre when he starred in The Public Enemy in 1931.

Pre-Code films looked at these new men and explored subjects of crime, business, politics, sex, and war. This new generation had to improvise, think on their feet, and chart their own course in life. Actors who maintained popularity in pre-Code all had these traits in common.

Pre-Code Types

Clark Gable and William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama, 1934.

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In the pre-Code era, you will see types of men’s roles that come up again and again. What were those roles and why did they connect with audiences?

Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar another hugely influential gangster film from 1931.

The Gangster is the most iconic film genre to come out pre-Code. In the 1930s, the gangster wasn’t born so much out of The Depression as out of Prohibition. They were less about economic devastation and more about social morality and its gray areas. At the time, Prohibition made a criminal of anyone who took a drink. In 1920 the eighteenth amendment banned the sale, manufacturing, and transportation of any intoxicating liquors. Anyone who didn’t stop drinking was a criminal. If you went to a speakeasy, you were doing business with outlaws. Prohibition resulted in the contempt of law and the Constitution. Crime rates skyrocketed and respect for the law plummeted. At the time people thought Prohibition would never end, and they were outraged. To a degree, Americans were sympathetic with the gangster because of Prohibition, so it’s not hard to see why gangster films became so popular.

Lee Tracy is a newspaperman in Blessed Event, 1932 - image from

Warren William is the businessman pre-Code audiences loved to hate.

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Crooked Businessmen represented both the desire to have money and to see crooked guys lose it all, if only in the movies. Newspapermen, the guys with all the angles, with their quick thinking and used car salesman instincts for survival, flourished in the 1930’s. In pre-Code movies, men bared more of their emotional selves than they would in the films of the ’40s and ’50s. Sometimes it was over love affairs, like Edward G. Robinson who fell victim to a beautiful bad woman in the film Two Seconds. Films that dealt with the emotional scars of the First World War showed empathy for soldiers who survived on both sides, and a decidedly pacifist attitude towards war in general.

Next month — the pre-Code films of James Cagney.



Sources for this article

You Must Remember This Podcast - Will Hays and pre-Code Hollywood


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