Some thoughts after seeing several "pre-code" movies at the Film Forum over the last few weeks:
The freedom I see in these movies isn't just in terms of content: their narrative form is freer than that of the movies that came after, as Hollywood's storytelling and genre conventions are still in flux. The two kinds of freedom are intimately related: as the code becomes more strongly enforced, filmmakers respond through a stylization that gestures without showing. The filmmakers who best make it out of the early 1930s are the ones who, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, are able to come to terms with this cinema of gesture, convention, and abstraction. On the other hand, a filmmaker like William Wellman - at home making movies that deal directly, frankly, and sometimes crudely with the richness and messiness of life - seems at sea once the freedom to show is no longer available.
I think Hollywood filmmakers at their best (a dangerous generalization, I admit) were able to exploit the freedom of the "pre-code" years fairly well. The movies of William Wellman and Raoul Walsh from the early 1930s are worthy American cousins to the kinds of films being made by Jean Renoir in France at the same time. I think Hollywood filmmakers at their best reacted to the enforcement of the code with a great deal of imagination and artistry, making a virtue of the necessary stylization by incorporating it into personal visions of the world. I'd add that this incorporation was often an agonistic process - as it was with Hawks! But I think the enforcement of the code had a more lasting and damaging effect on the work of Hollywood filmmakers who started making movies after the code was no longer being enforced. Even though filmmakers could show more, it seems as if the underlying logic behind the code had been internalized, so that the freedom of movies in the 1960s and beyond was superficial.
Take Barbara Stanwyck's character in Wellman's So Big: she's a woman who matter-of-factly uses her sexuality (along with her smarts) to get what she wants and the movie never condemns her or suggests that in doing so she's giving up a chance at some more fulfilling life. Even though in terms of what could be shown, the "post-code" movies could be more explicit, the clear-eyed, no fuss view of sexuality that we see in the Wellman movie did not return. The anxiety surrounding sexuality and relationships in Hollywood movies seemed to get even more oppressive after the code. The traits of those characters that Stanwyck played that were treated as no big deal in pre-code movies are turned into issues that the post-code movie needs to address. One of the reasons the so-called "American New Wave" is more superficial than the New Wave in France, is that the characters of the New Hollywood are still warped, constricted, and stunted by their authors' commitment to the spirit of the code, if no longer its letter.
There are a few exceptions: Jonathan Demme's Something Wild feels like a "pre-code" movie both in the way it presents its characters and in the way its tone isn't determined by committment to a given genre a priori, but rather shifts as the story demands.