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Before Hollywood Had Ratings, Films Were Way Racier

In the 1934 movie Murder at the Vanities there's a whole musical number about the pleasures of marijuana sung by half naked women

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Today, at the beginning of every movie, the Motion Picture Association of America provides you with a handy primer as to what kind of indecency you’re about to see on the screen. Sometimes these ratings can make or break a movie: an R rating can narrow the potential audience and cut into box office sales. An X rating is like a kiss of death. But movies didn’t always go through such a rigorous screening process. In fact, at the beginning of the cinema, directors could get away with a lot more.

The blog Let’s Misbehave: A Tribute to Precode Hollywood has a great collection of movies from before the MPAA existed or its predecessor, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America, started enforcing censorship guidelines in 1934.  Take this post on drugs in pre-code movies for example:

The most interesting use of drugs in film is the 1916 film ‘The Mystery of the Leaping Fish’ staring the famous Douglas Fairbanks. The comedy picture shows Douglas as a Sherlock Holmes like detective solving crimes while being addicted to cocaine. In the pictures below it is obvious to see the product cocaine and the use of syringes.

In the 1934 movie Murder at the Vanities, there’s a whole musical number about the pleasures of marijuana (sung by half-naked women).

Let’s Misbehave has more examples of drug use, and whole catalogue of other pre-code novelties.

The power of the MPAA in Hollywood was the topic of the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, where they long for the days before ratings. We certainly don’t get musicals about weed anymore.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Celebrating Home Movie Day
Determining Who Made the Most Movies

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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