Heart of Darkness

The Pre-Code era of Hollywood when films were much more explicit, suggestive and racy is generally believed to be that period between 1929 and 1934, the year the Production Code was officially enforced. After that the studios had to comply with a long list of restrictions imposed on motion pictures by Joseph Breen (director of the PCA aka Production Code Administration) in terms of subject matter, situations and characters if the producers wanted their films to get a commercial release. Of course, film censorship in Hollywood existed before 1934 but it was not always enforced. Complaints from moral guardian groups and religious organizations like the Catholic Legion of Decency were crucial in pressuring Hollywood to reduce the amount of sex, violence and decadence in movies. Some of their earliest targets were three films from MGM, which were a collaboration between director Tod Browning and Lon Chaney – The Unholy Trio (1925), The Unknown (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928). All three of the films contain perverse and unsettling storylines but West of Zanzibar tops them all in terms of shock value even by today’s standards.  

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Rites of Manhood

The cover of the souvenir program to the 1926 MGM film TELL IT TO THE MARINES.

Most classic movie fans know that silent film star Lon Chaney was often associated with Tod Browning, who directed him in ten movies starting with The Wicked Darling (1919) and ending with Where East is East (1929). Among their most famous collaborations are the silent version of The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927) and London After Midnight (1927), which is now considered a lost film. Yet, two of Chaney’s most legendary roles were helmed by different directors. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) was directed by Wallace Worsley and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is credited to Rupert Julian; both films helped establish Chaney’s reputation for playing monstruous and tortured characters. What tends to be overlooked in his filmography is the fact that Chaney wasn’t always typecast as some kind of grotesque individual and Tell It to the Marines (1926), one of his biggest box-office hits for M-G-M, presents him as a gruff but patriotic Marine sergeant in a stirring romantic drama by director George W. Hill.

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