Forbidden Hollywood

Above: Movie Reels © MIGUEL GARCIA SAAVED by

Forty years ago, when Lou Sabini was a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, his mentor, professor and film historian William K. Everson, showed him two movies from the early 1930s: Baby Face, a sexual barn burner starring Barbara Stanwyck, and Three on a Match, in which Ann Dvorak goes to town with drugs and other wild living. “After that, I was hooked,” says Sabini, a Stamford-based film historian whose expertise is in film from the silent era to the post-WWII era. “These didn’t seem like old movies,” he continues. “They dealt with infidelity, drug abuse, child abuse, the sorts of [themes] you would never see after the Code was enforced in 1934.”

After those screenings, Sabini, author of Sex in the Cinema: The ‘Pre-Code’ years (1929-1934), set out to see every pre-Code movie he could find.

“Pre-Code” refers to the cinematic period before the establishment of the Motion Picture Production Code, industry guidelines that were enforced from 1934 to 1968. The Code was set up in response to concerns of the Catholic Church and other civic groups that movies were becoming too sordid. This coincided with salacious scandals of the day, including the reported rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe by comedian Fatty Arbuckle (he was tried and found innocent), and the murder of director William Desmond Taylor.

Although most of these movies seem tame by today’s standards, they could be racy. Among them is Convention City, with Joan Blondell. “It is said to be so risqué, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers used to bring it to stag parties. Warner Brothers was ordered to destroy all its prints,” says Sabini.

Sabini knows his stuff. He has been collecting 16mm copies of the films from this era, and now has a library of thousands. He teaches and lectures on the topic all over the country, most recently at the Library of Congress. For the last twenty years, he has been writing reviews of these spicy films. Add to that a rare photo collection from which he drew to illustrate his book. For more, follow Sabini on Facebook/My Reel Life.


Lou Sabini

Sabini has also been a Laurel and Hardy fanatic since childhood (he corresponded with Stan Laurel as a kid, and one favorite Christmas present was a phone call with the comedian.) Today, he is head of the Stamford chapter of the International Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society, Sons of the Desert.

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