The Production Code of 1930’s Impact on America

What’s wrong with the modern American cinema? Out of the top twenty films in 2015, why were twelve rated R, six rated PG-13, and not one rated G? The reason for these depressing statistics is a simple one: films are merely rated but not censored. In other words, all obscene content is allowed as long as audiences are warned of it. Many people complain about the shocking content of nearly every film released in this country, and moral Americans dream about times in the past when they could go to the theater and see good films. Not even all senior citizens remember a time when every film was decent. Sometimes it is hard to believe there ever was such a time. A look at films from the past, however, reassures one’s faith in the power of propriety in the cinema. If one looks earlier in time, one may be surprised to discover that films in the 20’s and early 30’s contained immoral elements similar to those seen in the 1960’s. Why, then, were films so conservative and moral only a few years later? The answer to this question is surprisingly simple: from 1934 to 1954 Joseph I. Breen, a conservative Catholic layman, oversaw the Production Code Administration, which strictly enforced the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. But what is this Code, and how did it produce the miracle of films which adhere to strong Christian principles? Read on to learn the fascinating story of loose early films, Hollywood’s Golden Age, its tragic demise, and the hope this time gives for the future.

On June 13, 1934, an amendment was made to the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930; it stated that all films released on or after July 1, 1934, must be approved by the Production Code Administration, which, under Joseph Breen’s supervision, enforced the Code’s censors. This Code, commonly and incorrectly called the Hays Code, had been applied in name only since 1930, but the Administration had lacked the authority to truly enforce it. Film censorship began in 1916, when the studios started the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry, which featured thirteen points which films must avoid. This was a response to Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio of 1915, in which the Supreme Court unanimously declared that motion pictures are an acception to the First Ammendment right for freedom of speech. Individual states began to erect censorship boards, but the industry soon realized the need for a more effectual form of self-censorship. In 1921 almost one hundred film censorship bills had been introduced by legislators in thirty-seven states. In the early 20’s a number of scandles involving actors heightened the feeling in many that the motion picture industry was downright wicked. In 1922 a Presbyterian elder named William H. Hays was appointed to revise Hollywood’s image. For twenty-five years he was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. In 1927 Hays tried to persuade the studio executives to form a committee to discuss Hollywood censorship. Considering the concerns of local censor boards, the heads of MGM, Fox, and Paramount collaborated to write a list which they called the “Don’ts and the Be Carefuls;” it contained eleven subjects which were forbidden and twenty-six subjects on which to be careful. The Federal Trade Commission approved the list, and Hays founded the Studio Relations Committee to oversee its enforcement; unfortunately it lacked the power to really affect a change. In 1929 a Catholic layman, Martin Quigley, and a Jesuit priest, Father Daniel A. Lord wrote the original Code which is often attributed to Hays. They submitted it to the studios, and in February, 1930, they met with several studio heads. After a few revisions, they agreed to the Code in order to avoid government censorship which they felt was imminent. Colonel Jason S. Joy headed the SRC, which was responsible for enforcing the Code. On March 31, 1930, the MPPA officially agreed to abide by the Code. Joy and Dr. James Wingate, the head of the Committee after 1932, were incompetent and inefficient upholders of the Code because they were unable to forbid a film’s release based on content. The press mocked the Code and its attempts, predicting complete failure from the beginning. By 1934, the situation had become deplorable. The depression was at its height, and both movie studios and theaters were relying on shock value to draw audiences. The majority of Americans, however, were parents, and the lewdness of most early 30’s films prevented many families from going to the theater. Also, moralists were greatly offended by the nudity, prurience, and blasphemy featured in many films, as well as in Hollywood’s reality. Besides this, America was experiencing a backlash against her loose and immoral behavior in the 20’s and early 30’s. Many things contributed to the libertinism of the era: the end of World War I, “the war to end all wars”; the 19th Amendment of 1920, which allowed women to be emancipated and not have to get married; Prohibition, which, although well-intended, produced the large liquor black market, the speakeasies, and the society which attended them; and the end of the Victorian Era, after which was a revolution against the prudence and morality which marked this period. Many people lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929 and the bank emergency of 1933. These people were forced to return their focus to family and God, for that was all they had left. When a young woman in a large, migratory family said, “Us people has got to stick together to get by these hard times,” she reflected the feelings of the nation at large. Also, there was a greater need for censorship by 1934 than there had been in earlier years. Firstly, silent films had contained only visual prurience. With the advent of the “talkie” in the late 20’s, films began to contain prurient dialogue. The more advanced technology used in the early 30’s allowed greater risqueity in the cinema. Whereas silent films relied heavily on visual effects and shock appeal, talking pictures could create a greater effect without obscenity. The Code explicitly detailed the immoral and corrupting situations and subjects which could not be used in American films. Although at first producers, directors, and writers felt that the “Victorian” Catholics who wrote the Code had abolished every profitable and appealing device used in Hollywood, they were forced to find a new and better way to entertain America on the Silver Screen.

The Code began being enforced on July 1, 1934, when Joseph Breen took command of the Production Code Administration. Whereas the previous director was only able to use reasoning and begging to enforce the Code’s strict rules, Mr. Breen had the power to insist that changes be made and even prevent a film’s release. Film-makers soon realized that they could not mockingly disregard Breen’s administration as they had his predecessor’s. Some film-makers complied immediately; many, however, began to test Breen. Like rebellious children, they attempted to push the boundaries to discover exactly where the limits were. They quickly realized that Joseph Breen was a stern parent who would not tolerate disobedience or the breaking of his laws. The relentless Breen faced opposition from everyone. Producers, directors, writers, actors, and the press mocked him and the morality he and his Code were trying to enforce. He believed in the Code, though, and insisted that films adhere to it. When Hollywood realized this, it had to reform. Costumes were made more modest, foul language and vulgarity were removed from scripts, titles were revised, suggestive scenes were cut, controversial subjects were avoided, and kisses were limited to three seconds in length. For the first and only time in history, films were made without the inappropriate material which is usually thought to sell tickets. Instead the emphasis was put on clean living and a wholesome American lifestyle. This began a resurgence of morality and patriotism in this country. Instead of being a country of pleasure seekers, America was once again one nation under God, if only in appearance. The Victorianism of the Code spread throughout America, making society once more regard immorality as intolerable in a civilized democracy. This was the only time that the consumer had a true friend on the other side of the Silver Screen. Joseph Breen and the other men involved with the Code wanted to demonstrate righteousness for and protect the morals of America’s general public, especially the youth. The people behind the scenes in Hollywood were also forced to maintain an appearance of American morality, even if it was in many cases a farce. Film-makers ceased depicting the grim and ghastly elements of degenerate Mankind. The cinema turned its focus to true entertainment, which provides a diversion from the bleakness of reality. Good always triumphed over evil. Common people striving to do their best and the right thing became the heroes, instead of the glorified libertines and criminals of past years. This perfectly reflected what was happening in the real world at the time. In the early 30’s, John Dillinger was the top criminal in America. Surprisingly, this dashing bank robber was a hero to many people who considered him to be a modern Robin Hood, stealing from the rich who stole from the poor. The fact that many Americans idolized this murderer of ten people shows the dangerous sympathy for crime in those days. Two men in 1934 nipped this criminal sympathizing in the bud: J. Edgar Hoover, the hero-like director of the FBI who killed three of the most notorious criminals that year, and Joseph Breen. The heroes of films began to shift to honest, boyish types, instead of debonair criminals and charming lechers. A new genre, the screwball comedy, began with “It Happened One Night,” one of the last pre-Code films. Musicals began to flourish, and certain performers would make many films together. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were the classical sweethearts of the screen, while Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the contemporary musical couple. Series such as “Andy Hardy,” which featured Mickey Rooney as the average American boy in an average American town, “Dr. Kildare,” which featured Lew Ayres as an impulsive young intern, and “Dead End Kids,” which was based on a comic strip, provided audiences with lovable, wholesome characters they could enjoy time after time. Not only were films required to avoid the showing of evil, they were required to show the doing of right. Film-makers had to be sure “that throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right” (Original Production Code, Reasons Underlying the General Principles, I). The first film which required censorship was “Tarzan’s Mate” of 1934, which included undressed women. In 1943 Howard Hughes challenged Breen’s authority when he advertised for “The Outlaw” using photographs of Jane Russel wearing a very revealing top. The film did not receive the seal of approval, but after many years Hughes persuaded Breen that the Code did not prohibit such a photograph. In 1938 “Child Bride” was denied the seal of approval because of featuring several shots of a naked twelve year old actress. In 1948 “Johnny Belinda” contained the taboo subject of a man forcing a deaf-mute woman, and in 1949 “Pinky” contained a white man loving a woman of African descent. Some films found loopholes, such as “Notorious” of 1946, which featured a two and a half minute kissing sequence which passed by having the actors break off kissing every three seconds. “Casablanca” of 1942 was forced to curtail the references to immorality due to Breen’s strict administration; the famous ending of this film was caused by the forbiddance of an illicit relationship to continue. In 1951 the Code was revised to more specifically explain what could not be said or done; this helped to tighten the film industry after the looseness which began to occur in the late 40’s. In 1954, due to illness, Joseph Breen retired from the Production Code Administration. On his retirement he was presented with an honorary Academy Award for “his conscientious, open-minded and dignified management of the Motion Picture Production Code” (Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration by Thomas Doherty, p. 5).

Joseph Breen was replaced by Geoffrey Shurlock. Immediately filmmakers began to test the new leader to see how strictly he would enforce the Code. Although at first it was upheld, one can immediately see the change in films after Breen’s departure. Some films followed the rules by which they still had to be made, but others challenged the weaker director. Mr. Shurlock felt pressure from filmmakers, who had to compete with both foreign films and a relatively new medium, television. The former were not influenced by the American Code, which lacked the power to forbid the showing of risque foreign films. Hollywood felt that it must compete by also featuring risqueity. Television was more heavily censored than films, but it was also more accessible. In 1934 television was a new and rare technology which most people could not afford. By 1954 it was a common form of entertainment for American families. Since people now received entertainment in their own homes, Hollywood again felt that it must lure people to the theater using shock tactics. Variety soon stated that Shurlock’s enforcement displayed “a decided tendency towards a broader, more casual approach.” Films such as “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959), “Suddenly Last Summer” (1959), and “The Dark Top of the Stairs” (1961), were grudgingly granted the seal of approval after certain scenes were deleted and edited. Billy Wilder openly challenged Shurlock when he released a very suggestive film entitled “Some Like it Hot” (1959) without the seal of approval. It was a huge success and helped to weaken the administration. Otto Preminger directed many controversial films with and without seals of approval; he and Billy Wilder helped to hasten the destruction of the Code. By the early 60’s films had returned to the risqueity of the pre-Code era. In 1964 “The Pawnbroker” contained nakedness and scandalous obscenity and was rejected. The film was granted an exception, however, and shockingly was released with very few alterations and the seal of approval. Although it was openly stated that the MPAA’s ruling would not set a precedent for future films, it did. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) was the first film to feature the label “Suggested for Mature Audiences” because of the foul language in it. That same year the Code was changed to eleven points which basically said that public taste and sensibilities would determine what was acceptable and what was not. Films were divided into those for everyone and those for mature audiences. On November 1, 1968, the rating system began to be used, with the following four ratings: G for general audiences, M for mature audiences, R for restricted (minors not being admitted without adults), and X for explicitly immoral content. By the end of 1968, Geoffrey Shurlock abdicated from his position, and the Code was officially over. Almost immediately films were worse than they had ever been before the Code. In fourteen years, Shurlock, who had been given the extremely important job of guarding the morals of America, had allowed the work of five decades toward civilization and propriety in films to collapse.

For two golden decades Hollywood was conscious of morality and its strong influence on the lives of the consumers, who naively and trustingly go to the theater to be impacted, brain-washed, and frequently corrupted. The original Code stated that “[m]otion picture producers recognize the high trust and confidence which have been placed in them by the people of the world and which have made motion pictures a universal form of entertainment. They recognize their responsibility to the public because of this trust and because entertainment and art are important influences in the life of a nation” (Original Production Code, introduction). Everyone could go to the theater without qualms or reservations about the content. Virtually every film was suitable for everyone, so there was no need for distinction or rating. Parents did not have to question the propriety of a film’s content, since Joseph Breen had already done it for them. The idea of such strong Christian principles in entertainment is almost unbelievable to someone from the 21st Century, when no live-action films are ever released with a more wholesome rating than PG. Filmmakers think that obscenity and prurience sells tickets. They ignore the following facts which prove the opposite: the youth, strongly religious people, conservatives, and other moralists will not attend most of their films; true art, through good direction, intelligent production, clever writing, and excellent acting, can and did flourish without the assistance of impropriety; the highest grossing film of all time is “Gone with the Wind,” which was released under the Code in 1939 and earned 3.4 billion dollars when adjusted for inflation; and audiences are heavily conditioned by what Hollywood gives them. During the Code years, it was not the audiences, but the filmmakers who complained about the strict moral rules. Audiences adjusted quickly from the looseness of pre-Code films to the heavy censorship of the Code and back to looseness in post-Code years. Audiences will accept anything Hollywood gives them and will adapt their life-styles accordingly. With films getting worse every year and the immorality in America rising to terrifying heights, something must be done to regain order. If America is going to change, Hollywood must change first. In my opinion, only one point of the Code is out of date, Article II, section 6, which states that miscegenation (romantic relationships between white and black people) is forbidden. Aside from this one point, every element of the Code is pertinent to modern American society. The taboo subjects listed in the Code still exist, still are wrong, and still corrupt audiences. What can Americans do to invoke change? We must unite against immoral entertainment and entreat Hollywood to bring back the Code, clean up the film industry, and make America once again, as our founding-fathers named it, “a city on a hill.”

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2 thoughts on “The Production Code of 1930’s Impact on America

  1. Pingback: What the Code Means to Me: Breen, Hallmark, and Me – 18 Cinema Lane

  2. Pingback: “Holiday” from 1938, The Pathway to PEPS | pure entertainment preservation society

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