The Studio Relations Committee: A Board of Film Review or a Jury of Gangsters?

Can you imagine criminals being put on trial before a jury of other criminals? The concept of trial by a jury of one’s peers is theoretically an excellent democratic principle. However, this principle can be abused if taken so literally as to mean that a person should be tried only by people who are guilty of a like crime. The Studio Relations Committee board of appeal operated on such an abuse of trial by jury, since one filmmaker’s immoral film was reviewed and judged by other filmmakers who also made immoral films. To understand the faultiness of the Studio Relations Committee and its appellate system, we will examine its origin, its process of review, and its decisions in terms of the idea of a gangster being tried by a jury of three other criminals.

Up to 1930, filmmaking was as lawless as areas controlled by gangsters. Before 1930, filmmakers did not pretend to follow any sort of rules, just as gangsters in the 1920s were unbound by any law. Censor boards, like the police force in the 1920s, could occasionally cut or ban individual films, but neither could strike at the root of the problem or decrease either business’s monetary gains. Occasional bad press was negative for both businesses, but it did not decrease either business’s general glamor or popularity. In an attempt to quell censorship, the filmmakers took the advice of Hollywood’s moral publicity man, Will Hays, and adopted the Code in 1930; however, this was as ridiculous as the idea of the heads of the Chicago liquor syndicates adopting the city’s law book, since filmmakers had no more intention of obeying the Code than gangsters had of obeying the law. The Studio Relations Committee was formed to oversee the Code’s enforcement, but it proved to be a system which was a dream-come-true for criminals like the filmmakers but a nightmare for those who wanted decency in Hollywood.

The SRC appellate board’s process of review was very democratic because it used the idea of one being tried by his peers. The first step in the SRC’s process of review was for the film to be submitted before the final print was made. The director of the SRC then suggested cuts and revisions which should be made; one could think of this like the arrest of a criminal who is thought to be guilty by the police force. Most producers, instead of heeding the instructions, appealed to the Association of Motion Picture Producers to have the decision overruled; this is comparable to the right of a criminal who pleads not guilty to have a trial which may prove his innocence. The AMPP formed a board called the Producers’ Appeal Board, which was composed of three producers from different studios, to review the film and decide if it could be released in its present form; this step is similar to the idea of the Chicago judicial system summoning three gangsters from rival mobs to judge the gangster on trial. If the PAB upheld the SRC’s decision, the filmmakers could appeal to a higher authority, the board of directors of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in New York; this is like a gangster appealing to a higher court in an attempt to get a more favorable ruling.

The decisions of the Producers’ Appeal Board were surprising but understandable. One might think that the producers on the appeal board would uphold the SRC’s decision to eliminate competition, just as gangsters would want to eliminate their enemies. However, on further consideration, one sees that it would make more sense for the board to pass the film so that the producer whose film was being judged would pass their future films out of gratitude; for this reason, the PAB rarely upheld the SRC’s decisions. In doing this, the producers were also setting a precedent about what was acceptable for films while allowing competitors to trailblaze for them. By the same token, in releasing the criminal on trial, the gangster would be setting a precedent about the acceptability and justification of crime. Finally, filmmakers, like gangsters, were reluctant to anger their competitors, since they would then be likely to seek revenge by turning down their future films and attempting to destroy them.

Having reviewed the origin, process of review, and the decisions of the Studio Relations Committee, we now see how the board was rather like gangsters trying each other. Hollywood before 1930 was like Chicago in the 1920s, since filmmakers ran the Big Orange as lawlessly as gangsters ran the Second City. The Studio Relations Committee was ineffective because it only reviewed finished films, when editing was costly and difficult, it allowed filmmakers to judge each other’s films, it provided too much right of appeal, and it lacked the authority to forbid a film’s release. The Producers’ Appeal Board almost always decided to rebuke the SRC’s decision, since the producers were like gangsters doing favors for each other; even rival gangsters stick together against the police. Using terms from pre-Code gangster films, it is easy to see that when Little Caesar, Louie Ricarno, and Scarface try Tom Powers, justice will not be served.

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