Classifying Code Films


When one doesn’t know much about the specific time periods of classic Hollywood, all old films are virtually the same. As one delves deeper, he is bound to learn about the Motion Picture Production Code; that divides the “classic era” into the Pre-Code Era (1930-1934), the Code Era (1934-1968), and the Rating System Era (1968-present). Within the Code Era, there are two clear sections, the Breen Era, the time from 1934 to 1954 when the Code was strong under its first administrator, and the Shurlock Era, the time from 1954 to 1968 when the Code weakened and fell apart under its second administrator. However, when one becomes a Code aficionado such as myself, he begins to scrutinize even the films from the Breen Era, as I clearly have in many of my articles. To explain how I classify Code films, I will explain and describe good Code films, fair Code films, poor Code films, non-Code films, and perfect Code films.


Joseph I. Breen in 1934

The motto of the Production Code Administration was to make all films “reasonably acceptable to reasonable people;” this motto was law during the twenty years when Joseph I. Breen was in charge of the Code. When filmmakers complied willingly with this ideal, the finished films completely met this standard. We call such films good Code films. They are clean, decent, and inherently wholesome. They don’t have any glaring objectionable qualities. They are unlikely to offend the average viewer, specifically when considered within the time when they were made. These films do not contain any remarkably uplifting or inspiring messages, nor do they contain any particularly difficult topics. They are just the average, decent stuff of which Code films are made, wholesome, nourishing film fare. Films in this category which I have reviewed include Music in My Heart from 1940, A Holiday Affair from 1949, and It Should Happen to You from 1954.


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Every film made during the Breen Era received focused self-regulation from three members of the PCA; however, not every film came all the way around to reaching the Code’s standard. These films are called fair Code films. Essentially, they are very much like good Code films. They have no core or major problems. For almost their entirety, they are delightful, inoffensive movies. However, they earn their lower level because of a few objectionable items. Mind you, these items must be very few and very small. They usually are one questionable line, a daring costume, a bothersome joke, or a subtle implication. Fair Code films often contain problems which would only be noticed by a Code expert. They never are large enough to be really harmful or very offensive. They are so small that they don’t detract from the entire goodness and likeability of the film. They are usually bothersome little details which are unnecessary and forgettable but irritate us every time we see the film. On the whole, however, they are really good movies which wouldn’t do any serious harm to anyone. Films in this category which we have reviewed include Phantom of the Opera from 1943, Broadway Serenade from 1939, and The Hucksters from 1947.


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Originally, we had only four classifications of Code films. Then, we began to feel that there was too big a gap between fair Code films and non-Code films. Some movies have more than a few small problems, but they are not significant enough to give the films the serious non-Code status. Thus, we added the poor classification. Like fair Code films, poor Code films are essentially decent and wholesome movies. They were obviously self-regulated. However, they have some nagging problems which prevent them from being good Code films. They are different from fair Code films because of problems which are more numerous, more serious, or sometimes both. Whereas fair Code films can only contain surface problems, poor Code films can have core problems. However, they must be extremely few and not of a dangerous or corrupting nature. They are usually redeemed by some compensating moral values. Again, it must be noted that the average film-watcher probably would not be offended by these elements, since he might not even notice them. The essential tone of the film must still be a Code-compliant one, so the objectionable elements are usually only disturbing to Code scrutinizers. Films in this category which I have reviewed are Life with Father from 1947, Balalaika from 1939, and Miracle on 34th Street from 1947.


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Ideally, every film made during the Breen Era would conform to the Code’s standards with only a few objectionable qualities, if any; however, a focused examination of many films from this era proves that this belief is a pleasant delusion. Non-Code films are quite easy to identify once you understand the genre. Essentially, they leave you wondering, “How could that possibly be a Code film?” You feel like you have seen a pre-Code or Shurlock Era film. That is because these movies contain a large amount of objectionable surface elements, such as risqué costumes, suggestive situations, vulgar humor, and unacceptable lines, as well as core problems. The problems are significant and numerous enough to give the whole film an un-Codish feeling. While these films are disturbing, they are easily explained. Joseph I. Breen worked with seven other men at the PCA. Many of the staff members came and went during Mr. Breen’s twenty-year tenure. However, he and his assistant, Geoffrey M. Shurlock, remained consistently in their jobs. Other categories below good could have been caused by stubborn filmmakers, but non-Code films were almost certainly self-regulated by someone besides Joseph Breen. Joe Breen worked tirelessly to maintain Code standards. However, approximately one thousand seals were issued by the PCA every year, and one man could only do so much. Thus, a lot of material was assigned to other staff members. While some self-regulators maintained Joe Breen’s standards, many were more lenient, causing the existence of fair, poor, and non-Code films. Many of the last of these are so shockingly unacceptable that they could only have been self-regulated by Geoffrey Shurlock, whose Era revealed his weak and loose tendencies. I described his destructive self-regulation in detail in the article which I published on his birthday. The largest amount of non-Code films is found in 1941 and 1942, during what we call the Non-Code Era. From May 15, 1941, until May 16, 1942, Joseph Breen was absent from the PCA, working as the vice-president of RKO Radio Pictures. In his absence, no official replacement was found at the PCA, so Geoffrey Shurlock unofficially ran the office. Under his watch, the quality of films began to weaken drastically as poor and non-Code films became the standard. Thankfully, Mr. Breen’s return resumed the wholesomeness of the Code Era. Films in this category which I have reviewed are The Man Who Came to Dinner from 1942, Woman of the Year from 1942, and the three movies which I discussed in my first article about the Non-Code Era.


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Ultimately, Joseph Breen was the spirit of the PCA, and his strength and vision influenced most of the self-regulation of his office; his powerful ideals and peerless talent of Code-enforcement elevated many films to a superior level of quality and Codishness. We have considered the classifications which are less than good Code films, but we have yet to mention the greatest classification of all, that which is better than good, the perfect Code film. To attain this, movies must have more than an absence of objectionable qualities. They must have an extra, special element which makes them outstanding. There are two main reasons for classifying pictures as perfect Code films. Either they must have a strong uplifting or inspiring quality, or they must handle a difficult or controversial subject well. Essentially, these films embody the very essence of the Code and show us the absolute best of that genre. These movies inspire and encourage us to be better citizens. They show troublesome elements in an extremely delicate way which has never been rivaled in any other time. I often allow for one small surface problem in a perfect Code film. If it is sufficiently insignificant, the general goodness of the film atones for it. Naturally, a perfect Code film has lots of compensating moral values. In an article I wrote for the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon last year, I explained why three Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy collaborations are perfect Code films. Other films in this category which I have reviewed include San Francisco from 1936, Mr. Skeffington from 1944, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex from 1939.


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Having considered good Code films, fair Code films, poor Code films, non-Code films, and perfect Code films, it is obvious that proper or improper self-regulation made a huge impact on the ultimate quality of most movies during the Code years. Good Code films are wholesome, standard entertainment of the Breen Era, having neither unacceptable elements nor outstanding qualities. Fair Code films are essentially Code-compliant, but they have a few minor surface problems. Poor Code films have more numerous and larger objectionable elements than fair Code films, but their general tone is still one of Code-compliance. Non-Code films are the most troubling classification, since they don’t seem like Code films; however, they ultimately are very useful, since they show that Geoffrey Shurlock’s Administration and not changing times caused the demise of the Code. Like good Code films, perfect Code films are completely Code-complaint, but they are superior because of special uplifting qualities or proper handling of difficult subjects; they embody the very spirit of the Code. Code films of every sort are vastly superior to movies from other times in terms of decency because of the uplifting effect the Breen Administration had on American morals. However, Code film-classification is a useful way to gain a deeper understanding of self-regulation.

Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!

We are lifting our voices in classical song to help the sun rise on a new day of pure entertainment!

Only the Code can make the sun rise on a new day of pure entertainment!


4 thoughts on “Classifying Code Films

  1. I was curious if you ever considered changing the
    structure of your blog? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one
    or 2 pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?


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