Today is the first Thursday in July. Since July is #CleanMovieMonth85, we have suspended our usual Breening Thursday series for the duration of this month. Instead, we will publish a Code Concepts article every Thursday. This is the beginning of a new series which we will continue after July. It will probably not be a weekly feature, and it won’t always be on one particular day. However, we will try to make it a fairly frequent series. The purpose of this series is to discuss, analyze, and explain different aspects of Code-enforcement and individual issues relating to the Code, rather than just mentioning them in relation to specific films. I hope that this series will help us continue broaden our readers’ understanding of the Code and its enforcement.
Today is July 4, American Independence Day! In honor of the anniversary of the United States of America’s freedom, I am going to make the topic of the first Code Concepts article respect, patriotism, and use of the flag. This combined topic, which, listed as Article X in the Code, is described as “National Feelings,” is not one which would make a film clean or dirty. It is, however, one which would make a film acceptable or unacceptable. That was always more important to the PCA than for films to just be “clean,” since it means not offensive on any level.
There are two subdivisions of “National Feelings” in the actual Code.
- The use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.
- The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of all nations shall be represented fairly.
These rules have their origins in the MPPDA’s original “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” of 1927. The eleventh “Don’t” forbade “Willful offense to any nation, race or creed.” Two “Be Carefuls” dealt with the subject, as well.
- The use of the flag;
- International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
These are clearly the closest to the phrases which I quoted from the General Principles of the Code. In the second section of the Code, Reasons Underlying Particular Applications, we find the following explanation about National Feelings:
The just rights, history, and feelings of any nation are entitled to most careful consideration and respectful treatment.
The above rule and the other guidelines for national feelings are generally talking about foreign countries and not the United States. However, filmmakers had to be reminded about their duty to America, as well. Whether or not clearly stated in the Code, there were certain standards which had to be upheld.
One very important aspect of properly representing the United States was the depiction of officials. In the Reasons Underlying the General Principles, an explanation is given of the rule that law must not be ridiculed and that sympathy must not be created for its violation.
- The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust. This does not mean that a single court may not be represented as unjust, much less that a single court official must not be presented this way. But the court system of the country must not suffer as a result of this presentation.
This rule of the Code is extremely important. It alone prevents many unpatriotic tendencies which sneak into dramatic motion pictures if not carefully watched. Without this rule, films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington could make the whole Congressional system look corrupt and thereby create suspicion and mistrust of it. Instead of bolstering patriotism by warning Americans against letting tyrants control them, it could make citizens suspicious of the entire democratic process, which was the point of the original book on which this film was based.
An important rule of the Code is that the sympathy of the audience must never be thrown “on the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil, or sin. Equally dangerous is a film which “would throw sympathy against goodness, honor, innocence, purity or honesty.” It is never stated anywhere in the Code that a film must not throw sympathy against the United States of America, its legal system, or democracy, but it was an unwritten standard. Although you can’t find this standard within the text of the Code, you can find it within the content of Breen Era films.
Code films do not create suspicion or dissatisfaction with our system of government. They bolster patriotism and make one feel proud to be an American. Whether during peacetime or wartime, they stress the importance of doing all one can for the country. Not all films feature flag-waving and grand patriotic gestures, but so many Code films present an unspoken testimony to the greatness of America. They don’t belittle other countries, since Americans should be the friends of all people who love justice and freedom. However, they instill the truth that we should be proud of our unique country. We have been a very fortunate land, free from a lot of strife. In fact, we have been so successful that we have had the energy and the resources to help our allies in difficult times such as wars, famines, and natural disasters. The Code did not require that films be patriotic, but it did require that “[c]orrect standards of living, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.” Correct standards of living included patriotism, since treason and disloyalty are not correct standards.
During the 1930s and early 40s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was given a lot of film representation. Sometimes he was played by an actor, but he was often just shown in an image, a clip of film, or a newsreel. He had more film coverage than any other president I know because he served four terms and was in office during particular patriotic times, the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II. I think that Busby Berkeley must have particularly liked President Roosevelt, since he depicted, mentioned, and showed his image in many of his grand musical numbers throughout the 1930s and early 40s. However, that doesn’t mean that he really supported his personal politics.
Not supporting the president of the United States simply wasn’t an option under the Code. There were no official rules regarding the depiction of or reference to presidents, but it went without saying that respect was necessary. I’d say that the unwritten rule was basically, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Since Joseph Breen was Irish, a race usually affiliated with the Democrat party, one would assume that he was a supporter of the Democratic President Roosevelt. However, his grandson Jack Benton informs me that he did not agree with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s politics at all, so much that he became a Republican because of him. Despite this, the Roosevelts were friends of the Breens who actually visited the Breen home in Beverly Hills.
I would say that the Code’s political standard was no divisive politics. If there is a hot-topic political issue, films shouldn’t get involved. It will undoubtedly make some people upset. Perhaps characters in a film could discuss dissenting political views, but current politics had to be handled very carefully. It was better to stick to big principles on which most people would agree, like making jobs during the Depression or defeating the Axis during World War II. Also, no matter how much a director or writer disagreed with a current president, it was not his place to make propaganda against that man. The country had elected that president, so he had to support him or keep his opinions to himself. It is treasonous and disloyal for a film to slander or disrespect a current president. This is a lesson which modern Hollywood needs to learn. Whether or not you agree with or like the particular man who is in the Oval Office, you must respect that office.
Now we come to the final topic in this concept, which is the only aspect that is clearly stated in the Code, respect for the flag. There are the basic rules, such as when to fly it and not letting it touch the ground. However, I have never heard of a Code debacle about disrespect for the flag in any standard way. I would say that most filmmakers knew better than to disrespect the flag and that few of them would even have wanted to. The only Code issue regarding the flag about which I have ever read is in a different capacity, one which most people now don’t seem to know, costumes.
In his 1970 memoirs of his years enforcing the Production Code, See No Evil: Life Inside a Censor, veteran PCA-member Jack Vizzard recounted an incident in 1946 in which he defended the honor of the flag. This happened in a time when people were afraid of Communism, the era of the Red Scares. It was just after the end of World War II, so patriotism was strong. People were also leery of “liberalism” and “leftism,” some new trends. Below is the actual description of this event from the book, which you can read for yourself.
Not all experiences in this particular area were distasteful. At least one was on the genial side. This one occurred with a producer at MGM by the name of William Wright, who was anything but far left, as far as I could judge. Bill was a very intense man, slim, dark, and bristling like a bale of barbed wire. One could feel the fury of his glare, even over the telephone. Nowadays he just smiles serenely, like a man whose demons have all been exorcised.
Bill had sent a script into our office for a musical he was producing. In it there was a child’s ballet, of sorts. At the conclusion of the number, one of the little girls who was doing a tap dance, front and center, does a pirouette, whirls out her cape, reverses it and, lo and behold, it has turned into an American flag!
At that time, the war was hardly over; the American Legion was very active; and the Veterans of Foreign Wars were afire with patriotism. Millions of recently released servicemen were still very cognizant of flag rubrics and were quite sensitive on the point. The Red Menace was felt everywhere and might easily be felt in such tactics as improper esteem for the flag. Therefore, it seemed an inappropriate time to be abusing the national symbol by turning it into a dance costume.
I looked in the back of the Code and dug out a more or less obscure provision which stated: “The use of the flag shall be consistently respectful.”
I quoted this provision to Bill in my letter on his script, and questioned whether this exploitation of the flag were not disrespectful.
He certainly did not need the phone to convey his howl of irritation to me. He protested that this was witch-hunting. He said that he could see my point if a bevy of dancers were prancing all over the flag, singing the “Internationale.” But this was just a little girl with innocent intentions, and the ending gave her dance a patriotic flare. He was going to keep it in his picture, whether it technically violated flag and Code rubrics, or not.
When I hung up, I wished I had never brought up the point. It seemed to me he was right and that I had been too evangelistic in dragging up a hardly used Code clause to apply in this case. I decided to forget the whole thing.
Such was not my luck, however. A copy of my letter had gone to New York, following usual procedure, and had been spotted by an alert officer of the corporation who was very Commie conscious. At once, he dug out his old Army manual and searched it for the rules and regulations governing the handling of the flag. To my distress, he discovered that I was correct, and that it was forbidden to use the flag as part of a costume. He called me on the phone and quoted the passage to me, commending me for my vigilance and urging me to stand fast.
Now what was I going to do? I didn’t want to foul up my reputation with our East Coast offices, creating the impression that I was a parlor pink, as they said in those days. And I did not want to pursue the issue with Bill, with whom I had to live, and whom I was certain to meet again on another picture.
Therefore, it was with divided mind that I went into the projection room to review the film when it at last arrived. I was turning my will into iron to make a decision on the spot, when I saw the scene. The ballet number began, and the reasons pro and con were still oscillating back and forth like busy electrons. The tap dance began. My brain clicked with resolution…. Bill was correct. And correct is correct. I’ll glare down those fellows in New York. I’ll pass it! Go ahead, little girl, pirouette!
The costume was the same on the inside as on the outside. Solid navy blue!
Bill, for mysterious reasons of his own, had changed his mind.
Is this not justification for indulging in the obvious pun and saying that, for once, Wright was wrong?
I did some research on William Wright to try to ascertain which specific film the musical which Mr. Vizzard mentions could be. Since this film was described as having been made when “the war was hardly over,” I assumed it was 1946. Mr. Wright produced two MGM films in 1946, A Letter for Evie and Three Wise Fools. Neither film is a musical, but Mr. Vizzard could have been mistaken on that point. Either could be the movie in question. A Letter for Evie is a story about a case of mistaken identity between a bashful soldier and his pen-pal sweetheart, starring Marsha Hunt, John Carroll, and Hume Cronyn. Three Wise Fools is a story about a seven-year-old Irish girl who brings youth, love, and leprechauns to three rich but curmudgeonly old men when she comes to stay with them, starring Margaret O’Brien, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, and Edward Arnold.
Unfortunately, neither film is available anywhere except for an occasional showing on TCM, so there was no way for me to ascertain which is the film with a little girl doing a pirouette in a solid navy blue cape. My feeling, however, is that the film in question is A Letter for Evie. The number described sounds like a patriotic, maybe even a military, show, which would fit the wartime setting of this film. Also, since Three Wise Fools is about a little girl of Irish descent, it is unlikely that a big Americana tap dance with other little girls would be included. The studios were careful not to let their little starlets be upstaged by other cute lasses. If you have seen either of these films, please let me know your discoveries about the mysterious musical number!
I think that Jack Vizzard was absolutely right in this case. This scene was not meant to be disrespectful. However, it was in clear violation of a very important Code, but not the Motion Picture Production Code. It was in violation of the United States Flag Code. Title 36, Chapter 10 of the United States Code deals with Patriotic Customs, including 176. Respect for flag.
- (d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker’s desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.
- (j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.
This is probably the basis of the rule which the gentleman from the New York office quoted to Mr. Vizzard. The young self-regulator began to feel that he was being ridiculous in this case, but he was right to stop even a small, relatively inoffensive costume use of the flag. Allow one flag cape, and you soon have the array of flag clothing which you find in every Walmart.
Our modern culture has completely disregarded these once-sacred rules. Patriotic attire ranges from tee-shirts with images of the flag to bikinis, shorts, and sandals which actually look like they are made out of the flag! Our national symbol is not something which should be used for basic covering. The image itself should be used very respectfully. I think it is better to just show the image itself on a solid piece of material, but in a respectful way. Better yet, I think patriotic attire should be like Code Americana costumes, different designs based on the colors and patterns of the flag rather than the flag itself. The flag isn’t something which should be flaunted. It should be revered. For this reason, the Flag Code was put in place on June 14, 1923, to stem the wide use and misuse of the flag in advertising and merchandise. It was made law in 1942.
Respect for the flag is a very important part of our country’s heritage. Let us always remember to honor our flag which flies overhead. Perhaps as well as the Motion Picture Production Code, America needs to pay more attention to the United States Flag Code and its rules about our country’s banner. Happy Independence Day! There is no better way to celebrate our freedom than to watch a great, patriotic Code film, which celebrates the virtues of self-regulation in a free country!
From double beds to sleeping pills, every Code rule had a reason.
By the way, please join our month-long celebration of Code films, #CleanMovieMonth85! Throughout July, we are going to watch nothing but American Breen Era films, and we are inviting participants to do the same. Writers can join this celebration with articles about their own favorite films and discoveries during the month, and we will republish them on our website. Here’s to 85 years since the formation of the Production Code Administration!
As a special high-point of our month-long celebration in July, we are hosting a blogathon on the first weekend in July in honor of the formation of the PCA and the twenty wonderful years of decent cinema which followed during Joseph Breen’s tenure. It will be called The Favorite Code Film Blogathon. On July 5-7, participants will choose their single favorite Code films and write about why these movies from the era of film decency were so good. Please join!
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Only the Code can make the sun rise on a new day of pure entertainment!