Code Concepts #2. Twin Beds and One Foot on the Floor

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Several months ago, a fellow blogger, No Nonsense with Nuwan Sen, commented on my article for his October Birthdayz Blogathon. In this comment, he said that the Code’s rule about one person having a foot on the floor if two people were seated on a bed made no sense. This made me realize that there are many common perceptions and beliefs about the Code which I know to be false but most people still believe. I realized that, as the main promoter and defender of the Code, PEPS should address and explain these things. This was my main reason for starting our new series, Code Concepts. It will be weekly throughout July to replace our usual Breening Thursdays series, which we have suspended for #CleanMovieMonth85. Last week, the first article in the series talked about something that was an integral rule of the Code, although it is not discussed at large in the actual text of the Code, patriotism and respect for the flag. This week, we are going to talk about one of the most discussed but misunderstood aspects of the Breen Era, bedroom rules. We will talk about twin beds and the “one foot on the floor” rule to determine what is fact, what is fiction, and what is Hollywood tradition.

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My most recent movie in my 52 Code Films series was The World Moves On from 1934, the first film ever released with a PCA Seal of Approval. I classified this as a perfect Code film. However, this is one scene in this movie where a husband and wife appear in a double bed together. Why was this allowed in a Code film? I addressed the topic briefly in that article, which you can read here, but it made me decide to dedicate this week’s Code Concepts article to bed rules. Let’s review the most basic beliefs about the Code’s guidelines for bedroom scenes.

 

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Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Wife vs. Secretary, 1936

Most people believe that the Motion Picture Production Code stated that, if a man and a woman were positioned on a bed together, one person had to have one foot on the floor. This is the myth which inspired the whole article. It is also one of the most commonly-mocked ideas about the Code. Twenty-four-year PCA member Jack Vizard wrote a book about the Production Code Administration and his job there from 1944 to 1968 in his 1970 memoir, See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor. He revealed so much invaluable insight about the Code, its enforcement, and specifics about various films. In this book, he explained the truth and origins of the “one foot on the floor” idea. Like many other concepts attributed to the Code and its administration, it was a product of the studios’ imaginations. They created this guideline to help directors determine what was going too far in terms of bedroom scenes. In their minds, you were pretty safe if you had one person, usually the man, keep his foot on the floor. Although it is a somewhat reliable rule of thumb, it did not originate at the PCA.

 

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William Powell and Irene Hervey in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, 1948

The PCA was strict upon the point that kissing must not occur in a horizontal position, since that was considered too suggestive. If one person was in a bed, the other person must lean over for them to kiss. If the sitting person kept one foot on the floor, the kiss was unlikely to become totally horizontal. That is obviously why the rule was created within the studios. However, the gentlemen of the PCA thought that the “one-foot” rule was ridiculous, as recounted by Jack Vizzard in See No Evil.

 

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Frances Dee and George Bancroft in Blood Money, 1933

The myth took on an added twist when some inventive soul began to spread the word that it was all right with the Code to show a couple in a double bed, so long as the man kept one foot on the floor. When somebody put this absurdity to Doc Dougherty [a PCA member] once over the phone, he answered with some of the salt of Joe Breen, “Oh… you’ve got the wrong number. What you want is the corner poolroom.”

 

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An unmarried Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Indiscreet, 1958

Like other catchalls invented by filmmakers, this rule could be deceptively protective. If a man is sitting on a bed in which a woman is lying, the situation isn’t automatically acceptable just because he has one foot on the floor! It would be perfectly fine if the woman were his wife. If she were not, however, the situation would very likely be too suggestive. Even two feet on the floor can’t reform indecently suggestive bedroom scenes! The important thing is to avoid putting the actors in positions which are likely to offend decent people’s sensibilities. This leads us to the next myth.

 

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William Powell and Myrna Loy in After the Thin Man, 1936

Most people believe that the Code forbade a man and woman to be pictured in bed together, even if they were playing husband and wife. The image of a married couple in twin beds has become a symbol of the Breen Era even to those who don’t know about the Code. The concept is synonymous with the Golden Era of Hollywood and the morality of the 1930s through the 50s.

 

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Mallory Everton as Goldilocks in Purple Mattress commercial

I think the extent of the twin bed concept’s penetration is revealed by a Purple Mattress commercial from 2016 called “How to Use a Raw Egg to Determine if Your Mattress is Awful.” Near the end of the “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”-themed commercial, the spokeswoman addresses pictures of Mama Bear and Papa Bear, saying, “And Mom and Pop, it’s not the 1940s. Share a bed already!” I think this is an irrelevant point in the advertisement and a bad sales pitch, since separate beds would mean the purchase of two mattresses instead of one! That aside, it reveals how wide-spread the belief is. However, although not showing a man and woman in bed together was encouraged by the PCA during the Breen Era, it did not start in the Breen Office.

Lillian Roth, Roland Young, and Kay Johnson in Madam Satan, 1930

 

 

Some American censors must have deleted scenes of a man and woman in bed together, since a provision about this was in the original Don’ts and Be Carefuls of 1927.

19. Man and woman in bed together;

However, one particular censor board changed it from a Be Careful to a Don’t. In See No Evil, Jack Vizzard recounts the fact that the British aversion to seeing a man and woman in bed together was what actually led to the ban on double beds.


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Another of the myths had it that the Code under no circumstances permitted a couple to be together in a double bed. This myth had origins of some peculiar interest. It was traceable back to a picture called Mad Miss Manton, made by RKO in 1938. The film contained a sequence in which an elderly couple were together in a double bed in a garret or attic. The old man was a caretaker, and hearing some noise, he lit a lamp and got up to investigate. It turned out that the disturbance was coming from a loose shutter that was being rattled by the wind of an upcoming storm. The old caretaker set the latch on the shutter, came back to his bedroom, blew out the lamp, and climbed back into bed.

The scene was approved by the Production Code.

When the picture came to England, however, it ran into an anachronistic mentality that requires a word of explanation. In the British Isles at the time there was undoubtedly a hangover of Puritanism still in existence. The British attitude toward the movie house was one of aloof toleration, because the theater was regarded as a worldly place, a place of frivolity, and, therefore, a slightly profane setting….

Thus is was that the British, at that time, regarded any invasion of the “sacred intimacies of married life” as being a profanation. This included such privacies as sleeping together, which was so closely connected with love-making. It made little difference that the couple might be elderly, or that the scene was not even remotely prurient in intent. The law was clear, and exceptions had a way of turning into precedent. They presented a stony countenance to the distributors of Mad Miss Manton.

In vain did Joe Breen, representing American interests, plead with the censor that the costs of bringing the picture back to the United States and redoing it were prohibitive. At last he reached for a desperate compromise. Taking the offending scene down to the laboratories in London, he ordered the technicians to reprint it, but so darkly as to be almost indistinguishable…. When he brought the sequence back for re-examination to the censor, all that could be seen was the outline of shadowy figures flitting across the screen and delivering dialogue that must have left British audiences – well – in the dark. At any rate, the picture was finally passed.

However, a severe lesson had been learned. Henceforth, each time a bedroom scene appeared in a script submitted to the Production Code office, a note of warning was inserted to the letter, letting the production manager know that twin beds would be needed for England. Since England was a good market, the production manager usually complied, and ordered twin beds for his set. And since it was too much trouble to dress two sets in two different ways, one with a double bed for the U.S.A., and another with a pair of twin beds for the British Isles, it became commonly supposed that the Code forbade the double beds, and the myth was born.

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Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Without Love, 1945

This incident in 1938 explains why a double bed scene was allowed in a 1934 film. Actually, I can’t think of any other pre-1938 Code films I have seen in which a man and a woman are in bed together. That is because, in many situations, such a scenario would be unacceptable to American audiences as well as British. Clause IX of the Code’s General Principles deals with the sensitivity of some locations.

The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.

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Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday not in a bedroom in Born Yesterday, 1950

Oftentimes, delicacy meant showing them as little as possible. The Code’s authors expound upon this in the section titled Reasons Underlying the Particular Applications.

Certain places are so closely and thoroughly associated with sexual life or with sexual sin that their use must be carefully limited.

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Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born, 1937

In the Code’s General Principles, Scenes of Passion are discussed at length. Three guidelines are given about them.

a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.

b. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.

c. In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.

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Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, 1939

Under these guidelines, there are many instances in which even a married couple in a double bed would be inappropriate. It primarily would be unacceptable if the situation were very passionate or romantic, rather than just matter of fact. After 1938, however, they were avoided almost entirely because of the fear of British censorship, although that doesn’t mean that a double bed wasn’t frequently shown as long as both spouses weren’t in it. The case with The Mad Miss Manton made them realize that the British were certain to cut even the most innocent scenes if they contained couples in double beds, and they did not want to be censored. However, they would occasionally see if they could outwit this rule, as Jack Vizzard recounts in connection with the 1947 comedy Her Husband’s Affairs.

Occasionally, of course, the carefully calculated stratagems of the picture makers to outwit the Code would blow up in their faces. A case in point was the skittishly titled Columbia picture Her Husband’s Affairs, starring Lucille Ball and Franchot Tone.

Somebody connected with the picture got a sudden inspiration as to how to circumvent the clumsy double-bed regulation. Rubbing his hands with glee, he ordered the set designer to construct what at that time was called a “Hollywood bed.” This was nothing more or less than twin beds shoved together and joined by a common headboard. He sent the scene to the Code office, where, to his surprise, it was passed without a murmur.

The situation was reversed, however, when the picture went off to England and confronted the British Board of Film Censors. They turned thumbs down on the whole contraption, declaring it was no more than a thinly disguised double bed. In the end, the entire can of film had to be shipped back to the United States, where a new set had to be built and the scene reconstructed with the offending beds spread exactly eighteen inches apart. The adventure cost the studio $30,000. Some portion of this sum must have been returned to the picture in the form of publicity, since the press thought it was a jolly good story, and printed pictures of the principals kneeling on the floor and measuring the magical span between the pads, wearing large guilty smiles on their faces.

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Selena Royle, director Rouben Mamoulian, and Walter Huston while filming Summer Holiday, 1948

Other than in The World Moves On, I have only noticed a couple in a double bed in one Code film. This movie is Summer Holiday from 1948. Like the situation with the caretaker and his wife in Mad Miss Manton, the scene was totally innocent. On the morning of July 4, the father and mother in the film, played by Walter Huston and Selena Royle, are seen sleeping in a double bed before they are rudely awakened by firecrackers their youngest son set off. I was shocked by this scene, not because it was indecent but because of the fact that it was made during the Breen Era. I have never found out why this particular film was unafraid of running into British censorship. I would be very interested to find out the story behind this exception. Either way, this musical comedy was a huge flop.

Ultimately, I think that the twin bed rule was for the best, since people have dirty minds and will tend to have prurient thoughts about innocent situations. Also, I am inclined to agree with the British feeling that the intimate aspects of marriage are too sacred to be casually depicted on the screen. If audiences become accustomed to seeing married characters in bed together, it is only a matter of time until they are perfectly fine with seeing unmarried characters in the same situation. This cheapens the whole institution of marriage. In addition, it must be remembered that, even if the characters are married, the actors usually are not, so having them in bed together is very inappropriate. I agree that the scenes in The World Moves On and The Mad Miss Manton were harmless, but I support the twin bed principle in general, since it gave filmmakers a safe general standard. As for the rule about one foot on the floor, you know what to tell the next person who mentions it to you: “You’ve got the wrong number. What you want is the corner poolroom!”

From double beds to sleeping pills, every Code rule had a reason.

Happy #CleanMovieMonth85!

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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!

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!

 

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