Code Concepts #3. Kissing, Counting, and the Rail Bird Myth

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Every Thursday in July, I am publishing a Code Concepts article instead of our usual Breening Thursday articles. In these articles, I explain frequently discussed rules, myths, and misconceptions about the Code. Perhaps the most famous rule of Breen Era Hollywood is that kisses could only last for three seconds under the Code. This is one of the most common and most confused misconceptions about the Code and the Production Code Administration (PCA). Most people name three seconds as the time limit. Jack Vizzard, an employee of the PCA for twenty-four years who wrote a book about his time in Code-enforcement, See No Evil, listed the time as ten seconds. One historian said that the time was thirty seconds! However, neither the three-second, ten-second, nor thirty-second time limit is accurate. There was no official time limit for kissing under the Code.

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Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in New Moon, 1940

Nowhere in the text of the Motion Picture Production Code nor any of its amendments is actual kissing-length mentioned. According to Jack Vizzard, the studios invented the time limit, which certainly accounts for the varying lengths. Let’s see what Mr. Vizzard wrote about the fabled kissing time limits, which the PCA members called the “rail bird myth.”

Other myths were no less whimsical. The notion persisted, for example, that the Code set a hard and fast time limit on the length of a kiss. A kiss was allowed to last ten seconds, not a fraction more. Thus, it was imagined that the Code administrators stood around the movie sets with big black cigars jutting out of their jaws, and with stopwatches in their hands, yelling “Cease!” once the fatal moment had passed. It was considered the bounden duty of the resourceful director to eke all the lustfulness out of every kiss within the time limit. We called this the “rail bird myth,” for it evoked the image of clockers at the racetrack.

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Unlike the father (Michael Chekhov) in Abie’s Irish Rose, 1946, the self-regulators did not time kissing. (Richard Norris and Joanne Dru)

Although the Code itself does not give a specific time limit for kissing, it does give guidelines for labial activity. In Section II, guidelines for Scenes of Passion are given as follows:

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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Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon kissing suggestively in The Notorious Landlady, 1962

Although they do not specifically address kissing-length, these guidelines forbid kissing to be excessive, lustful, or stimulating to the baser element, which it always becomes when it is prolonged. Also to this end, open-mouthed kissing was forbidden under all circumstances. Kissing in a horizontal position was also taboo, which I discussed in last week’s Code Concepts article about twin beds and the “one foot on the floor” myth.

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Ann Blyth and William Powell kissing properly in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, 1948

The problem of decent kissing was a lot more complex than counting seconds and yelling, “Cut!” It took more subtlety, perception, and artistry. I have seen kisses which last eight seconds that are perfectly acceptable, while many two-second kisses are not. The difference lies in the attitude of the actors, the lighting, the setting, and the situation. The decency of kissing is also determined by the situations of the people involved. Sometimes, the filmmakers were so subtle that they shot a kiss from behind one person’s head so that you couldn’t actually see the actors’ lips touching. Even when you did, it had to be done the right way. If it was done correctly, the length itself was not important. Of course, that didn’t mean that a kiss could last forever. If it went on too long, it could become lustful or suggestive.

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Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kissing notoriously in Notorious, 1946

Naturally, filmmakers tried to evade the rail bird myth, not knowing it was a self-imposed time limit. The most famous case of this is in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious from 1946. In one scene, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss very passionately for several minutes, part of the time while he is on the telephone. Everyone says that this was a clever evasion of the Code’s kissing restraints, since the actors break off kissing every three seconds throughout the prolonged love scene. However, Mr. Hitchock did not find a loophole in a Code rule, since we have already determined that the Code did not regulate the length of kisses. In fact, this scene is in direct violation of the Code despite the breaks from kissing, since its general flavor is one of excess and lust. This is just one of the reasons that I classify this suspense film as a poor Code film, a Code classification which I will describe in greater detail in a later article.

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Like the scene described below which the director tried to create, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr went too far in From Here to Eternity, 1953

In his book, Mr. Vizzard described another situation in which a filmmaker evaded the rail bird myth’s time limit but still violated the Code’s rules on kissing.

The film community, of course, struck back at what its members thought were petty restraints on its “creativity.” A particularly ingenious invention was used by a director to defeat the supposed ten-second limit on kisses.

What this craftsman did was to train the camera on his two lovers, and let them go the route for the full ten seconds. It was a nice warm open-mouth kiss. When the “time limit” had expired, the director let the camera travel slowly away from the blissful pair, and, in what is called a “continuing pan,” passed a pool of water in which it picked up their reflections kissing upside down. Now we had the equivalent of a new time span in which to survey them topsy-turvy, still locked in their rapturous embrace. When the ten seconds or so were up, the director allowed the camera to drift past the pool, and to catch their reflection in a conveniently placed mirror. This time, of course, they were right side up again. The audience was allowed to feast its eyes on the two for another time count. Then came the piece de resistance. On the shelf above the mirror was a long row of blue bottles, over which the camera wandered, picking up on each the diminutive image of the romantic pair, on into a dissolve that created the effect of infinity.

It was all very nice; but the imaginative man need not have gone to all the trouble – not for the Code, at any rate.

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Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe breaking all boundaries in Some Like It Hot, 1959

Obviously, this inventive fellow missed the whole point of the Code’s guidelines on scenes of passion. Although the audience would technically only see the couple kissing for ten seconds at a time in the described scene, the implication that they are kissing continuously for the entire time they are seen in various reflections is highly suggestive and entirely improper. No doubt he just wanted to see if he could get away with it. By the Shurlock Era, rascally filmmakers could get away with such cheap tricks, such as in the prolonged kissing sequence between Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe on the yacht in Some Like It Hot from 1959.

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The PCA discouraged a dissolve on a kiss between Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, 1951

A final restriction on kissing was its usage for suggestive purposes. A slow dissolve on a kiss was understood to imply that more serious amorous activity followed, so kissing was often encouraged to end before the scene did. If a scene did end with kissing, a quick fade out was considered less suggestive than a slow dissolve. Like the horizontal kissing rule, this was not in the text of the Code. However, warnings about it can be found in many of the letters from the PCA to filmmakers.

In the Shurlock Era, more imaginative directors cut away from kisses to shots of something else to convey a risqué meaning to worldlier viewers, hoping that the PCA wouldn’t object or wouldn’t notice. Two instances of such a device come from the devisor of ever-inventive kissing techniques, Alfred Hitchcock. In To Catch a Thief from 1955, a kiss cuts to fireworks, and in North by Northwest from 1959, a kiss is followed by a shot of a train entering a tunnel. In at least the latter case, the cheap cinematographic tricks were not necessary to convey the impression that the relationship is not an entirely wholesome one.

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

People frequently ridicule the Code for splitting hairs where art was concerned and controlling the love scenes which Americans saw for decades. As I hope Mr. Vizzard and I proved, there was no specific time limit for kissing, since that wouldn’t have been effective. However, there were other strict rules about kissing which were carefully enforced. The self-regulators were not blue-nosed curmudgeons who frowned on tender emotions. Most of them were happily married men who enjoyed a good love story. However, they had to be sure that it was handled the right way so that it would not have a dangerous effect on its viewers. Audiences, particularly the youth, are very influenced by what they see in movies. If they see wholesome, decent relationships leading to happy marriages, they want to have happy marriages themselves. If they see lustful, immoral relationships presented attractively, they want to have immoral relationships themselves. To a director, love scenes may be “art” or a quick way to make a few extra dollars, but to the PCA, they were the tools for guiding the morals of our nation.

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Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, 1943

Despite the strict rules about scenes of passion under the Code, movies made during the twenty-year Breen Era were and are very romantic. In fact, some of the most iconic love scenes of all time were filmed while the PCA kept a close eye on the kissing. Is this just a reflection of a more glamorous time? I don’t think so, since neither kissing from before nor after the Code Era is as romantic, glamorous, and beautiful as Code kissing. It certainly is more dramatic than the way the people standing in front of you in line at a fast food restaurant kiss, but maybe that’s because the Code prevented it from being common. It was more romantic because it had to be restrained. When the restraints were removed, romance became cheap, tawdry, and sometimes downright violent rather than tender and loving. People can say what they like about artistic freedom, censorship, and creative license, but I find it reassuring to know that the love scenes from the Breen Era won’t offend, embarrass, or disgust me. In the immortal “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca, Sam (Dooley Wilson) sang, “A kiss is just a kiss,” but no other kiss is like a Code kiss!

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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