What the Code Means to Me – September: “What the Code Means to Me” by Rebecca Deniston


This article was written by Rebecca Deniston of Taking Up Room. Her analysis of the Code’s influence on the Golden Era of Hollywood and its overall worth is the September entry in our guest series, What the Code Means to Me. It was originally published on her website here. Rebecca, thank you for contributing the sixth article to our series exploring exploring other writers’ opinions on the Code!


Tiffany and Rebekah at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society are the blogging world’s co-queens of the Production Code. Parsing it, analyzing it, giving it context–these ladies know the Code inside and out, and their mission is to resurrect the Code in today’s Hollywood. So when they asked us, their fellow bloggers, what we think of the Production Code, I found the question to be rather loaded. What does it mean to me? Well, it’s kind of a mixed bag, but let’s start with a little background.

Myrna Loy in The Barbarian, 1933. (Pinterest)

For those who aren’t familiar with the Production Code (read the full text here), here’s a basic rundown: The Code was a set of guidelines that told the Hollywood industry what could or couldn’t be included in films. Actors could only show a certain amount of skin, cleavage should be kept to a minimum, and nudity was verboten. A kiss couldn’t be over three seconds long and never, ever French or too passionate. Intercourse was a huge no-no. Marriages had to be monogamous, and free love was absolutely not free.

The Code was about more than marriage and sexuality. There was also to be no blatant drug use, and drunkenness had to be somewhat controlled, possibly even comical, but never desirable. Heroes had to be heroes, and villains were to either repent or face retribution. Religion had to be portrayed in a positive light, with clergy always held up as good men. Movies couldn’t show ghoulishly dead bodies or overt gore, even in a war story. And for heaven’s sake, there was to be no profanity or obscenity.

Joseph Breen. (Pre-Code.com)

It was fear of government censorshipthat prompted the adoption of the Production Code. The movies had an image problem both on and off the screen, and the industry risked losing their audience unless they cleaned up their act. If anything didn’t live up to the Code, it was sent back to the drawing board.

Did they succeed? Yep. They had to, because human nature dictates voting with one’s feet, and by the nineteen forties, between eighty and ninety percent of the American public was going to the movies at least once a week.

The Code was abandoned in 1966 when it became impossible to enforce. Soon the ratings system was adopted, albeit without any real criteria at first, which is why the PG-rated Day of the Jackal could show a fully nude woman after intercourse. Thankfully, the MPAA has fixed all that. Pretty much. At least we sort of know what we’re getting into when we choose films. Whether they are worthy of our time is an entirely different matter.

Movie audience, 1940s. (Timeline)

What I appreciate about the Code Era is that it wasn’t so much about censorship as it was about rising to the occasion. Filmmakers had to be creative when approaching tough subjects. They had to respect their audiences. They also had to allow audiences to use their imaginations. The result was roughly three decades of films that, in most cases, families could watch together, with much of the innuendo subtle enough to go over the kids’ heads.

A great example is 1949’s On the Town, which has double entendres galore. For instance, when Hilde tells the Coney Island throng, “{Chip} wanted to see the beautiful sights of our beautiful city of New York! And I showed him plenty,” she isn’t referring to Grant’s Tomb.

Heather Young Design Journal

Contrast that with today’s Hollywood, where more than a few actors presume to think they can tell people what to believe, some to the point of calling for blackmail, and the ratings system is often an envelope to be pushed. Disney owns vast swaths of the entertainment industry, including Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, serving up fare, a lot of it rehashed, with a generous side of social justice. And in certain films, nothing is left to the imagination. It might seem like freedom, but there is the danger of creative laziness. Audiences seem to know it, too, which is a big factor in why box office returns have been dropping. Well, that, and tickets cost about the same as the cheaper lunch entrees at McCormick and Schmick’s.

On the flipside, though, my only tiny beef with the Production Code is that for today’s audiences, Code films can present an idealized version of the past. Some might watch them and think no one cussed in the old days, or fornicated, or cheated, or did drugs, which, of course, is not the case. These folks’ jaws usually drop when they find out that Jean Harlow didn’t wear underwear and Cary Grant tried LSD.

Air Force (1943) is one of the few Code-era films that contain mild profanity.

I used to be one of those people. When I started studying World War Two on my own, I was shocked to see vets using profanity. Up to that point, all I knew about the war was from old movies, my parents, and my grandpa, who was a radioman on a PB-Y. No cussing. Reading Ted Lawson’s book about the Doolittle Raid was a wake-up call, and it’s one of the milder volumes out there. That doesn’t take away from the merits of the Production Code; it just shows that there is nothing new under the sun.

Anyway, my appreciation for the Code far outweighs any criticism. For today’s audiences, Code films may not present an entirely true picture of the past, but they can impart sound messages and maybe give audiences something to aspire to.

Hallmark’s Mystery Woman series would definitely be Code-worthy, even though it’s for TV. (Pinterest)

I hope we can establish a similar yardstick in the future, although I’m not holding my breath. A new Code would require a huge, huge realignment of the value system in Hollywood, which many don’t seem to be interested in. It’s like letting the proverbial cat out of the bag–once it’s out, it’s not going back in, which is too bad. However, there are outliers such as the Hallmark Channel that strive to present family-friendly fare, so one can always hope more will do likewise.

For more thoughts on the Code, please visit Tiffany and Rebekah’s What the Code Means To Me page. Thanks for asking me to participate in this unique event, ladies–it was fun! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll check back tomorrow, when I’ll be posting my entry for a surprise blogathon. See you all later…

Phantom Blogathon Banner 1

Calling all Phans to PEPS! This year, on September 23-25, I, Rebekah Brannan, will be hosting The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon. The title tells you exactly what it is. This blogathon will be dedicated to all adaptations, spin-offs, prequels, and sequels of the immortal tale The Phantom of the Opera! As devoted Phans, my sister and I could not let the 110th anniversary of the beginning of the original novel’s serialization in the newspaper Le Gaulois pass without some form of commemoration. I invite all of you to celebrate this wonderful event by joining The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon! Now, stay away from trapdoors, beware of shadows, and always keep your hand at the level of your eyes, because we’re off to the Paris Opera!

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!


3 thoughts on “What the Code Means to Me – September: “What the Code Means to Me” by Rebecca Deniston

  1. Question – were you going to study similar regulation of the content of films outside the USA? For example, in the USSR there were two bodies – in fact censorship and “artistic councils”. What is the essence of censorship – the censor is looking for information that should not be distributed, that is, strategic information, the names of some, and the like – this can also be found in the aerobics textbook. While the “artistic council” checks the content of films and scripts for compliance with certain moral and ideological criteria.

    For clarity, I will give a couple of examples. There is such a film – Thunderstorm over Belaya. Military historical picture about the Civil War, the capture of Ufa by the soldiers of the Red Army and the collapse of the White Guard offensive. In the dialogues, a certain “people’s commissar” (an analogue of the minister) is mentioned, who believes that it makes no sense to take Ufa. This refers to Comrade Trotsky, a well-known revolutionary and father of the Red Army. After the war, he led the opposition movement in the party, for which he was expelled from the country, and his name was blackened. As a result, he was not mentioned in the media. Censorship works here – for we are talking about the “enemy of the people”, and as a result it cannot be called directly, it can only be hinted. On the other hand, there is The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed – a cult detective drama. It is known that they cut a love scene between two characters. Here the demand of the artistic council is already felt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is very interesting. I haven’t studied foreign censorship/self-regulation as much as I have studied American film history, but I have some knowledge of foreign markets, particularly England. Thank you for this useful information! If you would be interested in writing an article comparing the Code to the councils in Russia, I would be thrilled to publish it on my website!

      Yours Hopefully,

      Tiffany Brannan


  2. Pingback: What the Code Means to Me | pure entertainment preservation society

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