This article was written by Megan Chappie of The Pen and the Cross. Her analysis of the Code’s influence on the Golden Era of Hollywood and the equation of content restrictions with high artistic quality is the November entry in our guest series, What the Code Means to Me. It was originally published on her website here. Megan, thank you for contributing the seventh article to our series exploring exploring other writers’ opinions on the Code!
Today, I am partnering with Pure Entertainment Preservation Society in their series, What the Code Means to Me. Thank you, Tiffany and Rebekah, for inviting me to participate!
When I first learned about the Motion Picture Production Code, I admit I was skeptical. After all, taking bad content out of films in no way guarantees good storytelling. For me, “You have to go see this movie, it has great character development and breathtaking cinematography and brilliant dialogue” is far more convincing than, “You have to go see this movie, there’s not a single swear word in it.” Because the sad fact is, clean movies can be very, very bad movies.
But they can also be very, very good movies. And the Breen Era of film is proof of that.
If you’ve ever enjoyed The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, Arsenic and Old Lace, It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca, Boys Town, Gone With the Wind, National Velvet, The Magnificent Seven, or any other movie produced between 1934 and 1954, then you can thank Joseph Breen and the Motion Picture Production Code.
What made the Code effective was the fact that it had real talent backing it up. Again, taking bad stuff out of a film is not going to guarantee a good film. Hollywood understood this at the time, because–well, they had to understand it. Thanks to the Code, they had two choices: 1) make mediocre clean art, or 2) make good clean art. There were restrictions on what they could put in their films; there were no restrictions on quality.
There’s this idea floating around in America that has been floating around since the Enlightenment or so, namely, that restrictions are inhibiting. This does not just extend to art, but to religion and morality and politics (and gender, but let’s not go there). The most desirable quality is freedom. And if you put restrictions of any kind on me, you’re limiting my freedom, therefore you are limiting my ability to produce anything of worth–or, rather, anything that’s “really me.”
But as G. K. Chesterton points out somewhere, some of the greatest artists made their greatest works on commission–that is to say, with someone else dictating what they could and could not do with that piece of artwork.
Rules, whether we’re talking art or morality, are not supposed to limit our creativity. Rather, they’re supposed to lift it to new heights.
Think about it. What’s an easier order: “Write any kind of story you like,” or “write a story about a pirate, without ever mentioning the ocean?” “Bake a dessert for this contest,” or “bake a chocolate cake for this contest?” “Make a film,” or “make a film without any objectionable content?”
When not all the decisions are yours to make in artistry, when there are limits on your power, then by golly, you are going to exercise your power where you can. It is when there are rules, and not when anything goes, that the predictable facets of a work sift out of the picture and what is really yours shines through.
To put it simply: rules force you to be more creative.
You might think “no swearing,” for example, would limit the range of emotion that can be portrayed in a movie.
But I challenge you to show me a more powerful depiction of desperation than George Bailey’s dark night of the soul in It’s a Wonderful Life.
A movie produced today could hardly include contemplation of suicide without also including cursing, violence, or other objectionable content. After all. You can’t make a kid-friendly movie about suicide, can you?
But the Breen Era did. And they did it, not with an hour of depressing and explicit content, but with a few masterful moments of Jimmy Stewart’s acting.
It works the other way, too, because Code movies can be awfully funny. Take Arsenic and Old Lace. If you’ve seen it, you probably remember the scene where Mortimer Brooster (Carey Grant) chases a harmless old man out of his aunts’ house to keep him from being murdered.
My siblings and I thought this was hysterical when we saw it years and years ago. When I rewatched the film recently, it struck me that Grant’s facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language were funny in a way that is utterly foreign to most of today’s movies. We use physical humor in current American entertainment, but not this kind of physical humor. Unlike the Breen Era, we’re too busy making crude jokes to satirize the way people’s faces work when they undergo strong emotions.
So to sum up: yes, indeed, the Code was a good thing, because restrictions coupled with talent make quality entertainment. HIGH-quality entertainment. Hollywood could benefit from revisiting this concept, for sure.
The big question, of course, is could it ever happen again?
Could we ever bring back the Code?
“Oh, come now, Megan, don’t be naïve,” say you. “The Code was a product of an earlier and more innocent age. People in the 30s and 40s were glad to have clean entertainment. Today, people just don’t want it.”
And indeed, today’s culture is so sick and the movie industry is so huge that it’s hard to imagine anything remotely similar to the Code having a chance in current-day Hollywood.
But allow me to leave you with a small thought.
We’re tempted to think of the 30s and 40s as “an innocent age.” But really, there is no innocent age. The 1930s were preceded by the 1920s, which was an era of dramatic rebellion against all the old morals–in fact, in many ways the 1920s saw the beginning of the cultural mess we Americans have inherited; and while you might make the case that today’s sins are more flagrant than those of the 20s, you could just as easily argue that the 20s saw a sharper and more shocking plummet in the moral caliber of American culture. Films from the 20s could be as risque as you please.
My point is, we think it was easy for the Breen Era to enforce the Code–we think the Code was an effortless, inevitable result of its times.
But it wasn’t.
Just like every other good thing in this world, it required work.
Maybe the task was not quite as daunting for Joseph Breen then as it would be today?
But that’s beside the point.
The point is: why shouldn’t we bring back the Code? Why can’t we?
If the equation fis TALENT + RESTRICTIONS = HIGH-QUALITY ART, we’ve already got half the battle, because there’s always talent out there. There is actual talent in Hollywood. Moviemakers do know how to tell a good story. And audiences, no matter how accustomed they might be to taking in junk, cannot escape the human desire for “the good, the true, and the beautiful.”
There is good storytelling in America, even today.
But we’re missing a vital part of the equation.
We miss the Code.
If you want to join this series, you can sign up now! We don’t have a scheduled writer for December, so this month is still open! Also, you can sign up for the month of your choice in the new year!
This year, PEPS is celebrating the holidays with a blogathon! It is called The Happy Holidays Blogathon, and it will run December 6-8. It is all about films which feature the winter holidays. Eligible holidays include Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, News Years, The Twelve Days of Christmas, The Epiphany, Russian Christmas, and Russian New Years! Whether it is just one scene or the whole film, this is your chance to write about your favorite holiday movies!
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