Of all our series here at PEPS, Code Concepts is the least prolific. I started this series last July, and this is only the seventh article I have published in it so far. I occasionally publish these articles on Thurdays, in place of Breening Thursday articles. The purpose of this series is to address and explain basic principles which the Production Code Administration maintained during the American Breen Era (1934-1954) by analyzing them individually. Although I mention concepts in reviews of Code films, it can be very enlightening to look at issues of Code compliance as a whole.
On June 10-12, J-Dub of Dubsism and Quiggy of The Midnite Drive-In are hosting the Disaster Blog-a-Thon. This blogathon focuses on movies about natural disasters and massive catastrophes of all kinds. This timely blogathon is the hosts’ response to the current disasters which are changing everyone’s way of life, the pandemic and, more recently, the protests.
I decided to join this blogathon with a Code Concepts article about disaster films, the irrational fear they can cause, and the responsibility to which the PCA held filmmakers. Interestingly, during the COVID-19 lockdown, pandemic movies like Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011) soared to the top of streaming platforms. It seems that people wanted to compare the current disease with the fictional outbreaks in these films to see how closely the current “crisis” compared with these disasters. The fear one sees on masked faces is real, and I think that it isn’t just from hearing the latest coronavirus news. People are thinking of COVID-19 like it is a disease from a horrific apocalyptic disease film. I don’t blame them. It is easy to confuse fiction, especially fiction which is vividly depicted on the screen, with reality.
Were there Code disaster films? During the American Breen Era, did Hollywood make older equivalents of pandemic films like Outbreak and Contagion? The first film is rated R for language, and the second is rated PG-13 for disturbing content and some language. However, these films violate the Code in more subtle ways than the Rating System considers.
In the Code’s preamble, its authors stated motion picture producers’ responsibility to the public:
Motion picture producers recognize the high trust and confidence which have been placed in them by the people of the world and which have made motion pictures a universal form of entertainment.
They recognize their responsibility to the public because of this trust and because entertainment and art are important influences in the life of a nation.
Hence, though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda, they know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.
During the rapid transition from silent to talking pictures they have realized the necessity and the opportunity of subscribing to a Code to govern the production of talking pictures and of re-acknowledging this responsibility.
This preamble states some vital principles which aren’t directly addressed in the rules of the Code. The most dangerous films which come out of modern Hollywood are more dangerous because of harmful messages and themes than more tangible problems like violence and swearing. One of the most important passages in the Code is the phrase “though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda.” The concept of films simply being entertainment was a key idea during the Golden Era of Hollywood. While modern filmmakers nearly always send messages, the motto of classic moguls was, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Although some classic films promoted certain ideas, they tried to remain fairly neutral. Unfortunately, many recent films use their “trust,” “confidence,” and “responsibility” to promote harmful “teaching or propaganda.”
Furthermore, the Code states an oft-ignored truth: “the motion picture… may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.” The Code years were a time when movies truly were responsible for progress, both spiritual and moral, higher types of social life, and correct thinking in the American public and throughout the world. For the only time in history, films offered a depiction of life which was, if anything, more wholesome and conservative than reality. It certainly was more decent and restrained than other forms of entertainment, such as the theater and literature, although these were influenced indirectly because societal standards were effected by the Code.
How does this relate to disaster films? Earlier I posed the question of whether pandemic films like Outbreak and Contagion were made during the Breen Era. The answer is no. Films about diseases, quarantine, and deadly outbreaks were certainly not forbidden by the Code, so they were made during those twenty years. However, they were few and far between. In my article “Coronaphobia and Films”, I listed the Code films containing disease outbreaks which I had discovered. The results of my research were only fourteen movies. Representing twenty years, that is an average of less than 0.75 epidemic films made each year.
Although uncommon, these movies were nothing like outbreak films made in later decades. These films feature epidemics, but they are all feasible. Many of them are in historic time periods and foreign settings. Even those set in modern America are on a small scale. They remain in one city, town, or area, rather than spreading throughout countries, continents, and eventually the globe. The diseases are not strange mutant viruses invented by creative minds behind the camera. They are the flu, pneumonia, yellow fever, cholera, and other actual and fairly common diseases. True, they are very dangerous and have killed thousands at a time. However, these movies don’t depict cataclysmic diseases in a way which is irrationally frightening. Jezebel (1938) is one of the only movies to show a disease outbreak which completely shuts down a city and surrounding area, as antebellum New Orleans is turned into a war zone as yellow fever stalks its streets. However, it is distinctly showing the consequences of the city’s decades of ignoring the need for better sanitation, which a doctor accurately predicted would cause another yellow fever outbreak.
Disaster movies about fictitious natural disasters and diseases are often considered science fiction. Science fiction is defined by Merriam-Webster as “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.” Science fiction movies can range from very believable fiction with convincing but imaginative scientific principles, such as H. G. Wells’s novel The Invisible Man, to complete, highly creative fantasy with a loosely scientific topic, such as many futuristic space stories, which I call science fantasy rather than science fiction. Most science fiction movies from the Breen Era fall into the latter category.
Science fiction films were quite popular in the early 1950s. Most of them are about travels to outer space or aliens visiting the earth. Films like The Thing from Another World (1951) are basically horror films with a galactic twist. They were the more current version of vampire films, replacing ghouls of Old World legends with more original ghouls from the last frontier.
From my research, Code disaster films are either very realistic, based on events which happened or feasibly could have happened, or very unrealistic, being so fanciful and far-fetched that they couldn’t be confused with reality. Post-Code disaster films often fall in between these two extremes. They are neither real nor based on a probable reality. However, they are presented in a realistic way, which makes their horrible effects more ghastly, since they are believable. That is why such films can cause irrational fear.
Filmmakers often deny any responsibility for their films’ effects on viewers. They claim the old status of “just entertainment,” denouncing people who confuse films with reality as foolish. However, the Code includes a lengthy section describing the reasons why films are significantly more impacting than plays of written media, like books or newspapers.
a. A book describes; a film vividly presents. One presents on a cold page; the other by apparently living people.
b. A book reaches the mind through words merely; a film reaches the eyes and ears through the reproduction of actual events.
c. The reaction of a reader to a book depends largely on the keenness of the reader’s imagination; the reaction to a film depends on the vividness of presentation.
Hence many things which might be described or suggested in a book could not possibly be presented in a film.
E. This is also true when comparing the film with the newspaper.
a. Newspapers present by description, films by actual presentation.
b. Newspapers are after the fact and present things as having taken place; the film gives the events in the process of enactment and with apparent reality of life.
F. Everything possible in a play is not possible in a film:
a. Because of the larger audience of the film, and its consequential mixed character. Psychologically, the larger the audience, the lower the moral mass resistance to suggestion.
b. Because through light, enlargement of character, presentation, scenic emphasis, etc., the screen story is brought closer to the audience than the play….
H. The grandeur of mass settings, large action, spectacular features, etc., affects and arouses more intensely the emotional side of the audience.
In general, the mobility, popularity, accessibility, emotional appeal, vividness, straightforward presentation of fact in the film make for more intimate contact with a larger audience and for greater emotional appeal.
Hence the larger moral responsibilities of the motion pictures.
Unfortunately, filmmakers will not take this moral and societal responsibility seriously if not forced to by some governing body, such as the PCA under Joseph Breen.
A general conclusion is that, although the Code does not specifically forbid the presentation of fictional disasters in films, it recognizes “that entertainment can be a character either HELPFUL or HARMFUL to the human race.” It identifies these two qualities as the following:
a. Entertainment which tends to improve the race, or at least to re-create and rebuild human beings exhausted with the realities of life; and
b. Entertainment which tends to degrade human beings, or to lower their standards of life and living.
By causing irrational fear among audience members, filmmakers are ignoring their responsibility, violating the trust and confidence placed in them by the audiences in the world, and failing to create entertainment which “tends to improve the race.”
Are you still unconvinced that pandemic films have had any influence on the reaction to COVID-19? Here are a few facts to convince you. The last serious pandemic in America was the swine flu, the H1N1 virus, which struck the country in April of 2009. The CDC estimated that, from April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010, this virus caused 60.8 million cases, 274,304 hospitalizations, and 12,469 deaths in the United States. These are serious figures. However, H1N1 virus caused neither the lockdowns, the quarantines, the social distancing precautions, nor the panic of COVID-19. I remember hearing about this virus at the time, but I just heard about it. Other than the news of its severity which my father told me, I knew nothing about it. That shows how little it effected Americans’ daily life.
Why has the reaction to the novel coronavirus been so much more extreme? I think the reason is that Contagion was released on September 9, 2011, probably benefiting from the recent memories of the swine flu outbreak. This film’s whole publicity campaign was very irresponsible. The taglines show that it just intended to cash in on the morbid fear associated with deadly diseases. Some of its taglines are very revealing and chillingly indicative of our current situation.
“The world goes viral September 9.”
“Nothing spreads like fear.”
“Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone.”
Every time I go out, I still am noticing people, although masked, who are afraid to talk to others. A movie that can destroy human conversation, I think, is the greatest disaster of all.
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