Code Concepts #8. Police, Criminals, and Law and Order

Add a heading

Today is July 2, the second day of #CleanMovieMonth2020 here at PEPS! Since it is Thursday, it is time for the first Code Concepts article of the month. We are publishing one of these articles on every Thursday in July instead of Breening Thursday articles during #CleanMovieMonth2020 because we are focusing exclusively on movies made during the American Breen Era (1934-1954). The purpose this series is to study the principles, concepts, and basic rules which were part of the Code and enforced by the PCA under Joseph Breen. These concepts are much more intricate and nuanced than a list of dos and don’ts, so we try to explain different concepts individually through this series.

COPS reality TV show has been cancelled.

Today’s topic is policemen, criminals, and law and order. This is inspired by the current examinations of and controversy surrounding the police, minority, and possible brutality. At a time when the reality TV show Cops was cancelled after thirty years because of its sympathetic depiction of police, we thought that it would be appropriate to examine the Code’s guidelines about the depiction of law enforcers and how the PCA oversaw film police.

The Code has only three general principles. While they can all be summarized as, “Don’t make the audiences think that evildoing is good,” #3 is the most specific to our topic of the depiction of law and its violation.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

The Doorway to Hell (1930)

The Doorway to Hell (1930) cast sympathy away from the law by making gangster Louie (Lew Ayres) the hero and policeman Pat (Robert Elliott) the villain.

We are beginning our analysis of law enforcers under the Code with studying rules about law and crime. That is because law enforcers rarely come into play except in films which deal with lawbreakers. While some films center on a police officer’s life, most policemen in films are supporting or minor characters in films about criminals. The Pre-Code Era saw gangsters, bootleggers, robbers, and other criminals running wild, breaking the law willy-nilly yet being depicted sympathetically. When criminals become heroes, law enforcers, such as policemen, state troopers, and detectives, naturally put an end to all that. The dangerous gangster cycle began with Warner Bros’ The Doorway to Hell (1930), which made policeman Pat O’Grady (Robert Elliott) look like a rat for leaving boyishly handsome bootlegger Louie Riccarno (Lew Ayres) to get his just deserts. After that, it was a dangerous trend which the Code had to stop.

Section I of the Code expounded on the basic principle about creating sympathy against the law.

I. Crimes Against the Law

These shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.

The second part of this principle deals with inspiring imitation, as do most of the subsections. Other than avoiding excessive, offensive violence, avoiding presenting crimes in great detail was an important principle which the Code enforced. However, that doesn’t relate to this article’s topic. Those rules are for the criminally-inclined and the mentally immature. We are tackling the more difficult, nuanced aspects of depicting crime, swaying the audience’s sympathy. Only one subsection deals with this idea.

1. Murder

c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.

While murder is rarely something which the average, civilized person would condone, revenge can be an exception. If something terrible has happened to a character or one of his loved ones, it can be easy to sympathize with his misfortune so much that we find ourselves condoning his vengeful crime. This delicate issue is discussed further later in the Code, in Reasons Underlying the Particular Applications.

Revenge in modern times shall not be justified. In lands and ages of less developed civilization and moral principles, revenge may sometimes be presented. This would be the case especially in places where no law exists to cover the crime because of which revenge is committed.

This section also presents three more principles which the treatment of crimes must not do, the third being appropriate to this topic.

I. Crimes Against the Law
The treatment of crimes against the law must not:

3. Make criminals seem heroic and justified.

Fitzwilly (1967)

Fitzwilly (1967) makes the title character’s (Dick Van Dyke) high end robberies seem perfectly justified because he is just doing it to help the kind old lady who employs him, Miss Woodworth (Edith Evans).

How does one ensure that criminals don’t seem heroic or justified? It seems like a simple matter when stated like that in writing, but it becomes much more complicated in specific cases regarding complex stories. Fitzwilly (1967) is a great example of a film which seems very innocent but is very dangerous at its core. Affable butler Fitzwilly (Dick Van Dyke) and his staff manage a complex system of thievery from various high-end stores to support their refined but penniless employer, Miss Victoria Woodworthy (Edith Evans), in the manner to which she is accustomed. Although they are getting away with huge robberies, we can’t help but admire them for their generosity and cleverness. Such a misdirection of sympathy was acceptable in unbreenable Shurlock Era films, but not in Breen Era movies.

In Reasons Underlying the General Principles of the Code, more specific are given on lawbreaking and sympathy.

I. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.

This is done:

1. When evil is made to appear attractive and alluring, and good is made to appear unattractive.

2. When the sympathy of the audience is thrown on the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, sin. The same is true of a film that would thrown sympathy against goodness, honor, innocence, purity or honesty.

Note: Sympathy with a person who sins is not the same as sympathy with the sin or crime of which he is guilty. We may feel sorry for the plight of the murderer or even understand the circumstances which led him to his crime: we may not feel sympathy with the wrong which he has done. The presentation of evil is often essential for art or fiction or drama. This in itself is not wrong provided:

a. That evil is not presented alluringly. Even if later in the film the evil is condemned or punished, it must not be allowed to appear so attractive that the audience’s emotions are drawn to desire or approve so strongly that later the condemnation is forgotten and only the apparent joy of sin is remembered.

b. That throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right.

The last sentence in the above quote is the most important in this matter.

An issue which further complicates the matter is the fact that actors vividly portray film characters. This too is an issue in stage dramas, but the impact is far stronger in movies, which allow viewers to see every detail of emotion in actors’ faces. The Code addressed the fact that audiences can confuse character with the actors portraying them.

c. The enthusiasm for and interest in the film actors and actresses, developed beyond anything of the sort in history, makes the audience largely sympathetic toward the characters they portray and the stories in which they figure. Hence the audience is more ready to confuse actor and actress and the characters they portray, and it is most receptive of the emotions and ideals presented by the favorite stars.

This concept is evident in both the films that sympathetically depict criminals which I mentioned above. In The Doorway to Hell, Lew Ayres is so youthful, charming, and cute at age twenty-one that it is hard to think of him as anything but sweet and perhaps pathetic. In Fitzwilly, the title character’s intentions seem so unselfish as described by the affable and brilliantly comedic Dick Van Dyke. After all, this is the man who played Bert in Mary Poppins. He wouldn’t do anything wrong!

The next principle goes a step further by defining what is meant by law.

III. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

By natural law is understood the law which is written in the hearts of all mankind, the greater underlying principles of right and justice dictated by conscience.

By human law is understood the law written by civilized nations.

1. The presentation of crimes against the law is often necessary for the carrying out of the plot. But the presentation must not throw sympathy with the crime as against the law nor with the criminal as against those who punish him.

Let Freedom Ring

In Let Freedom Ring (1939), Guy Kibbee plays an Old West judge who is bought by the local railroad boss, Jim Knox (Edward Arnold).

Having determined what law is and studied all the Code’s rules about keeping sympathy on that side, let’s consider individual law enforcers. Respect for law enforcers was key in keeping audience sympathy on the side of the law. This respect goes from the simplest security guards to judges in the land’s highest courts.

2. The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust. This does not mean that a single court may not be presented as unjust, much less that a single court official must not be presented this way. But the court system of the country must not suffer as a result of this presentation.

Doorway to Hell

In a bloody gangland war in The Doorway to Hell, this policeman gets caught and killed in the crossfire.

The most important principle in the Code about law enforcement officers was the rule against showing law officers being killed by criminals. I assume that this was thought to weaken law enforcement officers by making them look weak. This important principle was not established in the original Code. It was added in 1938 as part of an eleven-point addendum called Special Regulations on Crime in Motion Pictures. Point 10 established this principle, curtailing the situations which flourished during the Pre-Code Era.

10. There must be no scenes, at any time, showing law-enforcement officers dying at the hands of criminals. This includes private detectives and guards for banks, motor trucks, etc.

In 1951, several of these points were changed slightly. Although most of them were just clarified, #10 was altered slightly. Exceptions to this rule were granted in special cases during the Breen Era, so in 1951 these were validified by an added clause about necessity for plot development. An example of such an exception is in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), in which gangster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney), already a murderer, kills a policeman during a shootout in a warehouse.

10. There must be no scenes, at any time, showing law-enforcing officers dying at the hands of criminals unless such scenes are absolutely necessary to the development of the plot. This includes private detectives and guards for banks, motor trucks, etc.

Keystone Cops - Wikipedia

Keystone Cops in The Stolen Purse (1913).

This was part of the Code enforcers’ efforts to help filmmakers make socially and morally responsible films. For any movie to make law enforcers look weak, evil, or foolish was considered dangerous and antisocial. This concern dated back to the era of silent films, when Keystone Cops were popular. These bumbling policemen were featured in silent slapstick comedies produced by Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company 1912-1917. They were popular enough to have starring film features as well as provide background support to famous comedians. Although these comedic foils were beloved by most, certain things bothered censors from different areas. While liquor bothered Kansas, Chicago was not amused by the Keystone Cops. Perhaps that’s because the city was noted for being plagued by lawless gangsters. Despite this, the PCA allowed production a 1935 Keystone Cop feature called Keystone Hotel, as well as a Keystone Cop scene featuring Buster Keaton in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939).

This Woman Is Dangerous 1952 (Joan Crawford) . Trailer - YouTube

Naturally, filmmakers often objected to the enforcement of rules regarding criminals and law enforcement, as with most Code principles. In his 1970 memoirs, See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor, longtime PCA member Jack Vizzard recounted the fuss over this film which self-regulators Eugene “Doc” Dougherty and Geoffrey Shurlock had with director Felix Feist over This Woman is Dangerous (1952). This provides some interesting insight into the depiction of law enforcers’ deaths as well as the responsibility which criminals must take in Code films, so I will quote most of the section from pages 110-112.

Doc Dougherty… reported on a picture titled This Woman is Dangerous. This was a film being prepared by Warner Brothers as a come-back vehicle for the actress Joan Crawford. The producer was a Bob Sisk, and the director was a Felix Feist. Doc had been assigned to the script in the company of Geoff.

They had gone out to the studio, and had fallen into an impasse with the director. Feist was being either unsympathetic or uncomprehending over a request for a more vivid “voice for morality.”

“I usually go right along with you guys,” said Feist, “but right now you’ve got me stumped. What do you mean about developing a voice for morality in this case? Tell me more.”

Doc charged into the breach. “Okay, Felix,” he volunteered, “let’s sum up. Here you’ve got a story of a woman who is little more than a cheap gun moll. So what happens? She falls in love with a nice doctor, who decides that the reason she is so aggressive and antisocial is that she has a pressure on the brain. He operates on her, removes a tumor, and put her back into society as a whole person. Now she is supposed to be welcomed back with open arms, as though she has no past, as though there is no wake of wrong trailing behind her whatsoever. You wave a wand, and a whole string of criminal deeds are supposed to be wiped out. What we want to get into the script is some recognition of her previous lawlessness.”

“But this is a sick woman,” protested Felix, scratching his head in desperation. “What do you want me to do? Punish her for things she couldn’t help?”

“No,” countered Doc. “Not that. But the whole trouble is that the doctor goes on rationalizing that every criminal is only a sick person – that he’s the victim of a tumorous pressure, either on his brain or on his soul. He’s not to blame for the pressures on his personality. Society is.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that?” Feist wanted to know. “This is what psychiatry is teaching us. There’s no such thing as a basically malicious personality. There are only damaged psyches. Science comes along and removes the source of the aggravation, and the person adjusts.”

“Great!” exclaimed Doc. “That’s just peachy, isn’t it? Now nobody’s responsible for their hostilities or their aggressions. Everybody’s let off the hook. What you’re doing, Felix, is carrying your thesis too far. Sure there’s a core of truth to what you’re talking about. But you’re running it into a wild exaggeration. You’re trying to replace morality with science.”

Felix sucked on the end of his pencil. “I think I get your point,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s a question of degree. All right, I’ll make some changes and take out the exaggeration.”

That’s the idea, Felix,” agreed Doc. “But, now look. There’s just one more thing. Among the details of this story, there’s a very brutal killing of a state trooper. You ought to take a look at that, and soften it up a bit.”

“Is that a Code problem?” demanded Felix, slightly nettled. “I mean, you’re not just tossing this in as a suggestion, or something, are you?”

“No, I’m afraid not,” answered Doc. “The Code is pretty solicitous to protect the inviolability of the law. It doesn’t want to give currency to the idea that it’s pretty easy to bump off a cop.”

“Aw, nuts!” exploded Felix, jumping to his feet. “This is carrying things too far! What’s the idea of throwing a mantle of protection over policemen, for crying out loud? Listen. Two of those bums beat me up right outside my own house not more than two months ago…. They’re a pack of no-goods, and you know it!”

All this time, Geoffrey had been sitting back with his implacable blue eyes, following the dialogue like a witness at a tennis match. Now he darted into the conversation like a lizard. “Oh, but Felix,” he interrupted, eyes wide with mock astonishment, “where does all this bitterness come from? This is incompatible with the ‘scientific’ approach. Remember? They’re not to blame. They’re just sick!”

This Woman Is Dangerous (1952) | OldMoviesaregreat

Joan Crawford and Dennis Morgan in This Woman is Dangerous. By changing the brain tumor to a vision problem, the troublesome social message was removed.

The exchange recounted in this quote is interesting on many levels. Firstly, it illustrates the give-and-take exchanges which made the PCA’s process of self-regulation so democratic. Secondly, this particular case illustrates many things. Most notably, it is an example of a PCA success. Although film critic Bosley Crowther called this movie “trash,” it was a success in the fact that the problematic themes discussed in this meeting are not in the film. The full synopsis reveals that the Beth’s (Joan Crawford) brain tumor was changed to a sudden onset of blindness, eliminating the dangerous, amoral “scientific” principle of pressure on the brain removing the criminal’s responsibility for her actions. Furthermore, she pays for her crimes by doing some jail time before getting her “happily ever after” with Dr. Ben Halleck (Dennis Morgan). It seems that Doc and Geoff succeeded in getting Felix to add a voice for morality.

Woman is Dangerous

The state trooper (Fred Graham) after being killed by Matt Jackson (David Brian) in This Woman is Dangerous.

The other point which concerned the PCA was the state trooper’s death. Doc described it as a “very brutal killing.” According to the synopsis, the killing remained in the film. I watched this scene. I don’t know what it was in the original script, but I wouldn’t describe the actual killing as being depicted in a brutal manner. When the state trooper (Fred Graham) tells Matt to come out of his trailer, he shoots him point blank. We don’t see him actually getting shot; we just see him stagger. We hear a second shot, although we don’t see this one either. The unfortunate law enforcer falls to the ground. I am sure that this is an improvement upon the original version of this situation. Doc’s main reason for “softening this up a bit” was to avoid giving “currency to the idea that it’s pretty easy to bump off a cop.” Director Felix Feist seemed to have a particular grudge toward the police because of the vague incident he recounted regarding two policemen. Like people in our current situation, he was holding a grudge against all law enforcers because of the wrongdoing of one or a few of them. Thankfully, the PCA was there to keep his personal grudge in control and “to protect the inviolability of the law.”

The Asphalt Jungle , 1950, Film Noir, Barry Kelley

Barry Kelly as dirty cop Ditrich in The Asphalt Jungle.

Speaking of “bad cops,” the principle regarding rogue law enforcers was the same as regarding courts of law. While one police system or individual officer could be depicted as corrupt or evil, the whole force or system of law enforcement could not be ridiculed. A good example of a corrupt policeman from the Breen Era is in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). In this film, Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelly) protects bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) but later beats him to make him confess everything, hoping to save himself. He is later arrested himself for corruption.

Asphalt Jungle

Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) talks about corrupt policemen and the law’s purpose in The Asphalt Jungle.

Does the presence of such corrupt law enforcers mean that our whole system of law enforcement is worthless? Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) sums up The Asphalt Jungle with a speech about what would happen without a police force. I will sum up this article with that quote. Scroll down to watch the whole scene. “People are being cheated, robbed, murdered, raped. And that goes on 24 hours a day, every day in the year. And that’s not exceptional, that’s usual. It’s the same in every city in the modern world. But suppose we had no police force, good or bad. Suppose we had… just silence. Nobody to listen, nobody to answer. The battle’s finished. The jungle wins. The predatory beasts take over. Think about it.”

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

Happy #CleanMovieMonth2020!

My Post

 Click here to join our monthlong celebration of nothing but American Breen Era (1934-1954) movies in honor of the Production Code Administration’s anniversary!

Add a heading (4)

Click here to join our upcoming blogathon about American Breen Era movies adapted from classic literature, the Code Classics Blogathon!

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!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s