This article was written by E. L. Tenenbaum of Oh My Word! Podcasts. She graciously invited me to be a guest on her podcast, so she is now in turn joining us by contributing the November 2020 entry in our guest series, What the Code Means to Me. Since she doesn’t have a blog, we are publishing the article here. Esther, thank you for contributing the ninth article to our series exploring other writers’ opinions on the Code!
If you’ve been following this series, you surely know what “the Code” refers to. If this is your first visit to this site, click around! Articles abound about just what “the Code” is and why it’s worthy of discussion.
Some articles in this series speak about the Code as a sort of challenge to filmmakers, a self-regulatory gauntlet thrown enforcing “decent” methods of storytelling, running the gamut from morality to war, loss to love. Almost every aspect of a film, from language to costumes, from religious portrayals to endings, were subject to the dictates of the Code. Even animated films were guided by the Code, and this at a time when graphic, realistic CGI was a nonfactor.
However, the Code of yore was not just a challenge and a guideline but also a proof and a standard for filmmaking.
Through the code, studios made actors box office stars without requiring either males or females to take their shirts off. Thrills (Double Indemnity, 1944), snappy dialogue (His Girl Friday, 1940), charming humor (Midnight, 1939), emotional subtly (Shane, 1953), character arcs (The Heiress, 1949), and love without intimate touch (It Happened One Night, 1934), each had to, and were, achieved through decent, clean scripts and tight storytelling.
Granted, the latter toed the line when Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert try to hail a cab, which Colbert finally does by scandalously lifting her skirt and showing her leg up to her thigh. However, there’s no doubt that same scene would be written today, in an age of miniskirts and shorts, with the female lead lifting her shirt to stop traffic.
In similar vein, modern romances seem almost incapable of bringing two people together without a night of drunken revelry, drugs, expletives, extended make out sessions, or some other “ice breaker” that finally brings two sparring sides to realize their romantic feelings for each other. Were Shane to be remade according to current standards, it would undoubtedly be “updated” or “modernized,” so that instead of powerful subtly to convey emotion, Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur) would have to sleep with Shane (Alan Ladd) because it’s inconceivable that she wouldn’t act on what she’s feeling, no matter the moral repercussions. Worse still, they would have us watch it. To what benefit?
Agree with it or not, the Code resulted in filmmakers crafting stories with decency, with subtlety, with class. Moreover, it proved it could be done.
Will the Code ever return to Hollywood?
Unlikely. Not without some major overhauls not only of the studios and regulatory board, but of our personal moral standards as well.
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