When moving pictures first emerged at the turn of the century, they presented viewers with a flickering new form of entertainment. Even without sound, the mass appeal of these early movies and their portrayal of sex and violence managed to draw fire from America's moral guardians. In the 1930s, film industry executives embraced a strict set of guidelines, or Production Code, that governed movie content for two decades.
Hollywood Censored: Movies, Morality & the Production Code, premiering on PBS Wednesday, February 2, 2000 at 9pm (check local listings), explores how the American motion picture industry practiced self-censorship as a strategy for cultural and economic survival to answer growing charges of immorality. Featured interviewees in the film include Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti; Morality in Media president Robert Peters; film director Peter Bogdanovich; film producer Janet Yang; Production Code Administration employee Jack Vizzard; screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr.; film critic David Denby; Jean Harlow biographer Eve Golden; scholar Barbara Wilson; and film historians Thomas Doherty, Greg Black, and Frank Couvares.
Despite early admonitions, the motion picture industry flourished, and by the 1920s, forty million Americans from all walks of life went to the packed moviehouses each week. Moviemakers, wanting to attract young people, made films that were a reflection of their times -- it was the age of flappers doing the Charleston, honky-tonks playing the new sounds of jazz, and gangsters running numbers and selling liquor during Prohibition. Hollywood's new movie moguls were getting rich without any concern for freedom of expression or censorship.
It was a rash of Hollywood scandals in the late teens and the early twenties that helped intensify the ire of local censors and forced the film industry leaders to address the industry's image problems. In 1921, comedian Fatty Arbuckle was accused of the rape and murder of a young actress; director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered; actor Wallace Reid died of a drug overdose; and America's sweetheart, actress Mary Pickford, obtained a quickie divorce to marry dashing matinee idol, Douglas Fairbanks. Studio heads hired a public relations man, Will Hays, to bolster the industry's tainted reputation by convincing the nation that Hollywood was not all scandalous and that the movie industry would censor itself.
But Hays was merely a spokesperson. Since he had very little power to change the content of films, the criticism escalated, exploding into a national crisis when sound technology gave the movies a voice. In the late 1920s, state censorship boards were working overtime to keep up with the "talkies." These talking pictures incensed religious leaders concerned about America's youth. "Silent smut had been bad, vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance," wrote Father Daniel Lord, an influential Jesuit teacher in the twenties. Catholic religious leaders especially turned up the heat on Hollywood, calling for strict moral standards and a Code of conduct for movie content based on the premise that "no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it."
The Production Code spelled out specific restrictions on language and behavior, particularly sex and crime -- two sure-fire box office draws. It prohibited nudity, suggestive dances, and the ridicule of religion. It forbade the depiction of illegal drug use, venereal disease, childbirth, and miscegenation. The language section banned dozens of "offensive" words and phrases. Criminal activity could not be presented in a way that led viewers to sympathize with criminals. Murder scenes had to avoid inspiring imitation, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail. The sanctity of the marriage and the home had to be upheld. Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.
Hays convinced the studios that accepting the Code was the safest and cheapest answer to their troubles. If the movie industry policed itself, it could ward off the high probability of government intervention. After losing money in the stock market crash of 1929 and paying big bills for introducing sound to the movies, the studios were also deep in debt and desperate to cut costs. Hays sold the Code as the money-saving measure they were searching for. Instead of paying to revise the film after the censorship boards made their edits, the studios could simply follow the Code before making their movies and everyone would be happy. The Code was adopted in 1930.
As the Depression wore on, moviemakers slacked off on their adherence to the Code. Dozens of films produced in 1932 and 1933 presented women using their sexuality to get ahead. The "bad girl" movies, including Red Headed Woman starring Jean Harlow, were huge box office hits. "She slept her way to the top, she was into S&M; there's a very naughty scene where he starts beating her, and she just loves it," comments Eve Golden, Jean Harlow biographer.
Continued pressure from the Catholic Church with support from Jewish and Protestant leaders, economic hardships, and the growing threat of federal censorship forced Hays and the studios to change their ways. In 1934, Joe Breen, a strict Catholic moralist from Philadelphia, was hired to run Hollywood's Production Code Administration, set up to enforce the Code. The PCA had the authority to review all movies and demand script changes. Any theater that ran a film without the PCA seal of approval would be fined $25,000. The Code had power at last. "The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is out. There is no room on the screen at any time for pictures which offend against common decency. And these the industry will not allow," pledged Breen.
Moviemakers and scriptwriters acquiesced. They accepted the Code as the rule by which they had to work and created films that met Breen's standards. Some actors survived; others were not so fortunate. Under the watchful eye of Breen and the PCA, Jean Harlow learned to play the all-American, girl-next-door and her career flourished. Others, like Mae West, were ruined in part because sexual innuendo and the double-entendre -- her trademarks -- were forbidden by the Code. Hollywood Censored shows reel-to-reel evidence of Breen's influence. The films released after July 1934 were radically different from those that had come before. "It's the difference between Mae West and Shirley Temple," explains film historian Thomas Doherty in the film.
The Production Code's days were numbered in 1952 when movies were finally granted free speech protection under the First Amendment. The motion picture industry officially abandoned the Code in 1968 and soon replaced it with the system of age-based ratings that still exist today.
Hollywood Censored closes with the words of contemporary movie industry players who work with an age-based ratings system, but without a Code. Film producer Janet Yang explains, "My guidelines have to do with what feels true, as opposed to what feels false, what feels authentic as opposed to what feels manipulative." "To say that the film industry shouldn't have any restrictions on it...it's either living in a fantasy land...or it denies, in my opinion, the fact that films can cause real life problems," says Robert Peters, president of the watchdog organization Morality in Media. "I have a right to compose a song or write a book or make a movie about anything I choose, but a theater owner has a right to say 'no, I don't want to play it.' Or a retail video store says 'no, I don't want to stock it.' That's called freedom. That's called democracy," declares Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Hollywood Censored: Movies, Morality & the Production Code is written, produced, and directed by David Espar. Ellen Barkin narrates.
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