by Mick LaSalle
The story of the Production Code is a special story, in that it's the one time the producers didn't win. They didn't because of a single, dread miscalculation that ended up changing movies and American society, in both cases for the worse. The effects of this miscalculation are still being felt today.
Taking a step back: There's a disease that seizes the imagination of both the right and the left in America, the conviction that if only the side of goodness and virtue had control of the movies, it could rid the world of everything bad. These are people inflicted with an idealism that takes the form of wanting to destroy art, and from the beginning, movie producers have known how to deal with such characters: Humor them. Give them a press conference. Give them a studio tour. Make them feel as if they're being brought into the fold. Never say no to them. Only say yes, of course, we will do that. We've never thought of that. We must make an arrangement, immediately...
Then, photos taken, handshakes exchanged, and newspaper articles written and filed, the opposition invariably disbands. Its members return to their towns in the South or the Midwest, where they bask in their success and their brushes with glamour. Then they wait... and watch... as nothing happens.
But of course nothing can, not right away. They know this, they've been warned. A year's worth of movies are always in the pipeline. So at first they don't worry. They know, they believe, that soon the virtuous movies—the society-changing movies—will come along. Then a year passes. No change. Then eighteen months. No change. In confusion, they try to get their new friends on the phone, the ones at the studio, but somehow they're always in conference. Laughing, probably. And finally the truth dawns, as all at once the reformers' Hollywood memories, the ones they've been dining out on all year, turn bitter. They've been had.
At this point, they can re-group and try to galvanize a press that has since moved on and is reluctant to tell the same old story. Or they can give up. Most of the time, almost all the time, the crusaders give up, or watch their ranks dwindle to nothingness. This is how Hollywood deals with troublemakers.
The story of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 begins in 1929, with a group of Catholic clergy and lay Catholics from Chicago coming together in the conviction that movies were undermining the moral structure of the nation. It was a time of technical, historical and social convergence. Movies were changing; the country was changing, and the Chicago group wanted to control the change.
"Talkies," newly arrived, were making movies more literal, their subjects more quotidian, their messages more direct and pointed. Therefore, threatening. Then, just as a priest named Daniel Lord was writing a provisional draft of what would become the Production Code, the stock market collapsed. World War I and Prohibition had already undermined Americans' belief in organized authority. The Great Depression would kill it outright. In the 19th century, heroes were people who worked within the system, but that's when people believed in the system. With the Depression, the new-style American hero would be the anti-hero, the man who beat the system. This was already in the air in 1929—and also threatening.
But most threatening of all was what contemporary magazines were calling The New Woman. By late 1929, a set of progressive ideas and assumptions, which had been on their way since the 1910s, had found common acceptance in mainstream American society:
1) Women have the capacity for and the right to sexual pleasure;
2) In the financial, social and sexual realm, women have the same rights as men;
3) A woman doesn't have to be a virgin to be marry-able. In fact, virginity is not very important at all.
When ideas find common acceptance, those ideas find their way into movies. Anyone with a pulse could recognize these ideas creeping into movies in 1929. The Production Code was a last-ditch attempt to erect a dam before the deluge.
And so there was a meeting. The Chicago faction went public with their Code and kicked up a fuss in the press, and so the studios—under the collective banner of their trade organization, The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, decided it would be best to meet with them. The MPPDA was set up in the twenties, with Will Hays as President. Though Hays is the name most often associated with the Code, Hays was really an employee of the studios, not a moral enforcer. He cared as much about bringing morality to movies as Jack Valenti did forty years later. He was a Gentile front man for the Jewish moguls, a functionary, a buffer between the fanatics and the industry, and therefore a benign (or at worst inert) influence.
In bringing the would be reformers to Hollywood, the MPPDA was following the traditional playbook, already familiar by 1930: Show them around, agree to everything, send them home. But this time the producers made a fatal mistake. Instead of feigning vague agreement with the principles outlined in Father Lord's production code, the producers agree that there should be an actual Production Code, a set of rules governing what could and could not be shown in motion pictures. And so they found themselves locked into a room with anti-art moralists, collaborating on a document that would supposedly tell them how to run their businesses.
The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 is too lengthy to quote in detail. It's a curious document, in that much of it is taken up with justifications for its very existence. It explains the differences between movies and other art forms that make moral intervention into movies uniquely necessary. It describes, in rather lofty language, the exalted role that movies can play in creating a more decent society. And then it lays out rules, about how women shouldn't dance with their feet stationary and their bodies wriggling, and how there should be no nudity, no sex outside marriage (unless it's made to look bad), no sympathy incited for criminals, and disrespect expressed toward authority, particularly law enforcement and clergy. It is both an idealistic document and a prescription for bad art in an authoritarian, patriarchal culture. As such, it might be the purest expression of the frightened traditionalist spirit than we have ever had in America.
It was ratified and signed by the major studio bosses in March of 1930. The studio heads, with their usual combination of arrogance and cowardice, the moguls had no intention offending the reformers – and even less intention of abiding by the document. Meanwhile, the reformers thought they'd saved the world. The studios under-estimated what it meant to give a group of Utopian dreamers a document to rally behind. In the battle between the cynics and the dreamers, it's notable how often in American life the dreamers tend to win, even when they're wrong.
Today, when we read the Production Code—still the single most influential document in American cinema history—we see an antiquated relic. The reformers imagined we'd react differently. They thought we'd recognize it as the central turning point that tamed a raw art form and harnessed its energies for the side of good. Of course they anticipated us. Of course, they cared. We were all they cared about—the future. They didn't care about movies or particularly like them. But they cared about us, enough to want to make us into their own image. And, in a way, they succeeded, but in a horrible, Dr. Frankenstein way that would make them scream and rave like Colin Clive if only they could see what their monster hath wrought.
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