What the Code Means To Me

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Tiffany and Rebekah at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society are the blogging world’s co-queens of the Production Code. Parsing it, analyzing it, giving it context–these ladies know the Code inside and out, and their mission is to resurrect the Code in today’s Hollywood. So when they asked us, their fellow bloggers, what we think of the Production Code, I found the question to be rather loaded. What does it mean to me? Well, it’s kind of a mixed bag, but let’s start with a little background.

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Myrna Loy in The Barbarian, 1933. (Pinterest)

For those who aren’t familiar with the Production Code (read the full text here), here’s a basic rundown: The Code was a set of guidelines that told the Hollywood industry what could or couldn’t be included in films. Actors could only show a certain amount of skin, cleavage should be kept to a minimum, and nudity was verboten. A kiss couldn’t be over three seconds long and never, ever French or too passionate. Intercourse was a huge no-no. Marriages had to be monogamous, and free love was absolutely not free.

The Code was about more than marriage and sexuality. There was also to be no blatant drug use, and drunkenness had to be somewhat controlled, possibly even comical, but never desirable. Heroes had to be heroes, and villains were to either repent or face retribution. Religion had to be portrayed in a positive light, with clergy always held up as good men. Movies couldn’t show ghoulishly dead bodies or overt gore, even in a war story. And for heaven’s sake, there was to be no profanity or obscenity.

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Joseph Breen. (Pre-Code.com)

It was fear of government censorship that prompted the adoption of the Production Code. The movies had an image problem both on and off the screen, and the industry risked losing their audience unless they cleaned up their act. If anything didn’t live up to the Code, it was sent back to the drawing board.

Did they succeed? Yep. They had to, because human nature dictates voting with one’s feet, and by the nineteen forties, between eighty and ninety percent of the American public was going to the movies at least once a week.

The Code was abandoned in 1966 when it became impossible to enforce. Soon the ratings system was adopted, albeit without any real criteria at first, which is why the PG-rated Day of the Jackal could show a fully nude woman after intercourse. Thankfully, the MPAA has fixed all that. Pretty much. At least we sort of know what we’re getting into when we choose films. Whether they are worthy of our time is an entirely different matter.

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Movie audience, 1940s. (Timeline)

What I appreciate about the Code Era is that it wasn’t so much about censorship as it was about rising to the occasion. Filmmakers had to be creative when approaching tough subjects. They had to respect their audiences. They also had to allow audiences to use their imaginations. The result was roughly three decades of films that, in most cases, families could watch together, with much of the innuendo subtle enough to go over the kids’ heads.

A great example is 1949’s On the Town, which has double entendres galore. For instance, when Hilde tells the Coney Island throng, “{Chip} wanted to see the beautiful sights of our beautiful city of New York! And I showed him plenty,” she isn’t referring to Grant’s Tomb.

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Heather Young Design Journal

Contrast that with today’s Hollywood, where more than a few actors presume to think they can tell people what to believe, some to the point of calling for blackmail, and the ratings system is often an envelope to be pushed. Disney owns vast swaths of the entertainment industry, including Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, serving up fare, a lot of it rehashed, with a generous side of social justice. And in certain films, nothing is left to the imagination. It might seem like freedom, but there is the danger of creative laziness. Audiences seem to know it, too, which is a big factor in why box office returns have been dropping. Well, that, and tickets cost about the same as the cheaper lunch entrees at McCormick and Schmick’s.

On the flipside, though, my only tiny beef with the Production Code is that for today’s audiences, Code films can present an idealized version of the past. Some might watch them and think no one cussed in the old days, or fornicated, or cheated, or did drugs, which, of course, is not the case. These folks’ jaws usually drop when they find out that Jean Harlow didn’t wear underwear and Cary Grant tried LSD.

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Air Force (1943) is one of the few Code-era films that contain mild profanity.

I used to be one of those people. When I started studying World War Two on my own, I was shocked to see vets using profanity. Up to that point, all I knew about the war was from old movies, my parents, and my grandpa, who was a radioman on a PB-Y. No cussing. Reading Ted Lawson’s book about the Doolittle Raid was a wake-up call, and it’s one of the milder volumes out there. That doesn’t take away from the merits of the Production Code; it just shows that there is nothing new under the sun.

Anyway, my appreciation for the Code far outweighs any criticism. For today’s audiences, Code films may not present an entirely true picture of the past, but they can impart sound messages and maybe give audiences something to aspire to.

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Hallmark’s Mystery Woman series would definitely be Code-worthy, even though it’s for TV. (Pinterest)

I hope we can establish a similar yardstick in the future, although I’m not holding my breath. A new Code would require a huge, huge realignment of the value system in Hollywood, which many don’t seem to be interested in. It’s like letting the proverbial cat out of the bag–once it’s out, it’s not going back in, which is too bad. However, there are outliers such as the Hallmark Channel that strive to present family-friendly fare, so one can always hope more will do likewise.

For more thoughts on the Code, please visit Tiffany and Rebekah’s What the Code Means To Me page. Thanks for asking me to participate in this unique event, ladies–it was fun! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll check back Friday, when I’ll be posting my entry for a surprise blogathon. See you all later…

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6 thoughts on “What the Code Means To Me

  1. Dear Rebecca,
    What a great article! This is one of the best articles we have had in this series to date. You brought such insightful, rational, and positive thoughts to the subject. Thank you so much for participating! I republished the article on my blog here: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2019/09/05/what-the-code-means-to-me-september-what-the-code-means-to-me-by-rebecca-deniston/.
    By the way, you get to choose the topic for a future Breening Thursday topic. Today I am breening a film for the Alan Ladd Blogathon, and next week I am going to breen a film suggested by August’s “What the Code Means to Me” participant. I will breen your topic on September 19, two weeks from today. Please suggest two films, and I will breen one of them. You can read the guidelines for which films are breenable here: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2019/03/24/suggestions-for-future-breening-thursday-topics/.
    Yours Hopefully,
    Tiffany Brannan

    Liked by 1 person

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