FILM 101: The Hays Code
For the third installment of Film 101, we will take a look back at The Hays Code and how it both effected and affected film so dramatically for such a long period of time. For previous installments of Film 101, punch the links for Three-Act Structure or Diegetic vs Non-Diegetic Sound.
WHAT IS IT?
The Hays Code became industry jargon for what was officially called The Motion Picture Production Code. Starting in the US in the 1920s, there were increasing calls for the government to censor what was perceived to be an out-of-control industry. The studios did not want to go down that road, so they gathered themselves along with Will Hays (a former postmaster general) to cobble together a list of things to avoid in their films. We can get into some of the details a little later, but the general idea was to avoid promiscuity, foul language, and morally questionable heroes. The plan went into effect, technically, in 1930. But any fan of early 30s cinema could probably point you to a gaggle of films which ignored the code’s edicts. When it was clear that the code was not being followed, pressure grew again to have the government step in. And so, in 1934, Hays began to more strictly enforce the code.
The code was voluntary. However, in the 30s and 40s, any film which did not receive the MPPDA stamp of approval from the Production Code Adminstration was virtually dead on arrival because no theater would dare show the film for fear of backlash. In 2013 that would mean little, as plenty of people have access to cheap film-making and film-displaying technology. Back in the 30s, the expensive equipment meant that very few had the resources to make or screen films outside of the studio system. The result of all of this is a watered down era of film, especially from the mid to late 30s, when studios were learning to figure out ways around the code. This cinematic ‘weak’ era (which still managed to produce gems like Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and A Night at the Opera) gave birth to film noir. Combining some elements of European cinematography (specifically, German Expressionism) with the pulp novels of Chandler and Hammett, film noir became the genre with which the 1940s is most widely associated (though only in retrospect. The genre didn’t even get that nomenclature until 1946).
SO WHAT THE HECK IS IN THIS THING
The code has 11 items to avoid at all costs and another 25 which were to be handled carefully. Here are some highlights…
Some of the no-go areas include: Profanity (including blasphemous language), white slavery, ridicule of clergy, nudity (even in silhouette or via voyerism with the subject off-screen).
Some of the be-carefuls: showing the technique used in committing murder, the display of capital punishment, sympathy for criminals, “first-night scenes” (meaning, the night a marriage is consummated), a man and a woman in bed together, lustful kissing (particularly lustful kissing which includes a bad guy).
For the full list, here is a wiki.
HOW LONG DID THIS GO ON FOR?
While there were many examples of studios not getting a seal of approval in the 50s (including Frank Sinatra’s nominated turn as a heroin user in The Man With The Golden Arm), the whole thing truly fell apart in 1966 with the release of MGM’S Blowup. This was a film which is in the genre of The Conversation, a paranoid and troubling story of a photographer who may have a picture of a murder. He zooms in and in and in on his photograph, inviting a sort of erotic and voyeuristic view of the woman as he attempts to solve the mystery. This film did not receive a seal of approval, but the critical acclaim, the seemingly antiquated rules of the code, and public interest in the film all led the film to get into theaters with ease, and to indeed become a hit. With this as a model, MGM being the first major studio to pointedly buck the system, the other major studios began to follow suit and the seal of approval became irrelevant. The system was soon abandoned, and the first version of the modern American rating system was implemented in 1968.
Also deserving a great amount of credit was the 1959 film Some Like It Hot. With a weakening code, the one thing it could hang its hat on was the general agreement that we could now show some murder, bedding, and bend our rules about morality as long as no homosexual was seen in a good light. The cross-dressing and presentation of the idea that maybe homosexuality was NOT a sin certainly pushed Some Like It Hot to be denied a seal of approval. The film was successful anyway.
WHAT IMPACT DID THE CODE HAVE OVERALL?
There is some positive and some negative. To be sure, the films of the early 1930s versus similarly themed films of the latter part of the decade are a good way to measure just how restricting the code was starting in 1934. But the censorship directly resulted in some filmic ingenuity as directors sought out ways to make a dark film ‘feel’ dark to invoke a sense of danger or dread. Would some of the big names of the studio era (Welles, Hitchcock for two) have pushed the envelope further if they could have? Almost certainly. Psycho, for example, was a moment when Hitchcock used his cache to make a film which would not receive PCA approval, but would still engage the interests of theater bookers. He broke many of the ‘be careful’ rules more so that the ‘no-go’ areas, but by making a criminal the film’s first victim and having her murdered while naked (spoiler alert), Hitchcock cannot be said to have been too concerned about being censored.
Also, double entendre in dialogue became an art form. Check out The Big Sleep for some nice early examples, To Catch A Thief for mastery, and Die Another Day to prove that new does not mean better (sorry I had to. The dialogue between Halle Berry and Pierce Brosnan in his last Bond film felt like it was written by a middle schooler who just discovered that it was funny to tell a teacher “that was a HARD one”.)
But, sadly, many great films from Casablanca to Anatomy of a Murder were forced to edit, either in writing or in post-production, in order to satisfy the code. These days, there is a similar movement with many executives pushing hard for directors to cut an R rated film down to PG-13 in an effort to amass a wider audience. So, though times may change, perhaps things really do stay the same. Of course, with digital editing and the knowledge that we will eventually have a DVD release, those scenes are not lost to history like many potentially great moments from the 30s-60s were.
Personally, I’m someone who really enjoys this era of Hollywood. I don’t pretend that I garner more entertainment, in general, from older films than from newer ones. But it is fascinating to see just how much was produced under a relatively strict set of rules. And I have recently discovered how fun and edgy the first few years of sound film can be. The sort of sexuality and moral ambiguity prevalent in early 1930s cinema was not seen again from studio films until the 1960s.