Friday, April 30, 2010

Pre-Code Hollywood (Why I Wish I Was Born in 1900)

In 1929, a group of Chicago Roman Catholic clergy and lay people, with the assistance of Jesuit priest Father Daniel A. Lord, created a code of ethics and practices they hoped the studios would adopt. In February 1930, they met with the heads of several studios, including Irving Thalberg of MGM, who eventually agreed to the stipulations of the Code. It was the responsibility of the Studio Relations Committee, headed by Jason Joy, to supervise film production and advise the studios when changes or cuts were required. [1]

The Code sought not only to determine what could be portrayed on screen, but also to promote traditional values. Sexual relations outside of marriage could not be portrayed as "attractive and beautiful," could not be presented in a way that might "arouse passion," and could not be made to seem "right and permissible." All criminal action had to be punished, and neither the crime nor the criminal could elicit sympathy from the audience. Authority figures had to be treated with respect, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Under some circumstances, politicians, policemen and judges could be villains, as long as it was clear they were the exception to the rule. [1]

For the most part, the Code was ignored because many found such censorship prudish, due to the libertine social attitudes of the 1920s and early 1930s. This was a period in which the Victorian era was looked upon as being naïve and backward and was constantly ridiculed as such. In addition, the Great Depression of the 1930's led many studios to seek income any way possible. As films containing racy and violent content were resulting in high ticket sales, it seemed reasonable to continue producing such product. As a result, films in the late 1920s and early 30s reflected the liberal attitudes of the day and frequently included sexual innuendos, references to homosexuality, miscegenation, illegal drug use, infidelity, abortion, and profane language, as well as women in their undergarments. Strong women dominated the screen in films such as The Mysterious Lady, The Docks of New York, Anna Christie, Red-Headed Woman, Blonde Venus, Red Dust, and Waterloo Bridge. Gangsters in films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and A Free Soul were more heroic than evil. [1]

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