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“When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”

Mae West deadpanned that line in her 1933 movie, I’m No Angel, and in many ways she spoke for the entire movie-making industry. This fact was never more clearly illustrated than during a nearly four-decade period of film history which moviegoers today might have a hard time believing ever happened. In a country where, unlike the America in which Cole Porter’s inaccurately-titled broadway musical became a smash-hit (in 1934, ironically enough), anything truly does seem to go, both on the silver screen and off, it is difficult to remember that there was a time when this wasn’t the case . . . and most people liked it that way.

75 years ago today, Hollywood imposed the Production Code on itself in order to avoid the looming threat of censorship by the federal government. Such a move by the government appeared more and more likely in the face of loud public outcry against the immoral content of motion pictures (thanks in part to scandals within Hollywood itself, sensationalized by the media, and in part to the advent of talking pictures that revolutionized the industry) and an ever-growing number of local censorship boards.

The Production Code of 1930 (linked above, also known as the Hays Code after Will Hays, former campaign manager to Warren G. Harding, hired by the major film studios in 1922 as the PR man in charge of the predecessor of the MPAA) consisted chiefly of a list of material deemed unsuitable for treatment by the motion picture industry. These forbidden subjects ranged from showing such things as crime and adultery in a positive light (crime doesn’t pay), to any portrayal of miscegenation or white slavery, to prostitution, profanity, disrespect for religion . . . Well, you get the idea.

The code was initially pitched to the studios by Hays as a money-saver. Many studios in 1930 were in deep financial trouble after the 1927-and-following costs of switching to “talkies” and the Stock Market Crash of ’29. Policing the content of their own movies while in production by the application of a universally-acceptable set of guidelines was much less expensive then sending reels back to the cutting room after government censors had taken a hack at them.

At first, (treating Hays Code as just that, a set of guidelines) the effort wasn’t particularly effective . . . in fact, violence and sex in the movies actually increased. Then, in 1933, sexual innuendo in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel served as the catalyst which caused the powers that be to crack down hard on Hollywood, forcing it to set up a “Production Code Administration.” Brought in to run the PCA was a conservative Philadelphia Catholic named Joe Breen, and his regime was given the power to review every movie prior to release and demand whatever changes were deemed necessary before giving a movie the seal of approval. Any theater that ran a movie without this seal was fined $25,000.

Incidentally, both of the movies most immediately to blame for this were written and starred in by celebrity sex icon Mae West. West was already a notorious figure by this time, and she would go on to get herself banned from public radio in 1937 after a licentious appearance on the Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show.

In 1951 the Production Code was modified again . . . becoming more, rather than less, stringent. Some of the more humorous effects of the strictness of the code can be seen clearly in things like the separate twin beds slept in by Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on their popular television show (which ran during most of the 1950s), and the fact that the toilet which is shown in Psycho (1960) was the first one to appear on film. However, by the mid-50s self-censorship was beginning to be challenged by movie-makers.

In fact, one of my favorite movies (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959) was released with a number of direct violations of the code despite the lack of a certificate of approval. Thanks to the success of this and other unapproved movies, the code’s already crumbling foundation eroded still further. Money, after all, has always been the bottom line. The slow, subtle war on the Production Code wasn’t over yet, though. The movie was banned in Chicago, and Jimmy Stewart’s father was so offended by the “dirty picture” that he took out an ad in a local newspaper telling people to avoid going to see it, even though his son was the star.

By the mid-60’s, however, even MPAA member companies were beginning to release films which did not conform to the code (most notably the 1966 Cannes-winner Blow-Up), and in 1967 the Production Code finally came down forever (just in time for the release of another of my code-violating favorites: The Graduate). After 37 years of self-imposed censorship, Hollywood had finally bowed to the almighty dollar. Actually, it would probably be more accurate to say that the almighty dollar had served as the medium of communication chosen by Americans of the 1960s to prolaim that they no longer cared about the immoral content of movies nearly as much as their parents and grandparents in the 1920s.

In 1968, the MPAA film rating system went into effect with the ratings G (General), M (Mature), R (Restricted), and X (Children Under 17 Not Admitted). M was soon changed to GP, then to PG (Parental Guidance Suggested). In 1984, Steven Spielberg suggested the implementation of a new rating (PG-13, Parents Strongly Cautioned) in response to loud complaints concerning his latest PG-rated movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In 1990, X was renamed NC-17 in order to escape the “adult entertainment” connotation which damaged the business of non-pornographic movies. In spite of this, no NC-17-rated movie has ever achieved commercial success.

So, the (admittedly a bit simplistic) question is, did 37 years of Hollywood restraint make us a more moral society? The equally simplistic answer is: Not really. You see, the Production Code was, in the first place, an oversimplified solution to a problem that was misunderstood, at best. Cinema is an art form, and art cannot be limited by hard and fast rules of what does or does not constitute acceptable subject matter.

Art is a way to communicate something, whether it be as profound as elucidating a life philosophy or as simple as sharing beauty. Sure it’s nice to have movies that are just entertaining that the kids can go see, but it is not the duty of the artist to blunt his message just so a six-year old can watch his movie. The Production Code made the all too-common mistake of viewing cinema as entertainment only and therefore subject to strict definitions of morality and immorality. After all, being entertained by violence or sex is clearly immoral . . . Unfortunately for all concerned, that’s not the whole story, and the consequences only entrenched this mistaken view of cinema deeper into the Christian psyche.

Now, I’m not saying there were no good movies produced between 1930 and 1967. That certainly isn’t true . . . Heck, you can’t swing a dead Communist during that period without hitting one of the great film classics. I would simply say that I trust the exceptionally talented, the the Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcocks, to get it right with or without a babysitter. And this is borne out by the fact that good movies didn’t suddenly stop coming out after 1967. Tomorrow’s film greats are coming out right now, and will continue to do so . . . Now, fortunately, without any watchdog agencies to clip the filmmakers’ wings.

And what about those movies which are vile and reprehensible and immoral and unconscionable? That’s where one exercises one’s own personal responsibility and discernment as an individual, of course. That was our job all along and it was a mistake to ever give it to a group of people who, if not primarily concerned with their art form, are simply worried about how much money you’ve given them this year.

Anyway, in view of the importance of this day in film history, my apartment mates and I decided that the viewing of a very special movie was in order. From our tentative, “immediate-availability” pool of six movies (including Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange, and The Graduate) we settled on Lolita, directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1955 novel of the same name. Nabokov himself penned the screenplay, and Kubrick moved to England to direct the movie that was destined to create a stir. His star power included James Mason as Humbert Humbert, Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze, and Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty.

Although it was made to meet Production Code standards (still, of course, in effect in 1962), it was not exactly an overwhelming success, commercially (banned left and right, condemned by every “morality” group around, and restricted to audiences over the age of 18 in the United States), but the critics noticed and it was nominated for an Oscar and several Golden Globes (among other things). Kubrick went on the following year to make the enormously popular Dr. Strangelove, which Sellers also starred in, and . . . the sixties moved on, I guess.

Lolita, as you can probably tell from the 99% rating I gave it at right, was excellent. The movie was almost flawlessly made. The acting was perfect. The writing, as one would expect, was fantastic. Who would have thought that the story of a middle-aged British author’s obsession with a sexually active twelve-year old girl (changed to fourteen in the movie, and played by a sixteen-year old actress) would turn out to be well worth watching?

Aside from the extremely high production value, the movie has a fascinating take on the effects of an all-consuming obsession without the mediating influence of a moral compass. Take care when feeding your appetites, the movie tells us, or your appetites will begin to feed on you. I think the movie’s tagline from the original release sums it all up nicely (bizarre and disturbing subject matter, highly-complex source novel, Production Code difficulties and all): “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”

So, go exercise your freedom to watch an excellent, thought-provoking movie that hasn’t had the life sanitized out of it by some Hollywood pencil pusher. Find a movie with some really edgy content . . . one you can get something out of. If you need any help getting started . . . Here, gimme a sec to glance around the room at the Ice Cave’s DVD collection. Here are a few titles, with problematic content detailed by initials, which you might try (in addition to any of the movies already mentioned): Chicago (s, l), Garden State (s, l), The Godfather (n, l, v), Schindler’s List (s, n, l, v), Traffic (s, l, v), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (s, l), Road to Perdition (l, v). That should be enough to get you started.

After own my research on the subject and general watching of movies, if I had everything on hand, the ideal PC-themed movie marathon would look something like this: Intolerance (1916, pre-code), Ecstasy (1932, banned by code), I’m No Angel (1933, caused stricter code), The Outlaw (1943, release delayed by code), Anatomy of a Murder (1959, ignored and helped weaken code), Lolita (1962, amazingly followed code . . . technically), Blow-Up (1966, ended code), The Graduate (1967, followed code).

Now go watch the right thing.

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~ by Jared on March 31, 2005.

3 Responses to ““When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.””

  1. Well, I just like watching good movies. Yeah, i don´t like over-censorship.

    Jared, it would be cool if you could do a blog-post on the Simpsons as well. Many conservative christians do not think it is christian to watch the Simpsons, and I´d like to know what you think about it. Have you studied the Simpsons in college?

  2. In 1927 on this day (4/19), actress Mae West was jailed for her performance in Sex, the Broadway play she wrote, directed, and starred in. She served ten days in prison, and jail time seemed to have done her good—it didn’t make her change her act, but it did bring her national notoriety—and helped make her one of Hollywood’s most memorable, and quotable, stars. She said: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

  3. I´ve never seen that movie… have you?
    Asa

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