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The Production Code and the Hays Office -  , Implementing the Code, 1930-1931

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On 24 August 1939, Joseph Breen, the director of the Production Code Administration (PCA), wrote to Harry Cohn about the draft script for a remake of THE FRONT PAGE , then called THE BIGGER THEY ARE . With a few exceptions, he noted, the script “appears to be acceptable under the provisions of the Production Code and reasonably free from the suggestion of difficulty at the hands of political censor boards.” The exceptions included a warning that the British Board of Film Censors “will not approve any motion picture, in which any of the characters are, even suggestively, insane,” and advice that the studio should shoot a “protection shot” of a gallows scene, since American states and foreign countries that did not have capital punishment “almost invariably deleted” such scenes. “Political” censor boards (as municipal, state, and foreign censorship authorities were always described) were also likely to delete "the talk about ‘production for use only,’ and ‘doing away with the profit system.’ " On his own behalf, Breen merely wanted the word “lousy” eliminated, together with any suggestion that the character of Mollie Malloy was a prostitute. In a separate letter, Breen also noted that the script “suggests to our minds the possibility that your story may carry an objectionable reflection on newspapers … and as such, give serious offense to persons engaged in that profession.”

Five days later, Breen met with producer Sam Briskin and director Howard Hawks, and amiably resolved the difficulties Breen had raised: the character of Earl Williams “will not be played as an insane man, but rather as a confused soul”; the “drunken newspapermen will be cut out of the story entirely.” The smooth passage of HIS GIRL FRIDAY through the machinery of the Production Code was unremarkable; Breen and his officials were simply checking that the rough edges had been polished off the movie so that it would not snag on the sensibilities of anyone, particularly anyone of influence, who might see it. The studio knew the rules: leaving a word like “lousy” (the British always deleted it) or a phrase like “a common streetwalker” in the script was little more than carelessness on the writer’s part. All the celebrated improvisation that went on around Hawks’s set was similarly circumscribed by a set of conventions that were by 1939 completely assimilated within Hollywood’s system of production. The one issue about which HIS GIRL FRIDAY did cause concern was not to do with the Code as such but with a question of “industry policy.” Earlier in the decade, the American Newspaper Publishers Association and the American Society of Newspaper Editors had been much exercised by the movies’ representation of their profession. The industry’s own trade association, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA, commonly called the Hays Office), was as concerned not to antagonize pressure groups and opinion makers as it was to anticipate, through “self-regulation,” the likely actions of political censors.

HIS GIRL FRIDAY ran the risk of antagonizing newspapermen for two reasons. Its source, THE FRONT PAGE , had been one of the principal causes of upset when Howard Hughes had first filmed it in 1931, and Columbia had thoroughly antagonized the Washington press corps, as well as the Senate, by portraying them as “cynical but lovable drunkards” who “winked their eyes at political corruption” in MR . SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON , released in October 1939. The MPPDA’s president, Will Hays, had warned Breen of “the trouble that would flow” Columbia’s way, were they to repeat the offense so soon. In the event, the newspapermen took the joke, but if MPPDA officials now seem to have been humorless, they were merely doing what they were there for—safeguarding the industry against organized criticism, wherever it might come from.

The Code is best known for the trivia of its requirements that, for instance, married couples sleep in single beds. It has also been held responsible for the trivialization of American movies and blamed for Hollywood’s timidity and lack of realism. These charges both overestimate and underestimate its influence. The Code contributed significantly to Hollywood’s avoidance of contentious subject matter, but it did so as the instrument of an agreed industry-wide policy, not as the originating source of that policy. On the other hand, within its sphere of influence, it was a determining force on the construction of narrative and the delineation of character in every studio-produced film after 1931. Public arguments about the Code’s application—over Clark Gable’s last line in GONE WITH THE WIND , for example—have themselves tended to be over trivia and have therefore supported claims that the Code was a trivializing document. The agreements that underlay the Code, amounting to a consensus over what constituted appropriate entertainment for an undifferentiated mass audience in America and, by default, the rest of the world, have received less attention. That consensus embraced the major companies and civic and governmental organizations that either took responsibility or expressed concern for the moral well-being of cinema audiences in the United States and elsewhere. Hollywood’s married movie stars slept in single beds to meet a requirement of the British Board of Film Censors.

As clearly as a comparison of LITTLE CAESAR and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES or of BLONDE V ENUS and STELLA DALLAS , a comparison of THE FRONT PAGE and HIS GIRL FRIDAY charts the distance between films of the early and late 1930s: a political satire set in the “mythical kingdom” of Chicago, in which an audience who read the tabloids would have no difficulty recognizing the burlesque of Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, was transformed into a romantic comedy of remarriage that could take place nowhere else except in the mythical kingdom of Hollywood—a comedy that was, by common critical consent, an improvement on the original. The history of Hollywood in the 1930s has often been characterized as having two distinct phases: Robert Sklar’s terminology of “the Golden Age of Turbulence” and “the Golden Age of Order” remains the most elegant and concise expression of this account.

Until recently, histories of the Production Code have largely relied on the “official” descriptions of its development provided by Will Hays in his Memoirs and Raymond Moley in his laudatory account The Hays Office. Maintaining that despite the best intentions of the MPPDA and the producers, the Code was not effectively enforced in the early 1930s, Moley asserted that “the years 1930–1933 passed without a notable improvement in the quality of pictures and without the elimination of those objectionable themes and treatments which had brought about the creation and adoption of the Code.” Although Hays suggested that “it would be oversimplification to say that the industry adopted a moral code and then promptly forgot it until a rearoused public threatened a boycott,” he conceded that “as the steady pull-down of external forces went on” in 1932–1933, movie content “gradually took a turn for the worse.” Their version of events adheres to the requirements of a familiar early Depression Hollywood story, in which the industry appears as a fallen woman, led by economic hardship into immoral behavior and a fall from grace. Being a Hollywood story, there is a happy ending when Hollywood, the fallen woman, is rescued from sin and federal censorship by virtuous hero Joe Breen riding at the head of the Catholic Legion of Decency. The culmination of the Legion’s campaign against immoral movies, the July 1934 agreement between the MPPDA and the Roman Catholic hierarchy to fully implement the Production Code, is regarded in these “official” accounts as a watershed separating the two halves of the decade.

Most subsequent histories of the period have reiterated the “official” account without fully recognizing the extent to which Hays and Moley chose to emphasize the success of the industry’s 1934 “reformation” by accepting the most conservative criticisms of earlier films. Historians have, for instance, noted the existence of a vocal campaign against the purported moral viciousness of Hollywood movies, and tended to assume that Hollywood movies of the early 1930s must have been morally vicious, or at least socially and culturally disruptive. Edward Buscombe wrote,

Suppose for the sake of argument that scarcely any Hollywood films of the 1930s were actively hostile to capitalism in a direct political sense. One could nevertheless make a case for saying that Hollywood was in certain ways strongly subversive of the dominant sexual ideology. How else can one explain the outrage of groups such as the League [sic] of Decency and Hollywood’s attempts to censor itself through the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code? (“Bread and Circuses: Economics and the Cinema,” in Patricia Mellencamp and Philip Rosen, eds., Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices [Los Angeles: American Film Institute, 1984], p. 8)

The dominant critical paradigm has accepted and inverted the perspective of contemporary moral reformers, valorizing as subversive, for instance, what reviewers at that time denounced as “the fashion for romanticizing gangsters.” In many accounts, such assumptions are confirmed by a critical interpretation of around twenty-five movies—roughly one percent of Hollywood’s total output of feature films during the period 1930–1934—taken to be representative of Hollywood’s output during the early 1930s. With little justification offered for the particular selection beyond its familiarity, “pre-Code” Hollywood is represented by “Some Anarcho-Nihilist Laff Riots” featuring the Marx Brothers, the subversion of dominant sexual ideology by Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, Warners’ social-conscience films, and a trio of gangster movies. The classical Hollywood narrative of The Hays Office is read against the grain, so that the happy ending of July 1934 is understood ironically as an instance of repressive closure.

The account offered here revises this history in a number of respects. In suggesting that the issues and motivations behind “self-regulation” were more complex and were determined more by economic considerations than by matters of film content, it also argues that the events of July 1934 are best seen not as the industry’s reaction to a more or less spontaneous outburst of moral protest backed by economic sanction, but as the culmination of a lengthy process of negotiation within the industry and between its representatives and those speaking with the voices of cultural authority. The differences between movies made in the early 1930s and those made later in the decade are undeniable, but the change was gradual rather than cataclysmic, the negotiation, by experiment and expedient, of a system of conventional representation that was constructed in the first half of the decade and maintained in the second. Only one of that system’s two governing principles was stated in the Production Code itself: “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” This was the law by which a strict moral accountancy was imposed on Hollywood’s plots. Its antithesis, which Ruth Vasey has aptly called “the principle of deniability,” was a particular kind of ambiguity, a textual indeterminacy that shifted the responsibility for determining what the movie’s content was away from the producer to the individual spectator. 4

As Lea Jacobs has argued, under the Code “offensive ideas could survive at the price of an instability of meaning … there was constant negotiation about how explicit films could be and by what means (through the image, sound, language) offensive ideas could find representation.” HIS GIRL FRIDAY has a typical instance when Earl Williams is reported as having shot his psychiatrist “right in the classified ads”—an undistinguished example of the way in which the Code “forced writers not only to be cleaner but also to be cleverer.” The rationale for this practice, inscribed in MPPDA policy as early as 1927, was articulated by Colonel Jason S. Joy, the director of the Studio Relations Committee (SRC, precursor to the PCA). Joy recognized that if the Code was to remain effective, it had to allow the studios to develop a system of representational conventions “from which conclusions might be drawn by the sophisticated mind, but which would mean nothing to the unsophisticated and inexperienced.”

Like other Hollywood conventions, the Production Code was one of several substitutes for detailed audience research. Having chosen not to differentiate its product through a ratings system, the industry had to construct movies for an undifferentiated audience. While the Code was written under the assumption that spectators were only passive receivers of texts, the texts themselves were, out of the straightforward economic logic of what Umberto Eco has called “the heavy industry of dreams in a capitalistic society,” constructed to accommodate, rather than predetermine, their audiences’ reactions. In its practical application, the Code was the mechanism by which this multiplicity of viewing positions was achieved. Once the limits of explicit “sophistication” had been established, the   production industry had to find ways of appealing to both “innocent” and “sophisticated” sensibilities in the same object without transgressing the bound-aries of public acceptability. This involved devising systems and codes of representation in which “innocence” was inscribed into the text while “sophisticated” viewers were able to “read into” movies whatever meanings they were pleased to find, so long as producers could use the Production Code to deny that they had put them there. Much of the work of self-regulation lay in the maintenance of this system of conventions, and as such, it operated, however perversely, as an enabling mechanism at the same time that it was a repressive one.

Producers, however, saw the Code predominantly as an instrument of restraint. Passing on “another one of those silly letters from the Breen office” to producer Robert Lord in 1937, Warner Bros. head of production Hal Wallis observed, “they seem to be getting worse and worse and the only thing you can do is to have them come over for a meeting and unsell them on a lot of these ridiculous demands.” But though the Code existed to control the content of movies, the cultural anxieties that had brought it into being were about more fundamental social issues than a few bawdy Mae West jokes, the length of a hemline, or the condoning of sin in an “unmoral” ending. What the Code was, what it did, and why it came into existence can only be partially understood by thinking of it in terms of its effects on production or, indeed, by assuming that the social crisis over cinematic representation in the early 1930s was caused by the content of motion pictures. The institution of censorship in Hollywood was not primarily about controlling the content of movies at the level of forbidden words or actions or inhibiting the freedom of expression of individual producers. Rather, it was about the cultural function of entertainment and the possession of cultural power.


Implementing the Code, 1930-1931

However compromised it may have been, the Production Code was a statement of principle, reluctantly accepting the industry’s responsibility for the moral well-being of its audiences. The practical implementation of that principle was, however, a complex matter, involving extensive negotiation over procedure, enforcement, and interpretation at the level of textual detail. Hays’s caution in publicly committing the Association to the Code’s enforcement had as much to do with his recognition of the practical problems to be solved in the Code’s application as it did with a skepticism about producers’ intentions. Although a growing chorus of voices denounced the moral evils of the movies, it would be wrong to conclude that movies became more salacious or vicious between 1930 and 1934. With occasional exceptions, the reverse is the case, as both Joy and state censors applied increasingly strict standards. But the early 1930s was a period of increasing moral conservatism in American culture, in which the film industry, along with other institutions of representation, failed to keep pace with “the growing demand for a return to decency in all of our leisure pursuits.” The industry was pedaling backward as fast as it could, but not fast enough for its opponents, who in 1933 found themselves, for the first time, in the ascendant.

The calls for censorship were, as Martin Quigley argued, “an awkward expression of demand,” a complaint that too much “sophisticated” product was being made, and not enough that was suitable for children or small-town audiences. But the issue of audience demand was most often couched in moralistic terms and under the anti-Semitic expectation that a Jewish-dominated industry had to be intimidated into decency. Joy told Darryl Zanuck in August 1930, “We are on trial as far as a large part of the vocal public is concerned and a decision as to whether or not they will allow us to run our own business … depends largely upon how they believe we live up to our own promises.”

On its publication the Production Code was received with much skepticism. The Protestant religious press, who were credited with forcing reform on Hays, remained unremittingly hostile. Quigley, too, provided only cautious support, in a distinctly double-edged Catholic publicity campaign approving the Code’s purposes organized by Joseph Breen. Like Quigley, Breen was an active lay Catholic, well connected with the church hierarchy; he had managed the press relations of the 1926 Eucharistic Congress in Chicago. His campaign, which secured him a post as one of Hays’s executive assistants, sought to bind the industry to a definite commitment to the Code, while avoiding committing any Catholic party to endorsing its effectiveness.

Initially, the studios cooperated “pretty much as a matter of routine” in voluntarily submitting scripts to the Studio Relations Committee. Within a few months, however, cooperation had become intermittent and patchy, determined in large part by the attitude of the studio’s head of production and the particular market at which the company aimed its product. In general, the more important subsequent-run theaters were to the company’s distribution system, the more they cooperated. Under B. P. Schulberg, Paramount remained thoroughly cooperative; so did Universal, despite Joy’s worries about “Junior” Laemmle’s lapses in taste. Thalberg used Joy’s respect for him to choose how much he would cooperate on any given project. But in October 1930, Joy complained that Fox was ignoring his suggestions on OH FOR A MAN, while Warner Bros. and First National were submitting neither scripts nor prints. Until 1934, Warners remained the most recalcitrant of the major companies in its attitude to the Code and the MPPDA in general. But at the end of the Code’s first year of operation, the Association claimed that only a dozen films had been subject to “more than a scattering of criticism” and cited the reduction in the number of censor board cuts as evidence of its efficacy.

Others disagreed. The industry’s most vociferous critics judged the movies on their advertising far more frequently than on their content, and a small number of visible infringements were sufficient to fuel the flames of their righteousness. The Association’s Advertising Code, passed in June 1930, relied entirely on the voluntary cooperation of publicity departments and was much less effectively applied than the Production Code. 28 Joy’s approach to the improvement of content was gradualist. Like Thalberg, he saw the “small, narrow, picayunish fault-finding” censorship of censor boards over “little details” as inhibiting his attempts to negotiate strategies of representation that permitted producers “to paint the unconventional, the unlawful, the immoral side of life in order to bring out in immediate contrast the happiness and benefits derived from the wholesome, clean and law-abiding conduct.”

Censors, on the other hand, identified some disturbing developments in movie content. Faced with a cycle of “kept woman” films, including ILLICIT, THE EASIEST WAY, and STOLEN HEAVEN, James Wingate, the director of the New York board, demanded to know if the SRC had changed its standards. Lord shared Wingate’s concern: “single scenes, words or actions” that were the principal source of anxiety in 1930 had been dealt with, but current films are now concerned with problems. They discuss morals, divorce, free love, unborn children, … single and double standards, the relationship of sex to religion, marriage and its effects upon the freedom of women…. [N]o matter how delicate or clean the treatment, these subjects are fundamentally dangerous. (“The Code—One Year Later,” Report by Lord, 23 April 1931, Hays Papers)

Inside the SRC, there were prolonged discussions of nuances of plot or characterization, as to whether the basic situation of BACK STREET made it a kept-woman story or only presented “the triangle.” Outside, they feared, “our constituents won’t differentiate.”

In early 1931 the SRC completely misjudged reactions to Universal’s DRACULA , which was condemned by the women’s and educational organizations that previewed films under the Association’s auspices. Its commercial success exemplified the Association’s and the industry’s dilemma as the effects of the Depression began to be felt at the box office. Some of the material most likely to produce immediate high returns in first-run theaters, and thus maintain company liquidity, also provoked reform groups to claim the Code was being ignored. Beginning in late 1930, the brief cycle of gangster films inspired by press coverage of Al Capone proved a public relations calamity for the Association. For some time, the MPPDA had successfully countered arguments that a link existed   between moviegoing and juvenile crime, but the popularity of DOORWAY TO HELL, LITTLE CAESAR, and several sequels in the spring of 1931 revived charges that the movies were encouraging young audiences to view the gangster protagonist as a “hero-villain,” clear evidence of Lord’s argument that some material was too dangerous, no matter how it was treated. Although the Association defended them as “deterrents, not incentives, to criminal behavior,” their popularity provoked a “prairie-fire of protest.” A plethora of municipalities established local censor boards, and there were calls for a congressional investigation of the industry.

During 1931 it became clear that Joy’s attempt to conciliate the divided voices behind the Production Code was failing, and content could not be made proof against reformers’ criticism. Movie content and the concern with content were symptoms of a moral panic about social behavior, induced by the economic collapse. The Code had been adopted in a strategy of retreat from the previous scale of engagement with public relations, but it had exposed the industry to more criticism and put it constantly on the defensive in its public utterances. Within the association, it was argued that the increasingly unpredictable behavior of the censors resulted not from a breakdown in the SRC, since “the same pictures now held up would have passed, flying, two years ago,” but the   “agitation against gang pictures” led censors to believe “that they can go to almost any length and that on a showdown the public will accord us scant support.”

In September 1931 Code procedures were considerably tightened. The submission of scripts, as well as the approval of release prints, was made compulsory, to ensure that every film had “a moral argument” by which Joy could defend it to censor boards. The SRC was granted a right of appeal from a producers jury to the MPPDA Board. At the same time, in its first intervention in a general trend in production, the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP) also passed a resolution prohibiting the further production of gangster films. The film most immediately affected was Howard Hughes’s SCARFACE, which was reconstructed on four occasions before it passed both the MPPDA and New York’s censorship board in May 1932.

The prohibition of gangster films raised a problem elsewhere. In December, Joy worried that with crime practically denied them, with box office figures down, with high-pressure methods being employed back home to spur the studios on to get a little more cash, it was almost inevitable that sex, as the nearest thing at hand and pretty generally sure-fire, should be seized upon. It was. (Joy to Breen, 15 December 1931, PCA POSSESSED file)

Studios, forced by their financial position to seek immediate returns on their investment in production by concentrating on appealing to the first-run market, were using material as provocative as the SRC would allow. By devising plots like that of the “sordid” SAFE IN HELL, in which Dorothy Mackaill eventually sacrificed “her life rather than her virtue,” they remained just within the letter of the Code. Joy hoped that a “new drive on sex films would partially, if not entirely, eliminate” kept-woman stories and discourage the further production of chain-gang and horror films. But the problem was more elusive, since it seemed that every time the Association responded to one kind of complaint, it was replaced by another. As soon as Joy was provided with the means to ensure the overall morality of a movie’s narrative, reformers argued that the stories Hollywood told were not the primary source of its influence. The cinema’s power to corrupt was now assumed to lie in the seductive pleasure of its spectacle: as one disturbed reviewer of POSSESSED reported, she overheard a “young girl” sitting next to her say of Clark Gable, “I would live with him too, under any conditions.” Although the Code had reduced the number of censorship eliminations by 30-50 percent, Hays warned his members of the “folly” of ignoring “the classes that write, talk, and legislate, on the basis that the mass public, as reflected by the box-office, is with us in any event. Reform elements outside, not inside, the saloon, enforced prohibition upon the country.” In its well-informed 1931 report The Public Relations of the Motion Picture Industry, the Federal Council of Churches suggested that if the Association tried less hard “to conceal their household problems and to put up a bold front to the public,” it “might have gained greater public support and might also have been an effectual disciplinary measure within the organization.” Their analysis, however, assumed that the problem was one of discipline rather than of dissonance in definitions of acceptable standards.

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