#8 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
Part II: A Toothless Code
We’ve been having fun, haven’t we? In the first part of this blog, we’ve watched Garbo at her best—seducing unwitting men to their doom in Mata Hari, overcoming her fallen woman past in Anna Christie, and succumbing to a romantic death of doom in Camille. We’ve watched a young swashbuckling Clark Gable sail the high seas in Mutiny on the Bounty, and delighted in Joan Crawford and John Barrymore’s double entendres in Grand Hotel. Dracula and Frankenstein scared us out of our wits, and King Kong had us reaching for the popcorn.
Audiences in the 1930s were having fun too. Lots of fun. Hollywood had made the successful transition from silent pictures to talkies, and audiences were addicted to the movies.
But not everyone was having fun. Some people didn’t like these movies.
Who couldn’t like these movies?
Martin Quigley, for one.
Quigley published the Exhibitor’s Herald, a movie industry trade paper. He was a Catholic, and he was concerned about the sex and violence portrayed on the silver screen.
But let’s back up a moment. We’ll get back to old Quigley and the Catholic crusade against Hollywood in a minute.
The story of movie censorship is a long and winding road.
If you believe movie censorship was a mistake, Mutual Film vs. Ohio was the original sin. In this 1915 case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that films were merchandise and not art, and thus were not protected under the free speech amendment.
This paved the way for state and local censorship boards. Eight states had censorship boards: Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetes, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and (I’m sorry to say) Pennsylvania. There were dozens of local boards.
A state employee watched movies all day (what a job!), searching for objectionable content. The Supreme Court’s ruling gave these boards complete authority to cut scenes from films at will, without any approval from filmmakers.
And cut they did. Their decisions were capricious and inconsistent. Kansas, a dry state, cut out any scenes of drinking. Ohio cut anything that could have a negative impact on young minds. Maryland was particularly touchy about disrespect of the law.
They mercilessly cut key scenes necessary to basic plotlines. They could—and often did—butcher a film to the point where it did not make sense to its audience.
It wasn’t ideal, but Hollywood could deal with regional censorship boards.
The threat of federal government censorship, however, was terrifying.
Because the racier the film, the better it did at the box office.
Federal censorship was a threat to the bottom line.
Re-enter Martin Quigley. Quigley believed that the state censorship boards were not enough, that there needed to be a uniform code of conduct from the studios. It wasn’t enough just to cut out the worst bits—care should be taken to make decent, clean films that would portray good morals.
And all films should be suitable for children.
Quigley wasn’t alone—increasingly loud complaints and boycotting threats came from the Boy Scouts, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae.
Something had to be done.
So when Quigley came to William Hays, director of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, with a draft of rules he’d written to govern the production of movies, Hays was all ears.
Hays convened a committee of studio executives, including Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM. Thalberg worked with Hays’ staff and Quigley’s allies to further revise the code of conduct.
Details were hammered out, concessions were made, and on March 31, 1930 Hollywood announced The Production Code.
The code prohibited (among other things), profanity, nudity, excessive violence, illegal drugs, white slavery, interracial relationships, and lustful kissing.
All the ingredients of a great movie.
The studio heads announced their intentions to the press, patted themselves on the back, and went back to Hollywood and kept right on making the same “filthy” films.
Because although the Hays Office had good intentions, they didn’t have ultimate authority over films, and by then the studios were in a war to recover the rapidly declining ticket sales as the Great Depression settled across the country.
Pollyannaish stories of morality were not going to get desperate people back into theater seats.
Audiences wanted sin.
Hollywood was going to give it to them, code or no code.
Thus began a four year battle between the studios and the reformers, a battle that the reformers would ultimately win in 1934, when Hollywood began strictly enforcing the code that would strangle filmmakers for the next thirty-four years.
During the next series of posts, we’ll explore that battle and the best of the pre-code films. These are films made from 1930-1934, those four deliciously sinful years between the development and strict enforcement of the code.
Irving Thalberg—who had helped write the code—went back to MGM and made The Divorcée, starring his delightful wife, Norma Shearer.
The Divorcée was decidedly not the type of film Quigley had in mind for enriching young minds.
Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) are the perfect modern couple. They’re desperately in love, drink and dance with their circle of glamourous friends, and Ted is supportive of Jerry’s demanding career.
Then Ted has a one-night stand. He insists it was meaningless (all evidence confirms this) and implores Jerry not to wreck their perfect life over it. He leaves for a business trip, confident he has smoothed things over with his wife.
But when Ted returns to find that Jerry has, as she says, “balanced their accounts” by having her own meaningless fling, things go sideways.
In the best scene of the film, the couple has a knock-down-drag-out fight where Jerry skewers Ted’s hypocrisy.
“Loose women are great, but not in the home, eh Ted?” she thunders.
Finally, she delivers her killer exit line:
“So look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man’s pride with the rest. From now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to.”
(I like to imagine old Martin Quigley with his head in his hands over that one.)
Ted can’t forgive her affair, and Jerry can’t forgive his double-standard, and to the surprise of all their friends, this golden couple ends up in divorce court.
Jerry spends her days as the life of the party as Ted sinks deeper into drinking and depression. Inwardly Jerry is as bad off as Ted, and their shared misery telegraphs the deep love they still share.
Will they be able to forgive and find their way back to one another?
This is a fantastic film, made ninety years ago and yet the story of a progressive couple that cannot live up to their own ideals is as relevant as ever.
The film was nominated for Best Picture, and Norma Shearer won a well deserved Best Actress Oscar.
Watch it tonight. Have your morals corrupted. You won’t regret it.
There’s nothing Martin Quigley can do to stop you.
*Source: Sin In Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, Mark Vieira
Other Pre-Code Standouts
- Beer and Blood and Grapefruit Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931)
- If It Doesn’t Fit… A Free Soul (1931)
- “Dirty, Rotten, Sordid, and Cheap” Hell’s Angels (1930)
- Shock Value Scarface (1932)
- Sleeping Your Way To The Top Baby Face (1933), Red-Headed Woman (1932)
- You Don’t Know Joan Possessed (1931)
- Wild Wild West She Done Him Wrong (1993)
- (You Won’t) See Jane Swim The Tarzan Movies (1932-1942)
- Before and After Red Dust (1932), Mogambo (1953)
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.