October 11, 2010 Chilton The Code that Got Away: Why the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code Made Better Films What makes a good movie? An engaging plotline, talented actors and actresses; perhaps a happy ending? Movies have always been an important part of American culture; of course, they can entertain us but they can also hold up mirrors to society, raising awareness about issues we need to pay attention to, and help us form opinions. But it’s getting harder and harder to find good movies in current theaters.
Current films are being made in an age where almost any movie can pass as a good one, not necessarily due to talent or skill, but due to the weakening of the standards we once held our films up to. The 1930 Motion Picture Production Code gave filmmakers a set of guidelines that let only the most talented films reach audiences; it provided audiences with quality films that didn’t have to sacrifice artistry for explanation or lean on pointless vulgarities to catch audiences’ attentions; it acted as a filter that allowed only the finer-made films to be shown to the people who loved them and kept coming back to see them.
The 1930s film code was the superior code because it gave the public superior films. The 1930 Motion Picture Production Code was first put into place by the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc in February of 1930. Motion picture producers in the thirties believed that American audiences trusted them entirely with the quality and content of their films. As such, the producers felt that it was their responsibility to their audiences to produce films that would meet the wants and standards set for the films they watched.
At first glance, the Code may seem to be focused on only overtly promoting morality and stifling the reality of life during that time period, but critics quick to bring up this idea cannot judge the Code on its text alone; they must first consider the context of the document. 1930 was a decade ravaged by the Great Depression. Poverty ran rampant and crime abounded. It was hard enough for Americans to live through these difficult times; producers knew better than to sit audiences in theaters just to remind them of just how hard life was.
Movies became forms of escapism, the very definition of the word being, “an inclination to retreat from unpleasant realities through diversion or fantasy. ” If the only films producers showed in theatres in the thirties were the visual depictions of every day stories, a large majority of them during that time would not have happy endings; that was the reality of that time period. The American audience wanted to get away from the harsh realities of every day life. Why would they spend what little money they had on films that reminded them of the trials they went through every day?
The most popular film genres of the thirties were war films, suspense films, musicals, westerns, and comedies. They were films that reveled in American glory days, films about wrongdoers getting their “just desserts” and the good things in life: laughter, family, singing, dancing, and love. Those who disagree with the 1930’s film code often raise the point that films made under the code did not feature enough variety for audiences, adding that it was poor business sense to put out the same kinds of films repeatedly.
But the aforementioned list is proof of the contrary. If the producers behind the Code took the advice of the opposition and made their films as closely related to reality as possible, films would have been much more monotonous than the opposition believes films of that time already were. And producers recognized that the public wanted to watch films that lifted audience’s spirits and fermented some sort of faith in happiness, even in their current situations, so they put out films that did just that.
And the films did make money because they gave the people exactly what they wanted: glimmers of hope and happiness that it was so difficult to find. But there’s more to films than just cheap excitement. Anyone can throw gorgeous people on a screen and have them speak for an hour and a half. What separates decent films from exceptional ones extends further than just the actors and the words they speak. Sometimes the most powerful moments in a film come from just a look a character gives another during a film or a pause that echoes after a crucial question is asked.
The writers and directors of the films made under the 1930’s code perfected the art of subtlety because sometimes they had to convey something to the audience that was central to the film’s plot but couldn’t use the words they wanted to say due to the guidelines given to them by the Code. Those who favor the 1968 film code jump at the opportunity to say that the 1930’s code prevented writers and directors from saying what they really wanted to; they claim that the 1930’s code stifled creativity in movie-making, but this claim is false.
The 1930’s code didn’t stifle creativity; it challenged filmmakers to skillfully convey everything they wanted to in their scripts in the cleverest of ways, leaving room for only the best films and filmmakers to make it to theaters. The Code says that certain themes should not be presented in a way that would “throw sympathy to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin. ” Nowhere in the Code does it say that crimes against the law, sex, vulgarity, or obscenity cannot be hinted at or cannot be conveyed on screen.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) magnificently demonstrates the level of skill director Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht, as well as actors Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains needed under the 1930 code to bring a plot dense with love, lust, and espionage to life. There is no profanity in the film, but does that take away from the plot? Did audiences leave the theaters at the end of the film wondering why Grant’s character, T. R. Devlin, didn’t curse at his superiors when they told him what they had planned for Alicia Huberman (Bergman) in Rio De Janeiro?
A majority of the audience doesn’t even notice; the actors’ reactions, their eyes, and the tones of their voices, conveyed everything that the audience needed to see to understand the subtext of the words being exchanged on screen. The audience didn’t need to see Bergman and Grant on top of each other in a bed to feel the passion between them; they didn’t need to see Rains’ character Alex be punished by his fellow Nazis to know that trouble awaited him when they discovered that he had been married to an American spy.
The audience is never jerked out of the story by pointless shots of violence or by blatant vulgarities; the acting and writing is so organic that the audience becomes thoroughly immersed in the story and it feels real to them. The producers behind the Code wanted films to show the “correct standards of life,” “correct standards” simply meaning the rights and wrongs of life and they included crime, sex, vulgarity and obscenity. The code didn’t prevent filmmakers from featuring these themes in their films at all; it prevented them from overly relying on these devices in their attempts entertain their audiences.
With the application of the 1968 film code to presently made films, writers and directors don’t need to put as much thought into their scripts or pay as much attention to the true nuances of everyday human interaction. They can cover a crack in writing or acting in their films by showing a sex scene or a pointlessly brutal murder scene just because they can get away with it. This isn’t to say that all current filmmakers use these devices but many of them do. Some have even carved niches in the film industry thanks to the advantage they take of the freedom allotted to them by the 1968 code.
Writer and director Judd Apatow is a prime example of one of these filmmakers. Apatow’s trademark as a director includes the excessive use of profanity, vulgar jokes, and marijuana use. While these elements may be prominent in the age group that gets the most enjoyment out of Apatow’s films, the frequency with which they are portrayed in the films can feel forced; they are added to force emotion out of the audience; they aren’t necessary. The film would still be understood, if not be better, without them. Apatow’s 2007 film Knocked Up is a perfect example of the liberties today’s filmmakers can take in their films.
The story surrounds Ben Stone and Alison Scott, two adults in their mid-twenties, Ben, a slacker, and Alison, a successful, career-driven producer, who meet for the first time at a party, have too much to drink, have a one-night stand, and find out weeks later that they will be having a child together. Enough context in the film is given for the audience to understand that Ben and his friends are not the most mature group of men as they are always shown smoking marijuana or playing ping pong as opposed to working, so is it truly necessary for the audience to have to sit through several sexual jokes in every conversation the group has?
Is it imperative that sex is only referred to in an explicit way? The harsh language used, while comical in some instances, just takes focus away from the events taking place in the film. Sure, Apatow’s films still get their points across but only thanks to the spewing of information from the main characters. The films of today no longer play to the subtleties that are vital in human communication nor do they give the audience an opportunity to catch these subtleties; they don’t need to.
The 1968 film code gives writers and directors them the freedom to say whatever they want to be said; if anything, it is the 1968 film code that stifles creativity; it makes the netting in the filter for good films so wide that any film can fall through, promoting the sacrifice of quality for revenue and box office records. In no way is the 1930’s Motion Picture Code perfect; its stances on what was decent or socially acceptable in certain social aspects are archaic and oppressive to women and black people but again, we cannot forget that this code was written during a time when the views on these aspects were widespread.
This does not make them correct, but we have come so far from the snags in our culture that divided us and kept from progressing as a society. We have learned to accept each other for who we are on the inside, not what we look like and have learned that everyone has a voice and that those voices deserve to be heard. As society changes, so do the windows we see our world changing through. What shouldn’t change is the standards and quality of the films we watch and hold so highly in our culture.
Forty-five percent of the films on the list of “Greatest All Time Movies”, created by, arguably one of the best movie critics to review American cinema, Roger Ebert, were made under the 1930 code. The 1930 Motion Picture Production code held films to a higher standard and thus made better films and if films of today were made under just a few of the guidelines listed on it, the mirror our current movies hold up in front of us could be a little clearer and the feelings they instill in us could resonate a little longer.