The Don’ts

So, I got an unusual and intriguing invitation to take part in a blogathon — that in itself is fairly unusual, but the NATURE of the blogathon in this case is out of the normal run of things. The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society is running a celebration of Production Code supremo Joe Breen, with the underlying belief that the code was a boon to American movie-making and would transform American culture for the better if it were reinstated today.

I think this is incorrect, but the people at PEPS said they’re happy for me to take a dissenting view, so why not? I did check their opinion of the Code’s infamous sixth commandment, prohibiting “racial miscegenation” — they’re against it. It wasn’t part of the original Code but was added by the studios themselves, as they wanted a provision to keep them from getting into trouble with local censors in the South.

(What the USA needed, post-Civil War, was surely a massive indoctrination campaign equivalent to that which de-Nazified Germany. I don’t know how that was accomplished — convincing people they’ve been on the wrong side isn’t exactly easy — but it seems to have been very successful. Large parts of the South still don’t seem to have learned the rather important lessons of that war. That “War Between The States” stuff needed stamping out.)

So, having established that my genial hosts were not horrible racists, I felt I could do business with them. Because, hopefully, dialogue between different viewpoints is a good thing. (I haven’t asked their opinions on Trump yet.)

One of the suggested gambits for this blogathon is “Breening,” whereby a modern film is reimagined as it would be if produced under the Code. The point of the exercise being to show how it would be improved. I was tempting to choose LOVING, a film which would presumably cease to exist under the Code, or else the whole thing would play on a torpedo boat. But I’ve decided not to Breen anything. Instead, I’m going to start off by considering the provisions of the Code to see what can be said for them.

I don’t think the Pure Entertainment people will be shocked by my views. But we’re coming at things from different perspectives. Charles Grodin recommends that when liberals argue with conservatives, it’s best not to start by assuming the other side is less compassionate. While conservatives worry about the erosion of abstract but deeply-held “values”, liberals worry about “harm.” So I’m looking at the Don’ts in the Code and asking “Who actually gets hurt if we ignore these rules?” and “Who gets hurt if we obey them?”

These Don’ts are actually from the 1927 Code proposed by the industry and accepted by Will Hays. The Breen Code later adapted these somewhat.

One) Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus”, “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell”, “damn”, “Gawd”, and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;

I can be a little prudish about “pointed profanity.” I don’t like to hear little kids swearing; I don’t like any loud swearing in public. And swearing in the movies probably does have an influence on real-life use of swears. But it isn’t, in itself, hurting anyone. Even the Bible is only mildly against it. There’s not a Commandment about vulgar language, just about taking the Lord’s name in vain. And do we seriously want a cultural rule that prevents realistic representation of dialogue in order to spare the feelings of one religious group? My rule is, the religious can follow whatever precepts they like, within the law of the land, but they oughtn’t get to prohibit non-adherents from doing or saying what they like, within the law of the land.

Two) Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;

I like how they cover all the bases here. You can’t show a character lecherously noticing the nudity of a character who you also can’t show. In practice, of course, ALL nudity was deemed licentious/suggestive from 1934 until the Code disintegrated, with the exception of dogs, horses etc. Why do they get a pass? Rin Tin Tin spent his whole career gallumphing about starkers with his tongue hanging out, and when he noticed lady dogs I’m not so sure his intentions were pure. Personally, I sometimes enjoy looking at attractive naked humans, and it can be useful to occasionally see less attractive ones so I feel less inferior.

I realise that distinguishing between licentious nudity and the healthy, outdoors kind would have involved a lot of hairsplitting, which is not easy to do while staring at someone’s bottom. And it’s probably safe to assume that most movie nudity has suggestive intent, given the kind of people who make movies. But of all the kinds of god I don’t believe in, the kind I don’t believe in hardest may be the kind who created the human body and then doesn’t want it ever to be seen.

Three) The illegal traffic in drugs;

This one’s just mad, isn’t it? You have to warn kids about drugs, so they won’t think it’s a great idea to accept them when offered (but they’ll probably do it anyway). If you want kids to be aware of the dangers of drugs (including the danger of getting busted and having your life ruined), banning any reference to them from movies is a pretty counter-intuitive move.

Four) Any inference of sex perversion;

Since inference is something done by the audience, this seems to be asking for the moon. How are the studios going to stop the audience inferring whatever it likes? My favourite example of this is Ben Hecht’s suggestion that whenever the screen fades to black, the occupants of the scene we’ve just been watching immediately drop their trousers and begin fornicating in the dark. Such an interpretation of film grammar enlivens the most moribund BOSTON BLACKIE programmer.

But even if we assume the Code meant to say “implication,” I’m against it. This to me is as bad as the miscegenation rule, even though it’s easier to understand in its historical context. However we define “perversion” (the Church has often gone with “anything which adds pleasure to the sexual act/s”), I’m in favour of implying it, inferring it, flat-out portraying it, and doing it, as long as you’re not hurting anyone. Public sex should generally be closely contained, but sex or its impersonation on a movie screen certified Adults Only seems harmless to me, in itself.

And since sex is wrapped up in a lot of anxiety, it can do audience members good to see people in movies who are into the same twisted but harmless peculiarities they themselves enjoy.

Five) White slavery;

But Black slavery is fine, apparently. See GONE WITH THE WIND. Both hues of slavery seem like unpleasant facts of life which can and should be dealt with in movies — I would move them to the Be Careful list. Rape is on the Be Careful list. Why this distinction?

Six) Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);

See above. Censorship often draws a sort of diaphanous veil over things we know are there. what are we being protected from? Practically every African-American owes some of their DNA to rape under slavery. “Miscegenation” was driven by the white slave-owning class. It’s proof is in every coffee-coloured face we see. And the proof of sexual intercourse is present in every human being we see. And the proof of sexual perversion is present inside our own minds.

Seven) Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;

Don’t talk about it. It’ll go away.

Eight) Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;

Ditto. And putting these two items in the same column is weird.

Nine) Children’s sex organs;

I don’t have the energy to mount a campaign for More Children’s Sex Organs Now, but isn’t this a strange one to get absolutist about? I think sexualised images of children are worrisome, and they don’t have to involve specific organs. And we want to be careful of providing images that feed pedophile fantasies, even while they might seem innocent enough to normal people. This just seems like an area where more nuance would be useful.

Ten) Ridicule of the clergy;

Nobody should be safe from ridicule. The deeply religious indulge in a strange form of projection which means we all have to follow their rules. Joseph Breen shouldn’t ridicule the clergy because he’s a Catholic. I’m an atheist. Ridiculing the clergy is central to my existence. And when an unbeliever mocks Allah, they’re mocking something they don’t believe is there. That can’t be as bad a sin, surely, as a devout Muslim disrespecting his own deity.

I recall hearing that Prince Charles, over dinner, once argued that the Salman Rushdie fatwa was understandable as he’d offended people’s most deeply held beliefs. I like to think I would reply that MY most deeply held beliefs include the importance of freedom of expression. Do I get to write a counter-fatwa?

Eleven) Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

The eleventh commandment. Breen would have had ten but the studios had to go one better than God. This one’s a nice sentiment, but in theory it includes Satanists, and in practice it included Nazis pre-war, and didn’t really include other races. Except that it’s so hard to tell when offence is willful, sometimes. But this seems like the 1930s version of an injunction against hate speech, and thus not far removed from the kind of thing most of us would endorse today. Banning the incitement of hatred towards a race or creed seems like a better way of getting the desired result. I’m not sure if “nation” means a populace or a leadership, here. Hatred of Germany, as constituted under Hitler, was evidently fine during WWII. Hatred of the Japanese people as a race was also encouraged. So the Breen Office didn’t always follow its own injunctions.

A separate post on the Code’s twenty-five Be Carefuls? And then something on the effect of the Code. Because the funny thing is, I agree with the Purity people that the thirties and forties were a really great time for American cinema. We just disagree a bit about WHY…


16 Responses to “The Don’ts”

  1. At first, I thought this had to be a joke, then I checked out the link to the site (Breening “Night World”? I love that movie, but the pre-code elements are what make it interesting.) Then I got to thinking, what about De-Breening famous post-code movies? Think of “It’s a Wonderful Life”: We could actually see all those Bailey children be born, Violet Bick’s character would be much more interesting and the Pottersville sequence alone would make the whole thing worthwhile. Plus, dare I say, with Item Ten no longer a factor, someone might be shown razzing a screening of “Bells of St. Mary’s,” which is playing at the local movie house.

  2. The trouble with all such exercises is that the films concerned were made under certain conditions of censorship which influenced every aspect of their approach. Made under different rules, both Night World and IAWL would be very different films in all sorts of unpredictable ways.

    But yeah, I tend to value pre-codes for exactly the aspects that would be eliminated under the Code.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    You can easily argue that ANY limitation — budget, lack of sound, lack of color, miscasting — forces filmmakers to be more creative. At the very least, a critical viewer becomes more aware of the sweat.

    The thing is, not all filmmakers have the capability. Or if they do, it’s directed to schedules, budgets, and avoiding trouble. During the 50s and 60s, it did take a certain brilliance to produce sex comedies in which nobody manages to have sex (or, at the very least, there’s a very strong deniability built in).

  4. Matthew Davis Says:

    Kim Newman’s story “The Piece Arrow Stalled” is a uchronia/counterfactual/alternate history (pick your term) about a Hollywood that never had to adopt the Code, and where filmmakers of the 30s were able to depict orgies, swearing and any amount of disgraceful filth:

  5. In The 7 Year Itch, they wanted to show the maid finding a hairpin — the tiniest suggestion that Monroe stayed the night. It was not allowed. And so, as Axelrod put it, a play about a husband who sleeps with a girl and feels guilty about it became a movie about a husband who doesn’t sleep with a girl and feels guilty about that. An altogether more frivolous story.

    And Billy Wilder was one of the great geniuses of tasteful implication. Sometimes the system defeated even him.

  6. This is a grand article! Thank you for submitting it on Mr. Breen’s birthday. I really enjoyed reading this article. We appreciate your participation. Here is the link to today’s roster, in which I included a description of your article and a link to it:

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

  7. bensondonald Says:

    “Seven Year Itch” managed a sort of save: After that night of not sleeping with him, Monroe cheerfully points out that the opened stairway means easy, discreet access 24 / 7. Ewell realizes the constant temptation will break him down eventually.

    The play takes a different tack: The Girl, the morning after a night that was mainly curiosity on her part, has decided she really wants a guy — a different and younger guy — of her own. She won’t talk, but she won’t encore either.

  8. She only wants him for his air conditioner.

    Thanks, Tiffany, I enjoyed it — it gave me ideas for more posts, but I can probably only fit one of them into the span of your blogathon.

  9. Dear Mr. Cairns,

    Of course, I am sure that you already dedicated quite a lot of time to my blogathon with this article. I meant that I would be pleased to link to such articles in the future even if you write them after the blogathon. I want to promote conversations about the Code and Mr. Breen every chance I get!

    Thank you so much for your participation. With sincere personal regards, I am

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

  10. I’m all for exploring Number for with “Rope” — in which Alfred Hitchcock, screenwriter Arthur Laurents and his boyfriend Farley Granger tie Breen in knots.

  11. Rope is a rare case of a clear Don’t being circumvented by subtext. Everyone in the know knew, but the surface of the film was innocuous enough for Breen to either miss the implications, feel he could afford to overlook them, or worry that by raising the question, HE would look like the one with the dirty mind.

    But in general the Don’ts had a chilling effect on the discourse in American film. It is possible that the well-intentioned 11th commandment saved us from a second Birth of a Nation (now THAT’S the kind of birth I want to be protected from, in fact or in silhouette) but so many other issues were swept under Mr. Breen’s axminster…

    Tiffany – don’t worry, here’s another post!

  12. Your mention of Boston Blackie reminded me of all the times he and The Runt cross-dressed. I wonder why transvestism was not addressed by the Code? Was it not considered a serious enough threat to American manhood? imagine a world with no Some Like It Hot….

  13. By the time of SLIH, things were slowly starting to relax anyway… but yes, no specific prohibition. I guess Charley’s Aunt was considered good clean fun, and in those ignorant days the more dedicated kind of cross-dressing would get lumped in with “sex perversion,” which WAS banned.

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