The Sunday Intertitle: The Be Carefuls

As stated yesterday, the nice people at the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society kindly invited me to join their blogathon, The Great Breening.

My initial reaction to discovering there are people who think the Hays Code was a good thing was a bit like when I learned there are people who think the Sandy Hook massacre never happened. Incredulity and dread. But, having gotten over this, I spoke to them a bit and they seem awfully nice. And they agreed that Rule 6 prohibiting the portrayal of miscegenation was a very bad rule. So, in the spirit of the free exchange of ideas, I’d taking part, in my own way.

(The PEPS people have responded very politely to yesterday’s article here. They’ve invited me to respond and I think I will, later,)

In addition to their list of Don’ts, chiseled into granite tablets using Will Hays’ nose, the initial 1927 Production Code had a second, longer list which, like the Pirate Code, could be viewed as “suggestions rather than rules.” The Be Carefuls are subjects which filmmakers should be careful when dealing with. Arguably filmmakers should always be careful when dealing with any subject. Joe Breen could have saved on typewriter ribbed and just hammered out the words BE CAREFUL and left it at that. Nevermind, here’s the list, with annotations.

One) The use of the flag;

I’m not sure why, historically, Americans are so serious about their flag. You might think that all nations are, but in fact, the star-spangled banner gets treated with a reverence appreciably more demented than that applied to other national symbols. All those injunctions against flag-dipping. And the obsession about standing for the national anthem is part of it. This nation founded on the separation of church and state by pilgrims fleeing religious persecution seems to have invested a kind of religious zealotry shading well into idolatry towards the flag, national anthem, and constitution.

But sure, whatever, be careful with the flag. Store it in a cool, dry place.

Two) International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);

There’s already a Don’t applying to this exact thing. So, Don’t do it, and Be Careful when you do it. Seth Rogen.

Three) Arson;

I think this one is to do with portrayals which might help arsonists in the pursuit of their craft. Avoid handy hints. I don’t find that unreasonable.

Four) The use of firearms;

This is something else again, I think. They’re not warning filmmakers to avoid showing how guns work. I think it’s about avoiding glamorising the use of guns for criminal purposes. Guns is another subject the US is slightly crazy on. So I don’t imagine they’re asking for gunplay to be minimized.

Five) Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);

Good to see the sensibilities of the moron are being taken fully into consideration by Hollywood. This is perhaps a combination of anxieties — will the exciting depiction of crime inspire imitation? — will the films provide helpful information useable by criminals? I’m generally in favour of being careful when potentially giving criminals lessons in criminality, but most crime happens because of dreadful intent rather than dreadful knowledge. It might be fun to have a rule that says crimes depicted in movies should always contain a secret, fatal blunder, not alluded to in the plot, so that copycat criminals will screw up and get caught if they try to perpetrate the offense in reality.

Six) Brutality and possible gruesomeness;

Two of the staples of entertainment right there. We don’t need to point to Shakespeare, do we? Remember, it’s NOT REAL. We agree, it would be very bad if it were.

Seven) Technique of committing murder by whatever method;

In practice, most movies depicting murder use techniques which would work. Stabbing, shooting. You could create quite an interesting national cinema by insisting that all murders shown in films must be committed by striking the victim upside the head with a soft cushion.

Eight) Methods of smuggling;

Just read in John Frankenheimer: A Conversation: While shooting FRENCH CONNECTION II in Marseilles, Frankenheimer was approached by actual drug smugglers who asked him to change the script as the smuggling method used was a bit too close to reality. They happily suggested a convincing alternative and he happily accepted their notes, in exchange for their help getting cooperation from the city.

Nine) Third-degree methods;

This would rule out much of 24. It seems strange to me that such a series existed so recently: a series dedicated to creative torture and threats of torture. Anyhow, don’t want to give the cops ideas.

Ten) Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;

I’m perturbed and confused by the word “actual” here. I would agree with Messrs Thalberg et al that we don’t want any snuff movies carrying the MGM logo.

Eleven) Sympathy for criminals;

Practically an essential element of any dramatic treatment of crime, since without a degree of sympathy, insight is impossible.

Twelve) Attitude toward public characters and institutions;

Don’t give me any of your attitude!

Thirteen) Sedition;

Don’t know what it means.

Fourteen) Apparent cruelty to children and animals;

Does this mean it’s fine if it’s ACTUAL?

Fifteen) Branding of people or animals;

Extremely weird that this has an entry of its own. But I guess there had been a fair bit of it after DeMille’s THE CHEAT.

Sixteen: The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;

Like I say, the idea of being careful is not a bad one. Meanwhile, White slavery is on the Don’t list.

Seventeen) Rape or attempted rape;

It’s just weird to find this here and not on the Don’t list along with drugs and profanity. But I guess they just thought it was too useful a dramatic situation to exclude altogether. In practice, it was rarely even implied.

Eighteen) First-night scenes;

At the theatre?

Nineteen) Man and woman in bed together;

This became really crazy later. When it was pointed out that there was nothing wrong in a husband and wife sharing a bed, the censors said that the audience knew the actors weren’t really married, and so it would be a potentially corrupting sight to show them between the same sheets. Which makes me wonder if casting a real married couple would have then allowed the depiction of a double bed? I imagine it wouldn’t help. There’s nothing wrong with a husband and wife having sex, either, but Breen wasn’t about to allow THAT to be shown in a movie.

Twenty) Deliberate seduction of girls;

It’s really hard to pull it off accidentally.

Twenty-one) The institution of marriage;

I’m not sure quite what you have to be careful about. Usually this means “careful not to lampoon it” but lots of movies do. It pretty well always IS in fun, and there are very few movies which actually proselytize AGAINST wedlock,

Twenty-two) Surgical operations;

I guess we shouldn’t lampoon these either?

Twenty-three) The use of drugs;

Are these the same illegal drugs we’re not allowed to talk about at all?

Twenty-three) Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;

Titles? So JUDGE PRIEST might offend both rule twenty-three and rule twelve?

Twenty-four) Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.

Heavies need love too. Still, anything excessive must be bad, mustn’t it? I can agree that if the kissing proceeds to the point where the two skulls actually fuse, they’ve probably gone too far for most tastes.

I wanted to briefly reflect on the effect of the Code itself. I agree with those behind the Great Breening Blogathon that the period of the Code produced some of the finest American cinema, but I am reluctant to give Breen and his office too much credit. I do agree that the Code provided what the industry wanted from it: some protection from local censorship boards and from the threat of official state censorship. I differ with them in that I do see it as censorship, even though it was imposed by the industry itself, not the government. If a filmmaker can’t deal with a subject or show an image because it violates a set of rules, that is surely a form of censorship. And one of the most insidious forms of censorship is self-censorship. We know of films which couldn’t be made, and films that had to be heavily adapted to be permissible, but how many countless films never got past the notional stage, because writers or producers told themselves, We’ll never get away with THAT?

Hollywood in the 30s and 40s was immensely profitable. The studios had a virtual monopoly, controlling production, distribution and exhibition. They could buy in the best talent from all over the world, not only enhancing their own product, but depleting other countries’. They made films in bulk, which meant they could afford the occasional artistic risk, and with so many talented and smart people on the payroll, they enjoyed a high rate of artistic as well as box office success.

In the pre-code era they enjoyed a degree of freedom in what they could show and discuss, but the studios had to be cautious still about offending public taste and local state censors, which kept things within reasonable limits most of the time. Compare a racy 1933 film and a racy 1973 film and the distinction is clear. But predicting what will cause offense to a shopkeeper in Illinois or a politician in Tennessee is not an exact science, and while the studios wanted to be cautious, they also knew that sex sells, sensation sells, and so there was a commercial pressure to see how much they could get away with.

Under the Code, filmmakers had a better sense of what was allowable, and the back-and-forth discussions with Breen allowed studios to anticipate problems before making costly commitments to movies or scenes that would end up cut. Financially, this made total sense to them.

And unquestionably, filmmakers became adept at implying story content that couldn’t be treated openly because of the children in the audience. Had a ratings system existed that kept kids out of films intended for more mature viewers, more adult themes could have been treated — but probably the studios would have seen this as limiting the financial prospects of the adult films, and it would have required a wholesale restructuring of the way Americans consumed movies — you can’t just rock up at the “theater” (as Americans quaintly spell it), not knowing what’s on, if you might not be able to get in, or bring the kids, or if you don’t like more mature content. Ironically, nowadays such a system would work fine, but Americans still don’t have a working certification system that protects kids. If the R were adults only, kids would be better protected and more sensible decisions might be possible about what kind of images really need to be restricted. The MPAA’s weird tolerance for extreme violence coupled with prudishness about all forms of sex, but especially gay sex, is partly to do with anxieties about children, and partly to do with the organisation’s history as a largely Catholic outgrowth of a largely Jewish business. Violence — i.e. the crucifixion — can be part of a morally uplifting story — but sex must always be shut away.

But the Code, and the less articulated thinking that went along with it, did make it flat-out impossible to tackle certain themes, and I don’t believe there are any themes that should be forbidden to art. I don’t really care for official restrictions about the WAY themes can be tackled, but creative types can work within strictures of taste as well as those of time and money, so this aspect of the Code wasn’t destructive, it just created a certain artful stylisation when it came to sexual passion, violence, and other hot-button material. The real harm was not in the Be Carefuls, it was in the Don’ts.

All intertitles from DW Griffith’s THE SORROWS OF SATAN.

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3 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Be Carefuls”

  1. […] David Cairns for Shadowplay – The Don’ts and The Be Carefuls […]

  2. […] The Sunday Intertitle: The Be Carefuls by David Cairns for Shadowplay […]

  3. Thank you for submitting this wonderful article. Here is the link to the roster on which I included it: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/the-great-breening-blogathon-day-3/. Thank you for participating.

    Yours Hopefully,

    TIffany Brannan

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