What Was the Production Code?
The Production Code of 1930, sometimes called the Hays Code, was a deliberate attempt by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), at that time stewarded by Will Hays, to remove content considered objectionable, titillating, morally wrong, or sinful from films. Some people are shocked to see some of the allowable content in films prior to the development of the Production Code, though it can be said for these films that many of them are quite innocent when compared to modern R or NC-17 rated movies. However, the popularity of movies had many decrying various things that were considered “indecencies, blasphemies or corruption” in the movie industry. To address this, and thus retain a movie audience, Hays thought it best to clearly define what was and wasn’t allowable in a film. All films released by major motion picture studios had to be certified by the Production Code.
From a film history perspective, or merely from a historical point of view, reading the whole code is interesting indeed. Parts of it are extremely specific, like forbidding certain dances such as the cancan, which might be too influential and potentially morally corrupting to the impressionable. Guidelines on costuming, where no costuming should intimate people had bodies, by wearing tightly fitting costumes, are also fascinating
One of the main thrusts of the Production Code was that an audience should never leave a film confused on the issues of good and bad. Villains needed to be clearly despised, and heroes absolutely celebrated. Matters of things commonly thought immoral like adultery, premarital sex, or any commission of a crime, had to be specifically condemned in theme so there could be no confusion between right and wrong, and no individual would be tempted to act in a way thought indecent or immoral because of viewing a film.
There’s certainly a few things thought immoral by the Production Code that raise some laughs. For instance toilets were thought vulgar. This led to some interesting choices later. In the 1960s film Psycho for instance, The Production Code Administration wanted to cut the scene where Janet Leigh flushes some papers down a toilet. They did not however, object to the violence in the film, because the code had begun to loosen if the film was recommended for mature audiences. However, film historians often find laughable the fact that the murder of Leigh’s character was allowed, but the MPAA was very concerned about the toilet-flushing scene.
A few portions of the code show considerable prejudice present in the 1930s. Showing any romantic relationship between people of two different races, especially African American and Caucasian was highly objectionable. Again, the code did begin to loosen, and certainly the film noir directors were often able to insert considerable moral ambiguity into plots.
As more directors in the late 1950s and early 1960s began to strain against the code, especially by releasing independent or “foreign films,” the MPAA eventually had to disband the production code in 1968 in favor of the ratings system. Just like the Production Code, the ratings system has undergone changes, and there are many who criticize the way ratings are administered as prejudicial (any reference to homosexuality or depicting a same sex relationship tends to earn an R), and unevenly applied.
The questions that the Production Code and all ratings systems provoke is whether it is censorship to rate films based on their content. These same questions have applied to other visual arts, and essentially all creative media, be it sculpture, poetry, music, or other. The current MPAA rating systems is thought fairer, since it does not ban content, but instead merely rates it. Some feel this is not enough, since a rating means certain films may not be viewed, or that certain audiences may not be allowed to view certain films. Whether this is censorship or merely guidance must be the decision of the individual.
In the 1930s, you couldn't even use the word "pregnant" in a movie. You had to say "with child" or "expecting" or "in the family way" or use some other euphemism.
That's a little ridiculous, but I think even more ridiculous is the complete license to use any words in any context, with great frequency. I am no shrinking violet, but I found myself wishing the Hays Code were still in effect when I watched "The Departed," which actually set a record for the number of times a particular obscenity was used. It was totally gratuitous and Scorsese could have done better, in my opinion.
Censorship bans specific content. The Hays Code was indeed censorship, but the MPAA ratings are not. They are guidelines, and considering what goes on in movies these days, nearly anything goes, as long as the rating reflects the content. "The Piano" is rated R and shows full frontal nudity, male and female. There are unrated versions available that are even more graphic, but the version shown in theaters was certainly not puritanical.
So the MPAA rating really just provides viewer guidelines so they can't go to the movie and act outraged that it had strong sexual or violent content.
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