The Hays Code Revisited
In 1930, in an effort to protect the morals of our country, the Production Code (commonly known as the Hays Code) was instituted. Of primary concern was the influence movies had on the young. Restrictions were imposed as to what could be shown and said. In the swinging sixties the Code’s influence began to wane, and in 1968 it was replaced by the rating system that we now have. Nobody under 18 years of age is allowed into an R-rated movie (unless accompanied by an adult). But with an adult or not, the young, even pre-teens, find ways to see these movies. So the present system fails to accomplish its purpose.
Censorship has a bad connotation, even though it’s based on a legitimate view of human nature. Man must be controlled for the good of society. Unfettered freedom does not result in the best rising to the top; the worst elements are often set free to do their damage.
But – times change, morals change. Still, could the issue be one of quality?
David Thomson, a film critic of note, believes it is. His “Have You Seen . . . ?” contains reviews of 1,000 English language and foreign films, each given a full page. While I don’t agree with all his opinions, I found most to be sound.
He includes a Chronology at the end, in which the thousand films are arranged by the year they appeared. I scanned his lists, and when I reached the 1980's the gradual fall-off in the number per year was striking. In 1984 only five films were listed. I flipped back to the thirties, forties and fifties, and here’s a random sampling of what I found: 1932 had 17 films, 1946 had 18, 1954 had 21. In the last eight years of Mr. Thomson’s Chronology – 2000 to 2007 – a grand total of 28 films appear. By comparison, in the eight years from 1946 to 1953 there are 154.
What’s going on? In Mr. Thomson’s introduction he gives an explanation for the decline.
David Thomson was born in 1941, and he acknowledges that age is a factor. We’re formed, he writes, by what we see – and love – in our youth. Nevertheless, regarding that great hump that stands for the thirties through the fifties, he doesn’t believe it’s principally a factor of age. The issue for him, as for me, is quality. “Films are not what they were,” he states. He finds that many today “are merciless and mercenary” and that they “sacrifice story, character and the innate beauty of the medium.” “What,” he asks, “does that leave, apart from desperate novelty?” And: “Too many new films are gestures trying to grab the interests of kids set on war games and PlayStations. We are so ready for shallow amusement that it may be harder to enjoy profound entertainment.”
In Mr. Thomson’s view (and mine) it comes down to this: during the thirty year period in which the Hays Code was in effect many more films of worth were made; with the dropping of most restrictions there has been a drastic drop in the number of worthy films. So the influence of the Code and the consequences of its demise need to be explored.
I don’t agree with all its restrictions (notably, that the bad guy must be punished for his crimes). Yet the bans on vulgarity and obscene language are, for me, no problem, nor is the provision imposing what was called “the dictates of good taste.” I’m not amused by a joke about body functions (complete with sound effects); it’s not necessary to have the f-word repeated over a hundred times; I don’t want to be shown a pool of vomit. Were films in the past diminished by the absence of these elements? Was “On the Waterfront” any less authentic because the longshoreman didn’t use obscenities? The absence of the true language of the docks was inconsequential to the story. The overuse of obscenities and vulgarity serves only to call attention to itself.
The limits on the depiction of violence are also fine with me. More “don’ts”: I don’t want to see someone tortured, or brain matter splattered on the wall. In the past violence was present, but it was often the build-up to the act, and the aftermath, that gave it force. Some of the most evil characters in movie history were created in the forties and fifties. Robert Mitchum’s preacher in “Night of the Hunter” is a vivid example; his murder of Willa is not shown, but later the camera pans down to the lake bottom where an open convertible is submerged, and we see the dead woman’s long hair undulating in the current. That image tells us all we need to know.
And then there’s sex. We now get a blatant assault of what I call “Hollywood Sex.” Bodies careening against walls, naked limbs writhing, orgasmic moaning (or, worse, shrieking). Even a kiss resembles two octopuses engaged in a death struggle. And the past? It is simply not true – it’s a myth – that the Hays Code didn’t allow sex. There was plenty of sex, and sexiness, but it was presented subtly. In “The More the Merrier” a couple sit on the steps of an apartment building and make inconsequential conversation, yet the feeling that grows between them is one of a palpable hunger; it’s a truly intimate scene and only needs a kiss to end it. Films also established a reason for the attraction two people had for one another, and that reason was often love. As for the dark side of sex, adultery, rape, and destructive relationships were common subjects.
The Hays Code imposed no ban on intelligence. It encouraged intelligence – and artfulness. When dealing with adult matters, writers, directors and actors were required to make the viewer understand and feel without explicitly showing. In quality films the script was predominant. The best comedies of the past had a sparkle, a crackle; it’s no easy task to write the witty dialogue that Rosalind Russell delivered with such aplomb in “His Girl Friday.” Screenplays went deep into character, and their subject was real people. In too many current dramas – ones purported to be excellent – I don’t find human beings or situations that I can relate to. There’s also a shallowness to motivations and plot that frequently turns foolish. The words “adult” and “realistic” apply only to the externals – to the inclusion of elements which were once taboo.
Charm and sweetness are becoming rare. In the beginning of “Love Me Tonight” a tailor in his Paris shop teasingly sings “Isn’t It Romantic” to a customer who is about to be married; the man leaves the shop, humming and singing snatches of the tune, and it is picked up by someone he passes; the melody travels swiftly across time and space, the lyrics changing with different people; at night a gypsy boy hears soldiers singing it as they march along a country road; he runs to his camp, takes up a violin and plays the melody; a young woman on the balcony of a mansion hears it and sings the song with lyrics that express her longing. Such a magical way to unite the two unlikely lovers, the tailor and the princess. The scene has a sense of buoyancy, as if the world were new and fresh. And don’t we need that? Do we need the smarmy and the mean? In many ways we’ve moved away from the human heart. I see a great loss going on – just like those dwindling numbers in David Thomson’s lists.
Were all old movies worth seeing? Of course not; much junk was churned out, though it was innocuous junk. Are excellent movies still being made? Yes, and I’ve seen a few. But only a few. Most of today’s films – and, again, I only see those purported to be excellent – leave me feeling like an outcast from my culture.
I’m not advocating a return to the Hays Code. I am advocating a return to some values of the past. Consider the state of television. Are things just fine? Are people given work that enlarges them, that makes them think? The 1950's was the Golden Age of television; the three major networks presented live dramas such as “Marty,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Patterns,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “Twelve Angry Men,” “Middle of the Night.” And many more of that caliber. Imagine! Would today’s viewers respond to shows like these? Or would they switch to some mindless (even degrading) entertainment?
I’m pessimistic. Because something is not a loss if it’s unwanted. But I wonder: do the people get what they want or do they learn to want what they get (especially if it’s easy, or panders to their baser instincts). It comes down to “Carrie” vs “Carrie.” The public wants Brian De Palma’s R-rated “Carrie” of 1976, with its prom night bloodbath, its hand reaching from the grave. They don’t want William Wyler’s 1952 “Carrie,” though it is an infinitely more meaningful (and moving) film. It shows how a man’s need for love leads to his downfall; it’s harrowing and unrelenting. As David Thomson says, in comparing the two films, “The 1952 ‘Carrie’ is the movie to tremble at.”
Moviegoers in their thirties and forties have their “don’t’s,” just as I do. But that’s the age group that can cause a cultural shift. If quality is indeed the issue I wish they’d give the past a chance. Take a look at the best of the old films. Dramas, comedies, romance, noir, musicals. My hope is that you’ll enjoy them, see their virtues, and ask for more of the same.
(Originally appeared, in a different form, in Monsters and Critics)