The Hays Code, or Production Code, effective from 1934, was a set of industry-compiled guidelines covering material that was considered unacceptable for inclusion in motion pictures. It covered areas such as sex (no adultery, nudity, “perversion”), crime (no vicious violence, revenge, unpunished criminals), morals (no unpunished “loose” women, suicide) and general anti-social behavior (no drug-taking, excessive drinking, bad language).
Hollywood had been practicing a form of self-censorship since 1915, when the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not protected by the First Amendment, but as the twenties wore on and the wild party of the prohibition Jazz Age grew ever wilder, film-makers took advantage of the escalating popularity of the movies and their stars to include whatever indiscretions took their fancy, contending only with an unregulated, state-by-state system of censorship decisions, and vague outlines from the precursor to the Motion Picture Association of America, formed in 1922.
Hollywood had long been regarded, with some justification, as an iniquitous den boundless drug-use, sex and general hedonism; a series of scandals (most famously the “Fatty” Arbuckle murder trial), the growing influence of right-wing former Postmaster General Will Hays as head honcho of the proto-MPAA, and the increasingly vocal objections of various religious groups, culminating in the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1933, resulted in a stamp-down on all this indecent material and the drawing up of unprecedented provisions for enforcing the previously largely symbolic code. The actual Hays Code was introduced in 1930, but from June 1 1934, an amendment required all pictures to obtain a certificate of approval from the Code administration before release. The wild movie party was over.
The centrepiece of the American Cinemathèque’s mini season of pre-Code pictures was a new documentary entitled Why Be Good? Sexuality and Censorship in Early Cinema which covered some of this ground. Although enlivened by audio from late Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford and Louise Brooks interviews, it was essentially a fluff piece (exec produced by Hugh Hefner) playing fast and loose with chronology and structured around a series of (mostly female) stars – the aforementioned, along with Theda Bara, Pola Negri, Rudolph Valentino, Garbo and Gilbert, Dietrich and of course Mae West – and brief pottings of their careers. Most of the accompanying clips were unattributed clips, but some were great – the remarkable scene from DeMille’s The Cheat where an inscrutable Oriental applies a glowing, smoking iron to the back of a starlet’s neck – and the main virtue of the documentary was a wealth of excellent behind the scenes and publicity footage, such as Jean Harlow strolling (braless!) on the links or Clara Bow fluffing her (very straightforward) lines in an early talkie.
The fact that the movies were becoming more popular and more entrenched in American culture meant that those standard bearers of decency felt more compelled to act against an industry that was growing more powerful. The advent of sound, at around the time Hays drew up an informal list of subjects best avoided for studio circulation, only exacerbated the situation, giving yet greater popularity and power to the den of iniquity, and greatly expanding the canvas for potential moral indecency. Added to this, as the stockmarket crashed and the depression took hold, the movies turned to harder-edged subjects, resulting in violent crime thrillers like Saturday night’s double bill, Beast of the City (1932) and Skyscraper Souls (1932) and the popularity of the gangster cycle in general. Or else, as usual, sex was offered as a selling point. Why be Good? asks if the grand epics and other extravagantly-costumed pictures such as Cecil B. deMille was turning out, were not simply an excuse for sexual behavior and nudity under cover of historical distance and fashion; that’s rather simplistic, but there is no doubt they were consistently exploited vehicles for the broadcast of such moral degradation, and the film does cover DeMille’s notorious preference for allowing his characters all sorts of indecencies before a final reel redemption and recognition of their immoral ways. Illustrating the escalation of this sort of prurience, the film also make a useful comparison between two versions of W. Somerset Maugham’s story, Sadie Thompson. A working girl of defiantly little virtue winds up in the South Pacific where she drives a self-righteous missionary crazy with reformist rage, that becomes indistinguishable from lust. Gloria Swanson had raised eyebrows in her 1928 version, but she pales beside Joan Crawford in the 1932 retooling as Rain. As one commentator puts it, Swanson appears simply to have found herself in an unsavory profession, whereas Crawford really seems to enjoy it.
Despite skirting around some interesting areas, and the presence of the estimable Jeanine Basinger amongst the talking heads, the general tone of the film was encapsulated by a dancing flapper superimposed over period footage behind the credits, and irrelevant inserts of presumably the same surprisingly unattractive woman “modelling” as a flapper or recreating Brooks’ famous pose with a string of pearls, accompanied by text quotations from various stars, apparently picked at random. With the recent publication of three serious inquiries into this period and the issues involved (by William Bruce Johnson, Thomas Doherty and Gerald R. Butters Jr), it is a shame Elaina Archer (producer, editor, director) and Todd Friedrichsen (producer, editor) could only come up with something so feather-brained, and without even managing to titillate at that. To add insult to injury, we were proudly informed before the screening that we were to experience the wonders of the Egyptian’s brand-new DMX digital projector. They can send it back for a refund as far as I am concerned. It’s partly the fault of the source transfer, no doubt, but partly inherent in the unperfected technology, but if I am watching a film, I definitely do not want to be seeing pixels, and they were all over the place. It couldn’t handle the contrast in many of the old clips either. It’s bad enough when digital projection mars as negligible a film as this, but my viewing of Bergman’s Saraband in London was ruined for the same reasons, and my natural mistrust of digital light vs celluloid light grows more entrenched.
to be continued tomorrow (Sunday)…