November 17, 2010

De-Coding films

I just finished reading the fantastic 1958 novel The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. Often cited as a possible progenitor of "Mad Men," it chronicles the hardships and personal entanglements of working girls in 50s Manhattan. It sounds like fluffy chick lit, but instead it's a thoughtful and well-written exploration of how the gender roles and social mores of the time doomed women who strayed from the proper path. I knew before I started reading it that there had been a 1959 film adaptation, but as I read on I started to wonder what small percentage of the novel could be transferred to a 1950s screen.

Yes, folks, the Production Code - everybody's favorite Hollywood censorship doctrine and a subject of personal fascination - was still in full swing. In adapting a story focused primarily on the matters of infidelity, premarital sex, marital dissatisfaction, unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion, obsession, and serious critique of a woman's role in mid-century America, what could you preserve? Very little, if the synopses of the film are any indication. It glosses over everything that gives the novel weight - spouses are conveniently removed, the abortion becomes a miscarriage, sex becomes attempted sex, all moral ambiguity is eliminated and at the end of the day, it emphasizes that all women should just be wives and mothers. It's an adaptation of the book only so far as a ransom note comprised of magazine letters is an adaptation of that magazine. True, I haven't seen the film, but there's nothing really motivating me to do so.

Now, unsatisfactory film adaptations happen all the time. But they are the result of deliberate decisions, not mandatory excisions. The film was the way it was because the filmmakers literally had no choice. And that bums me out, because I feel that a faithful adaptation of the book would really be something special. Of course someone could always make another version, perhaps piggybacking on the success of "Mad Men," but the opportunity to tell the full story from the unique vantage point of the era in which it takes place is unfortunately gone.

The degree to which the Code interfered with a film's effectiveness was widely varied. The fact that any of James Cagney's gangsters had to die at the end of the film was an awkward add-on, but didn't change the fact that until that point he could be as gloriously sadistic and violent as he wanted to be. It was still a gangster picture that delivered all the proper thrills of the genre. But with something like The Best of Everything, the fabric of the story is fundamentally altered, and in trying to adapt a bestseller they neutered everything that made it so.

I know it's impossible, but it would be amazing to see a "de-Coded" version of The Best of Everything from its own time. So think hard and share your filmic fantasies: what films would you like to see de-Coded? (Reminder: the Code was in effect from 1934 until a slow death in the mid-60s.) And I realize that you can't miss what you never knew should have been there, so most of these cases of longing will happen in adaptations of some sort.


joem18b said...

great article. now you've made me want to watch the movie, just to see if anything subversive has been snuck into it. directors had their own private codewords and situations meant to stand in for banned material, so maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised to find something like that in this one. i recently watched Anatomy of a Murder, made the same year, in which Preminger managed to include the word "panties" for the first time in a movie. I was shocked, shocked! the reviews of "The Best of Everything" that I've read are mostly positive, and the library and netflix both have the newish dvd with commentary by rona jaffe and sylvia stoddard. that should be a good listen all by itself. among other things, they discuss the changes made to the movie as a consequence of the code.

Julie said...

Preminger's a special case - I would hardly call what he did "sneaking." He waged an open war on the Code, and three of his films - The Moon is Blue (1953), The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) made major dents in the Code and helped accelerate its demise. He refused to play ball, and thus left a legacy of films that are surprising for their time.

joem18b said...

Thanks! When I heard the word "panties" used in a 50s film, I looked it up, but I guess I've forgot the details. Good movie knowledge on your part! It's always a pleasure to read your work.

The Red 9 said...

I noticed you talk about the code a lot on your blog and it certainly is an interesting topic.

However, I don't know if you've brought up or are interested in the way the MPAA now censors films in what could be argued is a more insidious manor then the strict rules the code brought into play.

Namely, with many theaters refusing to show NC-17 films, producers will go out of their way to have the film cut down to an R rating.

Then there's the way PG-13 movies can depict extreme violence, while sexual activity (particularly nudity) is usually only seen in R rated flicks.

So, namely, what I'm getting at is to say that I would be interested in hearing your views on the MPAA, as well as the code.

Julie said...

I have my share of problems with the MPAA - to see the true extent of its lunacy, I'd highly recommend the documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" by Kirby Dick. And I agree that its hypocritical stance towards sexuality is atrocious - in "Boys Don't Cry," for example, they had no objection to seeing someone's brains get violently blown out but insisted on cutting down a shot of a woman's face during orgasm. I'm also disappointed that the NC-17 rating has just devolved into X, instead of what it's actually supposed to be.

But I'd be overly cynical if I didn't concede that the MPAA had some improvements over its predecessor. Aside from the obvious lifted taboos, film censorship is no longer concerned with moral outcome. The Code was all about that - if someone committed a crime, they had to die or be imprisoned. If someone was in love, they had to be engaged or married by the film's end. But the MPAA is rightly focused only on content, not causality.

Also, theaters refusing to show films of a certain rating is nothing new - in the Code days, if your film wasn't board-approved (and usually Catholic Legion of Decency approved, too), it wasn't going to show anywhere. Although it's pretty lame that that aspect hasn't changed with the new regime!