September 27, 2009

Positive byproducts of the Production Code

As evidenced by my frequent ramblings about it and the fact that it was my chosen topic for a 17-page research paper, I am obsessed with the Production Code. (If you don't know what that is, it was a doctrine that governed what could and couldn't be shown on screen in the Golden Age of Hollywood - Like Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions, it was a 30ish-year experiment in how art conforms to, works around, or readjusts to restrictions. Seeing its heavy imprint on everything from gangster movies to romantic comedies is always fascinating and sometimes even consuming – at the end of Code-era crime movies, I always find myself wondering in the last ten minutes if the criminal will meet his or her mandatory fate by imprisonment, murder, execution or suicide. Sometimes the Code influence is so obvious and awkward that it becomes laughable. I recently saw Kubrick’s Lolita for the first time, which was made in the waning days of the Code but nonetheless features a clumsily-added one-sentence epilogue declaring, as if at gunpoint, that the immoral protagonist died while in prison. But lately a thought has started to tickle my brain…did the Code produce any positive byproducts or outcomes? I think it did.

First off, let me say where the Code absolutely did not work. Its most glaring intrusion was the aforementioned wrist-slapping of any character who had breached its moral standard. History indicates that this did not even produce the desired effect – audiences wound up cheering for Scarface or Little Caesar anyway. The limitations on violence were less problematic – however, if crime movies were allowed to be more grisly instead of the strangely bloodless affairs that they were, perhaps then the harsh dissuasion against this lifestyle wouldn’t be necessary. There are a handful of other silly quirks, like the obligation to fast forward nine months after a woman announces she’s pregnant to avoid having to show the ghastly horror of an expecting woman. This left filmmakers with two options – twist the restrictions to the film’s advantage, or make them stick out like a sore thumb to express that you’re not happy about it and that it’s not really a part of your film. Basically, in these arenas, I can think of very few examples where the film was benefitted (except in some cases where the writer/director incorporated the rules creatively).

So on what did the Code have positive effects?


The most obvious positive byproduct of the Code was the invention of the beloved cinematic treasure that is screwball comedy. It’s 1934, and although a Barbara Stanwyck film called Baby Face came out a year earlier and features a woman literally and unabashedly sleeping her way to the top, suddenly men and woman can barely touch each other. What to do? Make a romantic comedy where the characters despise each other until the very end, or, as the psychologist in Bringing Up Baby put it, “The love impulses in men…reveals itself as conflict.” Frank Capra did this in 1934 with It Happened One Night, and after the film won five Oscars the screwball style reigned the comedy scene for almost a decade. There’s really no reason that this style would have developed had it not been for the Code. It was a creative response to limitations that benefitted audiences and film history.

Now let’s move into the 40s and 50s. Suddenly there are some really sexy movies on the scene, like The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, Gone With the Wind, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest. Again, in these films, the characters cannot touch each other outside of a single kiss, so where is this heat coming from? Dialogue.

In all of these films, it’s nothing but words that create chemistry that sizzles off the screen. Their discourse serves as intercourse. Would Bogie and Bacall have been any hotter if they flat-out banged? I don’t think so. In comedies like The Seven Year Itch or The Girl Can’t Help It, the Code is made fun of in a way that juxtaposes sexuality and comedy. In the latter, for instance, there’s a scene where Jayne Mansfield is talking about how she wants to be a perfect housewife someday, while her enormous breasts fill the screen.

Nowadays you can show virtually anything sex-related onscreen. Well, almost – the current line actually exists in a rather unfortunate place where you can have oral sex but you can’t show a woman’s face in the throes of pleasure for too long (true story – that was a censorship battle in Boys Don’t Cry). That’s intrinsically good – artists should be allowed to express themselves however they please. But is this good for cinematic stories? If people can show anything, they will – few see the point of exercising restraint. Personally, I find myself reacting rather indifferently to steamy sex scenes, but getting chills from the sexiness of the studio-era films I listed above. Why? Think of it this way. Which is sexier: a woman doing a striptease in which she ultimately doesn’t remove much clothing, or a naked woman just sitting there? I think we can all agree it’s the former. That’s the difference between sex and violence in film: with violence, I believe, there’s no real benefit to holding back. Someone getting shot offscreen is not going to have more impact than someone getting shot in frame; in fact, it might have less. On the other hand, I find sex to be more effective when it’s about the tease. Hell, in Gilda, Rita Hayworth does a “striptease” in which she only removes one glove, but it’s still extremely hot and memorable. It’s all about leaving things to the imagination.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t endorse censorship. If it was 1934 and Will Hays himself asked me if I supported the Production Code, he’d get a hearty “hell, no!” But I’m not talking about belief systems here, I’m talking about history. It’s like how WWII was not an awesome fun bonanza, but somewhat accidentally lifted the United States out of the Depression. Side effects. And while it’s easily to vilify the Code, I’d argue that it had some pretty great side effects.

What do you think? Am I a censorship-loving Nazi, or am I on to something here?


Michael said...

I think the same could apply today with CGI. Directors can do anything they want onscreen and the poetry and magic of imagination almost disappear in aid of a digital imagery with no soul...

I think it's always good for creativity when you have (technical, narrative or budget) barriers...

Anonymous said...

I can see it already. As restrictions fade out more and more, movies pulling out all stops become commonplace.

And one day somebody will make a movie with 'self-imposed restrictions' for artistic reasons and achieve groundbreaking reviews with just the 'tease' element.

I think I'm ready for the Nostradamus title :D