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Have You Seen…? Episode 4

Today we have another episode of “Have You Seen…?” with David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf, talking about classic Hollywood films. Today’s topic is the Pre-Code era between the introduction of sound in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines.

[Clip from Trouble in Paradise]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Trouble in Paradise?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen Trouble in Paradise, the 1932 romantic comedy by Ernst Lubitsch.

DH: Yeah, one of the great groundbreaking romantic comedies to kind of set the genre going. What's interesting about it is that it was made in 1932, which was before the production code came into being which we're going to talk about today, right?

SVW: That's right. We're going to be talking about the production code that was initiated in 1934, 35.

DH: Yeah, it actually existed from the very early 30's but didn't begin to be enforced until literally July first, 1934.

SVW: And Trouble in Paradise is a very interesting film in terms of the relationships between men and women…definitely pretty code.

DH: Yeah, they were. But what's interesting is before the code existed, people didn't find this kind of stuff scandalous. I’ll tell you, Trouble in Paradise is this really charming romantic comedy. If we saw today would probably be rated PG. It wasn't PG it would be G. I mean, it's like tame by today's standards. The two main characters, a man and a woman, there jewel thieves, they're very glamorous people, but they're crooks. They were they rob jewels and money and they get jobs with this rich woman, who is also young and attractive. But their goal is they're going to rob her and in the end they do. But what's interesting is that you see that that he falls in love with her, and so the movie…he's actually having relations, like sexual relations, even, you assume with both women, romantic relationships at they steal from her at the end and the two of them, and you're not quite sure which one is going end up with, but he goes off with a jewel thief at the end, they’re happily riding in a taxi. They've robbed her of everything. She doesn't even really mind that much. And so, by today's standards of the that's kind of cute. We're used to that kind of thing. But when the production code went into effect, you couldn't have many of those things happen. Some of the sexual stuff, even though just implied and not shown, and you definitely couldn't have ever people getting away with crimes, you had to be some kind of punishment. So when the production code came into being and began to be enforced on July first, 1934, that movie was not seen again in the United States until 1968 or later when the rating system started.

SVW: And it wasn’t out on either VHS or DVD until, like 2000 or something, right?

DH: Right, it never got released to home video until the 2000s so seventy years after it was made.

SVW: And Ernst Lubitsch was a director that was known for pre-code movies. Another one Design for Living from 1933 with Fredric March and Gary Cooper, with Miriam Hopkins in that as well. Which is basically about a threesome.

DH: Right. It's also a love triangle. Spoiler alert, but it basically at the end they end up just together as three. That movie was also banned with the production code. And again, when it came out in 1933 was a hit. People weren’t scandalized by, it was interesting and a fun romantic comedy. But then it and Trouble in Paradise and many, many other films that were made in that early sound era from ‘29 to ‘34 were not shown again for 35 years.

SVW: And there was there were other elements that that went into the code being instituted as well. Like the fact that the greater country kind of look at Hollywood is being sin city, that there were scandals that were murders, there were rapes, there was drug use, there were actors that died of drug overdoses. And that was sort of connected as well.

DH: Yeah, in fact, we see it today, right? Hollywood is controversial. Many groups in society criticize the movies and other content for violence and sex. And they look at the lives of the actors. I got to say that pretty much started when movies started. I mean, literally one the very first like short thirty second films that was shown like 1895 that came out of the Edison studios was called The Kiss and it's just a man and a woman kissing - it was incredibly controversial and then all throughout the silent era, you have these epics and you’d have a little nudity or a little violence…people were always critical. But then it became kind of movement in society, organized groups, particularly some of the more conservative groups within the Catholic Church organized and they were demanding that the movie's change and they were beginning to get laws passed. There wasn't quite as much Supreme Court protection then for free speech and the movie industry looked at it and said if we don't do something ourselves, we're going to get literally banned in whole states. So they came up with this production code and a board of censorship…

SVW: …and legislators introduced 100 film censorship bills in 1921 alone, this was in 37 states.

DH: Yeah, and that’s in the silent era. You don’t even hear people say anything, they can't be swearing. Nobody's even saying anything.

SVW: So the in the production code was also called referred to as the Hays code.

DH: That was because a guy named Hayes was the sort of the overseer of the creation of the code and I was going go through what was in it because it's really interesting because what’s also important about it is this was in effect from 1934 to 1968. If you know the history of movies in Hollywood, this is the golden era of Hollywood. This is some of the greatest movies were ever made. But they were all restricted by the production code, so how they end up making such great movies anyway? I mean, here's the things that were not allowed nudity, swearing, any ridicule of religion or ministers, illegal drug use, not even alcohol use unless it was required by the plot for proper characterization, which is one, of course you can see they got around that all the time by having funny drunks or whatever, but it wasn't supposed to be their methods of crime, getting away with crime and then killings, revenge, adultery, scenes of passion, cruelty to children, Animals, Prostitution. None of this supposedly could be shown.

And there's even things in there that by today's standards we go what?

So you could not show homosexual character, if they did, it was referred to indirectly. And if in any way it was more obvious. It had to be shown as being a bad thing. There was here in one. I'm going to read it directly. Portrayals of miseducation were forbidden. That's a big fancy word. It means interracial romance. You literally could not have a happily married couple if they were of different races. Go back and watch any film 30's, 40's, 50's, it’s just not there until the production code starts to fade away. So there was some really bad stuff in the production code, but somehow they worked within it, right. Like a poet who decides to write a sonnet. Another restricted by the form. You know, they managed to work within it and still make really interesting films and sometimes quietly violate the code.

SVW: And work around it too, as well in terms of referring to it. But also like a wink and a nod.

DH: Yeah.

SVW: And you have some examples with Casablanca.

DH: Yeah. I was thinking about Casablanca. It is one of the most famous movies, you know, and it was made in 1942. So that's right in the middle of the production code. The middle of classic Hollywood. And there's a couple scenes I thought of. One is the scene where Ilsa, Ingrid Bergman, confronts Rick, Humphrey Bogart, and she pulls a gun on him. And but then she sort of finally admits that she loves him.

[Clip from Casablanca]

DH: Well, there's a problem with that because she they had an affair when they were in Paris, but she thought her husband was dead. So you can't really call it adultery because it's assumed he's dead. But in the later scene, she's there with her husband in Morocco. And yet she now admits to being in love with him and then they very carefully, suddenly don't show a couple things but they go from one moment embracing each other, there's a cut away to like something outside and then cuts back to them in their different places like smoking, a cigarette like what happened in between? I think we all know, but they can't show that because that would be adultery. She can't actually have a relationship with him now that are they know her husbands alive and then later on in the very end scene. The famous scene at the airport. You know where he has her go off with her heroic husband. He kills the German major. He shoots someone the guy tries to call on the phone and get the plane stopped from taking off. Well, what they do when they stage that scene, is they have the major pull the gun first so Rick can shoot him in self-defense. It was more realistic. If it was a movie now, he probably just shoot him, you know. But then in some weird way, even though they're fighting the Nazis. You go: “Did he just shoot him in cold blood? You're not allowed to do that.” So they would always come up with some trick. You see characters, and you still see that now sometimes, when characters fight and one falls and hits his head on a rock and that's how he dies. You can't blame the other character, right. So they did all kinds of tricks like to make the movies work.

SVW: But then in the 50's and in the early 60's, the code became a little bit more, you know, Ghazi or you can see through it.

DH: Yeah. I mean, people were getting more sophisticated and things were changing in society. And you know, it was like this just isn't realistic anymore. And then Hollywood producers and foreign movies were coming over here that we're a lot more sexual and then independent films. The ones that weren't made in Hollywood didn't have to abide by the code. And if the movie theater showed them. They showed them. And so all of a sudden, it's like What are we going to do? And then some Hollywood studios started to make movies where they didn't care and they didn't get the code approval on their films, a famous one is Cycle by Alfred Hitchcock. That was far too violent and graphic for its time and didn't get the code approval, but the studio released it anyway because they see they will make money. They knew that the code was on its way out.

SVW: That was in 1960. And then also Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot, in 1959 with 2 male characters, portraying women in an all-female band. You know, with Marilyn Monroe as the female lead.

DH: Yeah, it's a great hilarious comedy. But yeah, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon spend half that movie dressed up as women and that’s allowed.

SVW: And it's a gag, right. But it's also they get into it.

DH: Yeah, maybe that's why it would’ve been banned, right. Because it starts to bring up all these questions of gender. And what's, you know, what's what?

SVW: Yeah, but as we've talked about how Hollywood initiated the code as self-censorship to ward off, you know, laws being passed to restrict their creativity. And then when the code was no longer something that was working, they create the rating system. Another form of self-censorship or guidance.

DH: Yeah. But the rating system is a working system that, all of a sudden, literally from the second the rating system goes into effect, you can put anything on screen because now you're filtering out who can see it at the box office. Interestingly, a lot of people don't realize this, but there's no law. The rating system is not a law. I think I have this right. I think if a movie theater wanted to let a 9 year-old into an R rated film without a parent, they probably could. It's not illegal, but they basically have a contract with the distributors to follow the thing they all do. But once you have the rating system well now, you know, you can show other things because you make it R. But only let adults in.

SVW: And contemporarily now, there's the conversation going on about a gun proliferation in the in the country. These mass shootings that are happening, school shootings and in Hollywood, they're having a discussion on whether it's appropriate now to have the level of guns, the gun portrayal that we've had in the cinema. In fact, a petition circulating with a variety of different filmmakers and creator signing on to it in the early stages of this to essentially protesting gun violence in Hollywood.

DH: Yeah. In a way, it's just the thing that's been here as long as this country’s been here. Free speech issues. You know what should be allowed? How do you not allow it? Is that even possible?

Yeah. So in some ways is what I find interesting about it is this is nothing new. This has been going on at least in media as long as in movies.


David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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