The Production Code

An off-hand crack I made in my last post reminded me of one of my favorite lines from a Warner Brothers cartoon. The cartoon is A Tale of Two Kitties. It marks the first appearance of Tweety. In the cartoon, two cats — who look suspiciously like Abbott and Costello — are trying to capture Tweety. Here’s my favorite scene:

(You can watch the entire cartoon at YouTube.)

The Hays Office that Catstello refers to is the censorship board that enforced the motion picture Production Code. I thought it would be fun today to take a look at the Code, as a reminder of what happens under censorship.

(Don’t forget that very few movie theaters will play NC-17 movies today, and even if they do, many newspapers and TV stations will not carry ads for them. As a result, virtually no NC-17 films are made. If a picture is initially hit with an NC-17, the producers will re-edit the film to bring it down to an R. This means we still have de facto censorship today; it’s just less restrictive.)

I’ve pulled the facts below from the Wikipedia article. The comments, of course, are mine.

Provisions of the Code

Here are a few specific prohibitions:

“Nudity and suggestive dances were prohibited.” Once you start prohibiting things, the mandate gets taken to extremes. For example, the Wikipedia article on this cartoon has this ridiculous anecdote:

In the film Bugs Bunny Superstar, [director Bob] Clampett said that [Tweety’s] look was based to some extent on his own naked baby picture. He said the censors objected to the bird looking naked, so “we painted yellow feathers on him” in later cartoons, and he became the familiar canary.

That’s right, you couldn’t have a bird that appeared naked. Not that he was, he just looked that way! Of course, dozens of other cartoons had birds losing their feathers or one hungry character imagining that another character is actually a cooked (and plucked) turkey. Consistency is not a hallmark of censorship.

Character imagined as a cooked turkey.

“The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.” Well, there goes my whole shtick! But why should religion be given a free pass? All institutions should be subject to scrutiny. If the portrayal is negative or comic, so be it. If there is no substance to the portrayal, then it will fall flat. If there is truth to the criticism, that is one of the ways that institutions change. Only dictatorships and other oppressive regimes need to hide behind thought suppression.

“‘Revenge in modern times’ was not to be justified.” That means that in a contemporary storyline, a wronged character could not seek revenge. However, a period piece, such as a Biblical drama, could show all sorts of vengeful behavior. The Bible, after all, gave us that lovely justification for every heinous form of punishment ever devised, “an eye for an eye”. Teach those Christian values! Circumvent the Production Code! Make Bible movies!

“The sanctity of marriage and the home had to be upheld.” What is this fundie fascination with the myth of the “sanctity of marriage”? If it really were a sanctified institution, I might grant them this one, but marriage was disrespected back then as much as it is today. I suspect that there were even more marital problems back then. These days, divorce has lost its stigma, so it is easier to get out of a bad relationship. There are also fewer people getting into bad marriages in the first place, because being a single mother has also lost its stigma.

The Pre-Code Days

This may come as a surprise to you, but the United States is populated with a lot of uptight people who are offended by movies that contain the slightest deviation from what their twisted little minds consider “normal”.

A few movies in the teens and ’20s were just the tiniest bit racy by today’s standards. Back then, it must have been causing aneurysms in fundies from coast to coast. In 1915, the activist judges on the Supreme Court ruled that commercial speech was not protected by the First Amendment. Communities everywhere set up local censorship boards. Wikipedia picks up the story, in their article about the MPAA:

In 1922, the movie studio bosses hired Will H. Hays to be the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. A former U.S. Postmaster General and election campaign manager for U.S. President Warren G. Harding, Hays was responsible for the creation of the Production Code in 1930. Enforcement of the Code was lax until the major studios agreed — under threat of religious groups to push for stronger state and federal censorship — that all films released on or after 1 July 1934 would adhere to the Code or face a fine.

Nobody was proposing that these movies be shown in churches, yet these religious nuts somehow thought it was their business.

Life Under the Code

It sucked.

The Demise of the Code

In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its 1915 decision and granted First Amendment protection to motion pictures. The Code stayed in effect, because it was allegedly voluntary, being a set of guidelines self-imposed by the movie producers. At least, however, government’s ability to outright threaten censorship was now gone.

Due to various economic pressures (such as television and foreign films) and the weakening of the religious nutballs’ ability to organize effective boycotts, the Code began to crack.

The whole system finally collapsed, and it was replaced in 1968 by the ratings system we have today. It’s still allegedly voluntary. As I mentioned above, NC-17 films are rare, so we have an economically-imposed censorship instead of a government-imposed one.

The Current Ratings Mess

Libertarians would argue that the market is doing what the government shouldn’t. I suppose they’re right. If there aren’t enough patrons to make certain types of movies financially viable, then those don’t get made.

The current ratings system has two problems, however. The first is that the ratings board is somewhat arbitrary. Movies get slapped with an NC-17, so the producers will shorten one scene by two seconds, and now the film gets an R. Almost every director in Hollywood has complaints about this system.

The second problem is that censorship is being imposed upon the industry by property owners (and possibly cities, but I haven’t found specific instances to cite). Many, if not most, movie theaters have restrictions in their leases that prevent them from showing NC-17 films. Well I never voted for those property owners. They have no right to restrict which movies I watch.

There is such a thing as “community standards”. That should only apply to pornography. Porn is sort of a special case. Since so many people are uptight about this stuff (I’m being sensitive to their concerns here!), society should have the right to determine where in their communities pornography can be exhibited. It should not be banned outright. I actually think that excessive violence is worse, but our society has not pigeon-holed violence the way we have porn. All non-porn films should be allowed to play in any theater anywhere.

Maybe you would argue that a community has the right to say that NC-17 films contain too much stuff that goes against their community standards, and therefore they should have the right to restrict it. I say put the NC-17 films in the theater. If you have accurately characterized your “community standards”, then nobody will go to the film, and they won’t book those anymore. If a bunch of people go see that movie, then I guess your community has different standards.

What if the property owners say that no movie above a G rating can be shown in the theater? A G-only policy would be very restrictive. It is clearly censorship. Well, so is a “no NC-17” policy.

Unrestricted access to ideas is one of our fundamental founding principles. We should defend it in all of its forms.

One Response to “The Production Code”

  1. The Watcher Says:

    Great post, as usual! And thank you for attacking censorship head-on. One of the most annoying, frustrating things about it is that the things we’re censoring make no sense. Non-sexual nudity is bad, but not as bad as sexual nudity. Which are both worse than watching people be shot. Sexual nudity is about on par with someone being eviscerated, but serious stuff, like Hostel-level, is basically the violence equivalent of porn.

    No, I lied. Watching a girl have her eye cut out only gets you an R. Some rumbly-tumbly bangin’ under a tree will earn you an NC-17, so clearly, sex is worse than watching people being unflinchingly tortured. I don’t know about you, but given the choice between getting laid and getting tortured…