Sometimes when you put restrictions on something or someone it forces them to greater heights than they previously could have thought possible. This was the case in Hollywood during a certain period. Adultery, homosexuality, drugs, and organized crime were some of the main targets of this censorship. Even famous and well-respected directors like Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder had to adhere to the Hays Code. Instead of being frustrated by the restrictions the cream rose to the top with the best screenwriters and directors developing clever ways around the rules.
After the Great Depression began attendance at movie theatres began to fall drastically. In order to attract more people and save the industry Hollywood began churning out more risqué films. Risqué in regards to sex and violence. Members of the public spoke out against this and argued that the reins should be pulled in tighter on Hollywood and what they were able to put up on the big screens around the United States. Censorship was called for. The Roman Catholic Church hopped on board arguing that the film industry was corrupting people and formed the Catholic Legion of Decency. Priests began to speak out during homilies about the evils of Hollywood films and that their parishioners should not go see these proclaimed sinful films.
Not willing to allow outsiders to meddle in their industry, Hollywood decided to nip these protests in the bud by self-censoring. To do so they hired the former Postmaster General of the United States, Will Hayes, who was also a Republican and Presbyterian. He had a clean reputation as a man who did not drink or smoke. It became his job to clean up Hollywood and the film industry. He then hired two Catholics to write up a production code which would put severe checks on films and film makers.
By the summer of 1934 this code became the law of the land in the Hollywood film industry. It became part of the film industry for around two decades until it was lifted after World War II. While it was in effect it became a challenge for screenwriters and directors of how to tell their stories. The result was that those behind the scenes in filmmaking had to become more creative. So instead of this just being censorship or repression it actually forced writers and directors to be more clever and the era can be seen as a high point in Hollywood film history.
Film directors like Hitchcock came up with ways to get around the code. His film Notorious featured a lengthy kiss between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergmann despite the fact that the code limited kisses to 30 seconds. Even actresses like Cyd Charisse comment on how the game changed for those working in the musical comedy genre. How she was able to keep her dance numbers sexy while still getting past the censors.
Finally in 1968 the code is eliminated for something that just suggested morality codes to filmmakers. Sex and violence went from being forbidden to just frowned upon. The gates were opened up once again in the form of a ratings system rather than outright censorship. And this loosening of the reins did not affect attendance to films in the least.
Innuendos became a writer and director’s best friend. It was the way they could stay true to their stories while still getting films into theatres. Expression despite the strict restrictions triumphed.
Directors (and sisters) Clara and Julia Kuperberg select many clips from the era to show the creativity used to skirt around the rules. They also show how movies have always been a reflection of their times. The Hays Code was put into effect to attempt to become a moral guideline of how people should live their lives. Temptation was going to be there, but giving in to temptation was never going to lead to anything good.
Interesting insight into a fascinating era in Hollywood film history.