Written for my college composition class, in this essay I argue against reinstating a film production code such as the Hay's Code. Please note that there are some expletives within this essay for the purpose of explaining a couple of the films. This essay is also backed up with research. The MLA Works Cited page can be accessed HERE.
The motion picture industry. Few other establishments changed our lives in the last century as much at this single icon of the western world. The cinema has become a powerful tool to communicate ideas and tell powerful stories. From the early silent films of the teens to the IMAX spectaculars of today, the film industry has made it clear that it is here to stay; however, the power of movies has not come without challenges. The silver screen’s rise to prominence has not come without attempts at censorship. One of the largest challenges to the industry’s freedom has come in the form of motion picture codes (the most powerful of those codes being the Hays Code.) Censorship in the form of codes is damaging and detrimental to the film industry. Creating a modern incarnation of a motion picture code is a dangerous and destructive proposal.
Early Film Codes
From their earliest mass releases, films have come under close scrutiny by the general public. As film is a versatile visual channel, almost anything can be reproduced and shown to wide audiences. According to R. Bruce Brasell, former professor at New York University and Manhattanille College, the holder of a PhD in cinema studies from New York University and author of “’A Dangerous Experiment to Try’: Film Censorship During the 20th Century in Mobile, Alabama,” Early Hollywood faced countless attempts from local censorship boards to control their art. The first example of a censorship board was in 1906 Chicago. While municipal censorship boards had good intentions, they presented several challenges. By what standard should films be judged and who should be responsible for judging them?
Frequently, conservative women’s groups would seize the power within censorship boards. As part of a minority, these women forced their narrow-minded ideas concerning decency on the whole of the town. While their convictions were genuine, they did not reflect society as a whole. A production code must, necessarily, have some standard of decency upon which to base its rules. The issue is that this standard too often reflects a conservative minority rather than the more liberal majority. This same issue would return today, should a modern version of a film code be established. Every code requires a standard upon which to base that code. Sadly, this standard rarely reflects the entirety of society.
The next problem with film codes became the enforcement thereof. According to Brasell, cities would frequently ban theaters from showing films they deemed detrimental to society. This banning damaged the free flow of commerce vital to the free market system. In this nation, consumers vote with their dollar. Goods and services that consumers consider beneficial and ethically produced, they partake in. Their payment for these goods and services allows the companies behind them to continue operation and make a profit. Goods and services that consumers consider damaging or unethically created, they decline to take part in. These companies do not receive money and either cease business or change their product to appeal to a wider consumer base.
The film industry works on a similar principle. Movies that consumers enjoy, like superhero films, they support by viewing them in the theater and on home video and purchasing related merchandise. The motion picture producers make a profit and, therefore, produce more superhero films in the hope of continuing to make a profit. Films that consumers do not enjoy, like the arbitrary example of experimental films on the production of spinach, they do not support by viewing them in the theater and home video and purchasing related merchandise. Therefore, as they did not make a profit, the film industry decides against producing more Caryophyllales-related films. Consequently, superhero films will continue to be produced and spinach films will not. A production code interrupts this system by dictating that certain films must not be produced. It removes from the public the power to decide which films should and should not be produced and places it in the hands of a select few, contrary to democratic principles.
The Rise of the MPPDA
As told in the article “Speaking in Code” by Tim Stanley, the author of the book Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics, by 1930, Hollywood had grown tired of editing their films to match differing film standards across hundreds of cities. Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (the MPPDA, later the Motion Picture Association of America, MPAA) hired Will H. Hays to combat this censorship, a move that would result in the creation of Hollywood’s first production code. In 1930, Hays instituted A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures. Written by Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord, this document outlined what could and could not be shown in motion pictures. Like the local censorship boards of the previous two and a half decades, this code reflected a bias toward conservative standards of morality.
Though perhaps indicative of the mindset of the day, the Hays Code (as it became known) removed some ideas from the medium of the cinema. As demonstrated through the Hays Code, Hays and Lord believed that the presentation of sin in a favorable light would degrade society.
No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin…A wide knowledge of life and of living is made possible through the film. When right standards are consistently presented, the motion picture exercises the most powerful influences. It builds character, develops right ideals, inculcates correct principles, and all this in attractive story form.
The problem with this viewpoint is that, through espousing the view that only films that show evil in a negative light serve to build the morality of the people, Hays ignores that fact that absurdly evil films can have an equally positive effect.
The Importance of "Bad" Films
Films that portray evil in a positive light, such as Oceans Eleven or A Clockwork Orange, have served to start important conversations as to what causes individuals to view crime as attractive. These films serve an important purpose, to show us a different point of view. When viewed from an analytical viewpoint they can be used as tools to understand crime. Perhaps, rather than banning certain from being produced in the form of a production code, critical thinking when watching such films should be emphasized and encouraged when viewing them. After all, one can only learn so much by viewing an issue from a single perspective.
Yet another shortfall of production codes is that they are subject to abuse and mismanagement. In his article “The Production Code and the Profanity Amendment of 1954,” Jerold Simmons, author on numerous books and articles on film censorship, describes the shifts within the Hays code that occurred in and around 1954. These changes were triggered by the first allowed expletive in a motion picture. In 1938, the word “damn” was allowed to remain in the epic motion picture Gone with the Wind. This film set a president for bucking the Hays Code with expletives in other films. However, when producer Hal Wallis included three “hells” and one “damn” in his war film Cease Fire for the sake of realism, he was denied approval.
Misuses of the Code
This indicated the misuse of Code authority common during this time. While some films were allowed special permission to include elements banned by the Code, other movies were not. A production code such as the Hays Code is rigid and includes little leeway for change. This becomes difficult when society’s morality moves beyond the conservative mindset of the code. In an attempt to allow elements in step with the culture and for the sake of realism to remain in films, unfair preference was given to certain films. The main reason Gone with the Wind was allowed to keep its “damn” and Cease Fire wasn’t was due to the fact that Gone with the Wind was based on a book which included the expletive in the text. This distinction was somewhat arbitrary and a prime example of the injustices inherent to a production code. Unfortunately, abuse is often the result of a production code, as it was with the Hays Code. Those in the position of leadership over a motion picture code often make exceptions, simultaneously abusing and undermining the intent of the code.
According to Simmons, the code was finally amended to allow for expletives in 1954. This signaled to motion picture producers that the Hays Code was losing its footing. By 1966, the Hays Code had entirely lost its power. As stated previously, a production code can only adequately operate in the society it was written for. For the most part, Americans in 1930 would have agreed with the idea of sin and absolute right and wrong but over the next 30 years, the times had changed. The beliefs and values of societies change and, therefore, so do their films.
The Hays Code allowed for no flexibility and was inadequate for the new American moral compass. The Hays Code died because it could not keep up with society. As author Tim Stanley said in his article “Speaking in Code,” “The end of the Code era shows that Hollywood was only partly motivated by moral concerns. Its primary ambition was to make money and it only self-censored so long as smut and violence threatened its ability to do so. When the market turned liberal, Hollywood followed. In the field of morality, Hollywood rarely drives social change in the way that conservatives accuse it of: it slavishly follows popular taste.” No code can remain effective forever. A production code is tailored for the society in which it was written. Without flexibility, any code will be outpaced by society and lose its effectiveness.
What, then, is the alternative to a production code? According to Simmons, the fall of the Hays Code began the rise of the modern rating system. According to The Classification and Ratings Rules released by the MPAA, the MPAA established The Classification and Rating Administration (CARA). Rather than censoring certain content from films, the Rating Administration assigns a letter rating to the film based on a variety of factors. The Classification and Ratings Rules clearly states, “The Rating Board does not determine the content to be included in motion pictures by filmmakers, nor does it evaluate the quality or social value of motion pictures. By issuing a rating, it seeks to inform parents of the level of certain content in a motion picture…that parents may deem inappropriate for viewing by their children.”
Unlike the Hays code, this rating system is flexible and changes based on the values held by the majority of parents. This flexibility, coupled with the rating system’s lack of involvement with the content included in motion pictures, serves to make it an effective alternative to a production code.
Once again, the types of films produced are in the hands of the people. Rather than an organization reflecting the morality of a select few, the people have the opportunity to enjoy any film espousing any idea and to vote for the production of similar films with their dollar. The film industry, like any other, operates on supply and demand. If the people continue to demand violent, expletive-filled, sexual films whilst simultaneously complaining about the content in films, they have no one to blame but themselves. Changes in the motion picture industry should not be dictated by an arbitrary code, prone to a narrow-minded moral view, interruption of the free market system, ignoring the benefits of controversial content, rampant abuse, an inflexible structure, and, finally, cultural insignificance, but by the preferences of the movie going audience. If one truly wishes to change Hollywood, they should first seek to change themselves and then society. After all, Hollywood often follows society’s lead.