The Code: The Rise And Fall Of Hollywood's Golden Era

The Washington Post reviews Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen & the Production Code Administration by Thomas Doherty:

“JR in 3D,” the ad read in its entirety. This was in 1954, when I was starting to venture beyond the comics section of my hometown paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That minimalist text made no sense at first, but finally I caught on: “JR” stood for the voluptuous Jane Russell, and “3D” was three-dimensional moviemaking. Hollywood had released 3-D flicks in which tomahawks flew at us and jungle cats leapt at us. Now, it seemed, Jane Russell’s bust would be coming our way. Sure enough, her new movie, “The French Line,” had its world premiere in St. Louis the following week. The producer, Howard Hughes, had defied orders from Hollywood’s Production Code office to tone down Russell’s lascivious dancing and cover up her provocative flesh. Opening the film in out-of-the-way St. Louis rather than Los Angeles or New York was Hughes’s way of thumbing his nose at the establishment.

The Code flouted by Hughes dated from the Prohibition era, and the two movements shared a basic premise: A high-toned protectorate must enforce moral standards by dictating what the rest of us get to consume. But while the impetus for Prohibition had come from fundamentalist Protestants, for the Code we have Catholics to thank. True, Will Hays, who headed the Production Code Administration, was a Presbyterian. But the Code’s co-authors were a Catholic layman and a Jesuit priest, and its chief enforcer was Joseph I. Breen — not just a Catholic but, as Thomas Doherty puts it, one who “embodied the restraint, repression, and rigidity of a personality type known as the Victorian Irish.” The never-in-doubt Breen stands at the center of Doherty’s knowledgeable, entertaining history of the Code during its heyday from 1934 to the mid-1950s.

The Code actually dates from 1930, but the first four years of its existence were a washout — so much so that today film buffs treasure movies from that interregnum for their grit and candor. The studios had agreed to abide by the Code so as to defang state and city censorship boards, which applied harsh and inconsistent standards. But the procedure for ensuring Code compliance was squishy — studios could appeal adverse decisions to a board composed of movie producers, who naturally were loath to order costly re-shoots of offending scenes. Bawdy vehicles for Mae West, sexually frank films such as “Baby Face,” and crime-celebrating films such as “Scarface” were slipping past the naysayers. Scandalized Catholics fought back by founding the Legion of Decency, which asked the faithful to pledge not to attend objectionable films, and Hollywood moguls took hits at the box office. The Code, they agreed, must grow stronger teeth. From now on, appeals boards would consist of hard-nosed New York studio execs, not compliant Hollywood types. Unapproved films wouldn’t get a seal of approval and thus would have limited, if any, distribution. And perhaps most important, Breen and his staff would vet scripts and head off problems before they developed.

The revamped Code worked all too well: A climate of timidity descended upon Hollywood and stayed for two decades.


It’s some “climate of timidity”, when during it flowed such wonderful films as:

  • Gone With The Wind
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • Citizen Kane
  • Casablanca
  • Shadow of a Doubt
  • Notorious
  • Rope
  • The Third Man
  • The Stranger
  • Singing In The Rain
  • And all of the rest of the golden era of Hollywood. What happened when the Production Code was replaced in the mid-1960s with today’s ratings system? As Michael Medved once rhetorically asked Jack Valenti upon Valenti’s retirement as president of the Motion Picture Association of America, “What happened, Jack, to all those missing moviegoers?

    Hollywood originally panicked that television would destroy its business by offering for free the sort of entertainment that cost money at the local Bijou, but during the fateful 10 years of the primary TV invasion (1950-60) the audience actually declined 34%, compared with a 60% decline in those nightmarish four years of the late ’60s. In later decades, the arrival of the VCR, cable TV and DVD actually corresponded to modest increases in the motion-picture audience, so no theory centered on technological alternatives can solve the mystery of the missing moviegoers.

    So what happened 38 years ago to drive millions of Americans away from movie theaters? In 1966, Mr. Valenti’s Motion Picture Association of America quietly dropped its enforcement of the restrictive old Production Code that Hollywood studios had imposed on themselves since 1930. Then, on Nov. 1, 1968, Mr. Valenti introduced the “voluntary rating system” that continues in force to this day. As he proudly declared in his farewell address to the industry on March 23 of this year: “The rating system freed the screen, allowing movie-makers to tell their stories as they choose to tell them.” That new freedom allowed the profligate use of obscene language strictly banned under the Production Code, the inclusion of graphic sex scenes along with near total nudity and, more vivid, sadistic violence than previously permitted in Hollywood movies.

    The resulting changes in the industry showed up with startling clarity at the Academy Awards. In 1965, with the Production Code still in force, “The Sound of Music” won Best Picture of the Year; in 1969, under the new rating system, an X-rated offering about a homeless male hustler, ” Midnight Cowboy,” earned the Oscar as the year’s finest film. Most critics, then as now, welcomed the aesthetic shift and hailed the fresh latitude in cinematic expression, but the audience voted with its feet.

    Jack Valenti, a devoted family man and a true war hero (he flew 51 combat missions as a dashing World War II pilot), hardly qualifies as a cultural revolutionary. He played no role in producing the darker, edgier fare that alienated most of the movie audience, but he did launch the ratings system that made such alienation possible. He’s also continued to defend that system and to resist important changes to make it more functional (like renaming the deceptive “PG-13” designation as “R-13” and restricting pre-teen audiences from attending such films). Mr. Valenti and other industry leaders also hide Hollywood’s deepest problems with a relentless focus on “box-office gross”–the misleading numbers that always indicate record-breaking success, but reflect rising ticket prices (largely fueled by inflation) and mask decreased patronage.


    It will never happen of course, but ironically, nobody could use a return to the Production Code more than modern Hollywood. Today, the annual low box office returns of the vast majority of Best Picture-nominated movies signify that Hollywood is merely one entertainment niche market competing with many others for our dollars, a trend which we noted a year and a half ago.

    (Via Orrin Judd, who dubs Breen “The Alchemist.”)


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