The Production Code: Removing the Real on the Reel

In 1934, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America created the Motion Picture Production Code in response to a series of controversies within the film industry in 1930. The resulting code strictly enforced the type of content that could be displayed in films. The long list of guidelines (found here) restricted everything from crimes to religion to alcohol from being displayed on camera, with few exceptions. This sudden and universal “law” in filmmaking proceeded to change the landscape of movies for the next quarter-century, hiding a portion of reality but drastically influencing the subjects depicted in films for better and worse.

We can see the effect of the production code in many of the popular films from the 1930s to the 1950s. The film In a Lonely Place, released in 1950, was about a screenwriter and veteran who is suspected of a murder, but is kept grounded by his love for a woman he meets during the investigation process. This film was also adapted from a novel, but the differences between the film and the movie are clear. While in the book, the protagonist Dixon Steele ends up murdering his fiancée, the movie depicts a softer finish. In the film, just as Steele is about to choke his fiancée to death, he is interrupted by a telephone call. The call is to inform him that he has been cleared of any charges of murder. Though he has been acquitted, this is far from the future either of them could have imagined. At the movie’s conclusion, Dixon Steele walks off from a severed marriage, being the cause of his own undoing. This adapted ending is grave, but it does not elicit the emotional reaction that the original ending would have. This choice reflects adherence to the Production Code, which states that “Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.” Some people who read the novel were disappointed at the “watered-down” nature of the film. In a Lonely Place was only one of the examples of graphic or immoral behavior being blocked by the Production Code. Another movie that was censored due to its depiction of crime was T-Men (1947), where a scene in which a government agent was killed by criminals was deemed unfit for release. This is an example of the censorship of illegal behavior, especially at the expense of officials in government and established society.  In addition, the novel that was adapted into Serenade (1956) was initially cited for several violations, including the justification of murder and the inclusion of illicit sexual relationships. This entire story was essentially rewritten for the film, with many of the taboo topics directly eliminated. The exclusion of explicit content drastically contrasts from the subjects of Pre-Code Era films. Prior to the Code, gangster films like Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface showed mob violence in detail, directly reflecting the crime of Prohibition-era America in a shocking, romanticized way. Horror films like Frankenstein and The Black Cat depicted horrific scenes that reflected the adversity many Americans faced during The Great Depression. Films like Gabriel over the White House (1933) also directly took on the Hoover Administration, detailing the inadequacies of government through satirical parodies of real-life America. The implementation of the production code seems like a direct response to the liberality and vulgarity of Pre-Code films. Film executives, feeling like they had to uphold the moral values of American citizens, essentially eliminated many of these film genres for much of the 20th century.

The film Serenade ( 1956)  adapted the novel. Several taboo topics were removed from the plotline as requested by Production Code executives.

Instances of censorship like those in In a Lonely Place and T-Men are hard to imagine being a reality today. However, when viewed in a historical context, I can begin to understand their reasoning to a degree. 1950 was a year at the convergence of World War II and the Cold War, two brutal conflicts that led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of men. With all the tragedy happening in the geopolitical scene, it may have been hard to justify these harsh realities being put on the big screen. In the early to mid-twentieth century, film was still a relatively new entity. Therefore, like any new idea, there was fear over the consequences of this new form of technology. In truth, many of the ideas of the Production Code surrounding censorship of media still pervades modern society. Today, countries in Asia and Europe are known to severely vet western movies and video games before releasing them to their citizens, out of fear that films will influence their people into acting poorly. In the United States, the ongoing mass shooting epidemic has caused politicians to call for the ban of violent video games, despite a lack of evidence to support this correlation. Will these efforts to censor media continue to extend into other aspects of our society?

Citations:

“Pre-Code: Hollywood before the Censors: Deep Focus: Sight & Sound.” British Film Institute, www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/deep-focus/pre-code-hollywood.

“The Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry (1930-1967).” DH Writings, productioncode.dhwritings.com/multipleframes_productioncode.php.

“SERENADE, 1956.” Motion Picture Association of America. Production Code Administration Records, digitalcollections.oscars.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15759coll30/id/13228/rec/15.

“T-MEN, 1947.” Motion Picture Association of America. Production Code Administration Records, digitalcollections.oscars.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15759coll30/id/15863/rec/23.

 

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