Exploring the Artifacts #3: Code Breakers
Exploring The Artifacts is a series in which I examine some unique and significant components, or by-products, of cinema storytelling that are often under-appreciated.
By 1922 the Hollywood dream machine was suffering from what was perceived by many to be a tarnished image of moral depravity due to some scandalous events, such as the Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle manslaughter trial, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, and various motion pictures thought to be too risqué.
Public pressure on Government to clean up Hollywood's act, which might have resulted in the establishment of outside censorship, caused the studios to solicit the assistance of former Postmaster General Will Hays to restore a more wholesome image to its product. Hays introduced a series of recommendations in 1924, which would later help form a production code. However, as he was employed by the same studios who had a strong financial interest in producing the more lucrative controversial subject matter, his advisory involvement meant that aside from its placating publicity, practically nothing changed. Various State Governments established their own censorship boards, but those also proved to be ineffective at stemming the tide of the more sensational cinematic material.
In 1934 everything changed.
An amendment was introduced requiring all films released on or after July 1 to obtain a certificate of approval before being released. This new variant was established and strictly enforced by the Production Code Administration, newly headed by Joseph Breen replacing the outgoing Will Hays. It was still an industry self-regulating body, but due to the substantial influence of the newly established National Legion of Decency (an organization founded by the Catholic Church dedicated to removing objectionable content), this time, they needed to actually adhere to the code in order to keep the Government censors at bay. This added "crack down" resulted in the dismantling of many State censorship boards.
The P.C.A. reigned for more than thirty years, with virtually all motion pictures produced in the United States having to follow its strict guidelines. The code was rigorously enforced, much to the dismay of many writers and directors working under its authority who felt creatively emasculated by its stifling regulations. Although a film was not required to be submitted, those not passed by the P.C.A. could effectively forget about any successful U.S. distribution.
Many cinema enthusiasts today revel in the numerous pre-code films that have been (and continue to be) released on DVD, enjoying what would become taboo subjects or images such as drug use, prostitution, adultery, homosexuality, couples sharing the same bed, criminals going unpunished, nudity and violence. The Gold Digger series provide a relevant example, when comparing the racy and bold Gold Diggers of 1933 to the blander and far less suggestively sexual Gold Diggers of 1935 and Gold Diggers of 1937.
Alfred Hitchcock in Notorius (1946), cleverly circumvented the Code's rule of a three-second kissing limit by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman take a break every few seconds.
Utilizing the same two actors in Indiscreet (1958) director Stanley Donen did his own famous dance around the Production Code, basically putting them in the same bed together by utilizing a split screen process and carefully synchronizing their pillow-talk movements.
Another of the Production Code's tenets was that an extreme illegal act should never be portrayed graphically, glorified or certainly go unpunished.
It's in relation to this rule that I've noticed some fascinating "code breaking" examples of a bolder, more inexplicable nature. Toward the end of Fritz Lang's brilliant film noir Scarlet Street (1945), the protagonist played by Edward G. Robinson is shown repeatedly stabbing to death a woman he's professed his love for. The filmmakers have practically justified his actions: Right before he violently responds, he believes the woman (played by Joan Bennett) with her head turned away, is crying in response to his forgiveness for her past regressions and his newly pronounced proposal of marriage. He's shocked when she turns to him laughing to exclaim: "I'm not crying you fool, I'm laughing! Oh, you idiot! How can a man be so dumb?... I've wanted to laugh in your face ever since I first met you! You're old and ugly and I'm sick of you... sick, sick, sick!" Lang and Company don't stop there. Not only does the admittedly haunted Robinson walk away at the end completely unpunished by the authorities, an innocent man has been executed in his place, one who Robinson set up to take the fall.
It seems typical that in most films from this period, whereby the killer or killers escape the "long arm of the law," the perpetrators are left to be punished by a final act of God such as a car crash i.e. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and The File on Thelma Jordan (1950). Dramatically speaking this is a disingenuous way to end a story. Punishment being the norm, however, does make the exceptions all the more unexpectedly refreshing to behold.
Like Scarlet Street, Human Desire (1954), also directed by Fritz Lang, was a re-make of an earlier Jean Renoir french motion picture. In addition, Human Desire ended with the murderer (this time played by Broderick Crawford) getting away free and clear. As a matter of fact, there's not the slightest implication that he'll ever be caught for two separate murders we know he's committed.
Then there's the 1953 film Jeopardy with Ralph Meeker as an escaped killer who runs in to Barbara Stanwyck desperately trying to get help for her trapped husband (actor Barry Sullivan). The fact that Meeker is finally persuaded to help her husband in exchange for his identification cards, plus Stanwyck's prediction that he will get caught someday, hardly explains how he's able to elude capture and make a clean getaway at the film's conclusion under the watchful eye of the Production Code. With this film, however, there is a clue as to why it passed through: In 1952 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overruled its 1915 decision and held that motion pictures were entitled to First Amendment (free speech) protection. Perhaps with other more challenging cases to attend to, such as The Miracle (part of Roberto Rossellini's 1948 film L'Amore) which caused the miracle landmark ruling, Jeopardy managed to stay out of... well... jeopardy.
In my previous post on Top Ten Guilty Treasures I mentioned Strange Cargo (1940) in which actor Paul Lukas portrays a convict (a serial wife-killer with professed plans to continue his evil ways) who after being one of the few to survive a long and difficult escape, simply walks away with no indication in the story that he'll be re-captured let alone properly punished.
In the released version of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) there's the integral character Gavin Elster played by Tom Helmore who, by the story's conclusion, most viewers probably forgot about. In an ingeniously devised plan, Elster has murdered his wife and convinced the authorities her death was a suicide. At the end, as far as we know, he has traveled to Europe unsuspected, let alone unapprehended, for his dastardly crime.
The above-mentioned films did not all go unnoticed. Scarlet Street was banned by both the New York State Censor Board and the Motion Picture Commission for the city of Milwaukee in their respective jurisdictions. The city censor of Atlanta as well denounced “the sordid life it portrayed, the treatment of illicit love, the failure of the characters to receive orthodox punishment from the police,” calling it “licentious, profane, obscure and contrary to the good order of the community"... a most hearty recommendation!
Strange Cargo received a "condemned" rating from the Legion of Decency for presenting "a naturalistic concept of religion contrary to the teachings of Christ, irreverent use of Scripture, and lustful complications." The film was banned in Detroit, Boston, and Providence, and picketed by Catholics elsewhere. Eventually, MGM agreed to make some minor changes, and the Legion of Decency reclassified the film as "unobjectionable for adults."
Censors objected to the conclusion of Vertigo and its failure to address Elster's murderous culpability. They persuaded Hitchcock to film a coda in which we hear over a radio, news of Elster's imminent capture. Fortunately, for us, this added scene wasn't used and ends with one of cinema's most chillingly powerful images in the history of the art form.
In the late 1950's another court ruling, this one involving anti-trust issues prohibited the studios from owning the theatres in which their motion pictures played. This meant that the studios could no longer keep out of domestic circulation the tantalizing, sometimes titillating foreign films that were being released at the time. A newly created and competitive market of attractive foreign fare, combined with the advent of television, gave studios far less reason to worry about restricting content and much more of an incentive to allow filmmakers the creative ability to get people out of the house and to put bums on their films' theatre seats. Directors like Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder obliged with provocative motion pictures which skirted the censors, many becoming box office hits, like the former's Anatomy of a Murder and the latter's Some Like It Hot (both 1959).
In the 1960s, critically acclaimed movies like Psycho (1960) with its shocking portrayal of violent assault, The Pawnbroker (1964) containing female nudity, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) with its 'salty' dialogue, would pave the way for the P.C.A.'s disbandment in 1968.
The Motion Picture Association of America created a new rating system, which instead of deciding what adults could see, provided only guidelines allowing us the 'privilege' to decide for ourselves.