by Paul Batters
Any industry has a code by which it operates. At its’ birth and during its’ infancy, any new industry or undertaking operates like a frontier town in the old West – laissez-faire and making and/or breaking rules as they go. At some point, however, any industry, for better or for worse, will regulate itself for a whole range of reasons. It could be to improve productivity, to regulate problems that have emerged, to establish some sense of order or because of pressure from government and society standards.
Hollywood, both literally and metaphorically, was like a frontier town in the old West. Ambitious men and women decided to determine their own paths in the world of entertainment, when they headed West from the U.S East Coast in the very early 20th century. The new film industry which emerged heralded a new type of entertainment which audiences clamoured to see in darkened theatres, not only in the U.S but across the world. But with success came a demand for change in how Hollywood operated. The reasons for that change include some of the reasons already mentioned.
Scandals and outrage in Hollywood emerged in the 1920s to shock people around the world and the studios’ concerns were not that their stars had engaged in pre-marital or same sex encounters, were gay or lesbian, used drugs, drank alcohol (think Prohibition) or had affairs. However, they were concerned that audiences would be outraged if they found out that their favourite stars were and turned away from the movie houses. More importantly, powerful conservative voices, including the Catholic Church, politicians and others were concerned that the subject matter in films would corrupt America’s youth, erode morals and values and cause civilisation to collapse. As Gregory Black points out, those conservative voices had managed to recruit millions in their cause and the threat of losing audiences, particularly in the midst of the Great Depression was all too much. Better that the industry regulate itself and keep control, then hand it over to someone else and lose autonomy.
As a result, a ‘film code’ was introduced which would tell the studios what they could and could not depict or infer on screen. From the sublime to the ridiculous, this Code was to assure that civilisation would not go off the deep end. However, it would not truly be enforced until 1934 when Joseph Breen came to the helm of regulating the film industry. Censorship perhaps but also the reality that Hollywood had to deal with.
Censorship can be an abhorrence and stifles, crushes and blunts creativity and freedom of thought. Yet the Breen Code did encourage a new creativity not because that was the key aim of the new Code but because film makers took the initiative. The fact is; they had to. What emerged was, as Thomas Doherty in Pre-Code Hollywood states, the ‘much vaunted golden age (which) began with the Code and ended with its’ demise’.
This article does not intend to outline what the Code was and how it operated. For the record, I am not an apologist for the Breen Code nor an expert on it. Nor am I a particular fan who believes the Breen Code was one of the best things that happened to cinema. However, it did create a platform for the studios – and writers, producers and directors in particular – to find new and other ways to tell their stories. To borrow a phrase from Martin Scorsese, some had to become ‘smugglers’, finding creative and interesting ways to make movies. In some ways, new genres, sub-genres and stylistic techniques were born from the enforcement of the Breen Code.
The screwball comedy was certainly born from the fallout of the Code’s enforcement. Sexual tensions, premarital sex and adult relationships were now under the microscope of the industry watchdog and had to be either avoided or be very carefully approached. However, the screwball comedy found a beautiful way around this; through the use of humour, sophistication and wit, and a chance for actors and actresses to broaden their appeal as well as their abilities. Actresses such as Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow broke the stereotypical roles they found themselves in up to that point (which arguably accentuated their physicality more than anything else) and gave them a chance to expand their repertoire and become some of the most loved stars of the 1930s. For Myrna Loy, it would be The Thin Man series, as well as some wonderful pairings with Clark Gable and William Powell. Lombard would display her talent for comedy and Jean Harlow likewise.
Recently, I reviewed Libeled Lady (1936) with the MGM powerhouse cast of Loy, Powell, Spencer Tracy and of course Jean Harlow. As I mentioned in the article, the plot is nonsensical and would be impossible to sustain, without the sharp dialogue, charismatic presence of the stars involved and high production values. At the end of the day, the film is much farce as it is screwball, and the whole point is to simply enjoy the comedy and watch glamorous people fall in love. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, the screwball comedy would become an institution of the cinema, with stars such as Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Fred MacMurray and Rosalind Russell, leaving a new and indelible mark on screwball comedy. For Katherine Hepburn, who by the late 1930s was called ‘box office poison’, films like The Philadelphia Story gave her a chance for revival and a rebirth of her career.
Like the Thin Man films, Libeled Lady is as much about sexual roles as roped in sexuality. The couple can match each other in every way; sophistication, glamour, wit and panache. The earlier Pre-Code films were grittier and at times even cynical regarding sexual power-plays and dominance in gender roles. Yes, the strong, feminist tropes that emerge in Pre-Code films are fascinating and perhaps the challenge to traditional roles and sexual dominance is what also scared stake-holders into pushing for a film code.
But strong women emerged after the Code as well. As time went on, there was the development of ‘women’s pictures’ for which artists such as Bette Davis would make their mark and assure their stardom. Interestingly, enough Joan Crawford – perhaps one of the most enduring stars who transformed successfully from flapper to the Pre-Code to the Breen Code – would survive being called ‘box office poison’ (like Hepburn) and re-emerge as a star in ‘women’s pictures’.
Actors such as Clark Gable cemented his stardom and showed his comedic chops in his Oscar winning performance in It Happened One Night, the film which established the screwball comedy and garnered in a new age of sophisticated comedy. The film still stands as one of Hollywood’s most loved films. It deftly dealt with sexual tension, the concept of ‘opposites attract’ and a host of other relationship obstacles with some unforgettable and hilarious moments. The two stars never even shared a kiss yet audiences had no problems with watching the couple fall in love, without an embrace. Getting back to Clark Gable, the role of Peter Warne also gave him a chance to break from the typecast tough-guy/heavy and ‘gigolo’ roles which had defined his career in the Pre-Code era.
There is a strong argument that none of this would have occurred without the establishment of the Breen Code.
To point, studios discovered and developed a new way of telling stories about love, romance and relationships – even illicit relationships. True, they had to be careful but it meant that a sophisticated and witty film genre was formed, which audiences fell in love with.
Additionally, the gangster film had truly taken form during the Pre-Code era, with tropes, characterisations and storylines firmly in place. But the Breen Code challenged those tales and auteurs who found new interpretations and channelled their efforts into expanding on the genre. Warner Bros, home studio to the best of the gangster pictures of the 1930s, were particularly adept at doing so, taking the gangster story far beyond the ‘rise and fall’ plot to looking at social issues that had shaped the gangster and the neighbourhood that they had arisen from. Indeed, the themes and plot that had defined the gangster film in the early 1930s were almost cliched before the Pre-Code days were over; so much so that even E.G Robinson parodied his Little Caesar role in The Little Giant (1933). Time, changing values and the events of history would see the end of the ‘classic gangster cycle’ by the end of the 1930s, not so much the establishment of the Code. Yet Hollywood used the gangster story to reveal social ills and the plight of the underprivileged in films such as Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1939).
Considering social issues, the Breen Code certainly didn’t blunt the sharpness of how film portrayed those issues, particularly in films such as The Grapes Of Wrath (1940). Corruption and apathy in government and the concerns over the rise of fascism found a powerful and still poignant voice in the films of Frank Capra, such as Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). Perhaps still one of the most films on politics, All The King’s Men (1949) seems just as relevant today as it did in the post-war period. The Breen Code in some ways had film-makers thinking beyond the scope prior to 1934.
Another interesting result of the Breen Code was that ‘wholesome’ family pictures began to boom at the box office. It becomes almost unfathomable that in the space of a year, Shirley Temple at Fox would take over from Mae West as the biggest star at Paramount. Yet family films lifted box office receipts and the impact of the Great Depression on the industry began to wane. Musicals became something the whole family could enjoy and their popularity would continue into the 1950s, expanding on the way that stories were told, as well as the stories themselves. The great literary classics of the past had always been appropriated and interpreted for the screen since the earliest days of film but now they became even more prominent. MGM were particularly adept at presenting the classics on film with top-notch production values and the use of their biggest stars in films such as David Copperfield (1935), A Tale Of Two Cities (1935) and Pride And Prejudice (1940). Other studios and producers would also bring literary classics to the screen such as Wuthering Heights (1938) and a remake of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939) that arguably outdoes the original 1925 version. True, some of the deeper and darker themes were sanitised but these great stories were brought to the screen.
Historical events and figures, even the mythical ones would also become fodder for the studios and result in some of cinema’s most loved classics; The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938) are but two examples of such classics. The aforementioned Clark Gable would star as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny On The Bounty (1935), a huge hit for MGM and a further opportunity for Gable to extend his abilities and move beyond the roles he was caught in during the Pre-Code era.
The Breen Code would provide many challenges to the film industry in the stories that would be told, as well as how they would tell them. Eroticism had been heavily draped but could never be completely covered – instead it simmered. The horror film still sent shivers down the collective spine of its’ audience and indeed found greater depth and expression, particularly evident in the films produced in the 1940s at RKO in the Val Lewton unit. Despite the limitations of budget, Val Lewton was able to produce some of the most memorable supernatural thriller and horror films of the 1940s, with storylines and thematic concerns that went far beyond what was being told elsewhere. And eventually, crime and mystery would find a deeper expression in film noir, which again worked best with subtleties and richer subtexts than explicitness.
The Breen Code may have presented Hollywood with a whole range of problems and by no means was it a ‘godsend’ which ‘saved’ cinema nor ‘cleaned up’ Hollywood. There are certainly levels of hypocrisy and fault in the Code, which have been dealt with elsewhere. Yet the Breen Code did see, as Doherty describes, ‘an artistic flowering of incalculable cultural impact’. The industry was able to maintain some semblance of ownership over itself, even if it did have to succumb to the personal viewpoints of Joseph Breen. It gave Hollywood the boundaries in which it could express itself but it also gave opened up new possibilities in expression.
This article is the first for the ‘What The Code Means To Me’ series, hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. The series focuses on an exploration on of the Breen Code era, with a number of articles sharing experiences and opinions on the Code and the films that were produced during that era. To read upcoming articles from some fantastic bloggers for this series, please visit the following link: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2018/12/17/what-the-code-means-to-me/.
A special thank you to the Tiffany Brannan for the opportunity to participate! It’s been a great pleasure!
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.