In my previous post I discussed how today's Hollywood is using the same old bag of tricks that is always has, and in true Hollywood fashion I've decided to write a sequel! Originally the last article was going to include a bit about how the tired tropes and déjà vu stories you see in cinema are the lasting effects of the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code. However, the more I thought about it the more I realized it would warrant its own separate post because of all of the text it would take to explain. Also, the original notion I had for the piece has changed somewhat after further thought, so this is article is kind of like Batman Returns: a sequel that may not have much to do with the original. I promise, though, by reading this blog you won't have to witness copious amounts of gross stuff going into or coming out of Danny DeVito's mouth.
If gross stuff going into and coming out of Danny DeVito's mouth is something that interests you, please tell your family I am deeply sorry for them.
Anyway, first I'll supply a little background information. The 1920s was a crazy, excessive time. Everybody was drunk all the time, they all did wacky dances, and women started showing their legs in public, which made old people's faces melt off. It was awesome. Of course, there were some sticks in the mud who didn't appreciate these things, feeling that America was being corrupted. Since no one was willing to admit that America was already a corrupt place, founded on the slaughter of a native people and cultivated by slave labor, they needed a scapegoat. It was only natural that the newest entertainment medium, moving pictures, would be blamed.
The government stepped in, proposing hundreds of differing bills to fight back against Hollywood's supposed lack of morals and non-lack of sex and drugs. Perhaps they should have been keeping themselves busy with other things, such as paying attention to the economic practices of the time, but framing Fatty Arbuckle for rape is a lot more fun than boring numbers stuff. In an attempt to minimize further scandals (manufactured or otherwise), the studios themselves stepped in, hiring a guy who probably wore his pants way too high by the name of Will H. Hays. By 1930 the Motion Picture Production Code had been written, and by 1934 Hollywood got around to actually enforcing it.
The Hays Code was organized into two sections, "Dont's" and "Be Carefuls". If you want to read the full list, which is quite ridiculous, you can see it on Wikipedia. Some of the items on the list I can get behind, such as #9 in the "Dont's" section, which forbids display of children's sex organs. I have kids, so I know what those look like, and I have no desire to see them any more than is absolutely necessary. Any adult who does have this desire is not anyone I'd want to be friends with, and such a person would be punched to death for coming anywhere near my children. So #9 is what I would consider a good "Don't". I don't believe in censorship, but I don't see any need to show a little boy's dinger on film. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Superman: The Movie.
I'm sure his intentions were good, but Hays was a product of the government, having served several positions in it, and a lot of what was in the code would be what a pamphlet-pushing white guy with dreadlocks would refer to as "typical government bullshit, maaan". Yes, he's annoying and gets in your face, but in this case, white guy with dreadlocks is dead on. Let's look at some examples, in bold, followed by what these rules essentially translate to.
DON'T #4: Any inference of sex perversion
Meaning, in government-speak, "No gay shit." Also, "Nothing other than smooches. Decent people only smooch!"
DON'T #5: White slavery
Black slavery is okay though. And if the film is set after the Emancipation Proclamation, all black actors must plays servants of some kind.
DON'T #6: Miscegenation (sexual relationships between the white and black races)
We want films to enforce the morals we already have, not nudge viewers toward dangerous ideas like true equality!
DON'T #7: Sex hygiene and venereal diseases
If we teach young men and women how to keep themselves clean down there they may start having sex, and decent people only smooch!
DON'T #10: Ridicule of clergy
Yes, we live in a country in which you have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, so long as the speech doesn't deride the officials of whichever monotheistic institution your parents told you was the only correct religion. God will not continue to bless America with the ability to kill our enemies if you poke fun at people who regularly appear in public wearing robes and funny hats.
BE CAREFUL #5: Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron)
Make the action sequences vague, because if John Q. Moron decides to turn to a life of crime after watching a film, our only hope is that he doesn't think to throw the dynamite under the train after he lights it, because they didn't show that part happen in the movie.
BE CAREFUL #9: Third-degree methods
The good guys all have to look super good, so no realistic interrogation scenes showing John Q. Policeman acting like a complete douche because he's on a power trip.
BE CAREFUL #25: Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a "heavy"
Because the public must know the truth: that decent people smooch, but indecent people don't even get to smooch! (Interesting loophole: since this is worded "when one character or the other is a 'heavy'", could filmmakers include a scene of a dream sequence in which the "heavy" lustfully makes out with himself?)
These are all rules and suggestions that reek of a stodgy old coot trying to enforce what he believes to be morally right. While for the most part Hollywood studios complied with the code, there are a few items of note that look as if they were merely put in there for appearances. These rules were ignored, and nobody at the Hays Office seemed to mind.
DON'T #11: Willful offense to any nation, race or creed
Have you ever seen a movie from the 1930s that takes place outside of the United States? You could play a drinking game, downing a shot for every racist joke or stereotype, but you'd probably be blind by the end of the picture. Also from films of that time period, all black people are dumb, speak poorly, and are extremely afraid of g-g-ghosts! And seeing a white asshole wearing eye makeup and a set of buck teeth pretending to be Japanese in any 40s film always makes my soul hurt.
BE CAREFUL #2: International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry)
Apparently this one went right out the window if Uncle Sam had a beef with the country being 'picturized'. Also, if the writers didn't know much about the international locale of the film, the standard operating procedure was to assume that the natives were savages that wore loin cloths.
BE CAREFUL #4: The use of firearms
Except for Westerns. In those the six-shooters all got infinite ammo.
Alright, so the Motion Picture Production Code was pretty much a big fat joke. The Don'ts and Be Carefuls that were more strictly enforced seem to be those most full of backwards ideology and the firm concept of keeping society at exactly where it was at that point. Other rules appear to have been added as goofs. Now, if we run with the "this article is Batman Returns" analogy from earlier, at this point in the film you'd be asking questions like, "Wait a minute! Where's Vicki Vale? What happened to Harvey Dent? Why didn't they ask Robert Wuhl to come back for this one?" Whereas while reading the blog you may have started to wonder, "What does this have to do with modern Hollywood following the same perpetual trends it always has?" And here's my sort-of answer...
A very common complaint is that Hollywood makes the same movies over and over again. How often have you sat through an action or romance or comedy only to feel like you've already seen the same action or romance or comedy ten times before? Obviously, some of the blame can be put on filmmakers who stick to lazy formula, but on the other hand, making films for profit requires that you actually make a profit, and if the formulas work they're going to get used again and again.
I think that a huge part of the reason these formulas are proven is because the general public has been conditioned to respond to them. This started with the Hays Code. Because of the enforcement of certain rules, the public started to expect characters in movies to behave in certain ways and plots to play out in certain ways. The good guys always won. The bad guys always lost and usually had eyepatches or scars so we could tell that they were the bad guys. And since the public still came to see these movies, why bother to reinvent the wheel even when enforcement of the code became more and more lax?
Sure, a lot has changed in the 80+ years since the code was written. In fact, the code itself was abandoned in 1968 in favor of a new ratings system that is still used today. The civil rights movement has changed the way African-Americans (and their relations with Caucasian types) are portrayed on screen, just as the sexual revolution changed attitudes toward sex in the cinema, and the push for gay rights has inspired Hollywood to try and leave homophobia behind. But whether we notice, or care to admit it, filmmakers still readily rely on a host of stereotypes. See Transformers 2 if you don't believe me. No, actually, don't see Transformers 2. Transformers 2 is fucking awful.
The core ideas of the formula established through Hollywood's attempt at self-censorship still survive. The general audience will be disappointed if the hero doesn't win, so the hero will win. And the good guy will always be the goodest of the good. Even the rough-around-the-edges tough guy character that has become eternally popular will almost always engage in at least a scene or two showing the audience that deep down he has a heart made of gold and teeny-tiny kittens. And of course, the hero will end up in the embraces of the damsel in the end. The damsel may be a modern action chick who can hold her own in any car chase, but guaranteed she'll display at least one stereotypical damsel-in-distress trait during the film, most likely ending up captured by the heavies.
Thankfully, over the last few decades more and more filmmakers with artistic integrity have managed to find success in Hollywood. This means more films in which the audience isn't treated as "the moron", more honesty in filmmaking, and less predictability in plot and character development. But the Hollywood machine marches on, using its tried and true formulas to make middle-of-the-road mass appeal flicks that don't totally satisfy anyone, yet hopefully won't offend anyone either (except when the stereotypes go overboard, but minorities are easy to ignore when you live in a 75 room mansion). Complain all you want (I'll join you), but as long as people get the strange feeling that somethin' ain't right if the formula is deviated from too much, the studios will continue to rake in the dough and won't see any need to alter its time-tested approach.