Recently, I watched Norma Shearer in the 1930 film The Divorce, directed by Robert Leonard It explored adultery, love and marriage from both the male and female perspective or rather attempted to. Like most Hollywood films of the time it still managed to make light of the male evolvement in adulterous relationships and vilify the female.
It left Shearer’s character, Jerry, to take the blame for the relationship failure. When Jerry gets divorced the film does not allow her to find happiness with any other man, ending with her only being happy when reunited with her husband. This look at marriage and divorce may seem to follow an extreme moralist agenda, but it is nothing compared to Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code, created that very year.
The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hay’s Code, named for its first head began to be enforced in 1934 and officially ended with the creation of the MPAA Rating System in 1968 . It was an effort by motion pictures studios to appease the church and prevent government involvement in the making of film.
Some of the rules under the Hays Code were that no film shall include in it: perverse sexual practice such as homosexuality, interracial relations or that defied or impugned the sanctity of marriage. Films were not allowed to glorify violence and revenge, unless the setting was based in a time that held no punishment for such an action.
That being the case, many films we enjoy today would not be allowed to be seen in their original form without a hefty fine. For instance the , American Pie franchise with its nude scenes, glorification of teenage sex and excessive use of alcohol with few consequences . would have never have been released.
Some precode films were even required to be edited before rerelease in order to follow such guidelines. One example of this is the 1932 biblical film Sign of the Cross .The infamous Cecil B. DeMille film tells the story of early Christian persecution in Ancient Rome as well as the attempts of a roman officer to win over a beautiful young Christian girl as his lover . In order to be released under the Hays Code enforcement the film’s gorilla nude girl dance scene and graphic coliseum death scenes were cut , altering the context of the film. However, due to his stubbornness DeMille was able to keep the film’s infamous lesbian dance scene .
The Hays Code changed the way movies were edited and made and is the precursor to the ratings we have to day. I think that in the realm of this course it is important to note that the code’s views on romance and marriage shaped the portrayal of women in film for more than thirty years. Since the abolishment of the code in the late sixties things have slowly begun to get better, some leftovers remain. One such trope is the early “slasher” films that punish teenage girls for their deviant behavior, such as the alcohol and sex in Halloween, and reward those teens who stay true “virginal” moralistic ideals, such as Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in said film.