Just when you thought that I couldn’t write any more, here comes this, my first blog. I hope that you enjoy it enough to return and read more of my posts.
And think. And write back.
The St. Albert Gazette now has a handful of bloggers, people from various parts of the community who write about such wide ranging yet ‘common denominator’-ish topics as literature, sports and family life.
Since I’ve recently renewed my film critic/movie reviewer practice, and since movies are broadly pervasive in our culture, it seems inevitable that I should come up with this blog. Unavoidable, really. A weekly movie review just doesn’t cut it when a longer, broader conversation about them is necessary to match their pervasiveness, ***IF NOT TO***at least to better understand our culture.
To understand this better, I would simply tell you that my movie reviews are the only stories that I write for the newspaper that infuriate readers enough to write back with vitriolic attacks on my character and my writing abilities. Some have even called for my dismissal, saying that I’m unfit to hold my job.
Movies do have an interesting effect on people. Certainly, the same could be said to be of our society in general. There’s no denying this effect. It’s why we go to movies in the first place: to be so affected. But do we understand all of the ways that we can be influenced by them?
The Inciting Incident
The Hayes Code will be a blog about movies and how movies impact us individually and as a group. I’ll do my best to steer clear of the kind of musings on the cult of celebrity that one would be likely to find in the supermarket checkout magazine racks but it will certainly come up in one way or another from time to time. It is, after all, a part of our culture whether we approve or not. I pledge to offer remarks in the most intelligent, sensitive and un-gossipy way that I can.
There could be no more proper way for me to start a blog about movies than this. I must step back in time and look at how the North American public and politicians first got their glimpse of the powerful psychological effects that movies could have.
We all understand this very well. We watch movies for escapism, to escape the self and explore other people and other worlds with a sense of awe and amusement in the quest of entertainment, education and enlightenment.
In saying all that, I’ll still try to make this blog brief. Let’s see how well that goes.
Where do we begin? At the beginning, with the title on my marquee: The Hayes Code. What does that even mean, Scott?
Those film fans out there might have probably guessed that my blog’s name is a somewhat coy nod to The Da Vinci Code… but it’s not. Astute observers and cultural historians will no doubt get the real reference. Let me elaborate. This is gonna go back a bit.
Lately, I’ve been very interested in how movies first became rated. Even in its formative generation, movies and moviemakers of the 1910s and 1920s still occasionally caused controversy. Some were quite risqué or offensive. The release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915 caused a major stir with its negative portrayals of blacks and portrayals of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, both of which inspired riots in several major cities.
A few years after that, silent film star Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was the subject of a notable scandal regarding the alleged rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe. Despite hung juries of two trials and an acquittal with the third, the very suggestion of such heinous crimes was enough to destroy his fame. He was forced to work under a pseudonym for nearly the reminder of his career, only to die just before he was about to make his big comeback.
And then there was the murder of acclaimed director William Desmond Taylor in 1922, one that did not result in either a ready suspect or a quick trial. Mary Pickford had her troubles too. The sensational nature of such things resulted in many salacious stories about the parties being put forth in the media. Being a star meant having fans. Fans sometimes tear down their stars; otherwise, there would be no stalkers, no paparazzi, no film critics.
This was also the era of the baseball gambling scandal of 1919 and Prohibition took effect the very next year, and the bootleggers and Al Capone along with it. There was J. Edgar Hoover and the new and scrutinous FBI, the Lavender Scare, and yellow journalism too.
This was the time of condemnation of impropriety. The silver screen made things (both good and bad) larger than life. If movies could start riots and raise the ire of the populace as much as they proved that they could, then certainly administrative controls would come into play.
You can see where all of this was going. There was a pattern of cause and effect: first, the trouble, and then, the correction. Movies’ abilities to distract and distress the American public meant the onset of censorship and the ascent of just those controls i.e. a system of motion picture ratings and regulations.
The Supreme Court had already decided in 1915 that movies were not included in the realm of free speech. There was nothing to stop the American government to decide what would and would not be permitted in the cinema. Dozens of movie censorship bills were introduced in most states in 1921. A censorship board had even been installed to help smooth the way for Americans’ safe evenings out at the theatre. For eight years, film standards were all in a kind of quandary where the same movie could be simultaneously be accepted in one state and banned in its by its neighbours. Err… I mean neighbors.
This was all the conflict and rising action that would have to result in a climax sooner or later.
That’s when William H. Hays stepped onto his mark in history. The Republican Postmaster General and Presbyterian deacon bore the full weight of his conservative politics and values with the intent to set up a reliable framework for those still-absent official controls to be brought into existence.
Hays became the head of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (later to be renamed the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA) as its first president. Soon thereafter he brought about measures to create those controls. He wasn’t there to make restrictions, at least not ostensibly so. His mandate was to guide movies toward acceptability by larger community standards. This was kind of like a lifeguard putting out a barrier on a beach, saying, “don’t go past that line.”
First, he used a tool he called The Formula – simply asking the studios to please be careful not to create objectionable movies. That did not work. Studio heads saw how their products could be economic engines unlike anything ever seen before. Done right, they were practically money making machines. Why stop thrilling the audience just because someone said “please”?
Hays also worked to convince each of the state censor boards to not ban specific films outright and to lessen the financial impact of the boards’ cuts and edits, since the studios were legally bound to pay the censors per edit. He also tried to improve the industry’s image and coached studios on how to make movies that would have a better chance of passing through the censors’ offices unscathed.
Then, in the late 1920s, he tried to rally behind a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls.” It highlighted 11 areas of subject matter to be avoided and 26 to be used sparingly. It put big red flags on content running the gamut from portrayals of drug use, nudity, sexuality, race relations or anything that might offend any religion, race, creed or nation.
Interestingly enough, there was no peep about violence until the Be Careful list – not until point 4, below depictions of the American flag and international relations. The “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” list had a lot of bark but clearly no bite. Nothing could be enforced.
That’s when Martin Quigley, the editor of the Motion Picture Herald (and a Catholic), and Father Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest, pooled their efforts together to compile a code of standards for the studios to use as a moral compass for their productions. Hays accepted it and the United States Motion Picture Production Code came to pass in 1930. It’s also known commonly under his name…
The Hays Code.
In a very elegant way, the code doesn’t just indicate what it must achieve. It also offers a reasoning for its existence in the first place. That description even does a pretty good job of helping me to explore where I want to start with this blog too.
It says that people can be deeply affected by what they see and experience. It says that movies, as a new and powerful visual form of art, can amplify that. It says that movies can contribute to the downfall of society. It says:
“Hence the MORAL IMPORTANCE (sic) of entertainment is something which has been universally recognized. It enters intimately into the lives of men and women and affects them closely; it occupies their minds and affections during leisure hours; and ultimately touches the whole of their lives. A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work.
So correct entertainment raises the whole standard of a nation.
Wrong entertainment lowers the whole living conditions and moral ideals of a race.”
– The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930
Those phrases go far beyond simply stating that people enjoy movies and can behave in good and bad ways depending on they witness. It says that the moral fibre of an entire people is at stake.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Hays (no relation, by the way) as there’s no way to measure moral fibre of a person, let alone a nation. I veer away from arguments over ambiguous topics. I do agree that people can be deeply affected by what they see. I was elated after watching The Matrix, seeing it as a very empowering and spiritual journey towards becoming a higher being. Seeing something upsetting or thrilling can also leave a person agitated. Hell, I went to see a Transformers movie in the theatre and was left feeling shell-shocked at the end.
Parental discretion is advised
Here, in Alberta, film classification is left up to the provincial Ministry of Culture. It works to help people to make informed and responsible choices about what films they want to see – and what they want their families and children to see – before they see them. It does this under the Film and Video Classification Act. Nothing gets banned, at least not since the 1980s. The individual’s discretion still reigns supreme. Our ratings system is based on our community standards and encourages our movie watchers to offer their feedback.
So that’s where we begin. The Hayes Code is meant to be a blog about movies in a way that can’t be expressed properly in any of my movie reviews. Movies simply deserve more conversation – and more contemplation – than that. Yes, this blog is meant to be a conversation starter, and so feedback (either by commenting below it or through other social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and café/pub banter) will hopefully keep the conversation going. It’s important. Movies are pervasive and they affect us and our culture.
This 2,000-word essay is proof that I do have a lot to say. Kid, you ain’t read nothin’ yet.
Alberta Film Classification
Internet Movie Database
The Classification and Rating Administration
AMC Film History