When the 1930’s began, talkies were stumbling out of their awkward toddler phase (think Lights of New York) and finally growing up. For some, the films grew up a little too fast. While Will Hays’ 1927 “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” gave some direction toward the film industry regarding vulgarity, the onset of sound created an entire new plane to be censored. Poor, Presbyterian Will was caught in the middle; between keeping the film producers happy, pleasing the religious right, and keeping the government out of the film business, Hays had a tough job on his hands. What he really wanted is to consolidate film censorship within the industry. Each state had its own censorship board with different rules, and these rules made it hard for one particular cut of a film to be able to be screened everywhere. With an industry-wide censorship board, the power would be out of the hands of the state boards and censorship would be standardized. The 1930 Production Code, headed by Martin Quigley and Father Lord, attempted to create a universe in which it was okay to show evil as long as good triumphed. The Code wasn’t enforced until 1934, when the Production Code Administration, headed by Joseph Breen, required that all films released must be submitted in order to receive the MPPDA seal of approval and be allowed to be shown. This new censorship didn’t necessarily make films boring. Now, filmmakers had to find creative ways to suggest things not allowed to be shown in the aftermath of the newly enforced Code.
Hollywood wanted respectability. This was the main motivating factor for adopting the Code– that, and keeping the government out of the film industry. In light of the scandals of the 1920’s and the dropped attendance brought on by the Great Depression, the film industry needed a way to become more palatable to the average viewer. The Code gave Hollywood a way to say “Hey! Look! We’re trying to be classy!” while giving the viewer an increasingly active imagination. It was in this time that the gangster movie and the musical flourished. The gangster movie, in particular, showed a triumph of good over evil at the end. The fast and selfish life of the gangster was always avenged by the good guy, usually a cop or detective. The gritty underworlds portrayed by the gangster movies and the musicals reflected depression-era pains. Clawing your way to the top, singing about money while actually being broke, desperately working for a lost dream; these scenes showed an America that was struggling, with the character aligned with the right moral side succeeding. The sadness and desperation of the depression gave way to these gritty characters but also to a completely different style of comedy.
Surprisingly, the comedy of the 1930’s did not necessarily reflect the happy, beautiful world dreamed up by the PCA. While the 20’s was filled with Charlie Chaplin telling the audience that things would get better, the 30’s gave way to comedy that assumed confusion, pain, and distrust in the audience. “The Fatal Glass of Beer” is an interesting example of 1930’s comedy. While it is totally bizarre, it also gives a typical moral message– a young boy goes to the city, tastes a fatal drink, goes to jail, and comes back home to his Ma and Pa. The strangeness in the piece lies in the ending. While the film shows Ma and Pa about to happily accept their boy and his newfound morals back into their home, the viewer is presented with a version of Pa that is unexpected. Pa asks if his son has kept any of the money that he went to jail for stealing. When the son answers “No,” Pa throws him out. Ma and Pa, in the desperate face of the depression, have seemingly lost their morals as well. I’m No Angel, filmed in 1934, features a woman who is the opposite of the Victorian flower; while she seduces men on stage, others working alongside her pickpocket patrons. In the world of the Depression, morals seem to be lost until the end of the film. Sarcastic, dark comedy gave a way a nation to express itself in the face of a painful economic crisis.
While the content of 1930’s film became racier, the PCA ensured that filmmakers had to find creative ways around direct references to vulgarity. This lent to an artistic style that allowed the audience to fill in the blanks with their imaginations. The MPPDA stamped films into the 1960’s, when the film industry gave way to a rating system. Throughout the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, thousands of films were approved by the PCA. Because of this, our cultural memory of America has been altered. The censorship that began in the 1930’s forced upon us an image of an America where good always triumphs over evil, the world is clean and happy, and couples stay chaste. It is because of Will Hays that we view the first half of the century with such rose-colored glasses. Had film been allowed to more accurately portray reality, our memory of the world might not be so beautiful.