Pointed language instead of naked

Excessive and lustful kisses, suggestive nudity, swearing, racially mixed relationships, venereal diseases, drugs, sympathy for criminals. This is only a small list, the list of so-called ‘dont’s and be carefuls’ is quite long. This list of moral guidelines was established in 1927 by the Association of American Film Producers and Distributors.

The reason was the increasing concern about the influence of films on children, young people and the less educated in particular: they were susceptible to what was called ‘the cinema danger’ in the Netherlands at the time. A fear of degrading morals dating back to the invention of cinema around 1895.

The short film The Kiss (1896), in which a man and a woman kiss, provoked a storm of protest, it was considered obscene. But also videos in which boxers attack each other with bare torso could count on criticism. The call for pre-approval of films increased. First, this film rating was arranged at a local level, later it was introduced nationally; in America, but also in the Netherlands.

In the 1920s, the fear of ‘the cinema danger’ was greatest, especially among religious groups and conservative politicians. They lobbied vigorously for more regulation. That led to the ‘dont’s and be carefuls’ in America. But this list was not yet obligatory, it was recommendations. The arrival of the sound film, which made swearing clearly audible as well as the penetrating sound of machine guns, made the lobby more powerful. However, it wasn’t until July 1934 that the Production Code came into effect: the list of objectionable things that were no longer acceptable in films – largely based on the earlier ‘dont’s and be carefuls’. The fact that the Production Code met with few objections had to do with a lawsuit from 1915 in which it was determined that films were not covered by the ‘first amendment’, the right to free speech. That ruling was not annulled until 1952, after which the way was eventually cleared for a new classification system that came into effect in 1968 and that is comparable to the Nederlandse Kijkwijzer.

So much was not allowed in the meantime. Often related to themes that are still topical and occupy people’s minds from time to time: sex, violence, politics and religion. Technically, however, the Production Code was not censorship because Hollywood voluntarily agreed from a business point of view: the less people take offense, the bigger the audience. Hollywood’s self-censorship was essentially self-regulatory, with diligent consultations between producers and the Hays Office—the body that strictly enforced the Production Code.

Between 1930 and 1934 there was still a gray area, and a lot was tolerated. This ‘pre-code’ Hollywood period has attracted a lot of interest in recent years. Especially to remember what was lost when the self-censorship came into effect: sexually active or adulterous women, ambitious women, mixed relationships, homosexuality, nude scenes, criticism of institutions such as the prison system, characters with drug problems and venereal diseases, et cetera. Such was the end of the career of someone like Mae West, with her memorable one-liners, after the introduction of the Production Code: “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me

lusty kisses

An enormous amount was lost due to the (self) censorship. Yet you could also say that the self-imposed limitations stimulated creativity. This is how Alfred Hitchcock bypassed in notorious (1946) the rule that “lustful kisses” should not last more than three seconds by having Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman take a break from their kissing scene. It makes for an extremely erotic moment – ​​partly because Bergman slightly touches Grant’s earlobe halfway through.

But a genre such as ‘screwball comedy’, the predecessor of romantic comedy, is also the result of self-censorship. Because when sex, nudity and eroticism are forbidden, there is nothing left but sublimation. For example, erotic attraction in screwball comedies became a frenzied game, with silly misunderstandings and pointed dialogues. The battle of the sexes is fought with a lot of verbal fireworks.

That resulted in exciting films with antagonistic altercations instead of naked bodies in a bed. And with often secretly all kinds of sexual innuendo that were overlooked. Because there was of course nothing more fun for creative makers than the Hays Office fools.

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