The Wild Party Dorothy Arzner Clara Bow.jpg
The Wild Party (1929)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 14 Jan 2021

Early Hollywood and the Hays Code

Film History Representation
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

Curator Chelsey O'Brien talks to Maria Lewis about pushing the boundaries under the shadow of the Hays Code in early Hollywood.

From the dawn of moving image, filmmakers were pushing the boundaries of storytelling. Whether that was the narrative itself or the diverse people driving it, film as a medium was used to challenge ideas, beliefs and preconceptions, as well as entertain. So much so by 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code – known as the Hays Code – was introduced in order to better control what people would see on-screen and who could tell those stories. Not to mention events that were happening parallel to the business as tabloid journalism began to be as mass consumed as the work of the film stars that were being written about.

“Hollywood in the 1920s is a super racy time,” says Curator Chelsey O’Brien. “Films were beginning to mature, they were dealing with adult content. They were sort of racy and projected images of women in power and making their own choices. There were off-screen stories of drugs and alcohol and partying and overindulgence and then the industry was rocked by really huge scandals: namely the death of Olive Thomas, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, and the alleged rape of Virginia Rappe by popular movie star Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. So, all of these things brought really widespread condemnation from religious, civic and political organisations. Many felt that the movie industry was really morally questionable so there was all this political pressure.”

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After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 ended the affluence of the 1920s, movie makers were caught between the racy tastes of the Jazz Age and the economic realities of the Depression, and films that slipped through the cracks reflected this duality. The upcoming return to conservatism is due, in part, to the kinds of films Hollywood studios were creating at the height of the Depression between 1930 and 1934. With less money in people's pockets for movie-going, studios tried luring audiences in with salacious films featuring sex, violence, drinking and the grotesque, like Baby Face (1932), Scarface (1932) and Freaks (1932), whose storylines reflected glamorous gangsters, sexually-liberated women and class struggle. It's no wonder the Hays Code was conceived during this period.

Commonly referred to by its shorthand rather than the full title, the Hays Code was named after William H Hays who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) at the time. “The Hays Code was this self-imposed industry set of guidelines for all the motion pictures that were released between 1934 and 1968,” says O’Brien. “The code prohibited profanity, suggestive nudity, graphic or realistic violence, sexual persuasions and rape. It had rules around the use of crime, costume, dance, religion, national sentiment and morality. And according to the code – even within the limits of pure love or realistic love – certain facts have been regarded as outside the limits of safe presentation. So basically, this means we have a whole lot of married couples sleeping in separate beds for at least 20 years.”

However, filmmakers such as Dorothy Arzner, who continued the legacy of female film pioneers like Lois Weber, continued to push the conservative boundaries of the new Hays Hollywood. As an openly queer filmmaker and the only female director active during Hollywood’s Golden Age, she made openly feminist films like the first talkie directed by a woman, The Wild Party (1929), and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), the latter a "Code-stretching" tale of burlesque dancers that challenges the male gaze (and audiences). In fact, as talkies began to take over as the preferred format among audiences in the late 1920s, progressive stories were still slipping through the cracks until the mid-30s as the code was rarely enforced.

It was with the appointment of Joseph Breen by Hays as the new administrator that the restrictions became truly solid and filmmakers like Arzner started to see themselves pushed out of the business and into an early retirement. “I think that with the Hays Code, one of the things the film industry just assumed was that its audience was white and straight and only white, straight males,” says O’Brien. “They would do things that appealed to that audience base, really. Anything that was going to be questioning a woman’s sexuality or women’s sexual preference or even men’s sexual preference, there was this real return to traditional values. A little bit of that is we’re coming out of the Depression, we’re coming out of World War I, so there’s this general American sentiment that is returning to conservatism.”

The enforcement of the code also saw the work of early performers like Mabel Normand lost to history. Known as the “mother of comedy”, she directed Charlie Chaplin’s first portrayal of his famous character The Tramp and is considered the first person to break the fourth wall in film. A frequent collaborator of Buster Keaton, she also originated the pie in the face gag with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle being on the receiving end. It was her association with Arbuckle that was largely behind the reason much of her career was forgotten and her films banned.

“The Hays Code had such a huge effect on Hollywood,” says O’Brien. “When you think about characters like Betty Boop, who started out as this incredible flapper who was sexually unrestricted and incredibly interesting, but later due to the Code goes on to become this sort of conservative house wife figure and basically writes herself out of production. What is fascinating about the Hays Code is it pushes directors and filmmakers to get around it. You have this range of films... where you see this incredible innuendo and a bending of the rules. You get costumes like those of Orry Kelly, who created outfits for Some Like It Hot, that are really pushing the boundaries of what the Hays Code will accept on-screen. On one hand it changes the industry in a negative way because it means it’s less progressive. But then on the other hand it’s interesting because it pushes writers and directors to really challenge it.”

–  Maria Lewis

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