Imagine a world where no law, human or natural, would ever be questioned, where those who dared to defy laws, even unjust ones, would always be punished. Where all religious leaders were good and honorable and to suggest otherwise was taboo.
No sex, no nudity, no homosexuality, no drugs, liquor in strict moderation (except where its abuse might serve as a lesson to would-be drunkards). There would be no miscegenation (the intermarriage of races), no excessive kissing, no vulgarity at all.
Welcome to Hollywood in 1934.
The seeds of paradise were planted on this day, March 31, 1930, but it took four years for the seed to grow into a mighty tree. Happy birthday to the Hays Code, the “moral” production standards that dominated American entertainment for almost 40 years!
Born in the wake of scandal, Fatty Arbuckle’s bastard child, and equal parts a reaction to the excesses of the Roaring 20s and the tightening noose of the Great Depression, the Hays Code was largely a product of zealous Catholic do-gooders who managed to impose their narrow (and racist) view of morality on an entire industry.
Farewell to Betty Boop, Mae West, shirtless Gable, Hedy Lamarr, and merciless Groucho. Good-bye to realistic social drama, double beds, and the besotted, entendre-laced repartee of Nick and Nora Charles. And, my god, weren’t we a better nation for it? No crime, no poverty, no divorce, no alcoholism, no drug abuse …
A powerful reminder of what can happen when moralizing hypocrites are allowed to make the rules, the Hays Code largely reduced American moviemaking to a world even a child would have a hard time believing. That so many fine movies were made under its auspices is a testimony to the imagination of our film makers in the face of a standard designed to homogenize and desexualize our entertainment.
If there is a bright side to the oppressive decades of censorship, it may be that those little gems of dark beauty that were made before the Code appear brighter and more lurid by contrast with what followed, and when the light finally emerged from behind the clouds in the 1960s, it burned fiercely and blue.
So here’s to the Hays Code and the men who made it!
May their afterlives be filled with sin.