The Production Code, established in 1930 but not really enforced until 1934, gave us a world on screen that did not always mirror real life. Its existence, however, was deeply rooted in cold, hard reality: if the film industry played too freely with the sensitivities of the public, the government would clamp down. In order to keep their relative autonomy and keep the box office coffers filled, the industry decided to police itself. It was always more about money than morality.
The Code gave us such rules that stipulated the law was not to be ridiculed and wrongdoers must always be seen to be punished. That’s why gangster James Cagney and gangster Humphrey Bogart were always being gunned down or sent to the big house. Nudity was forbidden. Religion was not to be ridiculed and the clergy were not to be seen as comic or villains. This would explain why the sycophant character of Mr. Collins in “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) was changed from a minister to a librarian.
Depiction of drug use was forbidden, largely because the deaths by overdoses of a few well-known Hollywood stars of the 1920s nearly destroyed the public’s good opinion of movies in general and their willingness to spend money on them.
Crimes were not to be detailed explicitly, so that the public would not use a film to study the fine art of murder, arson, etc., much as in the same way today we might be leery of the publication of how to make a nuclear device.
Vulgarities in speech and behavior were forbidden. This was pretty broad. Everything from “damn” to homosexuality and miscegenation was considered forbidden in this vein. “Damn was conquered first in 1939 with Rhett Butler’s famous farewell to Scarlet, but homosexuality and racial intermarriage would take rather longer.
It is interesting that the real-life scandals involving Hollywood drug deaths, murders, and especially the case of the unfortunate Fatty Arbuckle’s manslaughter trial would be the touchstone of so much distortion of reality or even the absence of certain aspects of real life, including depictions of childbirth, in the make-believe universe of the screen. In Arbuckle’s case, most of the lurid charges against him were actually brought by the Hearst newspapers and many of them fabrications. In court Arbuckle was eventually vindicated, and the jury even apologized to him, but that did not alter the downward spiral of his film career. He was destroyed. Art did not imitate life, it was twisted by it.
The Code was eventually replaced by a ratings system in the late 1960s, for much the same reason as it had been implemented: business. The film industry was competing with television and with foreign films, which were not subject to the strict code. The bottom line, more than morality, was the inspiration for the code, and conversely, also for trends in filming “realistic” movies of today. Strong scenes of a sexuality explicit or violent nature are not always there to provide for a “realistic” plot, but to increase the box office. The make-believe universe of the screen is just as phony today as it was back then.