Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Hays Code ... or is it haze code

I heard the term Hays Code mentioned in an interview today with fimmaker Steven Soderbergh. His newest film, The Good German, is filmed in large part like a film made in the era in which it is based (1940's). When asked why the dialogue wasn't also like one of those films, he said that they talked that way because they had to talk that way. They had to adhere to the Hays Code. I had never heard this term so I googled it.

The Hays Code was a form of sensorship that preceded our film rating system (G's, PG-13's etc). Film still being a new communications medium, artform and technology during the 1930's, a lot of American feared the moral fiber of the films coming out of Hollywood. The Hays Code was to be an industry guideline and if a film didn't meet these guidelines they were to have difficulty in being distributed in the states. The guidelines not only dictated controls on speech and nudity but also didn't allow portrayal of child birth, excessive kissing, sexual postures and dance. It also put control onto how rape, religion and the US flag could be portrayed. Any minister of religion could never be portrayed as a villain or portrayed comically. Also, some subjects were strictly forbidden like sex between the races, white slavery and vinereal disease. So the lameness of old films wasn't always the filmmakers fault. The code also controlled the distribution of foreign films and stopped a lot of them from coming into the country. So they justified their limitation on speech in that they weren't controlling the speech, the films could be made, they just controlled the distribution of the films. If you made them, no one would see them.

It wasn't until the 1960's that the code started to lose power. The Motion Picture Assocation of America (MPAA) was finding it difficult to enforce their rules. Again the market is king. Theatre owners wanted these films because their customers did. Also, filmmakers found ways around the elusive rules and sometimes fought tooth and nail with the MPAA on getting around the rules. In 1966, the producers of one of my favorite films, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff?, had to have the word "screw" removed but got away with "hump."

The demand in the marketplace for socially relevant films was a big factor. Challenges to the convention roles of race, gender, class and sexual identity were everywhere and film needed to change with the times. In 1967, the British/Italian film Blow Up didn't get Hays Code approval and MGM released it anyway. This was the first time one of the members of the MPAA ignored the Hays Code. In 1968, the MPAA released the film rating system to replace the code. The rating system is not perfect, but better than what it replaced.

So if you ever wonder why the films of the 1970's were so great, thank the Hays Code. Apparently, the American film renaissance was due to many of decades of censorship and repression ... and the release thereof.

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