Hollywood and the Production Code: Criticism and History (July 6, 2018, KCL)

I didn’t intend to write on the ‘Hollywood and the Production Code: Criticism and History’ one-day symposium held at King’s College London on the 6thof July 2018, so this will probably be a partial account; my notes were taken in the service of my own thinking rather than with the aim of writing  for others and is thus probably partial and incomplete. But it was such a great event –informed, instructive; a scholarly context taking into account the intellectual debates of the day on the subject at hand with the aim of creating dialogue through which to increase our knowledge, instruct us all, and point to areas where further research may be profitably undertaken – that I felt I needed to at least jot down some developments in my own thinking that resulted from the day.

The idea was structured as a combination of workshops and sets of curated and complimentary papers on particular areas. The day before the event two films were screened: John M. Stahl’s Back Street from 1932, a celebrated ‘Pre-Code’ film; and Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, famous for making comedy of a young girl (Betty Hutton) getting drunk, getting pregnant, and not being able to remember who she slept with, thus getting around many of the taboos the code prohibited. Participants were asked to view the two films with the aim of contributing to the two workshops the following day, in which the two films would be the focus of case studies on the influence and deployment of the Production Code. So contrary to the usual assumption underpinning the standard academic conference, which is to showcase the state of one’s own research, this event was more along the lines of, ‘lets set some guidelines for discussions, have major figures in the field (Lea Jacobs, Doug Pye, Ed Gallafent) contextualise and set some parameters for it, let’s present some leading research, and let’s all collectively contribute to the discussion and see where it takes us to by the end of the day’. The developmental and pedagogic element was built into the structure of the day, with great success.

Tom Brown introduced the event with an account of what had led him and John Gibbs to pursue the subject. The goals of the day were contextualised within the landmark work in the area by Richard Maltby (“’Baby Face’ or How Joe Breen Made Barbara Stanwyck Atone for the Wall Street Crash’ in Screen). Thomas Doherty (Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-34); Hollywood Censors: Joseph I Breen and the Production Code Administration), Leonard Leff (The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code); and Lea Jacobs (The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942).

Brown also praised the new work on historiography such as The New Film History: Source, Methods, Approaches (James Chapman, Mark Glancy, and Sue Harper eds.) and how recent developments in the field on the uses of archival materials has transformed the study of film. However, great as this all is, Brown also drew on Dyer’s question of ‘Where is the ‘film’ in Film Studies’ to highlight how all this new work on film risked side-lining the films themselves. He mentioned recent accounts of Hollywood cinema that argue that the introduction of the Production Code led to no discernible difference in film style, and drew on Stanley Cavell’s discussion of the Jericho scene in It Happened One Nightin Pursuits of Happiness to argue differently. So the aim of the day was really to explore this difference that started off as intuited and felt and to bring considerations of film style back into a productive interplay with the fruits born from historiographical and archival work.

Adam Vaughn offers archival evidence

The day started off with Adam Vaughan presenting his paper ‘Queering the Code’ where he examined the influence of the Code on the work of queer filmmakers and performers in 1930s Hollywood. His case studies were two films by George Cukor, Our Betters(1933) and Sylvia Scarlett(1935) and he argued that the enforcement of the Code changed representation from the explicit to the allusive and connotative. Vaughan’s demonstration of the censors’ objections to the heavy make-up on one of the queer characters in Our Betters was very illuminating.  Olympia Kiriakou also drew on archival sources to demonstrate how MGM had to negotiate the presentation of adultery in MGM’s The Women ([1939], also directed by Cukor) focussing on the scene where Mary (Norma Shearer) discusses her husband’s infidelity with her mother. The paper traced the development of the scene from the original theatrical script through the cinematic adaptation, via all the discussion with Joseph Breen, and, finally, to the finished version of the film that we get to see today. One of the interesting things that came out of the workshop was that rather than debate which is the original version, the director’s cut, that which most people saw, etc., what’s important is to at least initially keep in play the whole process in its entirety, as that might result in different questions; or, the possibility that a look at the process in its entirety might result in different, richer, answers to the same question.


More archival evidence from Olympia Kiriakou’s presentation on The Women (1939)

This set of papers was followed by a workshop led by Lea Jacobs and Ed Gallafent on Back Street, part of the ‘Fallen Women’ cycle Jacobs  writes so brilliantly on in her magisterial The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942. The workshop began with a discussion of the film as an adaptation of the Fannie Hurst best-seller, pointing out how the novel was more explicit on the issue of class and race keeping the lovers apart than Stahl’s movie (the character of  Walter Saxel played by John Boles in the film is Jewish in the novel). The discussion touched on the various film versions of the novel, not only Stahl’s but also the 1941 version directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Charles Boyer and Margaret Sullavan, as well as the 1961 version directed by David Miller starring Susan Hayward and John Gavin. Which scenes changed, how were they developed, and how were they visualised from the novel to the ‘Pre-Code’ version to the subsequent ones?

Ed Gallafent offered a lovely reading of the scene between Ray (Irene Dunne) and her sister (see clip below), highlighting the way it begins by Ray looking at herself confidently in the mirror before meeting Walter’s mother, deciding not to put her make-up on, moving her belongings from a black purse to a white purse in order to make a better impression. But the song she’s humming is ‘After the Ball’:

After the ball is over,
After the break of morn –
After the dancers’ leaving;
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching,
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball.


Gallafent underlined the importance of that song in Dunne’s career (she performed it earlier on stage in Show Boat and would perform it later still in James Whale’s 1936 film version) and also highlighted the significance of several elements in the scene: the way the sister enters the room, locks the door, and leans against it barring the way, something of a trope in ‘women’s’ films throughout the whole ‘Classic’ period; the way the sister asks questions without ending them, ‘he’s got to stay here and….’; ‘If mama were to find out anything she’d…’.;the way that Ray earlier tosses a coin about whether Walter’s mother will like her but, because of the sister’s interruption, never gets to find out which side the coin faced, and how this all underlines the element of chance in the scene.

Lea Jacobs noted how what was unspoken but clearly understood is that Ray’s sister is pregnant. The discussion teased out how the film had at the beginning set up a tension around virtue with Ray’s step-mother protecting her biological daughter’s but questioning Ray’s; how this scene demonstrates how the tables have now turned; how later on in the film the sister herself, with the husband, home and children Ray made possible, will stand in judgment of her sister, forgetting what had happened before. The discussion also indicated how the tracking shot at the end of the next sequence, where we see the band packed-up and walking down the bandstand with their instruments, rhymes with the Ray’s humming of ‘After the Ball’; and how all of this underlines chance, the ‘might-have-been’, the ‘it could happen to anyone’ which the film will underscore in its sad, final flashback. It was a very illuminating, inclusive and generative workshop.



In the afternoon papers, Kathrina Glitre in her ‘Sacred Intimacies: Sexual ambiguity and performance in My Favourite Wife(1940)’ explored the issues around performance and suggested meaning, comparing the PCA’s recommendations to key moments in the finished film. ‘How exactly’, she asked, ‘does screwball performance style enable the kind of ambiguity necessary to render sexual content appropriately ‘innocent’? The paper demonstrated how memos to and from the Breen office often remarked on something ‘as agreed’ though never putting on paper what exactly was agreed upon. Glitre also showed how the PCA’s correspondence directly addressed questions of performativity.

From Kathrina Glitre’s excellent presentation

In the same panel, Martha Shearer argued that the Busby Berkeley Warners musicals of the early 30s often appear in accounts of ‘pre-Code Hollywood’ usually contrasted with the Astaire and Rogers cycle, a contrast that seems dramatic. Shearer instead focuses on Warners’ own Dames(1934) to argue that the ‘the principal of deniability’ continues to operate but through a ‘more gradual, more complex and less melodramatic evolution of systems of convention in representation’. What Shearer brought out also is that many of these films were re-released so which ones were not allowed a re-release subsequent to the more stringent enforcement of the code, which ones were edited, and what was edited out and for which reasons, may also prove a useful way of illuminating the effects of the code on the style of later representations of that which was forbidden. Lastly, James McDowell offered a thought-provoking presentation on ‘Irony, Intention and the Production Code’ arguing for how the working through, against and in the shadow of, the Production Code, should lead us to re-think the question of intentionality in relation to film interpretation.



Martha Shearer, surrounded by Ruby Keeler and Dames


The afternoon workshop revolved around a discussion of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek led by Lea Jacobs, Kathrina Giltre and Douglas Pye. Lea Jacobs offered an absolutely brilliant reading of the scene where Betty Hutton as Trudy Kockenlocker goes to the dance, gets drunk (see clip below), and later gets married to God knows who and gets pregnant. As Kathrina Giltre demonstrated, none of it was allowed by Code. Jacobs not only showed how Sturges treated it as a game to get around the censors (you never see Trudy drinking anything other than what’s listed as lemonade, though her expression highlights its sourness due to sugar being conserved as part of the war effort, a ‘sourness’ that the audience understands as her drinking alcohol; later on in the country club, drinks are offered to each and everyone but Trudy’s out of sight, etc. etc.). However, what Jacobs so brilliantly underlined is that in all the games of not showing the drinking whilst communicating that Trudy’s getting drunk, what’s really being displaced is the sex; how because she dances with so many different men, some people have talked of her having multiple partners that night, or the even darker possibility that in spite of the sexual energy Hutton so convivially evokes, she might have been so drunk she was taken advantage of or worse.

Doug Pye, equally brilliantly, spoke of tone; and the discussion also highlighted how so much of the comedy edges on darkness. Pye offered a timeline on the film from the title, through the various scene drafts, the first day of shooting without completed script or PCA comments, Breen’s response, the granting of a seal approval, the Catholic Legion of Decency’s objections, the film’s release and comments on audience interpretation of the film. Immensely useful. Later in the workshop, the film’s particularly brilliant use of the long takes and how it focuses on the performance, and how the actors brilliantly evoke, and play for laughs that which cannot be said  was highlighted. The use of Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff, intertextually referencing  Sturges’ previous The Great McGinty (1940) as a way of providing a deux ex-machina that resolves every impediment to marriage whilst breaking all the laws was also part of the intriguing discussion in the workshop.

The ‘Hollywood and the Production Code: Criticism and History’ symposium was a brilliant event. It made use of recent developments in theory, history, and the Archive and brought them productively into play with criticism – raising fascinating questions about the effects of the Production Code process, with an underlining of process in its entirety — on film style in a way that put back the film into ‘Film Studies’ as the central object of study it deserves to be.


José Arroyo


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