“The break with pre-Code notions of penology is best marked by the termination of the criminal-coddling gangster genre and the birth of a new police-friendly cycle of G-Men pictures: Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface were transformed into G-Men (1935), Let ‘Em Have It (1935), and Public Hero #1 (1935)” (Doherty 95).
The Production Code was adapted in July 1934, yet I always felt Hollywood product from later 1934 and a good part of 1935 were more similar in tone and content to their pre-Code predecessors than they were the family-friendlier Hollywood hits of the latter part of the decade. I didn’t realize that this was by design. Or dictate.
Trade papers reported on an article in “The Motion Picture and the Family,” a monthly publication issued by the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) that detailed new, or at least more strictly spelled out, Production Code guidelines.
The most detailed report was in Motion Picture Herald, November 2, 1935.
The MPPDA article was "prepared" by John Boettiger, special assistant to Will Hays. The author congratulates Hollywood producers on films of the “G Men” cycle, stressing that beyond being not harmful, they were actually constructive. At the same time there is an issue with the number of such films being released to theaters. A backlash from theatergoers that could lead to bad box office conditions was feared:
“Mr. Hays raised a question, however, as to the number of these and similar pictures already released or in the course of production and stated his belief that the quality of such films in proportion to other entertainment had become too high, and that he desired to avoid an over-emphasis on the activities of American gangsters in the treatment of crime on the screen.”
More officially, “the producers unanimously approved the following paragraph, to be added to the present policy of the Production Code Administration in applying the production Code:
Several films were exempted from the new policy. Among those I’ve seen, they do seem to confirm that last gasp of lax Code enforcement I’d always sensed in movies of this era. The list of exempted titles (studio in parenthesis), excluded from the ruling because they were already in production as of that time:
King Solomon of Broadway (Universal)
She Couldn’t Take It (Columbia)
We’re Only Human (Radio)
Mary Burns, Fugitive (Paramount)
Three Kids and a Queen (Universal)
It Happened in Hollywood (Radio)
Waterfront Lady (Mascot)
Petrified Forest (Warner)
Killers on Parole (Universal)
Panic on the Air (Columbia)
Green Shadow (Radio)
Last Call for Love (Columbia)
The Killer (MGM)
Dr. Socrates (Warner)
Special Agent (Warner)
Hays stressed that this was not a ban on crime and mystery films: “Crime is recognized as a dramatic theme which shall always properly be reflected in literature and drama.”
Also of interest: “Similarly, there is no disposition to interfere with the making of pictures portraying the activities of such historic groups as, for example, the band of Robin Hood.”
Variety reported on these changes in an earlier-dated issue (September 25, 1935), summarizing:
“Ban virtually becomes an amendment to the production code, under which purity seals are issued by Joe Breen organization. Latter has been instructed to turn down any pictures that violate the new order, and to also delete sequences in regular run of pictures that go against the ruling.”
Back to Motion Picture Herald’s extensive excerpts, Hays stresses in his conclusion, “ The whole purpose has been to prevent pictures showing American gangsters in violent conflict with the law from becoming disproportionate in number or over-emphasized in treatment.”
The same report also spoke of cracking down on gratuitous scenes of drinking.
I came across this while researching my next review, 20th Century’s Show Them No Mercy, which felt the heavy hand of the Hays Office from pre-production in Summer 1935 through its release that December. The PCA forced a change in title (from Snatched) and content, disallowing the details of the kidnapping crime that is at the center of its plot.
The resulting film still manages to feel like something from the earlier part of the decade than the last half of the '30s and is even grittier than its 1951 Western remake, Rawhide.
Tomorrow, some notes on the real-life kidnapping case that Show Them No Mercy was based upon.
- Doherty, Thomas. Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
- ”MPPDA Members Call a Halt on Films of Gangsters vs. John Law.” Motion Picture Herald. 2 November 1935, 27.
- “Reverse Crime Pix Nipped.” Variety. 25 September 1935, 2.