The Code That Got Away: Why the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code Made Better Films

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English 105/11.50-12.40
October 11, 2010

The Code that Got Away: Why the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code Made Better Films

What makes a good movie? An engaging plotline, talented actors and actresses; perhaps a happy ending? Movies have always been an important part of American culture; of course, they can entertain us but they can also hold up mirrors to society, raising awareness about issues we need to pay attention to, and help us form opinions. But it’s getting harder and harder to find good movies in current theaters. Current films are being made in an age where almost any movie can pass as a good one, not necessarily due to talent or skill, but due to the weakening of the standards we once held our films up to. The 1930 Motion Picture Production Code gave filmmakers a set of guidelines that let only the most talented films reach audiences; it provided audiences with quality films that didn’t have to sacrifice artistry for explanation or lean on pointless vulgarities to catch audiences’ attentions; it acted as a filter that allowed only the finer-made films to be shown to the people who loved them and kept coming back to see them. The 1930s film code was the superior code because it gave the public superior films. The 1930 Motion Picture Production Code was first put into place by the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc in February of 1930. Motion picture producers in the thirties believed that American audiences trusted them entirely with the quality and content of their films. As such, the producers felt that it was their responsibility to their audiences to produce films that would meet the wants and standards set for the films they watched. At first glance, the Code may seem to be focused on only overtly promoting morality and stifling the reality of life during that time period, but critics quick to bring up this idea cannot judge the Code on its text alone; they must first consider the context of the document. 1930 was a decade ravaged by the Great Depression. Poverty ran rampant and crime abounded. It was hard enough for Americans to live through these difficult times; producers knew better than to sit audiences in theaters just to remind them of just how hard life was. Movies became forms of escapism, the very definition of the word being, “an inclination to retreat from unpleasant realities through diversion or fantasy.” If the only films producers showed in theatres in the thirties were the visual depictions of every day stories, a large majority of them during that time would not have happy endings; that was the reality of that time period. The American audience wanted to get away from the harsh realities of every day life. Why would they spend what little money they had on films that reminded them of the trials they went through every day? The most popular film genres of the thirties were war films, suspense films, musicals, westerns, and comedies. They were films that reveled in American glory days, films about wrongdoers getting their “just desserts” and the good things in life: laughter, family, singing, dancing, and love. Those who disagree with the 1930’s film code often raise the point that films made under the code did not feature enough variety for audiences, adding that it was poor business sense to put out the same kinds of films repeatedly. But the aforementioned list is proof of the contrary. If the producers behind the Code took the advice of the opposition and made their films as closely related to reality as possible, films would have been much more monotonous than the opposition believes films of that time already were. And producers recognized that the public wanted to watch films that lifted audience’s spirits and fermented some sort of faith in happiness, even in their current situations, so they put out films that did just that. And the films did make money because they gave the people exactly what they wanted: glimmers of hope and happiness that it was...
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