Christian author Jerry Newcombe is not happy with Hollywood these days, specifically with how it’s ignoring flyover country. He longs for the “good old days” when the Motion Picture Production Code (usually referred to as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) allowed church leaders to have more of a say in what ought to be allowed in movies.
In a recent column for conservative site WND, Newcombe takes the very unpopular position that the code was a real swell thing for the motion picture industry.
Why was the Golden Era of Hollywood (as seen in the quality of movies) way back in the 1930s and ’40s? It was because of the salt from the church, both Catholic and Protestant, influencing the outcome of the content. So the writers had to be clever. The actors couldn’t swear, yet they could act out their frustrations in such ways that the idea of swearing was conveyed.
From the 1930s until the 1960s, the Motion Picture Production Code, through influence of Catholic and Protestant leaders and offices they had in Hollywood, provided a type of salt — keeping the movies from going too far. Dr. Ted Baehr, the go-to guy when it comes to movies from a biblical perspective, says they “worked behind the scenes to make sure that the movie industry represented the concerns of the vast majority of the public.”
For the unhep, the Hays Code was a set of guidelines “voluntarily” (i.e.: Not enforced by the government) adopted by the motion picture industry in order to avoid pictures getting banned in various states with strict “moral decency” laws, and, yes, in response to groups like American Roman Catholics harping on about immorality in films.
It didn’t just ban swearing. It didn’t just ban sex. It banned gay people (“any inference of sex perversion”), it banned mocking the clergy and Betty Boop’s flapper outfit. It banned sympathy for criminals or justification of crimes or people getting away with crimes. It was also incredibly racist! The code literally banned interracial romances — likely for the same reasons Bob Jones University banned interracial dating until 2000. The first “loosening” of that part of the code was the 1949 movie Pinky in which a white actress playing a black woman who was “passing” as white had a relationship with a white man.
This was not, by the way, simply because people were just shitty back then and not trying to make those films. Lois Weber, one of the greatest auteurs in film history, wasn’t able to distribute her 1934 film White Heat because it featured a relationship between a white man and a Hawaiian woman due to this particular restriction. It would be the last film she ever made, largely because Hays Code Hollywood was not too welcoming to a female filmmaker who made movies about how birth control was awesome.
Prior to the code being enforced, there were a significant amount of films that addressed birth control, women’s sexual freedom, religious hypocrisy (The Miracle Woman being a particularly good example of this), and occasionally even openly gay characters. That all stopped when Hays explicitly banned them in 1933. This was also right around the time that Paramount made a whole big to-do about an agreement saying they wouldn’t show actresses in male attire, on account of how mad “middle America” was about Marlene Dietrich.The Code also made a lot of things make a whole lot less sense. For instance, while both the movie versions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire are great, they had to eliminate the parts about Brick and Blanche’s dead husband being gay. Which, you know, were kind of important plot points. Heterosexual Brick is just straight up ridiculous.
Great movies were made during these years, not because of the damn Hays code, but in spite of them. A lot of movies that could have been great were not made, or made poorly, as well.
But Jerry Newcombe, well, he’s just gonna plead The Sound of Music. Because why can’t all the movies be like The Sound of Music?
Two movies with Christian themes or sub-themes were the Best Picture winners, respectively, in 1965 and 1966, “The Sound of Music” and “A Man for All Seasons.” Both were rated G. But then the church pulled out its influence in Hollywood; and by 1969, the first X-rated movie won the Oscar for best picture, “Midnight Cowboy.”
That is super weird, Mr. Newcombe, because the ratings system did not come out until November 1, 1968 — as a means to replace the Hays Code. So literally nothing was rated “G” before then. Not “The Sound of Music.” Not anything. Additionally, a rating of “X” at that time did not refer to pornographic films, but rather films where children under the age of 16 weren’t admitted. Midnight Cowboy is not Debbie Does Dallas, thank you very much.
Perhaps ironically, neither of those films (The Sound of Music and A Man for All Seasons) would have been made in the days when the Hays code was enforced most strictly, on account of the fact that one of the guidelines was to avoid portraying another nation’s “religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry” in an unfavorable light. It was due to this restriction that Warner Brothers was unable to make a film about concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Anti-Nazi films were basically not even allowed until 1938.
BUT I DIGRESS.
In the column, Newcombe goes on to praise Sony for its recent decision to offer more family friendly “edited” versions of movies for those in what he refers to as “flyover country” — though both he and his buddy, Christian movie reviewer Ted Baehr, would prefer that filmmakers just make their movies sanitized and Christian-friendly from the get-go.
I asked Ted Baehr, who is the publisher of Movieguide, about this. He told me, “I can’t recommend all of these movies, even if edited, due to dangerous or anti-Christian messages inherent in the story, so please still read the reviews. That said, Movieguide commends Sony for taking the step in the right direction of providing families with safe entertainment.”
Newcombe goes on to explain how much better O Brother Where Art Thou would be without all the taking the Lord’s name in vain stuff, and how Hollywood could make a lot more money if they would just appease “flyover country” and stop making the movies they want to make, and instead make movies that Jerry Newcombe wants to see.
His final plea? HE WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK TO THE MANAGER. Of Hollywood.
Hey, Hollywood, stop ignoring the desires of “flyover country.” You could have a lot more customers that way — plus you could help minimize the moral pollution that plagues our world.
Yes, I’m certain all of Hollywood will be right with you on that.
(Image via a 1914 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, via Filmmaker Magazine)