Code of the Screen
Photoplay – October 1926
It is enforced more strictly by the motion picture industry than the Eighteenth Amendment is by the whole Revenue Service. Here it is told for the first time.
There are five primal items on this unwritten moral code.
The first law
concerns what are usually termed immoral relations. There is a curious dividing line here. The films were not permitted to film Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat,” in which a reckless woman was promiscuous —and enjoyed it. Yet the screen frequently shows a young woman being forced into immorality, either through physical force or to get money for a sick relative. Yet the films can not show immorality as a moral weakness or a psychological case.
The second law
revolves around the color line. The films cannot show the love of a negro for a white, or the reverse. The same law applies to the yellow and the brown races. Yet the stage’s biggest dramatic hit this year is “Lulu Belle,” which presents the progress of a wholly immoral negro cabaret dancer from Harlem to the Paris apartment of a dissolute French nobleman. “Lulu Belle” will never reach the screen.
It is interesting to point out that one of the most highly praised films ever made, “Broken Blossoms,” violated this rule. In Thomas Burke’s Limehouse story—and, in the subsequent film made by D. W. Griffith—a Chinaman loved a white girl. The canny Mr. Griffith tempered this by painting the Yellow Man as a young dreamer out of tune with harsh realities. into the innermost problems of humanity. The screen apparently can not do this without crashing against the censors of America.
The real facts of everyday life come under this ban. The three events of existence are birth, marriage and death. Only once have the films shown childbirth. That was the famous scene in D. W. Griffith’s “Way Down East.” I was present at the various conferences held by Mr. Griffith before ” Way Down East ” was released. Most of the conferences concerned this scene. Griffith was advised by most of his staff to cut it from the picture. He refused—and the scene brought down a storm of protests. It was the principal cause of the severe cutting of “Way Down East” in Pennsylvania, Ohio anil other censorridden communities.
No picture ever received so many cuts as did “Way Down East.” Griffith said he was going to film a special scene for these sections, showing Lillian Gish, as the heroine of the New England melodrama, finding her baby under a cabbage leaf. Marriage, in the films, is usually the fade-out finish of a story. Its problems are avoided. Death, coming under the ban of unhappy endings, is generally taboo.
THE Birth of a Nation,” the pioneer film to encounter this canon, was barred in many localities for years. It was looked upon as a breeder of race riots although, as far as I know, there isn’t a single record of a riot caused by this film epic. But this superstition discouraged Griffith from carrying out one of his pet dreams, the filming of ” Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The third law
concerns the presentation of crime. Some of the world’s most fascinating fiction has been built upon the lives of dashing criminals. The films can not show crime for is own sake. “The Unholy Three,” for instance, was an absorbing melodrama of three side show crooks, but it aroused a lot of opposition during its progress through the country’s film theaters. It was looked upon as dangerous in many quarters. You may never have noticed the fact, but the actual commission of a crime is barred pretty generally. A man may be shot, but the actual firing of the weapon may not be shown. You may see the murderer start to aim his gun, but that’s all. This, too, goes for stabbing. You will see the start of a blow but not the finish.
The fourth law
bars the facts of life. The spoken drama and the published story have delved The fiflh canon is a religious one. The films must not concern themselves with religious controversies. Furthermore, ministers are barred as principal characters. The screen does not permit the presentation of a minister erring seriously in any way. The man of God who reforms the harlot and himself slips has long been a theme of the stage and of literature. It was the story of “Rain,” another footlight play barred by the films. The minister is barred, except to marry the heroine and the hero in the final fade-out. Or he can be a kindly old adviser. There it ends.
The screen long dodged “The White Sister” because of fancied religious complications. The recently produced version of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” is an example of dodging this issue. Will Hays, the czar of filmdom, has just added a new canon to the code of the screen. Drinking is prohibited on the theory that the national prohibition laws have made it illegal. Reformers have claimed that films have flaunted both bootleggers and the public’s disregard of the Volstead amendment.
THERE is the law –
— concerning the political aspects of films. This centers principally around the Mexican bandit. Mexico is sensitive about the wicked greaser and it is not possible to use him to any extent without arousing government complications. And this goes as well for any country resembling Mexico. When Joseph Hergesheimer wrote ” Flower of the Night ” for Pola Negri, he had the silver mines of Mexico as his locale. In fact, he made a special trip to Mexico to get the correct color and atmosphere. But, before the film was made the whole story was rewritten, first to an imaginary country and then to California in mining days of ’49. There are certain other restrictions, not of moral character. One is against fantasy. Producers, largely from experience, believe that whimsy is not popular. Maurice Tourneur’s “Prunella” and “The Blue Bird” were pioneer flops at the box office. “A Kiss for Cinderella” was a more recent one. “Peter Pan” was an exception. Producers are against dual roles, too, and against tragic endings, of course. And it takes a lot of persuasion to get them to forget their ban on costume stories. All this, of course, is beside the moral issues with which this article is concerned. Aside from the three stage successes, “Lulu Belle,” “The Green Hat” and “Rain,” already referred to, there are several other stage plays on the proscribed list.
The films, for instance, will not be permitted to do the footlight hits, “The Shanghai Gesture,” and “Sex.” “The Shanghai Gesture” deals with the vengeance of a woman known as Madame Goddam, wronged years before by a British trader. The woman maintains the largest brothel in the Orient. The ultimate vengeance comes when this man is shown his own daughter dangling in a gilded cage and offered for immoral purposes to whosoever can pay the highest price. There is another sensational scene in Madame Goddam’s lupanar, when a semi-nude girl is offered for sale on a platter to a host of Chinese customers. This play has been severely condemned in New York. The moral code of the films bars it. “They Knew What They Wanted” is another drama which will not be filmed. Although this won the Pulitzer prize, as the best drama of two years ago. Will Hays turned his thumb down. This concerns an old Italian winegrower who had his legs broken in an accident upon his wedding day. The bride promptly has an affair with another man that night. There is a baby. The old man forgives the transgression, largely because he has always longed for children. “White Cargo” is reported to be barred. This violates rule Number Two, concerning the color line. It is a story of a man’s moral collapse in the tropics. “Sex,” another current shocker, is a straightaway story of a harlot. “One Man’s Woman,” still another Broadway play, comes among the dramas violating the screen’s moral code.
Willis Goldbeck, the well known scenario writer who offered a number of expert suggestions for this article, advanced the theory that, in all fairness, the rival Pollyanna code of familiar and favorite situations ought to be presented, if only as a balance to the moral code. Mr. Goldbeck’s eight always permissible situations into which all film drama may be catalogued follow:
- The clown with the breaking heart.
- The mother who denies her motherhood to benefit her child.
- The prince who must choose between throne and bourgeois beauty.
- The faker who sends home fake reports of his success and returns to find himself welcomed by a brass band. Thus he is forced to prove himself.
- The country lass who gives her heart to the worthless city chap.
- The coward who fights his way to manhood when the girl he loves is in danger.
- The wild woman who turns out to be a good girl after all.