Hollywood’s Old Code Is Better Than the New Code

By Jeffrey A. Tucker
Jeffrey A. Tucker
Jeffrey A. Tucker
Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute, and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.
March 17, 2023Updated: March 17, 2023


On the recommendation of Tiffany Brannan, I watched “No Highway in the Sky” (1951) with Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. It’s an absolutely thrilling movie with tremendous scenes of what it was like to fly commercial in 1951 in all its luxury. It’s comfort, service, and spaciousness all around. Those scenes alone are remarkable but so is the overarching theme of scientific courage.

The scientist played by Stewart has figured out based on his theoretical understanding that there is a real danger to the plane given how many miles it had already flown. The tail could fall off mid-flight, killing all passengers. He has to deal with a prescient moral and intellectual difficulty. Does he trust his calculations and do whatever is possible to end this flight or go along with the prevailing consensus that the plane is safe?

He talks the pilot into a landing to look over the plane and during this time completely disables it, an action that gets him into a heap of trouble. He is deemed to be a crazy person and probably dangerous. So he is banned from the next flight to the destination and taken in for questioning.

Meanwhile, back at the lab, he had long been running a real-life test to see if he was correct. Just before he faces complete disgrace, the test project proves that he is right. The tail falls off.

It’s a wonderful tribute to science and the scientific spirit, which often must go against prevailing consensus. This is precisely what is so wrong about the current attitude toward science, which is that everyone needs to go along with the majority opinion. That’s absurd. A real scientist is convinced by calculations, evidence, and proof.

This theme is massively relevant in our time. Three years ago, governments of the world decided it was a good time to reject all public health history and knowledge and instead lock down the population. What is a serious scientist supposed to do? Most of them went along to protect their grants, reputation, media credibility, and professional standing.

A very small minority decided to speak out against the appalling policies. They defended natural immunity, condemned the attacks on human rights, drew attention to the threat gradients by age, and cited traditional public health principles. Then the ceiling fell in on them. They were all put in the position of Jimmy Stewart in this movie, condemned for their wrongthink. Many lost their jobs and faced wicked public condemnation.

Today, three years later, they are heroes. And it was not just scientists but also journalists, lawyers, medical doctors, and many others. You can read about the choices of many of these people in “Blindsight is 2020” by Gabrielle Bauer. There are many more still who are not mentioned in her book but whose names are now legendary. They are heroes because they stood up for scientific principles rather than going along with the crowd.

One hopes this will be a lesson but of course the lesson won’t stick, because of human nature, state power, and crowd dynamics.

Let me pause here just to celebrate the fantastic gig that Tiffany Brannan has carved out for herself. She is a tremendous film reviewer. What she does is review old films as if they are new. Her reviews are just great. And for people like me, her archive at The Epoch Times is of very high value. Any night when you need a movie to watch, you can go through her many articles and pick just about anything and get a winner!

Now, she does have an agenda with these reviews beyond helping you find good movies to see. She is a champion of the old Hayes Commission code for Hollywood that came to govern film content, dialogue, and dress in movies at some point after about 1935. It finally fell apart sometime in the middle 1950s once no one seemed to care anymore.

Now, her opinion here is delightfully eccentric and I respect it. I do not however agree with it. The pre-code movies are thrilling too, such as the Golddiggers series, featuring the innovative choreography of Busby Berkeley. I simply adore those movies too.

The Hayes code was also not adopted purely to improve the culture. It was taken on by Hollywood under duress. Washington was threatening censorship and antitrust legislation unless the film industry cleaned up its act. So adopting the code was a kind of rear-guard action to stop government intervention.

To be sure, the code generated some fascinating filmmaking and you can even see it in the Stewart film above. Just as an example, the scientist meets a beautiful stewardess in the plane who eventually comes to his home and wants to stay the night. The scientist says that wouldn’t look good so (and this you won’t believe) she volunteers to change into her nurse costume so that the neighbors will think he is merely nursed to health.

I’m sure the producers had a blast with the old sexy-nurse trope left over from World War I. It apparently blew right past the censors and made it into the movie. How could this violate the code? It is in full compliance, wink wink nudge nudge. So, yes, the code is fun to watch unfold in these movies because producers were always trying to find ways around it. They get very creative.

On the other hand, all this compliance comes at a cost. For example, in this film, one knows for sure that 1) the love interest will end in marriage, 2) the good guy will be vindicated, and 3) none of the good guys in the film will ever face a gruesome death such as in a plane crash. What that means is that the plot endings are always rather obvious from the very outset. I find that rather tedious and unimaginative. The code really did hinder artistic creativity.

There is another problem with the code now that we look back at it. All the films made between 1935 and about 1955 seem to have an overarching puritanism about them with some very subtle exceptions. If you take all this at face value, and you are watching from the vantage point of a person reaching his teens in the 1960s or 1970s or later, you might conclude that people in these times and all the people who lived then were tremendously prudish and unused to any real tragedy or misbehavior that goes unpunished.

Indeed, believing that society before you consisted of nothing but naive prudes, one might, as many people did in later decades, fly into full-scale cultural revolt under the belief that you are part of the first generation ever to live it up and live licentiously. It’s a ridiculous presumption but that is the message one might get with a superficial viewing of these films made over two decades prior.

All that said, we might reflect for a moment on the reality that the code has not really disappeared but is even tighter and more enforced than ever in the new Hollywood. It’s just very different. Every film you see samples of the same woke tropes: same-sex love interests, trans propaganda, racial tokenism, the upending of gender stereotypes, the attack on businesspeople and Wall Street, the smearing and slaughtering of genuine manliness and white men in particular, and an overall promotion of all that is associated with DEI, ESG, and postmodern baloney overall.

This is the new code and it is insufferable. It is far more preachy and dogmatic than the old code, to the point that you feel like every trip to the theater becomes a pedantic statement of what you are supposed to believe about politics, culture, and morality. It’s truly insufferable.

So I will give it to Ms. Brannan on this point. The old code is vastly to be preferred to the new code. And this film mentioned above is among the many hundreds that prove the point. For the foreseeable future, it’s going to be the old classics for me.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.