Respect for the Flag: The Motion Picture Production Code and the Flag Code

Respect for the Flag: The Motion Picture Production Code and the Flag Code
An American flag in a file photograph. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tiffany Brannan

“The flag should never touch the ground.” “It must be destroyed in a dignified manner when it is no longer in fit condition to display.” I learned these basic rules for respectful treatment of the American flag from my parents as a young child, but I didn’t know how these customs originated. During the Golden Era of Hollywood, films had standards of decency in terms of what content was shown onscreen. Neither of these high standards was an accident. The first was a result of the Flag Code and the second a result of the Motion Picture Production Code.

The Production Code was a set of guidelines for proper film content which was strongly enforced from 1934 to 1954, commonly called the Hays Code because of its association with Will Hays, Hollywood’s goodwill ambassador. Those who know about it associate it with content issues like profanity, nudity, and violence. Few people are aware that its primary purpose was to help movies avoid censorship, both foreign and domestic. It achieved this by guiding filmmakers away from content which was likely to offend. This included foreign relations, political topics, and even patriotic principles which aligned with the Flag Code.

A Grand Old Costume

The only patriotic principle clearly stated in the Code is respect for the flag. I have never heard of a Code debacle about disrespecting the flag in a standard way, such as letting it touch the ground or flying a tattered banner. Most filmmakers knew better than to desecrate the flag, and few would have had reason to do so. The only Code issue regarding the flag about which I have ever read is in a different category, one which most people rarely consider today: attire.

In his 1970 memoirs of his years enforcing the Production Code, “See No Evil: Life Inside a Censor,” Jack Vizzard recounted an incident in 1946 in which he defended the honor of the flag. Here is his description of the event:

“[William Wright] had sent a script into our office for a musical he was producing. In it there was a child’s ballet, of sorts. At the conclusion of the number, one of the little girls who was doing a tap dance, front and center, does a pirouette, whirls out her cape, reverses it and, lo and behold, it has turned into an American flag!

“At that time, the war was hardly over; the American Legion was very active; and the Veterans of Foreign Wars were afire with patriotism. Millions of recently released servicemen were still very cognizant of flag rubrics and were quite sensitive on the point. The Red Menace was felt everywhere and might easily be felt in such tactics as improper esteem for the flag. Therefore, it seemed an inappropriate time to be abusing the national symbol by turning it into a dance costume.

“I looked in the back of the Code and dug out a more or less obscure provision which stated: ‘The use of the flag shall be consistently respectful.’

“I quoted this provision to Bill in my letter on his script, and questioned whether this exploitation of the flag were not disrespectful.

“He certainly did not need the phone to convey his howl of irritation to me. He protested that this was witch-hunting. He said that he could see my point if a bevy of dancers were prancing all over the flag, singing the ‘Internationale.’ But this was just a little girl with innocent intentions, and the ending gave her dance a patriotic flare. He was going to keep it in his picture, whether it technically violated flag and Code rubrics, or not.

“When I hung up, I wished I had never brought up the point. It seemed to me he was right and that I had been too evangelistic in dragging up a hardly used Code clause to apply in this case. I decided to forget the whole thing.

“Such was not my luck, however. A copy of my letter had gone to New York, following usual procedure, and had been spotted by an alert officer of the corporation who was very Commie conscious. At once, he dug out his old Army manual and searched it for the rules and regulations governing the handling of the flag. To my distress, he discovered that I was correct, and that it was forbidden to use the flag as part of a costume. He called me on the phone and quoted the passage to me, commending me for my vigilance and urging me to stand fast.

“Now what was I going to do? I didn’t want to foul up my reputation with our East Coast offices, creating the impression that I was a parlor pink, as they said in those days. And I did not want to pursue the issue with Bill, with whom I had to live, and whom I was certain to meet again on another picture.

Photos of the front and back cover of the 1970 book "See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor" by Jack Vizzard. (Courtesy of NatesBookNook)
Photos of the front and back cover of the 1970 book "See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor" by Jack Vizzard. (Courtesy of NatesBookNook)

“Therefore, it was with divided mind that I went into the projection room to review the film when it at last arrived. I was turning my will into iron to make a decision on the spot, when I saw the scene. The ballet number began, and the reasons pro and con were still oscillating back and forth like busy electrons. The tap dance began. My brain clicked with resolution. ... Bill was correct. And correct is correct. I’ll glare down those fellows in New York. I’ll pass it! Go ahead, little girl, pirouette!

“She did.

“The costume was the same on the inside as on the outside. Solid navy blue!

“Bill, for mysterious reasons of his own, had changed his mind.

“Is this not justification for indulging in the obvious pun and saying that, for once, Wright was wrong?”

The Flag Code

I think that Jack Vizzard was absolutely right in this case. This scene, whose film of origin I haven’t been able to discover, was obviously not intended to be disrespectful. However, it was in clear violation of a very important Code, but not the Motion Picture Production Code. The United States Flag Code was put in place on June 14, 1923, to stem the wide use and misuse of the flag in advertising and merchandise. It was made law in 1942. Title 36, Chapter 10 of the United States Code deals with Patriotic Customs, including Sec. 176: “Respect for flag.”

“(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker’s desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.

“(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.”

Modern American culture has completely disregarded these once-sacred rules. Patriotic attire ranges from t-shirts bearing images of the flag to bikinis, shorts, and sandals which look like they were made out of the flag itself! Our national symbol is not something to be used for basic covering. It’s better to respectfully depict the image itself on a solid piece of material. Better yet, I think patriotic attire should be like Americana costumes from the Code era, different designs based on the colors and patterns of the flag rather than the flag itself. The flag isn’t something which should be flaunted. It should be revered.

Respect for the Flag

The Flag Code was probably the rule which the gentleman from the New York office quoted to Mr. Vizzard. The young self-regulator began to feel that he was being ridiculous in this case, but he was right to stop even a small, relatively inoffensive costume use of the flag. Allow one flag cape, and you soon have the array of flag clothing which you find in every Walmart in July.

Respect for the flag is a very important part of our country’s heritage. Let us always remember to honor our flag which flies overhead. Perhaps as well as the Motion Picture Production Code, America needs to pay more attention to the United States Flag Code and its rules about our country’s banner.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.