The Key to the Golden Era of Hollywood

A set of standards versus a set of letters
October 16, 2019 Updated: October 16, 2019

It’s hard to imagine a time when movies weren’t classified by age appropriateness. The movie rating system, which assigns age-based ratings, significantly affects each movie’s audience, reception, and success. It is now as integral a part of cinema as popcorn.

Since its formation in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), now the Motion Picture Association (MPA), the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) has stated one purpose: warning parents about film content so they can make informed choices about their children’s entertainment.

The rating system seems like the perfect compromise: a balance of artistic freedom and viewer choice. While viewers can intelligently choose which films to see, filmmakers can make movies as they please. Unfortunately, the system isn’t as successful as CARA claims.

People who want to avoid objectionable movies are at a loss. As of Sept. 30, 2018, 5 percent of the 29,791 films rated had been classified G while almost 58 percent were rated R, according to the MPAA 50th-anniversary report.  In “Violence, Sex, and Profanity in Films,” where researchers correlated film content with ratings, they concluded that due to the stigma of immaturity attributed to milder ratings, most blockbusters are rated PG-13 or R, since these ratings draw the biggest audiences.

International Movies Classification System icons collection
The Motion Picture rating system. (radon_on_line/Shutterstock)

For 51 years, America has trusted a set of letters instead of a set of standards. Thus, the film industry operates under the motto “caveat emptor”—or buyer beware. Anything can be done, said, or shown in a film if a proper warning is given. Unfortunately, the strictly age-based system ignores the dangers that PG-13 films offer to teenagers. Because it is just designed to protect children, it abandons viewers at one of the most vulnerable stages—young adulthood.

motion picture code seal of approval
The First PCA Seal of Approval, for the 1934 film “The World Moves On, 1934.” (Remastered photo by Mark Vieira, courtesy of Tiffany Brannan)

Setting a Standard

Can you imagine going to the movie theater knowing you wouldn’t see anything offensive? Sixty-five years ago, that was a reality for Americans. According to the Margaret Herrick Library, from 1934 to 1968, the Production Code Administration (PCA), an MPAA subdivision, ensured every American film followed the Motion Picture Production Code, which specified content standards and guidelines. No film could be distributed without a PCA Seal of Approval, which guaranteed acceptability for everyone.

This industry self-regulation helped filmmakers by warning them about content that would be targeted and removed by regional censors. As Thomas Doherty explains in his book “Hollywood’s Censor,” by reforming voluntarily, the film industry avoided government censorship, then under consideration.

The rating system replaced the Code in 1968 because it was no longer deemed effective and relevant. However, it did not become outdated overnight. During the late 1950s and 1960s, the Code’s enforcement slackened. By the 1960s, the PCA was only a weak sensor board that automatically approved films. Thus, MPAA president Jack Valenti decided, as stated in a 1968 press release, that film content should be classified, not regulated.

At its peak, the PCA was Hollywood’s biggest influence. Eight employees reviewed countless scripts, story sources, and films each year to ensure every movie was acceptable from opening to “The End.”

The first Production Code Administrator was Joseph I. Breen, a newspaperman and press agent. He retired in 1954 and was succeeded by his longtime assistant, Geoffrey M. Shurlock, as explained by Stephen Weinberger in his “Joe Breen’s Oscar.” Is it coincidental that Hollywood’s glory days were during Joseph Breen’s tenure?

Joseph Breen in the 1950s
Joseph I. Breen in the 1950s, working at the Production Code Administration. (Courtesy of Tiffany Brannan)

Hollywood’s Golden Era and the Code

The Code’s enforcement timeline corresponds too closely with Hollywood’s glorious years to be coincidental. Including “Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Casablanca,” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” the greatest classic films are from the Breen Era (1934–1954). These movies are not children’s films. They told deep, mature stories without including unacceptable content and made huge profits because all ages could come.

Does the Code deserve credit for films’ greatness? Many attribute Hollywood’s Golden Era to other circumstances, such as the studio system, talented artists, and even to society’s decency. Such claims rest on the belief that society, entertainment, and people were “better” back then. However, this idea ignores obvious facts about film history.

Anyone who believes all old films were decent hasn’t seen many early movies. After sound’s introduction in the late 1920s, the already daring Hollywood completely abandoned morals during the period from March 1930 to July 1934, which is known as the Pre-Code Era. Fighting the Depression, studios drew audiences with cheap sensationalism. Adultery, nudity, brutality, and perversion dominated as in R-rated films today. According to writers Mike Mashon and James Bell, movies like “The Public Enemy” (1931), “Redheaded Woman” (1932), and “Baby Face” (1933) exaggerated post-war America’s liberalness.

poster for Singin in the Rain
Poster for “Singin’ in the Rain,” 1952, a film considered by some to be the best musical ever made. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios)

After the PCA’s formation in July 1934, film content quickly reformed. Movies were soon uplifting, decent, and artistic. Whereas pre-Code films valued exploitation over substance, Code films were deep. Avoiding cheap, unacceptable material, writers learned to be creative. Actors reformed, too. Actresses like Jeanette MacDonald, Myrna Loy, and Claudette Colbert, who were famous only for undressing in pre-Code films, displayed real talent in Code films. As Hollywood’s decent new image flourished, profits increased because audiences grew larger than ever before, according to “The Breening of America.”

By 1955, the indecency, vulgarity, and violence that Joseph Breen banned had already returned. Hollywood was producing films that were much more liberal than current American standards. As John Vizzard explains in his “See No Evil,” the PCA allowed filmmakers to make films that violated the Code more and more, so the film industry’s standards declined steadily during the 14 years after Mr. Breen’s retirement, eventually leading to the Code’s abandonment.

A publicity photo of Myrna Loy, who started out in femme fatale roles, until the Production Code Administration required films to self-regulate. Then her formidable talents were revealed. (Public Domain)

A Code for the 21st Century

In the 21st century, is the idea of code for decent entertainment as outdated as telegrams for speedy communication? Society has changed, but does that mean decency is outdated? Some standards, like kindness, respect, and honesty, never change. The Code could shape the 21st century, giving our divided nation tradition, shared values, and patriotism. Instead of pushing agendas and promoting libertinism, films could entertain, uplift, and depict reality positively. However, they need guidance to do so.

We can’t go back, but the path forward doesn’t have to be downhill. Society has always alternated between decency and looseness. It could return to decency with Code films. Restrained violence could curtail shootings. Respect for beliefs could minimize friction. Modest costumes could revive glamour.

Society can be somewhat reformed if the MPA replaces the rating system with a new PCA. It was not censorship but industry self-regulation, as The Irish Times says, by men the filmmakers considered friends. Is Hollywood’s artistic freedom worth the price of its contribution to society’s destruction?

Tiffany Brannan is an 18-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.