Why ‘Dobbs vs. Jackson’ Gives Me Hope for Hollywood

July 12, 2022 Updated: July 12, 2022

Commentary

When I was 15 years old, I decided that the Motion Picture Production Code was the answer to society’s problems. I boiled the moral decay in American culture in recent decades down to one thing: the bad influence of the entertainment industry. It all starts in Hollywood, so I pinpointed unwholesome films as the source of the corruption.

Society had standards of decency when the Production Code was law in Hollywood. Those standards fell by the wayside as the Code faltered and gave way to the ineffective rating system in place today. Replace the Code, I reasoned, and the standards which were once intrinsic in America would eventually return, at least to some degree. With this belief, I started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, a free WordPress blog I dubbed an “unofficial non-profit organization” dedicated to saving the arts in America.

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Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code), cover of a paper copy. (Public Domain)

Most 15-year-olds have never even heard of the Motion Picture Production Code. For that matter, most 50-year-olds haven’t heard of it, either, unless they study Hollywood history. I learned about it in summer 2016, when my sister and I began studying 1930s cinema because of our new interest in an actor from that era, Lew Ayres. During my research, I ran across the Production Code and the Pre-Code Era. Most film historians revel in these strange four years between Hollywood’s official adoption of the Code in 1930 and its actual enforcement in 1934 because of its shockingly risqué and daring films. I, on the other hand, found that the Code described the standards for entertainment which my family and I have always held.

Since I’ve become a vocal advocate of the Code, I’ve received a lot of negative, hostile, incredulous, or at least doubtful responses to my cause. The most common concern among supporters of the idea is that you can’t go back. That was a different time; you can’t hope for the film industry to be restored to its former decency after so many years of prurience. Although nobody has ever succeeded in shaking my conviction, I must admit that even I have wondered if an industry and a society so far gone has any chance for reformation. However, the recent Supreme Court decision in “Dobbs vs. Jackson” gives me hope that it is possible for Hollywood to change.

The History of the Code

The Motion Picture Production Code was written in 1929 by Martin J. Quigley, a prominent film trade paper publisher, and Father Daniel A. Lord, a cultured Catholic priest from St. Louis, Missouri. Quigley, a prominent Catholic layman with strong moral principles and a thorough understanding of the film industry, had had the idea for a production code since the 1910s. When reviewing silent films, he would frequently lament that censorship didn’t make clean movies; it just butchered dirty ones. Films would only be truly decent if they were made right in the first place, which could only be achieved through a code. By 1929, other moral-minded Catholic Chicagoans agreed with him, as the early talkie “The Trial of Mary Dugan” scandalized the nation. Martin Quigley had an answer, so he co-wrote the document with Father Lord, who gave it the necessary theological clout.

In 1930, Will Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), Hollywood’s trade organization, agreed that the Production Code was a good idea. After all, he had been appointed head of the MPPDA upon its formation in 1922 to help the film industry clean up its image after some scandals, but he had not succeeded yet. Hays presented the Code to the major studio moguls as his own composition to conceal its Catholic origins, and they adopted it on March 31, 1930. However, the MPPDA subdivision created to enforce the Code, the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), had no authority to make filmmakers submit their scripts for pre-production review. As a result, the films which were made during the next four years were the worst released by Hollywood to date. The Code seemed like a failure.

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Joseph I. Breen, circa 1951. (Courtesy of John Benton)

By 1934, things had to change. The Catholic Legion of Decency was encouraging Catholics and non-Catholics alike to boycott all salacious films. Meanwhile, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was threatening to impose a federal censorship board if Hollywood didn’t clean up its act. In desperation, the moguls knew they had one more chance to regulate themselves. On July 1, 1934, the Production Code Administration (PCA) was formed with former newspaperman Joseph I. Breen as its leader. Unlike the SRC, the PCA had the necessary power, since films needed its Seal of Approval for release in the United States, and the right man to wield it. This time, the Code was successful, resulting in twenty years of the greatest films ever made. Everything went smoothly while Joe Breen enforced the Code. However, when he retired in October 1954, his assistant, Geoffrey M. Shurlock, replaced him but failed to enforce the Code properly. During Shurlock’s fourteen years of leadership, or lack thereof, the Code quickly lost its strength, and film standards plummeted. By 1968, the Code was a joke, so then-MPPDA (by then the MPAA) president Jack Valenti replaced it with the modern Rating System.

Setting a Precedent

On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark decision in the case of “Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.” This ruling overturned two previous SCOTUS decisions, “Roe vs. Wade” of 1973 and “Planned Parenthood vs. Casey” of 1992, by deciding that the United States Constitution does not grant the right to abortion. Instead of a federal right, the abortion issue is now left up to each state, several of which have already outlawed most or all abortions. The mainstream media, as well as liberal companies, celebrities, and politicians, immediately began bemoaning this “denial of women’s rights.” Even the most insignificant personal Instagram account with a left-leaning agenda has jumped on the bandwagon of outrage and disbelief about this “step backward for America.” Meanwhile, conservative and Christian Americans are celebrating the most positive political development in years.

Many pro-abortion critics are lamenting that this decision has set society back to the 1950s, which is silly because “Roe vs. Wade” wasn’t passed until the 1970s. Nevertheless, the overturning of a Supreme Court decision which has been law for almost half a century does seem like a complete contradiction of the assertion that you can’t go back. In fact, it reminds us of the innumerable times throughout history when evil has prevailed, only to eventually be conquered and replaced by the good which previously reigned supreme.

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Anti-abortion activists demonstrate outside the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington on June 13, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

This so-called regression gives me hope for the restoration of positive things we’ve lost in other aspects of society. If it’s possible to reverse a federal legality which has existed for forty-nine years, it’s possible to eliminate an ineffective branch of a film trade association which has been in place only five years longer. The Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) has been the only vestige of law and order in the film industry for decades; even it proudly asserts that it is optional for films to be submitted for rating, although most movie theaters won’t play unrated films. What if the CARA were replaced or even supplemented by a new Production Code Administration? The Code could easily work in such an “elective” system, especially if the National Association of Theater Owners would remain aligned with the Motion Picture Association (MPA, the MPAA’s new name) enough to avoid playing non-PCA-approved films. Even if only a few filmmakers collaborated with a new PCA to make Code films, imagine the huge impact it would have on society!

From Here to Entropy

The film industry is really not that different now than it was in 1954. People say that the rise of independent films led to the demise of the studio system and, with it, the Code, yet most major movies released in the US today are made or at least distributed by the big five studios, all of which existed, in some form, as major Old Hollywood studios. One of the biggest new film companies, Netflix, has given up its category of “independent” by joining the big five as an MPA member. Thus, Netflix original films and even streaming series could be subject to a new PCA’s self-regulation.

Netflix Launch
An Apple iPad is used to view Netflix during the Netflix UK launch in London on Jan. 9, 2012. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Netflix)

The second law of thermodynamics, as Rudolf Clausius described it in 1865, states: “The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.” This scientific truth that the natural world heads toward increasing chaos and disorder can only be broken when human consciousness is involved. Inspired by a higher moral standard, man can defy this law of the jungle and return to a more civilized state, forsaking barbaric practices which have become standard. If we can acknowledge the right to life in the womb, why can’t we acknowledge the right and need for entertainment which is decent for all?

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

Tiffany Brannan is a 20-year-old opera singer, Hollywood history/vintage beauty copywriter, film reviewer, fashion historian, travel writer, 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.