Why Vintage Hollywood Movies Were So Much Classier Than Modern Ones
Films of the past lacked today's depictions of violence, sex scenes, and nudity because of something called "The Code."
Watch movies from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and you’ll notice they conveyed a level of class and high moral standards that are largely absent from cinema today. The mainstream film of the past contained none of the pornified, hollow, violent, and overly sexualized imagery that is so common in Hollywood today.
Few Americans know that the reason movies from the 1930s to the 50s were more wholesome was because of something called the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930.
Beloved movies of 30s, 40s, and 50s-era Hollywood like Singin’ in the Rain, White Christmas, and What A Wonderful Life have timeless appeal because they portrayed a standard of style, morality and behavior that one simply does not see in modern America cinema. And that standard was strictly enforced under the Code.
In vintage film, monogamy was the norm. Hookup culture, adultery, nudity, profanity, and violence were not portrayed. Family was held in high esteem. Clothing was classy, with tasteful silhouettes and designs that emphasized women’s natural gifts without giving everything away. Movies were simply more comfortable to watch — you could watch one with your family without cringing or coming up with an excuse to leave the room during distasteful scenes.
Under the Code, filmmakers self-censored and omitted things like casual sex, drugs, violence, and rape scenes from movies. Kissing was limited to 3 seconds (!), and care was to be taken around portraying issues like patriotism, violence, murder, police — even “sympathy for criminals.”
As Hollywood has decayed, our overall culture has fallen as a result. Perhaps that’s because the Code is no longer is use.
Today’s films are often more focused on horrific violence, cringe-worthy nudity and sex scenes rather than on delighting the viewer and orienting them toward what is good and right. Consider Game of Thrones, an extremely widely viewed pop phenomenon that depicts incest, prostitution, patricide, and sadistic torture.
In the past, films that violated the Code were not allowed to be released until changes were made. Simply put, Hollywood was more wholesome because it was forcefully upholding up a standard of content that does not exist today.
Hollywood Used The Code to Enforce Good Values
What was this code, and what did it entail?
In a resolution passed on June 29, 1927, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America created a list of "don'ts" and "be carefuls" for guiding cinematic content. Many of these would later become key points in the Code. You can view the list in full here, but here’s some of what was not to be included in film:
Any “licentious or suggestive nudity”
Illegal drug trafficking
Any inference of sex perversion;
Children's sex organs;
Ridicule of religious clergy;
Willful offense to any nation, race or creed.
In addition, “special care” was to be exercised in how certain subjects were treated, “to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized.” This included things like use of the American flag, arson, torture, murder, theft, robbery, prostitution, marriage, men and women in bed together, drugs, police, surgery, and more.
In 1929, Catholic layman Martin Quigley and Jesuit priest Father Daniel A. Lord submitted a code of standards to Hollywood studios. Some studio heads agreed to the Code. Then on March 31, 1930, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) officially agreed to abide by the Code.
This occurred in large part due to the threat of government censorship. Back in 1915, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that motion pictures are an exception to the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Individual states began to erect censorship boards, with New York as one of the first states to do so. This is because “by the 1920s, the New York stage—a frequent source of subsequent screen material—had topless shows, performances filled with curse words, adult subject matter, and sexually suggestive dialog. Early in the sound system conversion process, it became apparent that what was acceptable in New York might not be so in Kansas.” Legislation was introduced in many states to censor films.
The Code included a set of "general principles" that prevented a film from "lowering the moral standards of those who see it.” It called for depictions of the "correct standards of life," and forbade a film from ridiculing a law or “creating sympathy for its violation.” It also included a list of items that could not be depicted.
The Code’s Impact
The code was initially not enforceable, and by 1934, “the situation had become deplorable," The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society writes. “The depression was at its height, and both movie studios and theaters were relying on shock value to draw audiences. The majority of Americans, however, were parents, and the lewdness of most early 30’s films prevented many families from going to the theater.”
Then in 1934, Joseph I. Breen, a Catholic layman, came to oversee the Production Code Administration, which enforced the Code. He had the power to insist that changes be made and to prevent a film’s release. He enforced the Code until 1954.
For a time, wholesomeness flourished. Many American classic films were produced under the Code.
“Good always triumphed over evil. Common people striving to do their best and the right thing became the heroes, instead of the glorified libertines and criminals of past years,” The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society writes.
“Not only were films required to avoid the showing of evil, they were required to show the doing of right. Film-makers had to be sure “that throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right.””
The Code stated, “[m]otion picture producers recognize the high trust and confidence which have been placed in them by the people of the world and which have made motion pictures a universal form of entertainment. They recognize their responsibility to the public because of this trust and because entertainment and art are important influences in the life of a nation.”
Yet decades later, foreign films and television began to compete with American cinema. This content wasn’t subject to the code and often contained lewdness. In 1954, Joseph Breen retired. The new man in charge of overseeing the code’s enforcement was not as strict. Shock tactics were again used to lure people back to the theatre, and slowly the standards crumbled.
The Loss of the Hollywood Code, and Its Impact on Culture
The Code was replaced by the G, PG, PG-13, R system in the 60s that we are all so familiar with today. Instead of enforcing tact and class, we now have a culture of anything-goes on screen. Instead of holding themselves to a high standard about what they inject into the minds of the masses, Hollywood slaps on a warning label. Higher-minded considerations of what the film industry’s duty is to others, and to the population they serve, seem to be absent from the minds of many filmmakers and writers today.
The Code explains why Hollywood films from 1934-1968 were so much classier, more wholesome, and family-friendly than what we see today — and how, after its demise, American culture has followed suit in decaying.
The men who implemented the Code seemed to understand that people are very much shaped by what we see on screen. Media is hugely influential. As social creatures, we get many of our cues of behavior, dress, and morality from the people we see around us, whether in real life or on screen. We need models of right and wrong, and Hollywood used to provide some semblance of that in a way that’s now largely absent.
What About Free Speech?
Americans of the libertarian variety — I’d argue libertarianism is the dominant mindset and culture in America today — can get a little uncomfortable when anything is proposed that is seen as an infringement on free speech.
This is because Americans place much emphasis on freedom, not understanding that freedom requires the virtue of self-restraint. Self-restraint and boundary enforcement can orient us toward higher virtues. The self-imposed censorship that used to take place in Hollywood produced much cleaner, more wholesome, and more watchable cinema because it was created within strict boundaries. While it is true that holding ourselves to a higher standard means giving up some freedoms — the freedom to be lewd or licentious or crude or overtly sexual — freedom has always included the responsibility of self-restraint.
Americans have lost sight of this concept, and believe that freedom means only doing whatever we want, and whatever serves one's desires in the moment. Any propensity to restrain oneself (or our cinema) is seen as an affront to our freedom. We never dare think that boundaries and restraint may compel us to higher virtue, and produce cleaner cinema.
The most memorable and beloved films of the past are those that hold themselves to a high standard and point to the most pure and universal things that give life meaning, whether they be love or family or heroism. Modern films, on the other hand, depict meaningless hookup sex, torture, and shots of cars blowing up just don’t capture our hearts the way film used to.
Unbound by duty, virtue and care for the mind of the consumer, American media has degenerated into a form unrecognizable from its more wholesome and classy self. Americans are now tasked with carefully sifting through to find nuggets of gold in the mass heap of black coal that is modern American film. At least we have some examples of virtue and purity from the past.
Julie Mastrine is a writer and media bias professional. Her work appears in Evie Magazine and AllSides.com.