One of the best films ever made is Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The 1934 comedy features an heiress on the run from her father, and the reporter who joins forces with her. The two fall in love and, alone in hotel rooms, to guard against temptation, they hang a blanket between their beds. They call it “the walls of Jericho.” When the couple finally ties the knot, the “wall” comes tumbling down.
In the 1930s, a plotline that precluded premarital sex was a wise idea. Movie-makers who flouted the Motion Picture Production Code risked a backlash against their films.
As Peter Dans writes in his new book, Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners, the Code’s purpose was to protect filmgoers from films that “will lower the standards of [viewers.]”
In recent years, much fun has been poked at the Code, which went belly up in 1968. But as Dans points out, enforcement of the Code brought about the “Golden Age of Film.” Requiring moviemakers to exercise restraint “was, on balance, beneficial to the creative process,” he says.
Joseph Bottom explains why in the foreword. “Naked breasts are eye-catching, and well-sculpted nudes don’t need much dialogue,” he notes. “So what happens when you can’t show them? Turns out, you have to tell a story instead.”
For example, imagine the plotline of It Happened One Night if no Code had been in force. Nothing would have prevented Gable and Colbert from sleeping together the minute they fell in love—or prevented Capra from filming a steamy bedroom scene. But then, much of the film’s tension and humor would have been lost. After all, the couple constantly bickered because they were so attracted to one another—but couldn’t act on their attraction.
Maybe that’s why film expert Thomas Doherty, author of Pre-Code Hollywood, claimed that the “most vivid and compelling motion pictures” ever made were created “under the most severe and narrow-minded censorship.”
I think he’s right. After all we certainly don’t call the era of films made after 1968—the year the Code was banished—the Golden Age of Film. Or go and visit the website of the American Movie Classics, and take a look at its list of the 100 greatest films ever made. You’ll find only 20 of them from 1968 on.