Why Film’s Golden Age Ended

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.

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  • nearstar

    OhMyGod, what an idiot!!

  • LarryW2LJ

    nearstar ….

    Mr. Colson is entitled to his opinion, as obviously, are you. Could you be a little more articluate and constructive other than just being a name caller? If you disagree, maybe a well thought repsonse would be in order?

  • nearstar

    The idiocy of his opinion speaks for itself. No need to articulate about it any further. When someone puts his opinion out in public, he’s encouraging both positive and negative comments.

  • Nearstar, you are not a very active participant on this site, so you might not realize that your name-calling of an author like that violates our policy against personal insults. We welcome you to make substantive criticism of the article, but not ad hominem (personal) attacks agaisnt the author.

    This involves you being a careful and thoughtful reader. In order to be credible in your criticism, you start with demonstrating that you understand the argument being made and then state where you think the line of reasoning fails.

  • vetusmores

    Actually, it was antitrust that killed Hollywood’s Golden Age. Until then, the studios carefully controlled everything, from production right on down to the theaters, which they also owned. The Hayes Office operated until 1968, when the Code was dropped and replaced with the new MPAA (formerly MPPDA, which enforced the Hayes Code) ratings system. The antitrust suit was in 1948. If you’ll check carefully, you’ll notice a big before-and-after change, although real loosening of standards came with foreign competition and social change right here at home. A shame, really.

  • nearstar

    Thank you, Mary, for your opinion. Do I understand the argument? Yes, I certainly do. I see that “vetusmores” understands it, too. Unfortunately, Colson didn’t bother to check the facts before running off at the mouth. He also didn’t bother to consider the effect widespread ownership of televisions had on the so-called Golden Age. The “shame” that vetusmores speaks of is that idiots like Colson are permitted a platform to speak from.

  • Peter Dans, Joseph Bottom, Thomas Doherty — all idiots in your judgment, huh? Because all Colson was doing was consolidating and commenting on their assessment.

    So there was more than one reason? You make sense when you proffer another, as did vetussmores. But suggesting a second, third, or even more additional reasons does not refute the first.

    Go ahead, start your own website and international ministry. You are so much wiser than Charles Colson that I am sure you will do much better than he has. And once you get those speaking engagements and those books published and that national radio audience don’t forget to give a little donation to CE for getting you started.

  • nearstar

    Yep – speaking engagements, books, and a radio audience are definitely signs that a person is “wise”. Mary, you’re not making sense.

  • I didn’t say that — really, careful reading is such an important skill — however, it might militate against the label “idiot”, especially when one considers the quality of minds associated with the person, like Fr. Richard Neuhaus, for example. I think a bit more familiarity with Colson’s oeuvre would temper your opinion.

    Regardless, you have been put on notice in the matter of personal insults.

  • vetusmores

    I suspect that “nearstar” begrudges the fact that Colson managed to parlay his Watergate infamy into a paying career. Colson made a huge mistake back then, but he paid for it and has done a lot of good, charitable work (starting with his prison ministry) since. I believe Colson’s completely wrong about what led to the current state of Hollywood’s product, but he’s not a film historian. That doesn’t make him an idiot, just wrong about something in which he doesn’t specialize.

  • nearstar

    I don’t know anything about Colson and Watergate, but a person that tries to come off as an expert on a subject he obviously knows almost nothing about is a perfect example of an idiot. He was fortunate to have known Fr Neuhaus, but that doesn’t make him anything special.

  • mater

    The point that Mr. Colson is making is supported by any Film 101 class. Tension makes a more interesting story than lack of tension. Lingerie is more alluring than the naked body. “Boy meets girl, they have sex,” is not much of a story. He’s merely making the point that the decency codes previously in place were conducive to story lines that produced this tension.

    Vetusmores comments about other causes that could have had an effect, do not discount or undermine Mr. Colson’s point.

    Nearstar adds nothing to the discussion.

  • Against my better judgment… I will point out the obvious once again: Mr Colson is NOT originating this line of reasoning. He is quoting from, and recapitulating the arguments of, people who certainly ARE experts in film and the history thereof. He is not personally making the argument. He is saying: “Here are a couple of experts who have advanced X theory. I find what they are saying credible and plausible and I want you to know about it.”

    So to respond to this piece by saying that Colson is an idiot because he is NOT an expert answers nothing in the article. It does not answer Colson, because he is not claiming to be an expert. It is not answering the experts he is quoting because is does not deal in any way with the substance of what THEY said. It is a complete non sequitur.

  • Also, Colson did not merely “know” Fr. Neuhaus, but collaborated with him on significant projects requiring leadership among top Evangelical and Catholic intellectuals in the United States. Hardly the role of an “idiot”.

  • inky1

    Just to put my two cents worth in: I would have to agree with Colson(and the people he is paraphrasing). After all, what makes a movie a classic? Isn’t it when people of various ages and succeeding generations still find it benefical and enjoyable? While I have not seen the movie that was used as an example, I do have several favorite movies from that era. Mom introduced some of her favorites to us and I wouldn’t have any problem passing them on. However, if there were “steamy bedroom scenes”, I know for sure that Mom would not have let us see them. (Since my youngest sister is eight, our house is rated G or PG) Besides, what does one movie of that sort have to set it apart from the rest? “It’s a Wonderful Life” (directed by Capra) has no sex scenes, is very kid friendly, and happens to be one of my favorites. “Mary Poppins”, “Gunsmoke”, “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and others are all older films, showing restraint, and all of them I enjoy very much. Call me a prude if you like, but I feel guilty about liking movies with questionable morals(esp. regarding the sixth and ninth commandments).

    nearstar: What exactly are you trying to accomplish? Questioning someone’s intelligence and/or stance without giving reasons is a bit purposeless. You may have a perfectly sound reason for your opinion, but unless you explain yourself (which I am afraid you have neglected to do.) it just appears that you are trying to smear the other. No offense meant, but I take the opposite stance especially on your second post. I think this is a good article (maybe not complete, but still sensible) and I cannot see what you call idiotic.
    God Bless!

  • xbaxterx747

    this whole discussion reminds me of a 3rd grade playground fight. nearstar merely voiced his/her opinion, and mary felt the need to attack it merely because she disagreed. mary, if nearstar’s opinion had been the same as yours, i’m certain you wouldn’t have attacked it. this just serves to illustrate the childish intolerance of different opinions on this website. yes, i said ‘childish.’ it’s not namecalling, it’s a discriptive word. i’ve found that any discussions that are thought-provocing, or differ in any way from those found in the articles in any way to the articles to which they refer are immediately shot down by several overly-emotional commentors who team up against the first. nearstar, i don’t entirely agree with your opinion, but you have every right to have one and to voice it.