Hollywood Film Style and the Production Code: Criticism and History

Curator's Note

This is the first post in a theme week that connects with a larger project called “Hollywood Film Style and the Production Code: Criticism and History” that will appear in The Quarterly Review of Film and Video (a journal that was home to a landmark earlier collection of Code Scholarship).

Seeking to make connections between the style of Hollywood movies and the impact of Production Code regulation on them, the challenge is visible evidence. SRC (Studio Relations Committee, 1930-1934) and PCA (Production Code Authority, after 1934) files generally contain requests to remove things deemed offensive or contrary to the spirit or letter of the Code. Of course, removing something would always have an impact on what was left but being precise about the effect on style is hard. One is often left to make generalised suppositions about the causal relationship between a set of proscriptions and a classical Hollywood style of allusion and elision.

Some of the contributors to this theme week have created short videographic exercises, one has linked to a video essay he had already made for The Quarterly Review project, and another has engaged with frame grabs and the text of the Production Code itself. In each case we are animated by questions of academic criticism (which includes close engagement with film style) and film history and the material artefacts that make the dynamic relating of those practices possible.

In my own case, in the video essay above, I wanted to try to animate a written archive that is actually more presently available (at least in high-definition digital versions) than the film itself – the film being the John Stahl-directed Only Yesterday (1933), narrative forerunner to Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, 1948). The Margaret Herrick MPAA files on the film are open access in excellent scanned versions while the film is available in 17 very low-res parts on YouTube or on somewhat better (certainly image-wise) DVD versions on eBay. As an object of study, the film exemplifies the issues of preservation and access that are always at play when examining older films. The video essay has to ask, “what version of the film are we even seeing?”

I opted for some split-screen work to put written text next to film, though issues of definition and screen size mean, had I the time and (as yet) the skills, an interactive format where viewers could access the Herrick files directly from within the “video” would probably have been better. The video essay looks at a narrative ellipsis but there are many rhetorical ellipses that feel appropriate for videographic work but are fleshed out in the written essay. Elements of dialogue (“… I still don’t know your name. You’ve been here six hours”) go unremarked in the voiceover, though they were the focus of censors as recorded in the written documents. Nor does the video essay discuss the way, in a moment that shortly precedes the kiss (1:20ish), Mary/Margaret Sullavan strikes a pose of strong similarity to that of Dietrich, icon of “the unknown woman” (see Cavell 1996), as she gazes away from John Barrymore in Grand Hotel (1932).

An important underlying conceit of the wider collaborative project sees us follow those scholars (Lea Jacobs, Richard Maltby, Ruth Vasey etc.) who stressed the collaborative place of industry regulation – online and elsewhere, one reads so many naïve characterisations of the Code office as a block on what otherwise would have been a supposedly liberal and progressive regime of representation. But when the collaboration between producers and Code administrators was most aesthetically successful, it will be more seamless and less visible than when there is a disjuncture. My video essay looks at a moment when Stahl’s extraordinary long-takes and the film’s unobtrusive editing shows signs of interference. However, this is likely an index of where the film sits in history. It is a “pre-Code” film (a label that probably always needs scare quotes) and the signs of censorial intervention are so (relatively) visible because they seem to have been made after filming was completed. Later in the 1930s, Hollywood films baked in a kind of ellipticalness around sexual matters that passes by (and passed through the PCA) more smoothly. Expressive criticism and film historical engagement with the written archive are needed to fully grasp such trends and aesthetic patterns. 

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