What About the Hays Code, Though? – Alexis Wilkins

I do want to point out that, yes, I understand Stanley Cavell is a philosophy professor and not a film historian; however, I believe that if you are going to write about the comedy of remarriage in Hollywood between 1934-1941, at least mention a brief historical background of the Hollywood Hays Code. This Production Code began in 1934 and introduced government censorship and policing of Hollywood films through the ‘60s. It was introduced by Postmaster General Will Hays (hence the name “Hays Code”) and includes an entire section titled II. Sex, which bans interracial relations, ‘lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures’ as well as ‘nudity’ of any kind (under VI. Costume) and ‘dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions’ (under VII. Dances). The Hays Code was a direct response from Hollywood to the Depression, American consumerism, and their own self-image from a scandalous period in the twenties. 

For the genre of comedy with talkie film, this censorship introduced a new verbal battle-of-the-sexes which led to a sense of equality between gender roles in film. The women’s role in this heteronormative form of New Comedy and comedy of remarriage represents the new censorship code’s effect on this period of the film genre. A new addition of sexual innuendos and comedic symbolism stand in place for the sexual acts which are now banned by Hays Code. The dialogue between partners depicts this shift towards gender equality, which is why I have chosen a dialogue-heavy clip from Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Because sex and sexual acts were no longer permitted on screen, romantic comedy gave way to a new imagination for the audience to find other experiences of pleasure – a laughable one that could pass Hollywood’s new code of morality. Northrop Frye does mention the ‘final embrace’ and the genre’s recurring implications of off-stage action (61), but I think that the Hays Code plays too important of a role during this historical period of film to go emitted from this week’s discussion. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVrZAIo3wX4

Referenced:

Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia, 1949), 61.

2 comments

  1. This is an excellent point! The Hays Code clearly impacts the manifestation of ‘comedies of remarriage’, and your point that romantic comedy filled the gap this censorship left is fascinating. Further, I think comedy often gets away with discussing sexual or taboo topics, especially under the noses of those who are pro-censorship, because it is all viewed in jest. However, Cavell’s genre manifested a somewhat real feminist cultural moment, proving comedy can sincerely interrogate social politics.

  2. This is excellent to think about! And to build on this, the Hays code might further explain the subgenre of comedy of remarriage: one of The Take’s youtube video essays about rom coms presents the idea that having characters have been married already deals with the perceived immorality of premarital sex.

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