1930s Movie Rules and Society’s Values

A large chunk of Hollywood movies from the 1930s through early ’50s seem quite tame, even downright family-friendly, compared to most movies today. This is not because many filmmakers did not want to push the envelope, but because of strict decency guidelines which were enacted. After a number of major Hollywood scandals with famous actors and increasingly risqué and profane content in movies in the roaring ’20s, many states had movie censorship boards with their own set of decency rules, resulting in many films being banned from public viewing. In order to avoid having movies sporadically censored in various states, movie studios created a shared, self-imposed production code in the late 1920s, which was finally rigorously enforced starting in 1934. Essentially, “Golden Age” Hollywood was attempting to remain financially viable by (mostly) submitting to moral expectations held by the average American.

The production code’s drafting had a strong Roman Catholic influence, mentioning the word “sin” at least a dozen times and insisting that films promote positive values because film as an art-form “has a deep moral significance and an unmistakable moral quality.” Though there were some misguided rules which were later removed, such as an initial forbidding of interracial relationships onscreen, many of the requirements were actually quite noble (and you might even say, biblical)—not glamorizing law-breaking, not glorifying illicit romantic affairs, not using the Lord’s name in vain, and such. Of course directors often tried to find loopholes in the rules, but overall there was little overt lewdness and vulgarity. Moving into the 1960s, however, things changed. Among other things, it became easier for edgy European films (not subject to the production code) to be shown in American theaters, plus competition from television made Hollywood desirous to show racier content than what was allowed on TV. Eventually the movie production code and its necessary seal of approval was replaced by the (also) voluntary movie rating system, which does not regulate film content in any way, but merely gives a very general idea of how much objectionable content is contained in a movie.

I mention this all not because I love classic films (although that is true), but because I have been thinking about how “art imitates life“, or at least what we think life ought to be. In the immediate pre- and post- war era in the U.S., people had certain shared standards of decency and, among other things, wanted to feel like they could send their kids to the movie theater without them seeing something terribly age-inappropriate. (The production code existed in part because of a public outcry by church groups, by the way.) Like these old film standards, many of our laws generally reflect widely-held views and norms in society. We are always seeing laws changing to reflect society’s shifting views. A few examples in chronological order: laws intended to deter people from working unnecessarily on “the day of rest” have gone away, relatively easy no-fault divorces became common, abortion is widely permitted, and same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. These changes, which would have all been shocking just as recently as my grandparents’ early years, are really a reflection of where our society is heading or, in most cases, already is, from a moral standpoint. Although laws should aim to restrain evil (Romans 13:3-4), ultimately they cannot change someone’s personal convictions of what is right and wrong and, as society feels more and more is permissible, our laws reflect that loosening of conviction.

We can see that in any country with a long history of Christian influence, there is always a progressively widening gap between acceptable and expected “cultural morality” and the life of true holiness to which we are called by Scripture. It should come as no surprise that godly living in light of biblical ethics does not resonate with several recent generations in our country who largely embrace moral relativism.

Instead of being surprised by the moral decline of our country or frequently lamenting the fact that things aren’t the way they used to be, we must pray for individual hearts to be changed by the Gospel, for only it is “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16).

As Christians, our primary job is not actually to transform the culture, but to our transform our minds (Romans 12:2). We are to be transformed salt and light (Matt 5:13-16). We are to proclaim (Mark 16:15). If our culture is transformed because of true repentance, thanks be to God! But this happens only because of God’s work in bringing a people to Himself… not by having more family-friendly movies or stricter laws, but by the Spirit’s convicting men of sin and drawing them “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

So the next time you are watching a light-hearted classic musical (or a silent film if you’re a bit odd like me), instead of wringing your hands and wishing things in our country were like they were a few decades ago when you didn’t have to lock your door or regularly go through metal detectors… remember that we are pilgrims in a strange land. And things are only getting stranger.
The less and less familiar this land looks, the more we should feel that deep longing for a “better country, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).
And the more zealous we should be to see souls turn to Christ.

Header image and production code information courtesy of pre-code.com.
Additional historical information on the Motion Picture Production Code from Wikipedia.

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