Remembering way back when film fare wasn’t so foul

This photo provided by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment shows Clark Gable, left, as Rhett Butler, and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in a scene from the film, "Gone With the Wind." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)

The influence Hollywood and television have on popular culture worldwide is without doubt enormous. Whether that influence is for the better or worse depends very much on one’s age, upbringing, and knowledge of the real world.

You may take it as a given that “real” in this context has nothing whatsoever to do with the world known by those over, say, 50, and the world as seen by almost everyone younger.

I am over 50. Well over, actually. I remember going to motion pictures in the 1930s and ’40s. Many cities in America had theaters that were more like palaces than almost any are today. Some had pipe organs and as people filed in to fill well cushioned seats, an organist played a set or two to get folks in the mood for what was coming on film. This was a throwback, I think, to the time before Al Jolson got everyone hooked on talking pictures, or maybe even to the time when vaudeville was king.

Some of the theaters had soaring ceilings with painted or projected stars, a moon, and billowing nighttime clouds. It was much nicer, I think, going to the movies when you didn’t have to put up with sticky floors and people slurping supersized drinks and gobbling buckets of popcorn. But that’s just my opinion. I don’t go to the movies now. I wait till the DVDs come out, or when something I really want to watch is on pay for view.

It seems only yesterday to some of us (actually, it was 1939) when an actor (Clark Gable) in a major motion picture (“Gone With the Wind”) uttered on screen a word (damn) that came close to shocking the pants off the entire country. Well, most of the country aside from New York and Los Angeles. “Frankly my dear,” he said. “I don’t give a damn.” Worse, he said this to a woman on the screen. Church-going, Main Street America was aghast. What was the country coming to?

Well, 76 years later, we can see what it was coming to. In film and on stage, profanity including the once-unmentionable f-bomb, has become so common, so prevalent that any shock value it once might have had is, well, gone with the wind.

The film industry, up until the early 1930s, was virtually unregulated, much as it is today. In 1934, however, to forestall threatened censorship by the government, the industry began enforcing what was called the Hays Code. It was named after Will Hays, president from 1922 to 1945, of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributers of America. Though gradually weakened, the code technically remained in force for 34 years. It was then replaced by the film rating system which, more or less (mostly less) we have today.

The Hays Code had a long list of thou shalt nots. No “open mouth kissing” was allowed, no kisses lasting more than three seconds, no “lustful embraces,” seduction, prostitution, sexual perversion, rape, miscegenation, cleavage, nudity, no “lace underthings.”

The ban on depicting sex on screen forbade scenes on sets having a double bed — twin beds only. Eventually this restriction was relaxed to permit married characters to share one bed — but only when at least one foot was on the floor. (This led one wag to ask, “How do you make love to a one-legged woman?”)

No ridicule of the clergy was permitted, no willful offense to any nation, race or creed, no drugs, no drinking, no corpses, no criminals getting away with whatever nefarious activity they engaged in. The good guys always won.

With love scenes so sanitized, screen actresses who began their career as sexual libertines were given roles they never were given before. When, after many years, the Code was relaxed to permit more liberal depictions of sex, the roles that started them to stardom opened up again. Actress Shirley MacLaine, writing in 1975, made the following observation:

“Because men were running the studios, men were writing the scripts, and men were the directors, they put us back in the bedroom, and we haven’t been judges or mayors or politicians since. We can’t get out of the bedroom now!”

Is that a sexist remark?

Gosh, I hope not.

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.