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False Fronts in Hollywood

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

Ever since they became important in American life, moving pictures have been the objects of incessant attacks from two widely disparate sources. On one flank, religious and other conservative groups accused the movies of subverting public morals: in the words of Canon Chase, the screen has “ridiculed marriage and the holiness of pure sex relations, the sacredness of home and obedience to father and mother . . . justified divorce, free love and violation of the Volstead act and of all laws.” On the other flank, the self-consciously intellectual public has been equally eager to disparage the movies on aesthetic grounds, after the fashion of George Jean Nathan, writing fifteen years ago that “the motion picture, in this bloomy day of its history, exhibits still nothing that visibly lifts it above the artistic and aesthetic level of Chinese cooking or a German ballet.” Although a good deal has happened to the American moving picture since these attitudes first became clearly defined, both still exist and color all aesthetic and moral pronouncements on the cinema.

No rising young industry, particularly one engaged in exploiting the commercial possibilities of a new art, could have made two more inconvenient enemies. For the conservatives are the chief supporters of the state and local censors whose activities have always hampered Hollywood in exploiting its public to the utmost. And the intellectuals’ constant scoffing for a long while rendered abortive all the industry’s attempts to lift itself out of the rut of slapstick, spectacle, and melodrama into the realm of true high art.

Worst of all, these two sets of enemies are mutually hostile and the demands they make upon the industry work at cross purposes. A picture availing itself of the moral freedom to which novels and plays are privileged will bring down a storm of dangerous protest from the conservatives. A picture which satisfies the exacting morality of the conservatives will be damned by the intellectuals as childish, outmoded, and aesthetically contemptible.

This dilemma is not only perplexing, but inescapable as well. Obviously the industry cannot disregard the conservatives, since their power over legislative bodies constitutes a serious threat to the industry’s very existence. And, although it might be theoretically possible for Hollywood frankly to declare itself lowbrow and disregard the intellectuals’ jibes, in practice it has never been able to bring itself to any such realistic candor. Ever since the first feature-length productions, the industry has been irked by its intellectual and aesthetic ostracism; and long before the intellectuals discovered that Charlie Chaplin and foreign films were art almost by definition, the industry was yearning after the franchise of the cultured world as a social climber yearns after a place in his local Social Register. For a long time it could do nothing more effective than stubbornly to label its productions artistic in the teeth of the intellectuals’ skepticism. As soon, however, as the modern ethos began to seep well down into the mass-public, Hollywood could at last afford to begin dressing its morals in modern clothes; and, in the result, the last five years have seen the dilemma well on the way to being solved. The reproach of moral fustiness is lifting from the American cinema; or, at least, such is the belief of the industry itself and, more significantly, of a great many of the intellectuals as well.

Such a happy result could not, of course, be accomplished without much agile dodging of the horns of the dilemma. To shift the metaphor, false fronts had to be erected to mask the change while it was in process. And much of the credit for the false fronts belongs to that institution known to newspapers as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., and to the industry itself succinctly as “the Hays Office,” in acknowledgment of the fact that Mr. Will H. Hays is its head. It is the function of this organization to act as diplomatic buffer between censor and producer and between producer and public, formulating moral conventions for the producers to follow, interpreting attitudes and answering all complaints by counter-assertions to the effect that, on the contrary, the movies are a force working toward moral uplift. Here is an inexhaustible source of mellifluous platitudes, a monument of organized respectability to which the industry can point as proof of its being on the side of the angels. And when a false front was necessary to conceal from the vigilant conservatives the fact that movie morals were going to rack and ruin, the Hays office supplied it.

Merely one false front, however, would not be enough. For the mass-public whose admission money is the breath of life to the industry was in a new and complicated frame of mind. It had begun to learn that the old movie ethos was ridiculous, else the industry could never have dared produce in large numbers what is known as the “sophisticated” picture. But it had not yet lost—and likely never would lose — its taste for cut-and-dried sentimentality. A complete surrender to the intellectuals would alienate the affections of the sentimentally inclined mass. Here, fortunately, the instincts of the industry, which, with apparent contradiction, made it cling to the mass-public at the same time that it yearned after the intellectuals, taught it an ingenious compromise. For the “sophisticated” picture itself became the indispensable false front to conceal the fundamentally sentimental character of the masses’ demands from the intellectuals. The whole situation affords an interesting study in the uses of the spurious: spurious moral conservatism from the Hays office to appease the godly, spurious moral emancipation to make proselytes among the less wary intellectuals and please the mass-public without denying its fundamental wants.


An illuminating monograph might be written on the significance of the word “sophisticated” in moving picture advertising and publicity. Just as the appearance of the word “artistic” marked the era of Cecil B. DeMille’s bath-tubs and D. W. Griffith’s epics, so has the advent of “sophisticated” marked the era of gloriously unchaste heroines and Maurice Chevalier. In both cases, the chosen word was somewhat misused. For “sophisticated,” in its cinematic incarnation, is wrested into its newest meaning of worldly-wise, blast, carefree, emancipated, a meaning best epitomized in the attitude of one of Michael Arlen’s heroes toward what he speaks of as life. Its antithesis is “old-fashioned”; and modern decor, cocktails, and cigarettes are essential to the presence of the quality it defines. In this use, of course, it was borrowed from the terminology of the book-reviewer and the dramatic critic; and its function is to advertise to the public the new attitudes toward drinking, illicit sexual relations, and the consequences of immorality which characterize the new movies.

It would be futile to deny that there has been at least a superficial revolution in the cinematic ethos in the last five years. The primrose path is no longer definitely marked “no thoroughfare.” Formerly the heroine (who is generally far more significant than the hero) was ruined, in the eyes of both the audience and her fellow-characters, if she ever allowed herself to abandon technical virtue. She would almost invariably survive to a happy ending, but it was always through suffering the extreme consequences of her error, short of actually dying. And her lapses from virtue were always the result of her trusting heart, not of her carnal passions; any tendency toward sinning for the sin’s sake would immediately have lost her the sympathy of the audience. It would not be difficult to find scattering exceptions to this rule in the old movies, but it does describe the prevailing tone of the conventions of those days.

Nowadays all that is changed. Technical chastity as an important issue is gone forever from the screen. In addition to smoking and drinking freely (things the old heroine did only as a last symptom of moral shipwreck), the new heroine strays frequently from the straight and narrow way; she can and does sin in cold blood, giving herself, in an Arlenesque phrase, to sleek foreigners; and even the suffering which follows is negligible. Such a drastic shift to the left in her behavior implies an equally drastic shift in the point of view of her audience, for she lives on their favor and dares do nothing that would distress them. It follows, then, that they have accepted the fact that young women smoke and drink, especially glamorous young women in long white evening gowns; and the diligence with which she smokes and drinks makes it plain that they would be rather disappointed if she did not. In parallel, they have accepted the fact that glamorous young ladies are no longer concerned with technical chastity; and they would be rather disappointed if the dashing type of heroine were innocent in the old manner. Of course, the old-fashioned innocent heroine can still slay her thousands, as the immense popularity of Janet Gaynor in “Daddy-Long-Legs” (one of the six most profitable pictures of 1931) amply demonstrates. But she is no longer the predominant type as she was ten years ago. For the mass-public has learned to dispense with that former impulse to rise and warn her that the young man means her no good; her audiences’ sympathy has lost its jealous care over her virtue (the prime emotional ingredient of the elder movies) and has replaced it with a soi-disant sophisticated desire to participate with her in the search for a perfect love, so that they can even enjoy with her whatever casual adventures she encounters by the way.

Many commentators these days believe that this is a new heaven and a new earth with a newly tolerant mass-public to match. Certainly the new heroine’s conversation is full of the catchwords which identify modern emancipation on the stage and in fiction: she is gay, untrammeled, thirsty for experience; she lives her own life, she covets freedom; in the inimitable words of Miss Ursula Parrott, she believes that “strangers may kiss and ride on.” But any prolonged study of her erotic habit is apt to lead to suspicions that the audience’s new toleration of her promiscuity is more apparent than real, and that the moral emancipation supplied in these sophisticated movies is a pinchbeck imitation. For the sophisticated movie story will usually contain what might be called a moral joker, a sentimental qualification which prevents there being much more truth in the new heroine than there was in the old. It appears, in fact, that the audience is just as insistent on a sentimental formula as it was before; and the new heroine is bound as strictly as ever to behave, not as she might in fact from the premises of the plot, but as the audience would like to see her behave.

For it is significantly indispensable, in this day of mass-sophistication, for her to return to her first love after she has sampled the bitter and the sweet of various spurious amours. She has fallen in love against a background of drinks, cigarettes, long white evening gowns, Rolls Royces, and ocean liners. She and the object of her love may or may not have been married before mutual enjoyment. But they certainly have a misunderstanding and she flees from him, proudly concealing her aching heart beneath a mask of stoic and dissipated gaiety which, much to the audience’s temporary satisfaction, leads her into various casual missteps. Yet eventually she wearies of these sterile affairs and, usually by accident, makes it up again with her first possessor. It is impossible for her to find happiness (again to use one of her favorite phrases) anywhere but in the arms of her first lover, although it is not usually for lack of trying.

That, of course, is the significant qualification, the moral joker. Her public is aware that infidelity may be a small matter, something they can even enjoy with her; but they will not allow any sins against the sentimental rule of one great love to one life. Through all her libidinous activities they must feel secretly assured that it will all come straight in the end, with the hero stroking her hair and assuring her that he understands. It would be offensive for her to find by trial and error some nicer young man in whose company she could be permanently happy, and unthinkable for her to decide that a succession of nice young men is a better thing than any kind of monogamous union. That both these possibilities exist in actuality far more often that the conventional denouement of the new movie formula has no bearing on the audience’s wishes. It has not paid its money to see things worked out reasonably, or even plausibly; it still desires to see nothing but the triumph of its theories of how such things should be.

Yet, in all the comment which the new movie ethos has aroused, there has been small recognition of the fact that the new heroine’s behavior is just as hidebound (in the new terms) as the old heroine’s. The general impression is, on the contrary, that the movies have succeeded in coming close to the objective tolerance of the modern attitude at its best. On the evidence of such pictures as “Strangers May Kiss” and “Susan Lenox” and “The Divorcee” and “Private Lives”—all of them highly successful fruits of the new sophistication—nothing of the sort has happened. The rules have changed, but they are just as strict as ever.

The formula is not without variations, since even movie addicts require an occasional change of diet. There has, for instance, been a recent epidemic of what may be called scarlet-woman films, not of the forthright type of “The Vamp” or “Cleopatra,” but incredibly lachrymous stories of prostitutes more sinned against than sinning. Sometimes the heroine is a woman-spy caught in the toils of love and dying to protect the hero. Sometimes she is an innocent girl betrayed in the good old style, who resorts to prostitution for a living and is torn between mother-love and desire to keep her child ignorant of his mother’s shame. The best actresses of the screen have been employed in these pictures to convince the public that harlots’ hearts are made of flesh and blood. Certainly the public appears willing enough to believe it; and the new toleration is at once extended to cover the prostitute who, in the old days, could hardly appear on the screen at all. But here there is hardly any disguise of modernity over the mawkishness beneath. The spectacle of the prostitute dying for love or renouncing her child makes no bones of becoming as falsely sticky as any of the old scenes in which the irate father drove his erring daughter out into the storm. There is no other word than the old stage-term “tear-jerker” to describe such things as “The Sin of Madelon Claudct.”

So far the heroine has been the object of study; for, like the male spider, the hero of the modern movie seldom counts for much. But when—in the person of Maurice Chevalier, for instance—he does become important, he confirms the suspicion that this has been rather a puny revolution after all. Free as the libertine morals of a picture like “The Love Parade” can be, they still demonstrate that the audience has not abandoned the much decried double standard. The Che-valieresque hero sins gracefully and casually and the public loves him for it. But the sophisticated heroine has no such privileges; either she sins in grim earnest, or her casual amours are a galvanic reaction to blighted love. The public wants its heroines monogamous in intention and will allow a particularly charming hero to be polygamous in practice; and that, of course, is merely an abstract statement of what its attitude was before the word “sophisticated” had ever appeared on the scene at all.

It is customary to hold the influence of dialogue production responsible for the moral revolution in the movies (whether real or only apparent), following the custom of accounting for everything new in that way. Doubtless the close connections which dialogue made necessary between *

stage and screen did have something to do with it. It seems more likely, however, that the market value of technical chastity was declining anyway, well before talking pictures were anything more than a dream. In the last days of silent films, “Sadie Thompson” demonstrated the public readiness to accept the prostitute-heroine, and “A Woman of Affairs” (nee Iris March of “The Green Hat”) had set a type of heroine, her body a plaything for casual lovers, her soul agonizing and still unspotted, which has been liberally exploited ever since. The simple truth may be that, by 1928, the movies, always laboring under a cultural lag, had reached the place occupied by the drama and the novel twenty years or so earlier, so far as catchwords were concerned. On that hypothesis, it is likely that the agents of this tardy conversion were first, Elinor Glyn, and then Michael Arlen, whose highly popular fictions, reaching down into levels untouched by less shoddy prophets, infected the mass-public with a taste for forbidden fruit and an uneasy conviction that the moral standards of “Way Down East” were slightly ludicrous. If things had turned out otherwise, Mr. Arlen and Mrs. Glyn would deserve canonization. As it is, however, with both public and producers mistaking the letter of the law for the spirit, they have been merely the leaders of a revolution to crown King Stork in place of King Log.

It is not necessarily surprising to discover that, instead of really ridding themselves of their mawkish trammels, the movies have succeeded only in developing a new set, no less hidebound and sentimental than the old. It is, however, surprising to discern that it is this new sentimentality which is used to demonstrate that the movies have at last grown up. This untrammelled new heroine is pointed to in order to confute the outworn sneers of the intellectuals. She possesses all the requisite accomplishments of emancipation: she smokes, she drinks, she sins. What more could be asked? Apparently nothing more; for on every side the thesis that the movies are on the way to achieving moral maturity is maintained without serious contradiction. Many of the intellectuals are succumbing to the blandishments of the new sophistication and swelling the box-office receipts of the picture-theatres. It is likely enough that Hollywood itself is unaware of the spurious nature of its conversion; for it is the prime requisite of a false front that the inhabitant thereof should believe in the annihilation of whatever poverty or shoddiness it conceals.

There is, however, an additional irony in the situation, hinging about the readiness with which the less wary intellectuals have swallowed the bait. For their reprobation of the old-fashioned movie was generally based on contempt for its old-fashioned morality rather than on its aesthetic cheapness. It seldom occurred to them that aesthetic merit could possibly herd with archaic ethics; and now that the catchwords have been changed, they are deprived of their criterion. The new movies sound modern; and the fact that, at bottom, they are still aimed at the same mass-prejudices as before is not a detail that their confused premises would enable them to grasp.


And so, of its three masters, the mass-public, the intellectuals, and the militantly conservative, the new sophistication bids fair to please two. It is, however, unfortunately calculated to infuriate the third. These unchaste heroines and noble prostitutes are anathema to the godly, unless they can be concealed behind another kind of false front. And this, as indicated above, is the specialty of the Hays office.

Contemporary with the first widespread manifestations of sophistication, which crept in, to some extent, under cover of war- and gangster-themes, the religious press became formidably and outspokenly uneasy. The consequence was the formulation and announcement of a revised code of morals under which, the Hays office indicated, the industry would operate from then on. Its provisions appeared on the front pages of newspapers everywhere and, in the face of its reassuring pronouncements, the clamor died down to normal proportions. Certainly, if this new moral code were implicitly observed, the conservatives would have little room for complaint. Everything they could possibly ask is apparently written down there in black and white. Yet any experience with contemporary movies leads to the inescapable conclusion that the spirit, if not always the letter, of this code is happily disregarded whenever the new sophistication demands. It is hardly necessary to say that, the industry and the Hays office being what they are, this does not impair the usefulness of the code in its prime function of false front. For the ambiguity of its provisions can have had no other motivation.

The code provides, for instance, “that the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld”; “that adultery shall not be explicitly treated or justified”; “that obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke or by suggestion is forbidden.” Apparently everything that could bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty is ruled out; and yet the mere amateur in casuistry can supply justification for almost any violation of the spirit of these provisions. It can conceivably be maintained, for example, that the sanctity of marriage and the home is upheld when the heroine returns to her husband or her first lover after long protracted and frequent infidelities. It may be that the term “adultery” confines the prohibition to married persons, so that the promiscuity of an unmarried heroine does not come under the ban. In that case, however, the Hays code finds itself countenancing unbridled promiscuity before marriage, which would hardly please its antagonists, if they ever thought that far. It is equally unlikely that the conservatives would be pleased by the undressing scene in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” or Miss Garbo’s Javanese dance in “Mata Hari,” even though the code does expressly prohibit “indecent or undue exposure” and “dances which employ indecent movements.” The catch here, of course, like the catch in the general obscenity clause, is that the stated prohibition leaves everything to the discretion of the producer, whose interpretation of it would probably smell of the bottomless pit in the nostrils of the godly. As for the provision that “the use of liquor in American life shall be restricted to the actual requirements of characterization or plot,” the contrast between its apparent desire to frown on drinking and the latitude it allows for anything up to and beyond delirium tremens is a striking example of the false front in its most brilliant form.

Casuistry almost breaks down in the provision “apparent cruelty to children and animals must be treated within the careful limits of good taste,” in view of the bloody savageries of recent wild animal pictures; it seems to have been forgotten altogether in D. W. Griffith’s prohibition picture, “The Struggle.” And the adultery clause has, it will appear to any observer, been directly violated, in letter as well as spirit; adultery has certainly been “explicitly treated” in such pictures as “One Hour with You,” “Seed,” “Street Scene,” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”; and there is not even a shadowy possibility of maintaining that violation of the seventh commandment was not “justified” in the last example. It is true that the Hays office is merely an advisory institution without authority to compel its member-producers to observe the code. Yet it is one of its functions to pass on dubious scenarios before they are screened, and, if the code is anything more than a pious gesture, the Hays office must share responsibility with the individual producers for violations of both the letter and the spirit of the code. There are, however, provisions of the code which the industry diligently observes. Notable among them is the injunction against using “ministers of religion” as villains or comic characters, for gentlemen of the cloth notoriously make up the backbone of conservative opposition to the movies.

Here is a strange juxtaposition of fact and false front. The spirit of the Hays code is such that only the old-fashioned movie could hope to satisfy it. And yet here is the heroine smoking, drinking, and sinning in the face of its manifest disapproval; becoming a prostitute and being glorified in that capacity; wearing few clothes and removing them all with great coyness on occasion; in short, behaving as if there never had been such a thing as a large and solid body of highly influential public opinion strongly and actively opposed to her scandalous behavior. There is hardly a thing about her of which the conservatives could approve, except possibly her occasional yearning for little curly heads about her knee; and yet, in the paint and canvas shelter of the Hays office’s false front, with its grave opposition to the explicit treatment of adultery, its promise to “treat all sex relationships with due care and judgment,” and its reprehension of drinking, she is reasonably safe from her enemies.


It is comforting to know that, in the midst of adjusting its present financial difficulties, the picture industry will continue to make “every effort . . . to reflect in drama and entertainment the better standards of life,” as the Hays code promised for it. There is only the shadow of television ahead to cause it genuine uneasiness. For its old enemies, the intellectuals, have been tricked by their own muddled logic into admitting its new virtues; its general public is assured of a steady supply of sentimentality displaying that continual slight novelty which Aristotle recommended; and, on its right flank, the Hays office will always keep the conservatives in check with equivocal promises and reiterated assertions that Hollywood is a power in the land for good. But then the movie capital itself is full of false fronts—castles, mansions, tenements, and railroad stations which, from the proper point of view, look exactly like the real thing. It is hardly strange that the industry should have learned long since to live in them comfortably.


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