How were Sunset Boulevard and North by Northwest affected by the Hays code? Essay Example
How were Sunset Boulevard and North by Northwest affected by the Hays code? Essay Example

How were Sunset Boulevard and North by Northwest affected by the Hays code? Essay Example

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  • Pages: 5 (1315 words)
  • Published: November 6, 2018
  • Type: Essay
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Studying the captivating topic of Hollywood's history and evolution reveals that the film industry in the United States emerged during the 1920s, showcasing silent films to audiences. Unlike future years, these movies were not subject to censorship and frequently featured contentious material. This era, referred to as the 'Jazz Age', was a period of prosperity for Americans, marked by booming stock markets and thriving arts.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression began following a major crash on Wall Street. This led to a time of deep reflection for the country. As politicians and economists worked to address the economic downturn, efforts were also made to enhance the film industry. One such initiative was the introduction of the Hays' Code in 1934.

Although the United States Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 was introduced prior to the Hays Code, filmmakers d


id not give it much importance. Consequently, government authorities deemed it necessary to establish a more comprehensive set of guidelines. This responsibility fell on the Breen Office, which was headed by administrator Joseph Breen and entrusted with enforcing the code. It is intriguing to ponder how influential movies such as Sunset Boulevard (1951) and North by Northwest (1959) may have been affected by the code. These films were made after its implementation, so their creators would have been aware of what was considered acceptable or unacceptable according to the Hays Code. Moreover, there are indications that both movies' initial scripts did not promptly receive approval from the Breen Office.

According to Harris (2008), the production team needed to make changes to certain dialogues and aspects of the film that were found to violate the code. Take the example of

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Sunset Boulevard, where the plot centers around an unconventional relationship between a fading Hollywood writer and a former leading lady. As both stars face declining fortunes, they enter into an opportunistic relationship. This relationship is purely based on convenience, with the lady finding comfort in the admiration she receives from her younger lover. In return, the out-of-work writer tries to resurrect his career through his lover's connections with influential individuals.

"Sunset Boulevard, which takes place 25 years after the advent of sound, presents a narrative about a silent film star who detests the changes brought by new technology. Alongside her is a contemporary screenwriter whose unsuccessful dialogue hinders his career." (Staggs, 2002) The relationship between these two characters lacks genuine love or affection and was destined to fail. Due to their selfish motives, the storyline inevitably leads to a tragic ending. However, such empty and superficial relationships were not uncommon in Hollywood during the 1940s and 1950s and still exist in today's industry. Through its portrayal, the film aimed to expose hidden undercurrents within American cinema and faced challenges persuading censors for approval.

The movie would have encountered resistance from studio executives due to its unfavorable depiction of the industry and issues with censorship. As per the Sanctity of Marriage clause, it is crucial to uphold the sanctity of marriage and the home. Films must not suggest acceptance or prevalence of inferior sexual relationships. While adultery and illicit sex can be acknowledged in the storyline, they should not be explicitly portrayed, justified, or presented as appealing choices. The connection between Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis breaches this clause by occurring outside of wedlock and being labeled as

a "low form of sexual relationship."

In addition, according to Friedrich (1997), while Joe and Betty are portrayed as a typical and attractive movie couple, the relationship between Joe and Norma is depicted as unusual for films of that time. Norma, who is significantly older than Joe, serves as his benefactor by providing him with money, gifts, and a place to live. This unconventional dynamic between the characters may have posed a challenge for the script's approval by the censors. However, the production team took strategic measures to overcome this hurdle and secure approval from the Breen Office. One such tactic was starting the film's production under the innocuous working title A Can of Beans, a move devised by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.

In addition to not sending the entire script to the Breen Office, the writer-director team chose to send it in separate chapters. By doing so, they made it difficult for the censors to understand the overall content. Despite their cautiousness, the Breen Office did request some changes to the script, although these changes were minor. For instance, they altered Joe Gillis's line from "I'm up that creek and I need a job" to "I'm over a barrel. I need a job." (Harris, 2008) The movie North by Northwest (1959), directed by the renowned Alfred Hitchcock, also caught the attention of the Breen Office with its tricky passages.

The last scene of the preview print sent to the Breen Office depicts Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint having an intimate moment during their train ride. This moment raised concerns about its sexual content and its compliance with the Production Code. The Production Code stated

that passionate scenes should only be included if essential to the plot and that excessive and lustful kissing should be avoided, along with anything that might stimulate inappropriate desires. The director's challenge was to portray their intimacy while respecting these guidelines. Hitchcock's brilliance shines through as he finds a solution in depicting their journey by Pullman train to New York.

Grant lifts her into his upper bunk and they share a passionate kiss, and presumably more intimate moments. The censors deemed this scene inappropriate, insisting that the couple should be in an upright position during the fadeout. Hitchcock remembered having some unused footage of the train, including a shot of it entering a tunnel at high speed. In the final version of the film, just as Roger and Eve start to recline, he inserts that train footage, which amusingly and daringly resembles a phallic symbol within its context.

The censors, Hitchcock, and audiences all expressed satisfaction with the film (Leff, 1999). At one point, the conversation between the main characters becomes slightly sexually suggestive. However, the censors overlooked this dialogue, possibly due to an oversight. For instance, Eve Kendall tells Roger Thornhill that she is a mature woman, to which Roger responds by acknowledging her appealing figure. The Breen Office has reprimanded less explicit dialogues, but somehow this particular one was allowed. It is possible that Alfred Hitchcock's esteemed reputation played a part in this. Hitchcock had a friendly relationship with the Breen Office.

Moreover, the Breen Office focused less on the implications or narrative of the story, but instead on how it depicted "treatment of crimes, the treatment of scenes of passion, the treatment of repellant subjects,

etc." Hitchcock's approach helped alleviate the concerns of the censors, leading to more freedom compared to other directors. However, simply showing and telling everything has its limits. As both the Production Code enforcers and Hitchcock understood, less is more (Allen & Ishii-Gonzales, 2004).


  • Hitchcock and the Censors. Contributors: Leonard J. Leff – author. Magazine Title: World and I. Volume: 14. Issue: 8. Publication Date: August 1999.

The text below contains a citation with and their contents, which I willand unify while keeping the tags intact.

Page Number: 108. COPYRIGHT 1999

  • News World Communications, Inc. Staggs, Sam: Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond and the Dark Hollywood Dream. St. Martin’s Griffin Books, 2002.
  • ISBN 0-312-30254-1

    Hitchcock : Past and Future.

    Contributors: Richard Allen – editor, Sam Ishii-Gonzales – editor.

    Publisher: Routledge.

    Place of Publication: New York.

    Publication Year: 2004.

    Page Number: 95.

    • Harris, Mark (2008). Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. Penguin Group. pp. 173–176. ISBN 978-1594201523.
    • Friedrich, Otto (1997).

    The text below, which includes and their contents, can beand unified as follows:

    The 1940's was a significant time for Hollywood, as portrayed in the book "City of Nets" by the University of California Press (reprint). Pages 86 to 89 provide insights into this era. The book's ISBN is 978-0520209497.

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