I had to take a break from working on the next book in my Dee Rommel series (8 DAYS) for a good week and a half last month to write a speech for a conference. The picture above (from Madam Satan, a 1930s film) is an indication of my annoyed and frustrated self.
But it turned out to be a good break – and educational. The most important lesson was that I no longer wanted to take on other projects – that I wanted to concentrate on one creative thing – writing this mystery/crime series.
But besides that – I did find that my thinking regarding my main character, Dee Rommel, did benefit from some of the energy (positive and negative) that I garnered while doing research for my speech.
What’s the speech for?
A conference on Feminist Film. Why am I involved? Here’s the background: When I was a screenwriter in Hollywood, I was drafted by California State University, Fullerton to help set up a playwriting degree in the Theater Department. Since I had, formerly, worked happily as a playwright in NYC (and put it aside when I started writing tv and film projects), I jumped at the chance to get my small toe back into the theater. I figured out a way to arrange with the studio I was working for to have every Thursday night off (7pm to 10 pm) so I could teach at the University. (I had to promise I’d come back to the studio after 10 pm if needed – and lots of times, given tv series’ schedules, that did happen.)
The Film Department at the University started sending their students over to the playwriting class and eventually asked me to help set up an MFA program in the film department for screenwriters.
Soon I had one foot in Hollywood and one foot in academia. I liked it. The two paths complimented each other and satisfied two different parts of my brain. I ended up writing three “how-to-write” screenwriting books and also contributed other academic books and wrote journal articles on film history while writing (not so academic) projects for Disney and Aaron Spelling (who says Melrose Place was not an academic project?).
The work that takes me away from my 8 DAYS writing schedule is my final swan song to my academic life. I hang up my professor’s mortarboard and tassel May 2023. (Yeah!) But as life plays out, in these final months, I was asked to do this speech at the conference. And since the gathering is in Sweden and my plane fare and hotel would be covered, I said yes. (I’ll be giving my keynote on November 10 – that might be the day you’re reading this blog). But the bad news was (for me) I had to switch gears from crime/mystery and think about what I considered to be viable and not-so-viable feminist films in America.
One of the academic journal articles I wrote a few years back was on PRE-CODE (1929-1934) cinema in America. That’s the era from when sound in movies became the norm and before the “Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures” was adopted. Film historians have noted that male-female relationships, during this period, were presented as healthy, sane and lively. Men and women were presented as equal partners in the “adventure of life”. Many of the films written in this era are feminist films – written by women and men.
When the 1934 Production Code, (sometimes referred to as the Hays Code) was adopted, many film stories/topics/subjects were no longer allowed and characters inhabiting stories were forced to change. (This censorship code has nothing to do with the Rating Systems (G, PG, R, X etc.) that was adopted in the late 1960s.) The Production Code was instigated by ultra-conservatives and religious organizations that were concerned with what they saw as Americans’ “lax morality”; they were especially concerned that women were being celebrated for being intelligent, soul-searching, clever, ambitious and desirous of equality. The head of the Production Code Administration office was Irish Catholic Joseph Breen, he became famous for saying, “I am so enthusiastic about this whole (censorship) business that I’d be tempted to bite the legs off of anybody who might dare to cross me…”
Reading about Breen and his agenda has always annoyed me – and Dee Rommel, my protagonist, is fueled, at times, by annoyance. So as I dug back into this topic, I was reminded to keep that side of Dee “alive.”
In Pre-Code cinema in America, a woman could get divorced and not be ostracized (like a man), she was in charge of decisions about her own body (like a man), she could have affairs and be understood (just like a man), she could be head of a company (like a man), she could choose not to have a family – or if she did have a family, she could make choices that did not always put family responsibilities first and be understood (like a man), she could love someone of her own sex and not be judged.
However, to be in accordance with the 1934 Code, female protagonists were expected to be virgins or safely married, they had to obey their husbands or acknowledge that men “knew best”, they had to sacrifice all for hearth and home, they could not “enjoy” liquor, they could not let a kiss linger for more than three seconds and one of their feet must always be on the floor while being kissed, and many many more restrictions. These edicts were written into a document and scripts were written (or re-written against the original author’s desire) to adhere to the rules. If a woman was the femme fatale in a noir film – she must be punished (killed, arrested or ostracized), she must be presented as absolutely soulless/despicable. (Remember Double Indemnity (1944, a Code film), Stanwyck did end up on a beach with a cocktail looking pleased, but she was ostracized and audiences were set up to hate her supreme evilness.)
I decided, for my speech, to look at American feminist films written/produced in America in the last twenty years or so and compare them with the feminist films written during the PreCode era. My research energized me in unexpected ways. Dee Rommel, my protagonist, has definite opinions on a woman’s place in America, the opportunities she should have and or demand and how she expects to be treated in professional and social situations. So, as noted earlier, when my research “upset” me, it fueled the corner of my brain where Dee Rommel was waiting.
My research also got me wondering this: If the Production Code had never been put into effect, would some of the movies being made today still need to be made? For nearly 40 years after the Code was adopted, the depiction of women was controlled by the “moral watchdogs” whose agenda was to keep a woman basically silent and “in her place”. (Dee Rommel (if she had lived in those times) would not have been a fan of these watchdogs.)
Would we, in America, still have to be making some of the movies we’re making? Did the strict Code really re-form expectations and hopes and ways women were treated? How influential were those Code films? While digging into the list of feminist films produced in the last twenty years, it struck me (duh) how similar/same these more recent film stories were to the Pre-Code era’s films.
In 1934, Mary Stevens MD, was a box office hit; it dealt with a professional woman (a doctor) who has to decide whether or not to go through with a pregnancy.
Call Jane (2022) is a very similar story, as are many other recent films because this subject today, is relevant to today’s concerns.
Divorcee was a 1930 movie where a woman left an unsatisfactory, unequal marriage and, despite threats from family and husband, was able to retain her place of respect in society and her social sphere. When the Code was enacted, it was decreed that “the sanctity of marriage was always to be upheld.” If there was trouble in a marriage, it was solved and the partners were reunited at FADE OUT.
In 42nd Street (1933), Millie (1931) and Ladies They Talk About (1933) same-sex love was included in films, and then these stories disappeared – listed an inappropriate by the Code.
It wasn’t until 1982’s Personal Best (penned by Robert Towne), that the subject of a love affair between two women was explored in a mainstream Hollywood film.
Sexual harassment in the workplace was explored in Employee’s Entrance (1933) and Female (1934; in this film it is the female boss harassing the men). Studios are now deep into telling the same stories ( think Bombshell and the many #MeToo movies on the horizon) for American movie-goers. She Said – focused on the Harvey Weinstein case, is just one of the films.
I could list the Pre-Code movies that dealt with women, in abusive relationships, who gathered the strength to take legal action against their abusers. Then these stories vanished. It was until Post-Code (mid-1960s) that movies like The Burning Bed (1984), The Accused (1988) and the more recent Pink (2020) and Women Talking (2022) could be made.
Who know where some of the issues in American society would be if those 40 years of “stories shaped by the Code” had not happened? What do you think? I think of some of the plots/problems/reasons for crime that Dee Rommel is going to find herself in – and wonder if I might be looking at different motives. Sure, murder, robbery and other biggees seem to be a perennial problem, but would character motivations in other areas be different?
I could go on, but you get the point. Reading, researching and reminding myself of film stories made before the Code went into effect, and then the time period where (most) storylines were controlled and shaped in an attempt to model human behavior and thought and didn’t deal with “real” problems/crimes/abuses – got me re-energized to keep Dee Rommel strong, opinionated and determined to follow her own path.
Nick and Nora and Lucy and Desi and Rob and Laura in their twin beds. I hope we’ve come a little way, but most days I’m not sure. Excellent post, Jule!
Maggie – yes, as I was working on the speech – I wasn’t so sure how far “we’ve” come either. But writers are always out there – keeping the themes, objectives, stories alive – that’s so great to me.
Having no connection to the film world, I was unaware of the Code and found this fascinating. Thanks for a bit of new knowledge.
Thanks Judy. There are a few great books. Mick LaSalle, Thomas Doherty, Molly Haskins. Some good docs on it too – maybe YouTube has some – Thanks for the read
This is great, Jule. So much I didn’t know. Thanks for sharing.