Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Before the Code

As mentioned in an earlier post, American cinema suffered a decades-long drought in sexual content, lasting from the mid-thirties to the late sixties. Intended to preserve the moral climate of the movie industry, the Hays Code forbade the depiction of practically all sexuality from the silver screen, even those delicious bra-and-panty scenes the public had grown to love during the Roaring Twenties.

Many film historians have theorized that this hardline censorship was inspired by the austerity of the Great Depression, but the plain truth is that the Code's designer, William H. Hays, was a puritanical jackass. OK, maybe that's being a trifle unfair, but let's face it: who in their right mind would consider Betty Boop a threat to the youth of the nation?

Mind you, Betty's animated shorts could get pretty steamy at times, but when cartoon characters are being censored over the length of their hemlines, you know someone has few screws loose upstairs. Prior to 1934, movies could still emphasize the inherent beauty of the female form with luscious underwear, bare thighs and stocking tops. Following the institution of the Code, revealing close-ups and gratuitous stripteases were strictly verbotten. 

The Hays Code was the Hollywood equivalent of Prohibition, only in this case the killjoys were battling the sins of the flesh. Girls had to be sweet, chaste and well-covered at all times. Hemlines were lowered, garters were hidden, and the very mention of women's intimates was banned from big screen (hence the word 'unmentionables').

It was a sad day for human civilization: audiences around around the world were forthwith denied the spectacle of Carol Lombard's satin underwear no matter how innocent the context. Disrobing had to take place off screen when it occurred at all, as everybody knew there was nothing more shocking than the sight of a pretty young woman in her stockings and panties.


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