Film: The Hollywood Production Code of 1930 and LGBT Characters
It is no secret that what is presented in films shape society’s opinions and actions. Film can heavily influence the acceptance or ostracization of marginalized groups. It was fear of this influence that lead several religious groups to rally behind Will Hays’ Hollywood Production Code of 1930, known colloquially as the Hays Code. The code consisted of thirty-six rules for filmmakers intended to limit the representation and subsequent normalization of characters and behaviors considered by religious groups to be unsavory or morally corrupt. Many of the items banned on the list were somewhat within reason. Most would agree that gruesome violence, detailed crime, and sexual assault should not be normalized. Perhaps the most controversial item banned by the Hays Code had the longest lasting impacts that can be seen even in society today: depiction of sexual perversion. This term was used to refer to any behavior deviating from the perceived natural order of romance, sex, and gender. This ban applied to all characters attracted to the same gender or characters who differed in their gender presentation or identity. While nudity and violence were quickly reintegrated into the film canon following the abandonment of the Production Code, LGBT characters remained taboo. For decades after LGBT characters were allowed to appear in films, their sexuality and gender was shrouded in thinly-veiled innuendos and visual cues. If a character was to be openly same-gender attracted or transgender, they would be gruesomely killed or presented as morally corrupted. Even today, some forty years after the end of the Hays Code, LGBT characters are rarely allowed to exist freely and enjoy a happy ending. Will Hays’ Production Code doomed LGBT characters to be demonized and exploited from 1930 to present day.
Prior to the Production Code, LGBT characters were somewhat prevalent, if heavily stereotyped and exploited, in a number of major films. The 1920s especially were a time of shifting societal norms and expanding artistic experimentation. As women rode the first wave of feminism and prohibition was increasingly challenged, filmmakers began to expand their boundaries and feature more controversial plotlines. This set the stage for Wings which was directed by William A. Wellman in 1927 and featured what is considered the first gay kiss in an American film.
Wings follows two Air Force pilots in World War I, Jack and Dave, who compete for the affections of a beautiful girl before discovering the true love they feel for each other. While the relationship is referred to repeatedly as a friendship, the acting and directing of the film make it obvious that the men’s feelings were romantic. The storyline ends when one of the men is fatally injured. He dies in his lover’s arms after a passionate kiss. Despite the condemnation of gay men in society as a whole at this time period, the film is surprisingly respectful of love between the two characters (Denesi). The camera remains mostly still in a tight shot of Jack and Dave embracing as they share a final goodbye. Jack assures Dave as he nears death that nothing meant more to him than their relationship. A swell of romantic string instruments play in the background as Jack mourns over Dave’s still body. The directing choices made by Wellman humanized both characters and allowed the audience to experience the tragedy without exploiting the perceived exoticness of a relationship between two men. This film is exemplary of many films featuring gay characters in the 1920s. Wellman escaped criticism over his inclusion of gay characters by very carefully walking the line between friends and lovers. To anyone not paying close attention, Jack and Dave could easily pass as close friends. The movie was incredibly well-received and was chosen as Best Picture for the 1927–1928 cycle. However, not all films featuring LGBT characters handled the issue as sensitively as Wings. One of the earliest kisses featuring two women was featured in Morocco, a 1930 film directed by Josef Von Sternberg.
Ironically, Morocco was a war-time romance story of a heterosexual couple. The kiss occurs when the woman, played by Marlene Dietrich, dresses in a men’s tuxedo and performs a song in front of an entranced crowd. Dietrich wanders through the crowd before plucking a flower from a female audience member’s hair and stooping to kiss her. The men watching erupt with cheers while the women look away scandalized. Throughout the scene, the camera follows Dietrich as she moves jauntily across the stage before repeatedly cutting to shots of various men excitedly watching. It is clear from the director’s choices that Dietrich was not playing a lesbian. Instead, she was depicting a heterosexual woman exploiting lesbian relationships to attract the attention of heterosexual men. This transparency is most likely why such a popular film was able to feature such explicit gay behavior. Anyone paying attention would have been able to tell that Dietrich’s character was not a real lesbian, thus the movie did not warrant the criticism that a movie featuring an actual lesbian character might. While films varied in the sensitivity of the treatment of their LGBT characters, the inclusion of LGBT characters at all was vastly superior to the conditions of the years to come.
While Hollywood may have been somewhat comfortable with LGBT characters in film, reception varied widely. Some viewed gay and transgender characters as comical. Others viewed these characters as deadly serious. Religious groups and other moral traditionalists began aggressively campaigning for the government to regulate what could and could not be shown on the big screen. They felt that the liberal themes of films in the 1920s were contributing to the supposed debauchery infiltrating society. They championed government censorship as the solution to return society to its traditional moral standards (Mondello). These groups found a ringleader in Republican politician William Hays. In 1922, Hays left his role in Congress to become the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association or MPPDA (New York Times). Rather than pushing for government censorship, Hays created his own production code that was technically optional for film companies. In practice, however, production companies were forced to abide by the code or risk mass boycotts by religious and traditional groups. While many controversial subject areas were not outright banned by the Production Code, LGBT characters were strictly forbidden. “The Production Code was notable for, among other things, the sometimes re-markable ways it attempted to regulate discourse in American film without baldly stating that certain textual elements were absolutely forbidden. Thus, expressions such as “should be avoided” and “should not suggest” were common. There are, however, several broad categories of representation on which the Code did not equivocate in the slightest. Clause six of section two on “Sex” states that “sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden” (Lugowski). However, Hays and his followers quickly learned that there were notable loopholes within their beloved production code.
Filmmakers were determined to continue telling stories that featured LGBT characters despite the ban. Given the constant threat of boycotts, this proved to be a difficult feat. Rather than presenting LGBT characters as realistic and three-dimensional, filmmakers were forced to rely on stereotypes to communicate the identities of their characters. For example, gay characters could not refer to themselves as gay or have a romantic relationship with another character of the same gender. Instead, they were styled to be gender non-conforming in their presentation and typically acted in a manner associated with the binary opposite gender. Across various genres and films, recurring archetypes for LGBT characters began to form. These archetypes began to bleed out of just the film world and infiltrate society. Many of the most pervasive homophobic and transphobic stereotypes can be traced to this period in film history. Filmmakers also relied on visual cues to signal a character’s identity to the audience. These cues were often derogatory or sexual. One of the most infamous examples of such visual cues and stereotypes is the 1941 film noir, The Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston, is a classic detective story following a private investigator, Sam Spade, as he searches for a jewel-encrusted stolen treasure. Along the way he meets a man named Joel Cairo who attempts to distract him and slow his search. Notably, this character was explicitly gay in the novel that inspired the film. Huston could not be so open in his representation of a LGBT character, however. Instead, the Hays Code forced Huston to rely on offensive stereotypes and visual subtext. In a movie that is often hyper-masculine, Cairo is extremely feminine in his voice, appearance, and body language. He carries around a distinctive cane that is often used in somewhat phallic contexts, such as the still above. To any audience member paying attention, it would be obvious what Huston was hinting at with his depiction of Cairo. To avoid any subsequent backlash from supporters of the Hays Code, Cairo is explicitly villainized and shown as morally bankrupt. This ultimately became another popular tactic for filmmakers to show LGBT characters without violating the Hays Code. Supporters of the production code proved to be markedly silent when the stereotypically gay character was demonized and condemned.
Danesi, Marcel. The History of the Kiss!: the Birth of Popular Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Huston, John, director. The Maltese Falcon. Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1941.
New York Times. “WILL H. HAYS SIGNS TO DIRECT MOVIES; Will Formally Resign From the Cabinet Today, to Take Effect on March 4. TO FORM NEW ASSOCIATION His Signature Is Placed on Contract After Telephone Talk With the President.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Jan. 1922,
Mondello, Bob. “Remembering Hollywood’s Hays Code, 40 Years On.” NPR, NPR, 8 Aug. 2008, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93301189.
Wellman, William A., director. Wings. Wings, Paramount Pictures, 1927.
Von Sternberg, Josef, director. Morocco. Paramount Publix Corp., 1930.