When choreographer Agnes DeMille was interviewed for a documentary about her famous uncle Cecil B., she had a wonderful story to tell about the “Hays Office,” the body charged with enforcing Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code. She had been hired by her uncle to provide a bit of pagan titillation for DeMille’s production of “Cleopatra.” Her job as one of the Egyptian queen’s court dancers was to get the Roman visitor Marc Antony into the mood for some serious international monkey business. So Agnes offered her impression of an historically authentic Egyptian dance.
“Oh, no, no,” Cecil told her. “This won’t do. There’s no sex, there’s nothing, there’s no excitement. This wouldn’t seduce anybody. This wouldn’t seduce me.”
“He turned to the censor,” Agnes recalled, “the censor who was there to see that we didn’t do anything so dirty it wouldn’t be allowed on the screen. He said, ‘Would that arouse you?’ And the man said, ‘Hell, no.’ Cecil said, ‘I want the kind of dance we had in ‘Sign of the Cross’—a lesbian dance.’ I said, ‘I thought that was one of the funniest things I ever saw.’ And he said, ‘Well, baby, that’s the kind of humor we’re looking for.’”
“The Sign of the Cross” had been released in 1932, two years before “Cleopatra.” The Hays Office, which was created in 1922, had gotten things pretty well tamped down by 1934, so the latter film was indeed less dirty than the former, if perhaps no less hilarious. Agnes DeMille’s anecdote about the profane Hays Office censor is pretty funny, too. But the contrast between Will Hays’ prim demeanor and the cigar-chomping way in which his minions did their jobs, droll as that may be, is not what most people think of when they hear about the Motion Picture Production Code. They think of twin beds.
Quick, Smug, and Surly Response
Whenever anyone suggests that maybe Hollywood might consider dialing back the raunch just a wee bit, twin beds are sure to come up.
“WHAT! BACK TO SEPARATE BEDS?” That’s the headline of an ad the ACLU once ran in Daily Variety after a Catholic prelate asked filmmakers to consider returning to the old Production Code.
The Left’s response to such suggestions has always been quick, smug and surly. Here’s liberal columnist Tom Teepen in 1995: “Hollywood caved to political pressure in the 1920s and created its own moral cop, the Hays Office, which promptly undertook to mislead American youth into supposing the standard marriage format was twin beds separated by a lamp table.”
And the response has always been wrong. Here’s blogger Adam Bulger in 2016: “The Hays Code split Nick and Nora Charles’ marriage in two. In their 1934 movie debut ‘The Thin Man,’ the booze-loving sleuths nursed hangovers from the shared comfort of a king bed. When they returned in 1936’s ‘After the Thin Man,’ Hollywood censors forced them into separate twin beds.” Of course, no one who has seen the “Thin Man” films has ever thought for one minute that Nick and Nora weren’t getting it on. But you needn’t be a “Thin Man” fan to know this idea—that Hollywood was ever obliged to present a picture of sexless marriage epitomized by mandatory twin beds—is nonsense.
Neither the Production Code nor the toothless guidelines that preceded it say anything about twin beds. The guidelines advised “special care” in depicting “first-night scenes” and a “man and woman in bed,” and the code decreed that “the treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.” Perhaps some Hays Office munchkin at some point interpreted that provision as requiring separate beds, thus giving rise to the “twin bed” legend. Perhaps the legend is pure myth. But anyone with eyes can see that such a rule was not widely observed.
Consider this episode: A harried businessman comes home late at night, tired and dejected. Leaning over the dresser, he looks into the mirror. On the wall hangs an embroidered cartoon his wife gave him when they were courting. “George Lassos the Moon,” it reads. George’s sleeping wife awakens, and he walks over and lies down beside her. They kiss, and he pours out his troubles to her, and she lifts his spirits by telling him they’re going to have a baby: “George Bailey lassos stork!”
That scene, played with special care, taste, and delicacy by James Stewart and Donna Reed in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” takes place on a double bed—a minor detail, perhaps, except that it makes liars out of those who propagate the “twin bed” myth.
Subtle Innuendo Follows
A king-sized marriage bed figures more prominently in another well-loved film, John Ford’s 1952 romance, “The Quiet Man.”
An Irish-American prizefighter (played by John Wayne) retires to his birthplace in Ireland. Meeting an attractive local maiden (Maureen O’Hara), he greets her without waiting for a formal introduction, thus scandalizing the natives. When her brother calls him out on it, the prizefighter scoffs: “I said ‘Good morning’ to her.”
“‘Good morning’!” the brother shouts. “Yes, but it was ‘Good night’ you had on your mind!”
What the quiet man has on his mind is matrimony. Furnishing his new home, he carries an enormous bed frame into the cottage; nearby, his intended observes these preparations, peeking wide-eyed over a fence.
“Is that a bed or a, or a parade ground?” another bystander asks her. “Ah, a man would have to be a sprinter to catch his wife in a bed like that!”
The couple get married, but the bride’s spiteful brother refuses to hand over her dowry, and the newlyweds argue about it on their wedding night. Telling him to go collect her dowry, she runs into the bedroom and locks the door; enraged, he kicks the door open and forcibly kisses her. Will it be a marital rape? No, he picks her up and throws her on the bed, collapsing it, and then stalks out to sleep in the parlor.
The next morning, friends who are unaware of this contretemps arrive with the bride’s furniture, which they’ve wrested from her brother. While the couple are outside helping to unload the cart, one of the well-wishers carries a cradle into the bedroom and sets it down, then stares at the demolished bed, getting entirely the wrong idea of how the wedding night went. “Impetuous! Homeric!” he exclaims, a line of dialogue often drowned out by the audience’s laughter when the film was shown in theaters.
The marriage continues unconsummated for some time. In one scene, the wife finds her husband planting a garden. “Roses!” she says. “Are you planting roses? Fine farmer you are! Not a turnip or a cabbage or a potato on the place.” To which he retorts, “Or children.” When he sees how this crushes her, he softens. “Sorry,” he tells her, and offers her a wildflower from the lawn.
They bear with one another, and everything turns out right at last. In perhaps the happiest of all Hollywood’s happy endings, the members of the cast take a cinematic curtain call, each bidding farewell to the audience in turn. The lovers appear last: They wave goodbye to us, then she whispers in his ear, and they go jolly-trotting into the cottage, where their king-sized bed and the cradle await them.
“Let’s Go Back There Sometime—Soon”
Consider also another major family film from that era, William Wyler’s 1956 Civil War story, “Friendly Persuasion.” In it, a Quaker couple played by Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire take a literal roll in the hay.
Egged on by a friend, the husband has purchased a pipe organ, a musical instrument the wife regards as a plaything of the devil. “Jess,” she says, barring the door as he tries to carry the organ into the house, “I forbid thee to have this instrument!”
“For thy own sake, Jess, I forbid.”
“Eliza, when thee asks or suggests, I’m like putty in thy hands, but when thee forbids, thee is barking up the wrong tree.”
She puts her foot down: “I don’t know what’s come over thee, Jess Birdwell! I’m warning thee, if thee takes that instrument into the house, I go out. Thee make thy choice. Thee can have that instrument or thee can have thy wife. But both, thee cannot have.” Undaunted, he carries the organ into the house, and she gathers up her shawl and her Bible and moves out to the barn.
Next morning, dawn finds the two of them strolling from the barn toward the house—arm in arm, leaning on each other, with bedding in hand (pictured at the top). “And thee promises to put the organ up in the attic right away,” she says, “and no playing on First Day, or when visitors are here.” He submits to these instructions, and then points at the barn, saying, “Let’s go back there sometime—soon.” She’s a bit scandalized by the idea, but, all the same, she smiles and takes his hand.
Just then, a neighbor shows up, and she grabs the bedding and hurries into the house. Neighbor Sam, who is the instigator of the organ purchase, had visited the house the previous evening and thereby accidentally learned of Eliza’s lonely vigil in the barn. He asks if Jess is getting rid of the organ.
“Nah,” Jess says.
“Well, how’d you bring her around?” Sam asks.
“Reasoned with her, just reasoned with her,” is the reply.
The two friends go out to the barn to inspect a new mare that Jess has traded for, and there Sam sees a lantern, a rose in a vase, and Jess’s pocket watch, all on a barrel next to a bed of straw. “‘Reasoned with her,’ eh? ‘Just reasoned with her’!” And Sam all but falls down laughing as he hands Jess the watch, tucks the rose behind his friend’s ear and brushes straw off his back.
So much for the idea that Hollywood used to paint a picture of sexless marriage.
Romance of this sort was featured even in children’s films—for example, in “The Court Jester,” a 1956 Danny Kaye vehicle set in medieval England. Early in the movie (which film critic Leonard Maltin calls “one of the best comedies ever made”), Kaye and the lovely Glynis Johns are sheltering a royal orphan who has been marked for death by “Roderick the Tyrant,” a usurper who has seized the throne after murdering the true king and all his other heirs.
Circumstances throw the two freedom fighters together with the infant in a woodland hut, where she is impressed by his tenderness toward the baby. As they turn in for the night, a rainstorm confines them to the cramped quarters, making them share a bed of straw. Overcome by her beauty, he proposes marriage to her on the spot. She accepts, and they kiss, but they agree to postpone further activities until the tyrant is vanquished—which, in due course, he is. And with the infant on the throne and the lovers united, Kaye brings the curtain down, singing, “Life couldn’t possibly better be!”
What the Production Code Really Said
All of those bedroom scenes are intensely romantic without being in the slightest degree pornographic. They are highlights—not of foreign “art” films or of scandalous, “daring for their time” exceptions to some otherwise prevailing prudish standard—but of top-rated, mainstream American movies that were popular in their own day and are acclaimed as classics now. And they all were created in accord with the Production Code’s requirement that “the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.”
The Code was full of such regulations:
- “The sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.”
- “Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.”
- “In general, passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser emotions.”
- “No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.” (The pipe-organ sequence in “Friendly Persuasion” might be seen as violating that rule, but instead it shows how flexibly the rules were applied. For all its humor, the film’s look at Quakers was loving and respectful, not contemptuous. Avoiding such contempt was what the Code intended, and what it accomplished.)
- “The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.” (It evidently didn’t occur to the Hays Office to require that America’s own history, citizenry, etc., be represented fairly. The rabid anti-Americanism that flourished among 1960s radicals and persists among many multiculturalists today is something a previous generation never anticipated.)
Those rules generally are no more than what any conscientious filmmaker would follow on his own. They were devised and were observed for decades by the film industry itself, for its own good and for the good of the public. But then the rules were thrown away, and so we have gone from Capra, Ford, and Wyler to . . . what? The Farrelly brothers? Cretin Tarantino?
The Production Code couldn’t be revived today. As conservative film critic Michael Medved has pointed out, structural changes in the movie business “now make it altogether impossible for a handful of executives to impose a self-policing scheme on the entire industry.”
But when today’s cultural mandarins dismiss every call for restraint by talking contemptuously about twin beds, they are perpetuating a lie. They are defending the indecent extreme to which we have now come by invoking an opposite extreme that never really existed.
Photo credit: NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images