It may be the single most famous line in movie history:
Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.
And yet, Rhett Butler’s iconic farewell to Scarlet O’Hara at the end of Gone With the Wind was in violation of the motion picture Production Code, a rule book of do’s and don’ts adopted by the film industry in the 1930s. It may seem hard to believe in today’s “anything goes” environment where colorful language is not only prevalent in movies but also on television, but during its golden age the major Hollywood studios adopted a set of rules in a successful attempt to avoid government censorship of the movies.
The fabulous wealth created by the movies led some members of the film community to believe they were above the law. Bad publicity plagued the industry during the 1920s when sensational murders and sex scandals dominated Hollywood headlines. To combat its growing image problem, several of the major studios banded together to form the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, hiring former postmaster general Will Hays as a sort of “commissioner” of the movies. Because the Supreme Court had in 1915 unanimously found that motion pictures were not subject to the First Amendment’s free speech protection, several states had established motion picture censorship boards. By banding together, the film producers hoped to circumvent this censorship through self-regulation. The Production Code was the eventual result.
According to the code, there were certain things you just couldn’t do in the movies! In short, the Code demanded that:
No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.
In addition to that general principle, the Code also provided specific prohibitions against “scenes of passion” to include “excessive and lustful kissing;” nudity; “the ridicule of any religious faith;” or the portrayal of ministers of religion as comic or villainous characters.
The Breen Office, established in 1934 to enforce the code, used that last rule to demand changes to the final version of the John Ford classic The Quiet Man. In the original cut of the film, the parish priest, played by Ward Bond, is shown placing a bet with bookmaker Michaeleen Flynn, portrayed by the inimitable Barry Fitzgerald. Breen demanded the scene be cut—and it was!
According to the code, illegal drug traffic could not be presented, nor could adultery be “presented attractively.” Sympathy could never be created for a violator of law, either human or natural.
The code ruled Hollywood for nearly thirty years. Historian Henry Scott wrote that the code was essentially “a Jewish-owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America.” The 1960s saw the same kind of upheaval in the movies that American society in general was experiencing. In 1968, the code was scrapped and in its place the motion picture industry adopted the movie rating system, the basis of which is still in use today.
The Production Code plays a minor role in my Frank Russell-Pacific Pictures books, the first of which, The Movie Star and Me will be released on August 9th!
So what was wrong with Rhett Butler’s last line? It violated the code’s Rule 5 which prohibited profanity! How times have changed!