Cracking the Code

Tazan and His Mate Maurren O Sullivan 1934

Maureen O’Sullivan swimming nude in the 1934 movie Tarzan and His Mate

Bird of Paradise Dolores del Rio

Dolores del Rio swimming nude in the 1934 movie Bird of Paradise

Tarzan and His Mate Maureen O'Sullivan 1934

Maureen O’Sullivan nearly nude in Tarzan and His Mate from 1934

The Hays Code, an odious instrument of cultural censorship that plagued America between 1930 and 1968 may have been a blessing disguise for the spanking community.

The Code, which was not universally adopted and enforced until 1934 prohibited a whole range of on-screen activities that we today would view as ridiculous as chopping of the penises of marble statues and calling chair legs chair limbs so as not to be sexually provocative.

Just to give an idea of how relatively radical movies were before 1934, the pictures above were taken from mainstream films made just before the Code came into force. One is Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane from Tarzan and His Mate and the other is a very similar scene from a film called Birds of Paradise starring Joel McCrae and Dolores del Rio.

In the latter film, audiences were shocked by the fact that Dolores not only didn’t wear a bra, but that she openly professed a liking for rough sex, which back then was a euphemism for  BDSM or spanking.

Flying Down to Rio spankingMiss del Rio was to get her wish when she was later spanked in the 1933 movie, Flying Down to Rio. It was not getting spanked in this film that angered the Hays Code people, because spanking was one of the things that the Code did not ban. However, references to sex and two unmarried spending the night on a beach together did.

Spanking featured relatively heavily in movies before the Code was introduced, but afterwards it had to stand in for all the sex and nudity that films could no longer show.

In the 1931 movie the Cowcatcher’s Daughter, Marjorie Beebe’s spanking would have been celebrated by the censors as a just comeuppance for her character’s lude behaviour, for instance the animated image (found on Let’s Misbehave) shows her sneaking back from skinny-dipping hidden only by a fence which she turns into an on-scree burlesque act.The Cowcatcher's Daughter

Ironically after the Code such a spanking scene were continued to be played for laughs in order to hide the erotic nature of it in plain sight.  And that is the point. Maybe if it hadn’t been for the Has Code, emergence of women’s rights from the 1940s might have meant that such spanking scenes would have fallen out of fashion all the sooner, where as it is, they continued on in mainstream movies right up to the 1960s with movies such as McKlintock! and beyond.

The Cowcatcher's Daughter spanking

11 Responses to “Cracking the Code”

  1. 1 Old Tom

    How interesting. So we should all thank God for censorship

  2. 2 Retired Professor

    The Motion Picture Production Code, aka the Hayes Code, didn’t have any teeth until after 1934. Thus, one might argue that Tarzan and His Mate, and Paradise were products of the same era that gave moviegoers Mae West’s onscreen vulgarity. Although The Code’s official demise didn’t occur until 1968, its influence waned as television became increasingly popular in the mid-1950s.

    Not surprisingly, the Hayes Code had a parallel in television. The Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters dictated broadcast content from 1952 until it was repealed during a flurry of deregulation while Ronald Reagan was in the White House.

    Currently motion pictures are rated by a system inaugurated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1968. Whereas the Hayes Code regulated motion picture content, the MPAA rating classification merely grades content. A similar system also exists for television.

    Although onscreen spanking is permitted under the MPAA rating system, such scenes would result in a more restrictive rating. In turn, this reduces the size of the potential audience. Since the goal of most productions is to maximize profits, most studios try to get a PG-13 rating. Although some movies with spanking scenes or disciplinary implications are able to successfully navigate the sometimes tricky MPAA rating landscape, most fail to do so in a age when spanking is controversial.

    Conversely, spanking scenes in movies produced during the Hayes era reflected popular attitudes of the day. It was a time when spanking a badly behaved female of any age was deemed appropriate by a broad spectrum of the public.

    • 3 DJ

      No Indeed, as the article says the Hays Code was not ‘universally adopted and enforced until 1934.’ Interesting that you should spell it Hayes. That is how I had it in my first draft of this article – a lot of people spell it that way, as I nearly did until I checked. However, the code was named after Will H Hays and is commonly given as the Hays Code.

      The gap between 1930 and 1934 seems to be when a lot of these racier movies were made – so maybe they were having one last fling before the boom came down.

      I take your point that TV undermined it from the 1950s on when even some movies flouted the rules. By 1968 it was all but dead anyway – finally killed off by the critically acclaimed British film Blow-up, the first mainstream English language film to feature full-frontal nudity.

      I didn’t know that spanking garnered a more restricted rating in this era – although a PG-13 seems a pointless place to put it – treating spanking as it does as neither fish nor foul – as younger people would not get the double entendre anyway.

      But anyway you are right – it would have been a step to far to ban spanking out right.

      Thanks Prof and OT

      DJ 😉

      • 4 Retired Professor

        You’re right. I was writing from memory and spelled Hayes instead of Hays out of habit. Actually, the Hays Code should probably have been called the Breen Code. Joseph Breen was to motion pictures what Anthony Comstock had been to birth control literature a half century earlier.

        It is also worth noting that, during the Hays Code era, a man putting a woman over his knee was not considered to be perversion – which was forbidden by the Code. More interestingly, late 20th century attitudes toward spanking may turn out to have been an aberration.

  3. 5 bodack

    The Hays code almost stopped the most famous of all Kiss off lines from the end of Gone with the Wind..

    “Frankly my Dear I don’t give a damn”. After an uproar the Hays committee said “Damn” was an oath and not Swearing and hence was ok.

    • 6 DJ

      Good point – see my comment below another example of film-makers testing the boundaries. 🙂

  4. 7 js666

    Actually, as I recall, the film that broke the Code was “The Pawnbroker,” in which a prostitute takes the title character (Rod Steiger) into the back room to try to get money out of him and takes off her top; it was clearly a necessary scene in a serious film, but it broke all the rules.

    On a lighter note, in the first Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan film, “Tarzan the Apeman,” Jane starts to undress in front of her father (C. Aubrey Smith) and tells him not to be embarrassed because “you bathed me and even almost [inaudible] me, and if you had done it more I wouldn’t be so headstrong.” What else could it be?

    • 8 DJ

      There were many, many breaches before that 🙂 Back in the 1950s even. Yet the code creaked on until 1968. My point about Blow-up was that it was the straw that finally broke the code’s back. 😉 Or so my reading suggested.

  5. 9 J.R. anderson

    Maureen O’Sullivan did not do the nude swim scene in “Tarzan and His Mate”. The unerwater sequence was performed by former Olympic swimmer, Josephine McKim.

  6. 11 Richard

    In my early youth the television was still black and white so i remember the Lucy shows where Mrs. Ball got it from Ricky most were reruns but some others weren’t Didget for instance though i don’t remember any visual hand falls on Sally Fields young bottom By the time i saw Mc Lintock the die was set With out any real sex to show back then would the Secretary ever have been made later Have to say But it couldn’t have hurt except for the actress’s which may have been padded anyway

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