Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Drink with the Hollywood Production Code

Sheila York writes the Lauren Atwill mystery series. Her amateur sleuth is a screenwriter in post-war Hollywood, chasing killers in the last hurrah of the Great Golden Age of Film. Lauren’s latest adventure is Death in Her Face.

I’m excited and flattered to have been invited to be a regular player on this team. And maybe a bit nervous. Where to start? How about at the beginning?

I came to crime writing early and late.

I was an extremely shy child, a condition not improved by my family’s frequent moves. My father was a career army officer, and we moved 6 times before I was 10. My solace was books, and I thought the best job in the world would be Writer: independence, recognition and something I could do in solitude. I thought maybe I had some talent for it, too, as I two-fingered my way around my portable Royal, a candy cigarette dangling from my lips because I’d seen a picture of Lillian Hellman in Life magazine.

Sheila York
But unlike Lillian, my instinct was to write crime. For every creative-writing assignment in junior high and high school, I crafted mysteries, often romantic mysteries. But, of course, teachers back then weren’t looking for those. They were looking for feints at literature. This was, after all, ‘college prep’. Along the way, my insecurity and the dissuasion of my instinctive efforts convinced me that whatever skill I possessed must be no more than an average example of students in my town, which at the time had fewer people than the closing credits in The Hobbit.

It took a few decades before I finally asked, “If not now, when?” Then with the determination only possible in someone clueless about publishing, I decided to set a mystery in 1940s Los Angeles. Even after people warned me it was risky territory, I persevered. If there’s a characteristic I share most deeply with my heroine, Lauren, it’s stubbornness.

From the beginning, there was never any doubt in my mind that my sleuth would be an amateur and a woman, that she would meet a private detective with a troubled past, that he would be the love of her life. And she would be the one who ultimately caught the killers. But how does a woman in the 1940s find scandal, corruption, betrayal, greed, sex, and murder?

No brainer. She had to work in Hollywood.

And I love movies. From all decades, but I’m a particular fan of the 1940s, when some of the best films ever made were produced. Part of what I admire about them is the ability to tell a good tale while navigating the severe restrictions of the Production Code, the set of rules that controlled the morals of American movie content from 1934 till 1968 when the Code was replaced by an early version of our ratings system. The studios agreed to be ruled by the Code in part to pacify local censor boards and religious groups who found films of the silent era and the early 1930s too sexual and violent, a threat to family life, and a bad influence on youth.

Every script and every film’s final cut had to be approved by the PCA (the Production Code Administration). Its primary rule was “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

Wow, how exactly do you assure that? By adopting the most conservative values in America.

Today, I thought I’d share a bit about three things I know well: The Production Code, movies and drinking. Okay, that didn’t come out right. The Production Code, movies and drinking in the movies. Although, full disclosure, I’m quite fond of a glass — or two or three — of wine. (You can always find the hotel bar at a writers convention. Just follow the game trail in the lobby carpet.)

The Code spends most of its efforts on sex and crime — and ensuring neither one looks appealing — but it also makes clear how studios should treat booze. “The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, will not be shown.”

This makes it kind of hard to throw a party. Or run a bar.

So let’s visit briefly the most famous bar in the movies: Rick’s CafĂ© AmĂ©ricain in Casablanca, which does a fine business for a place where alcohol is rarely actually consumed. In a movie that takes place almost entirely in bars, drinks are constantly ordered, poured, carried, deposited, picked up, held and raised to the lips, but you can count on your fingers and toes the number of times characters swallow. Let’s see how many swallows make a movie.

His heart breaking after seeing his lost love again, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) sits alone in the darkened club getting drunk, a nearly empty bottle beside him, and delivers one of the most quoted lines in movie history — “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”. How much does he drink in his misery? Three swallows. Three. In that whole classic, world-famous scene.

Earlier, when Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and underground hero Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) first come to Rick’s, four rounds of drinks are ordered, three at their table and one when Victor goes to the bar to meet a contact. Glasses move to lips, but how many swallows do you see? One, and that’s a paltry sip.

In Death in Her Face, when a sultry starlet with a mysterious past vanishes and her gangster boyfriend turns up dead, my sleuth, Lauren, is hired to rewrite the script for another actress should the starlet turn out to be a killer in more than looks. (Of course, Lauren is neck deep in the investigation within 24 hours.)

Besides prohibitions on liquor, here are just a few of the rules Lauren has to keep in mind:

  • The guilty must be punished. Don’t create sympathy for criminals.
  • Keep marriage sacred. Adultery should not be excused or justified (Casablanca also slips around this one very neatly).
  • No mocking of religion or those who minister in it (who also can never be villains unless they are historical characters).
  • No prostitutes (women who plied the trade in novels ended up as taxi dancers in the film version).
  • And my personal favorite: No representation of anything that would look like advice to criminals. A thief couldn’t tell another, “Hey, put some gloves on before you touch that.”

The next time you’re watching a film from the Great Golden Age, you might think a little about these restrictions and the creative artistry required to tackle adult themes and occasionally make magic.

Sheila York


  1. My favorite line... of all the gin joints... that has so many layers of meaning!!!!!... So nice to see you on this blog group! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

    1. Casablanca must have the highest number of quotable lines in the history of the movies. And the Criterion edition is spectacular. The black and white glow as the original must have in a movie palace. Not that Bergman needed any help to glow. You understand lighting and setting mood in black and white from watching that film -- and from Carol Reed's THE THIRD MAN. Always on the required viewing list for the 1940s. Michael Curtiz directed Casablanca. Arthur Edeson was the cinematographer. Credit should be given.

  2. Looking foward to the next Lauren Atwill mystery! Awesome that you are now writing with this blog group!

  3. I have joined a great team. I feel like I just got the call to the Majors.

  4. Sheila, I love having you with us. I LOVED Death in Her Face:the insider view of Hollywood, the snappy dialogue, and the fast-paced plot. MORE PLEASE!

  5. Nice to see and hear you, again, Sheila. You don't get up to Albany often enough (Once, I remember. You and Jane Cleland braved the Thruway in November. Helluva night!)
    Bob K.

    1. And I drove. It was the first year I'd owned a car in about a quarter century, as I'd just moved from New York City to New Jersey. Jane is a brave woman.

  6. Great blog, Sheila, to join a wonderful book and--so befitting of the book's milieu--headshot! I look forward to Lauren's next adventure!
    Kate L

  7. If you ever want a lecturer on the topic of the golden age of Hollywood -- - I just heard an excellent lecture/slide show at the 92 Y by Dr. Brian Rose of Fordham Communication and Media - today!!! Thelma Straw

    1. I have a library presentation on the Production Code, called You Can't Put THAT in the Movies, which was a hoot to put together. I'd love to see his lecture.

  8. Check my email that I just sent to you... tjs

  9. Wonderful bit of writing! Thank you Sheila!