Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway

In my post about actor Maurice Chevalier I commented that movies in the early 30's seemed more provocative than those of the 40's and 50's. I just found out why. In 1934 the Production Code, or Hays Code, went into effect. It was the industry's attempt to censure itself amid rising public pressure for government regulation.

The difference can be seen in two Hemingway adaptations both starring Gary Cooper. In 1931's A Farewell to Arms it is very clear when characters intend to have sex and Cooper's character is even shown apologizing for not realizing he had just taken a nurse's virginity. In 1943's For Whom the Bell Tolls, arguably a more racy book, it is unclear whether the protagonist ever consummates his relationship with the Spanish girl Maria. And all references of her having been raped in the past are summed up with a mention of villains taking her to a couch where "the worst things were done."

The Production Code gradually faded from importance as film makers realized that bending it (or even breaking it) didn't hurt their bottom line. It was officially replaced with an early version of the current MPAA rating system in 1968. Incidentally, the Best Picture winner the following year was Midnight Cowboy - originally rated X. A final nail in the coffin of the Production Code.

It's been over a decade since I read A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. If asked last week to diagram the plots of either, my sketches would have been very rough. It was fun watching these films and finding the majority of the scenes felt familiar.

In real life, Hemingway and Cooper were friends for the last twenty years of their lives (they died just weeks apart). Of Cooper, Hemingway said, "Coop is a fine man; as honest and straight and friendly and unspoiled as he looks. If you made up a character like Coop, nobody would believe it. He's just too good to be true."

86 to go...

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