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THE POLITICS OF SCREENWRITING DURING THE CODE:
OR, MORE THOUGHTS ON ART AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY




In Book X of Plato’s Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon, “all poetical imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and…the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them." Poets, or writers, are only imitators; they copy images, but never achieve the truth, never know whether their “imitation" is good or bad with “no knowledge worth mentioning." Homer would have done better had he “really been able to educate and improve mankind."

About artistry, Socrates draws an analogy, “the same object appears straight when looked at out of the water, and crooked when in the water; and the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colors to which the sight is liable. Thus every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the art of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic." Referring to an earlier point in the dialogue, he states, “This was the conclusion at which I was seeking to arrive when I said that painting or drawing, and imitation in general, when doing their own proper work, are far removed from truth, and the companions and friends and associates of a principle within us which is equally removed from reason, and that they have no true or healthy aim." In other words, “The imitative art is an inferior who marries an inferior, and has inferior offspring." (Oscar Wilde might counter, even if in irony. In “The Decay of Lying," he writes, “The final revelation is that lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.")

Socrates’s view might well parallel that of conservative Christian censors in the early twentieth century who then (and perhaps would still today) cited Philippians 4:8 as fodder against mature subject matter: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." The controversy, then, arises over the meaning, purpose, and intent of the word “true," which some might argue is ignored altogether, while “honest," “pure," and “lovely" things rise in importance.

For some, and we might include early twentieth century screenwriter Frances Marion, the concept of “true" is the most critical component for the writer and involves the analysis of the human condition, the examination of what it means to be human — bringing to life and light the social conditions, issues, and ills of humanity. This art may not always be “lovely," “pure," or virtuous. For others, and we might include those with Joseph I. Breen’s conservatice Catholic Production Code Administration mindset among this group, “true" is closer to the way in which Socrates uses it in Plato’s Republic — parallel to “lovely," “pure," or virtuous. We should, Plato or Socrates might argue, only engage in matters that lead us to moral purity and enlightenment in terms of spiritual Truth, with a capital T.

In some ways, then, the discussion surrounding moral citizenship and the ethical imagination hovers over and around the very definition of art. Martin Quigley, one of the authors of the Production Code, stated the censor’s (and we might say Plato’s) view succinctly: “I see no relation whatsoever between ‘out-and-out-vulgarity’ and a ‘work of art’…Art of all kinds has as its primary purpose the ennoblement of man, and however excellent a work of art may be — a so-called work of art may be — if its influence is a depraving influence." As we already know, Plato would argue that art or “the work of the imitator" should be abolished as it is three steps away from reality and only gets in the way of his goal in life, which is the search for ultimate Truth, transcendent meaning, good, or God and thus the creation of a utopian Republic.

While we concede the nobility of this dream, it must be said that an efficient or utopian Republic is not the most important thing for most human souls. Just ask Madeleine L'Engle. Many find themselves in agreement with Tolstoy when he asserts that writing is essential to share “the conditions of human life." Like Aristotle, Tolstoy believed art should reflect reality — not just the good. In that process of communication, perhaps humanity can see its foibles and thus improve. Bud Schulberg defends and even calls for this kind of writing in the Introduction and Afterword to the American Library Edition of his Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run? Schulberg believed we must display human foibles to expose the malaise of our society.

We must also admit that great art consists of an x-factor that “incites emotions in us when we view" it — something beyond mere definitions — probably something close to what Longinus calls the sublime. In The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to it as “that indefinable nothing, that inestimable something" — the work shares some universality of representation in the exchange of or manifestation of human experience. David Broder once wrote, “A nation that cannot afford to finance its arts — even the occasionally tasteless or offensive variety — is a nation that has lost its perspective, its self-confidence and probably its soul." My fear is that our censorship — especially in 1920s and 1930s Hollywood — may have revealed us as a nation that could not face the truth of its own existence. In other words, work produced under censorship conditions may portray evidence of a gap between real life, real social truth and concerns, and life as portrayed on screen.

We can see this distinction, this debate between the mentality of Plato and Aristotle, manifested in the center of Raphael’s School of Athens in which Plato points up to the heavens, interested only in the pursuit of a godly, virtuous Truth whereas Aristotle’s hand is facing down toward earth, indicating the importance of examining life as it occurs here among humanity, that which is true to life, to humanity. In the Poetics, Aristotle reminds us of different artists’ proclivities: “Polygnotus portrayed men better than we are, Pauson men inferior to the norm, and Dionysius men like ourselves…Homer…represents men better than we are, Cleophon men like ourselves, Hegemon…men worse than the norm."

Who is correct?

Reformers and film censors of the early tentieth century would likely align philosophically with Polygnotus and Homer — at least as Aristotle interprets their art. A screenwriter like Frances Marion would likely align with those who depict humanity as they are, Dionysius and Cleophon, while urging humankind to be better, so obvious a subtext in her work—and, I might add, an impulse Plato would approve, hopeful as he was that Homer might have done better to “improve mankind."

I don't mean to imply that Aristotle himself is averse to moral writing, moral character, just as Marion would argue that she was not. Indeed, he states, “Character is whatever reveals a person’s habit of moral choice — whatever he tends to choose or reject…speeches in which there is absolutely no choosing or rejecting" — are, therefore, less desirable. For Aristotle, poetry (or creative writing for the contemporary mind — he is actually referring to the dramatists or playwrights here, who wrote in verse) is a “more philosophical and a higher thing than history, in that poetry tends rather to express the universal, history rather the particular fact." That which is universal to us all is more meaningful and cathartic as we watch it and say, “ah, it is so," at the moment of recognition, perhaps a reversal or the awakening of pity and fear, perhaps a complication and its denouement. We connect to the truth about the human condition in something we see on screen or read in a script. For Aristotle, the theme, plotline, character arc, something, is universal to us all, not just meaningful to a particular person, and in that very exploration of humanity it “satisfies the moral sense."

Tolstoy tells us, “Art is not…some mysterious idea of beauty or God…it is not pleasure." Rather, “it is a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for life and progress towards well-being of individuals and of humanity." He fears that a few “teachers of mankind — such as Plato in his Republic," and those of conservative religions — “have gone so far as to repudiate all art." These people, Tolstoy explains, believe that art is “so highly dangerous in its power to infect people against their wills, that mankind will lose far less by banishing all art than by tolerating each and every art." But Tolstoy would argue that these people would lose an “indispensible means" of humankind communicating with one another.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf muses “taking War and Peace and putting it back in its place" on her shelf that art produces the feeling — “But this is what I have always felt and known and desired! And one boils over with excitement" — reminding us of Aristotle’s concept of recognition. For her, “freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of art." Jean-Paul Sartre would nod in agreement. In “Why Write?," he argued, simply, that “[w]riting is a certain way of wanting freedom."

In both Off With Their Heads! and How to Write and Sell Film Stories, Marion bristled under the repressive censorship she had to contend with. No doubt, she would concur with Woolf and Sartre that freedom is essential for the writer — and produces the only art worth receiving as a reader or viewer. At the same time, she would encourage social responsibility as we see her do time and again in her screenwriting manual — and, of course, we can see this philosophy emanate from the pages of her novels and scripts.

In Freedom to Offend, Raymond Haberski begins his discussion by stating, “We live along a cultural fault line that constantly threatens the vitality of arts in America." He argues that one side perennially complains of too much violence, sex, and other “offensive material" in “art and media" while others argue “free speech." Haberski views this “controversial culture" as pitting the “moral code folks" against the “free speech folks" — sometimes driving each side to extremes, locked in eternal battle. He writes, “Free speech absolutists distrust all authority and therefore dismiss any attempt to restrict culture out of fear that something meaningful will be lost; moralists distrust human nature and therefore seek to restrict culture out of fear that something meaningful will be found in a culture they dislike."

Brian Godawa agrees. In Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment, he states that a “dominant theme of cultural critics" is films contain too much “sex, violence and profanity." According to Godawa, statistics and studies show that Americans “absorb" “thousands of violent acts, vile obscenities and acts of immoral sexuality through the media every year." But, he argues, these scenes cannot be divorced from their context because, in many cases, the films or other media artifacts are redemptive in their final acts. He also reminds readers that the Bible itself contains “detailed accounts and descriptions of every immoral act known to humanity." Moreover, he asserts that even a “cursory perusal of these depictions of vice is enough to make any concerned reader blush." I know the story of King David has always disturbed me.

Regardless, Godawa argues that “[o]ne of the purposes of the arts is to stimulate discussion of values and beliefs, to engage in soul-searching discourse with one another." He concludes his study by musing, “Hopefully, through the exchange of opinions with an open mind and a humble disposition, we can use movies and their contrast of humanity’s lighter and darker sides as a means of understanding and interacting redemptively with ourselves and the world around us."

Likewise, Haberski calls for a middle ground between “free speech absolutists" and “the abstractions of moralists." For him, “there is a realm for social critics…who care about art and community in equal parts and for a public that cares about criticism." He argues that viewers, audiences can profit from this very discussion through the building of community. Haberski also recalls that even Susan Sontag reverses the early progressive views that made her famous when she argues, “Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then." She continues, “The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become established."

This view is reminiscent of Marion’s when she notes in her screenwriting manual that films are viewed by many people in many theaters whereas a work of art such as a book is read by a single person in solitude. Mass culture has a mass impact. In Screenplay, Syd Field describes the experience of watching a film as the search in “the reflected images" for something profound — no less than the hope to “glean an insight, an awareness, a hope that might embrace the personal meaning" of life. Statements of this power and enormity reveal the impact of media production on people’s lives.

Addressing the “absolute moralists" in his collection of essays Present Concerns, C.S. Lewis cautions, “No doubt priggery is a horrid thing, and the more moral the horrider." For Lewis, the “inevitable implication" when we make a judgment is that we are superior, “less wicked" — an assumption that is both “dangerous and disgusting." He fears this mindset may mold us into those who are “smug — complacent — Pharisaical — Victorian." He resigns himself — I can almost hear him sigh when I read the passage — to “abandon all moral censorship" as the “lesser of the evils." “We have sunk beneath or risen above it," he bemoans. Lewis, of course, would not push this case too far. He was, in the end, an advocate for social responsibility and the tone of his conclusions match that of Marion’s in her manual when she encouraged the writer to “depict the more worthwhile and the more decent situations in life."

For Marion, the issue comes down to social justice. As I have stated multiple times throughout this text, her work is rife with the examination of social issues, ills, and hypocrisies. In The Callahans and the Murphys, she borrows from Shakespeare’s plot for Romeo and Juliet, a story that makes the case for families and neighbors to forgive and forget past differences and follow the lead of the young who are driven by the highest of all human emotions: love. The Big House challenges prison conditions and presents a subtext concerning prison reform. In Anna Christie, Marion again explores the theme of forgiveness as she did in The Callahans and the Murphys. Moreover, following O’Neill, the screenwriter provides history and background concerning a woman in Anna’s predicament. Audiences come to learn these women are not necessarily “fallen" or “evil"; rather, they may have been preyed upon as victims of rape and human trafficking. Society’s judgments of these women seem unfair, and the theme of forgiveness from empathy traced through Mat’s character arc extends out to the audience as well. We can see this same force at work in her adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

As yet another example, The Secret Six challenges corruption among the police ranks and the court system. The unknown band of vigilantes — The Secret Six — are the only genuinely “conscientious citizens," the only legitimate “righteous ones of the valley" as they stand up to and stop the criminal behavior of a man like Scorpio. Likewise, Dinner at Eight — admittedly co-opted by Mankiewicz and Stewart — Marion herself referred to the final film as artificial — still manages to explore some deep and important themes: the film presents an extended critique of those who make their living in criminal ways (Packard); social climbing is presented as ridiculous; and the storyline encourages the entertainment industry against chewing up and spitting out its artists as they age.

Marion believed — and proved it with her scripts for Marie Dressler — that new roles and new directions could be carved out by loving and caring friends helping one another in the industry, rather than following the traditional dog-eat-dog, competitive, individualistic mentality of a Sammy Glick, the protagonist of Bud Schulberg’s novel. This theme found extension in Marion’s novel Molly, Bless Her as well.

In another novel, Valley People, Marion unveils the indecent and even vicious ways in which people treat one another. Just like so many other of Marion’s writings, the entire text is laced with the subtext love one another — which may seem ironic to us now because this philosophy would have been or at least should have been the central motivator for Christian reformers, and, one hopes, all other reformers as well. This message, after all, was the central message of Christ and is important regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof.

The tension among art, faith, censorship, ethics, and morality has been impassioned and persistent. To be sure, the debate is still alive and well in the twenty-first century. Artists will always have to struggle with it to some extent. The moralist citizenry and the ethical artist may continue to clash over the years, both believing their own view to be correct, but in the end artists must remain true to their own values. Without that, they have nothing.

In his renowned book Story, Robert McKee has a section titled “The Writer Must Believe in What He Writes." He begins: “Stanislavski asked his actors: Are you in love with the art in yourself or yourself in the art?" McKee encourages writers to examine their motives for writing the way in which they do and discourages them from merely rebelling against commercialism or structure, stating doing so is the equivalent of a child’s tantrum. “As a result," McKee admonishes, “pretentiousness poisons his work." He goes on to state that a “story is the embodiment of our ideas and passions, [...] ‘an objective correlative’ for the feelings and insights we wish to instill in the audience." He cautions the novice screenwriter especially, “Like a child living in the shadow of a powerful father, you break Hollywood’s ‘rules’ because it makes you feel free. But angry contradiction of the patriarch is not creativity; it’s delinquency calling for attention. Difference for the sake of difference is as empty an achievement as slavishly following the commercial imperative." He concludes with perhaps one of the most important sentiments in all of creative writing: “Write only what you believe."

In Screenwriting with a Conscience, writer Marilyn Beker admits that in Hollywood people are “desperate to work, to be a commercially viable." Thus they “defend their right…to do and say anything to get ahead." The code of ethics in Hollywood, then, is “survival." In The Screenwriter Activist, she states that she recognized she had a talent for writing, but she decided she would use the “weapon" responsibly. She asserts, “In my work as a writer and teacher, I’ve tried to help people understand that every life is filled with…possibilities, that words are powerful and can make a difference, and that possessing talent is a great responsibility not to be taken lightly." Beker advises, “If all of us who’ve been given the gift of artistic acumen were to truly realize the impact that gift could have on a world desperate for meaning and purpose, we would all make a firm commitment to use our talent to ease suffering and turn darkness to light."

Likewise in More Than a Movie: Ethics in Entertainment, lawyer and producer F. Miquel Valenti refuses rules and regulations such as a code, yet he argues, like Lewis, like Beker, like Marion, for filmmakers to consciously consider what they are putting on film and the messages those words, actions, images will have on audiences and thus the world in which they live. Speaking as a filmmaker himself, he states, “Many of us are extremely uncomfortable in this role as arbiter of national taste and to some degree, morals. For the most part, we see ourselves as being in the entertainment business. However, the reality is that we have become ‘educators,’ or at the very least, strong influences, particularly on young people." He cautions, “We, as creators, are wielding an ever more powerful cultural weapon — a big stick with immense global impact."

In the Afterword to Without Lying Down, Cari Beauchamp discusses some of the book, play, and television work Marion pursued after she moved to New York in 1948. Of her perennial penchant in choosing her projects, Beauchamp reminisces about a women’s prison story: “The compassion [Marion] felt inspired her and once again she grasped onto a subject with the potential of doing greater good." An analysis of Marion’s work certainly reveals that high habit. Toward the end of her life, when asked what impact she hoped her autobiography Off With Their Heads! had, she oft repeated the fact that while many argue women do not help one another in business, that her experience had been different. She had found women very generously helping one another. Loving one another, she may have said. In various ways, she was always building community — encouraging us to be always already engaged in the discussion, the conversation concerning screenwriting, sin, and censorship.

We must all remain in dialogue, committed to this conversation, listening to the views of others. We must remain thoughtful, ruminating on the issues regarding free speech, activism, and interdiction. Artists must then act according to their own values, ever-mindful of their social responsibility.


May 2018

Leslie Kreiner Wilson

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