Role of Hollywood’s Production Code in Affirming Culture

[Classical Hollywood] ‘Movies have happy endings because part of their cultural function is to affirm and maintain the culture of which they are part.’

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20 May, 2017


Movies play various roles, one of them being a cultural function. In this case, movies not only depict a national life but also assert and uphold the cultural setting under which they have developed (Malty, 1995). This is because movies tend to indirectly or directly disclose something about identity, national experience, ideologies, culture, aesthetic principles, and ideologies (Belton, 1996). Accordingly, movies function as time capsules by way of shedding light on the moods, desires, values, and dreams of a certain era. They also depict changing cultural values and, hence, act as an essential tool in communicating the happenings in the world (Rosenstone, 1996). According to Hollows, Hutchings, and Jancovich (2002), the reason why films are often characterised by happy endings is due to the fact that they are meant to perform the cultural functions of avowing and upholding the culture within which they are situated. As such, movies provide control and comfort to society at a time when things are not going well. The premise of this essay is to critically explore the hypothesis put forth by Maltby (2003) to the effect that’movies have happy endings because part of their cultural function is to affirm and maintain the culture of which they are part’ (p. 17). To achieve this goal, the essay shall focus on two 1955 classical Hollywood movies, namely, Rebel Without a Cause and All That Heaven Allows. The essay maintains that although the “happy endingification” phenomenon holds true for most of the Hollywood movies produced during the classical period between the 1930s and 1960s, such classical movies that subscribe to the happy ending theme have had their fair share of criticism, with some movies produced during this period defying this rule.

Movies and culture

Maltby (1995) has described movies as a closed narrative version of modern folklore, whose goal is to examine and portray modern social contradictions, conflicts, and attitudes. A key concern of ethnology is to establish why certain narratives and images are regarded as crucial to pass along. In this way, movies not only portray the cultural conditions under which they were produced but also the cultural elements that influence people to watch movies. Movies thus allow viewers to see through society as depicted in them, and they also reflect the same viewers. According to Matlby (1995), “movies show society as it wants to see itself” (p. 55). Movies allow elements of national identity to take shape and transform as well. They thus document who we are, in addition to also reflecting transformations over the years in behaviour and self-image (Belton, 1996). However, it is not always the case the case that movies depict the real world. Sometimes, movies show a re-invented, re-imagined account of the real. Such is the case with many of the classical Hollywood movies. 

Most Hollywood movies are characterised by an aesthetic effect whose motif is to arouse an emotional reaction among the audience, which is what they often seek by going to the movies (Maltby, 1995). Viewers are lost in the unfolding story and end up consuming on-screen fantasies. Movies further provide thrills, escape, and glamour to the viewers and, at times, even provide an element of emotional security (Rohrer, 2009). Movies elicit in viewers the devastation of defeat or respite after a close shave with death, either through, for example, an accident or illness, and hence an exhilaration of victory. By watching a movie, the viewer is thus able to defer decisions, forget war or depression, for example, and surrender themselves completely to the unfolding plot (Maltby, 2003). This could perhaps have inspired Hollywood movie-makers during the classic period to develop movies with a happy ending as a means of enabling the audience to escape from the realities of a bad economic depression, the apprehension and fear of World War Two, uncertainties about the future, and grinding poverty (Rohrer, 2009). The audience was seeking to escape from the realities of everyday life by finding something that would give them hope for a better tomorrow. It was not by surprise, therefore, that ‘The Golden Age of Cinema’ had its best years during World War II, between 1939 and 1945. 

Examination of Classical Hollywood Movies with Happy Endings

Social order also plays an essential role in the narrative of Hollywood classic films as an indication of the ideology by which Hollywood would want society to live (Hale, 2014). This rather conservative ideology portrays a restoration of the prevailing social order by means of finding solutions to conflicts in society and settling disruptions. Hollywood films produced during the Golden Period were able to achieve the desired social order by subscribing to the’Production Code’ that the industry adopted in 1930. This ‘Production Code’ refers to stipulated guidelines that movie producers had to adhere to, spelling out and regulating the treatment and extent of every movie produced in Hollywood between 1931 and 1968 (Maltby, 2003). 

The development of the code was inspired by the realisation that since movies had a lot more influence than was previously the case, social issues would become a hotly debated issue, and this would pose a hindrance to local censors as the moral content of movies came under a lot of scrutiny (Maltby, 2003). The conservative nature of the code implied that censors would be repelled, especially when depicting sex and crime content (Mondello, 2008). Based on this realisation, it is quite clear that the movie All That Heaven Allows also fell under the regulation of the code. 

Douglas Sirk was the director of the classic Hollywood narrative with the title All That Heaven Allows. The movie, directed in 1995, unfolds the romantic story of Cary (Jane Wyman), a middle-aged widow who falls in love with Ron (Rock Hudson), his gardener, and who is much younger than her boss. The heterosexual couple encounters resistance from society, which despises their relationship, but this only persuades them to work hard in order to make their love grow (Mercer and Shingler, 2004). Romance was a central theme among many of the films produced during the Golden Age Period, with a survey of 100 films during this period conducted by Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson (1985) revealing that romance was involved in ninety-five of the films in at least one line of action, while eighty-five percent of the movies relied on romance as their main line of action (Bordwell et al., 1985).

It is important, however, to note that All That Heaven Allows did not initially have a happy ending. At first, Douglas Sirk intended that the film would end with the downfall of Ron following his recognition of Cary. It would then remain to be seen whether he would have survived or not. However, Ross Hunter, who was the producer of this film, was of the view that the film ended in a “disturbing” and “depressing” way for the audience, and hence opted for a conventional happy ending as we now know of the film (Mercer and Shingler, 2013). Accordingly, the film ends with Ron’s near-miss with death after he injured himself following an accident on a low cliff while trying to attract Cary’s attention. Unbeknownst to him, Cary had gone to his home in search of him, but to no avail. It is only after the near-death accident that Cary shows up, and she proceeds to nurse him. 

As the film ends, Ron is shown in bed, softly asleep, as he recuperates from the injuries sustained earlier on, while Cary is seen staring out of the window. However, this supposedly happy ending feels somewhat unsatisfactory, thereby making it look as if the film tacked on due to necessity as opposed to design. Sirk himself recognises the importance of having a happy ending to a film: ‘you’ve got to have a happy end even in the most goddamn awful situations’ (1997, p. 152; cited by Floreani, 2013, p. 104). He also confirms that the happy endings were partly included in order to comply with the restriction of the production code: ‘Of course, I had to go by the rules, avoid experiments, stick to family fare, have “happy endings,” and so on (1997, p. 97).

Nonetheless, on account of these limitations, Sirk further opines that the happy endings evident in his melodramas were a deliberate attempt to develop them in an attempt to draw ironic attention to the tensions and inconsistencies within the conventionalized storylines of his films’ (Mercer and Shingler, 2013, n.p.). This then seeks to prove Maltby’s hypotheses as correct, namely, that classic Hollywood movies will always seek to have a happy ending, even though this may come at the expense of the art. In this case, the film producer had a totally different vision of how the film should end from that of the director. 

Rebel Without a Cause was released in 1955, the same year as All That Heaven Allows. It was directed by Nicholas Ray. The melodrama also involves heterosexual romance as a key aspect of its plot. The movie is about a social outcast named Jim Stark (James Dean), who encounters a girl named Judy (Natalie Wood) at school and falls in love with her. This emotionally confused teenager is arrested in the local town for ‘drunkenness’. At the police station, he encounters another equally confused teenager known as John Crawford (or ‘Plato’), brought in for killing puppies with his mother’s gun. The other teenager is a girl named Judy, who was arrested for curfew violation after the police mistaken her for a call girl (Rathgeb, 2004). The film thus portrays the various problems facing teenagers as they grow up in their neighbourhoods. This was also evident in All That Heaven Allows, namely, the gossiping that goes on in society and the opinions of others. 

Rebel Without a Cause thus endeavours to depict the wide range of problems that youth and teenagers encounter in society. They not only run into problems with their parents, who cannot understand their behaviour, but also tend to be confused, and this only makes them get into more problems with the authorities in trying to rebel. As a matter of fact, youth rebellion was rather common in most of the movies produced in Hollywood in the 1950s. According to Goodman (2003), films such as The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause act as the basis for ‘our popular culture’s infatuation with the delinquent teenager’ (p. 26). The films thus sought to signify the turbulent lives that the 1950’s teenagers were exposed to, as evidenced by their antisocial behaviour. 

At face value, it would appear that by producing these films, the movie industry was relying on cautionary tales as a tool to pass the message to the young audiences that defying the authorities and parents by way of breaking rules was not the way to go, as it was the path of destruction that could either have one arrested or even killed. However, a critical analysis of these subtexts reveals that the appealing, albeit tragic, characters in the films symbolised the possibilities available to an American teenager, namely, leading an independent lifestyle full of danger but equally thrilling due to the prospect of even engaging in premarital sex (Goodman, 2003). In the case of Rebel Without a Cause, Plato was an inspiration to the working-class boys in that his character portrayed how exciting it was to be young at the time, although there was the prospect of encountering danger or partaking in antisocial behaviour. This made the prospect of being a rebel all the more exciting (Grange, Jankovich, and Monteith, 2007).

The film also appears to pour cold water on the concept of the American Dream by demonstrating that even white teenagers from working-class families who appear to ‘have it all’ in life were not actually as happy in life as one was wont to assume (Rathgeb, 2004). This is because money is not everything. Life is about morals, having in place structures that work, and effective communication. Although Jim, Judy, and Plato both come from well-off families, this does not prevent them from getting into trouble with the law. Jim’s mother is domineering, and this has turned his father into an emasculated and weak father figure. Consequently, he cannot act as a role model for his son. Jim thus becomes a car chaser and drunkard, which also sees him get involved in numerous fights (Rathgeb, 2004). Once he is arrested, he encounters a police officer named Ray Framek, and he tries hard to stabilise him. Jim also enters into a relationship with Judy, and this further adds to the stability of his delinquent behaviour. Again, this conforms with the happy-ending narrative hypothesis that Maltby (2003) espouses. This contradictory juxtaposition of melodrama is widely recognised in film analysis. Whereas the producer of a melodrama succeeds in bringing together various physical, artistic, and social determinants, they fail to effectively comprehend these determinants, hence the ideological failure. This is, however, a desirable position, as it underscores the significance of melodrama (Byars, 2003). The desire by Hollywood producers to have their audiences keep hoping for the realisation of a dream enables Nicholas Ray to provide a somewhat ‘unsatisfactory’ ending. 

The film reaches its climax when Jim, Judy, and Plato are chased around an abandoned mansion located in the hills by friends of Buzz, who maintain that Jim is responsible for his death. In the ensuing conflict, Plato shoots Moose, who is a delinquent friend of Buzz. When the police arrive, he also shoots at them before hiding in the lavatory (Mercer and Shingler, 2004). Jim convinces Plato to surrender his gun in exchange for his (Jim’s) treasured red jacket. In the ensuing exchange, Jim manages to remove the clip from Plato’s gun before returning it back to him. Jim further persuades Plato to accompany him and Judy to the streets. He is still carrying his gun in his hands, and the police view him as a threat and hence shoot him. What should have been a happy ending to the story ended in tears. However, there is still a happy ending to it, as Jim confides in both of his parents that he and Judy are in a relationship, and his father even promises to be strong for his son’s sake. 


In sum, Hollywood’s Production Code was instrumental in the happy endings of the majority of the films released during ‘The Golden Age of Cinema’. This hence confirms Maltby’s hypothesis as correct when he affirmed that Hollywood movies endeavour to assert and uphold the culture in which they have been produced. While the American Dream is driven by capitalism, which in turn relies on profit maximisation with the aim of achieving riches and happiness, this bourgeois ideology is not always true. This is confirmed by All That Heaven Allows, in which teenagers from rich families turn into delinquents, and at the point of reforming, it ends tragically with the killing of one of them by the police. 


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