70s Cinema & Motion Picture Production Code

The '70s Were the Greatest Movie Decade: Auteurs & End of the Motion Picture Production Code

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

Anytime someone talks about the “greatest” anything, it is natural to see pushback or some form of objective or aggressive ‘editing.’ Either way, considering the impressive 70s cinema era—it is hard to deny it produced the greatest American movies. And not only that, it birthed a new generation of auteurs: Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and more, along with the end of old Hollywood censorship, contributed most to the ’70s iconic filmography.

Quick jump to the following sections:

Motion Picture Production/Hays Code

The code was written in 1929 by Martin J. Quigley, an influential editor and publisher of motion picture trade quarterlies, and Reverend Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit advisor to Hollywood filmmakers. The next year, 1930, it was officially accepted by the Motion Picture Producers and Distribution of America (MPPDA). It was created to set industry moral guidelines for the self-censorship of content applied to most US motion pictures released by major studios from 1934 to 1968. The code spelled out what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for films. Most restrictions involved limiting or banning topics and actions of sex/intimacy, drugs, religion, race (banning interracial dating), violence, and things that went against morality.

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What first enticed the movie industry to create these guidelines was sparked by various risqué films made in 1922 and several off-screen scandals involving Hollywood stars. It also escalated American Roman Catholics launching a campaign against what they deemed the immorality of American cinema. Nevertheless, as the years went by, the code weakened because of television and foreign films leaning towards controversial content from directors like Otto Preminger. But with the combination of boundaries being pushed in films outside of America and intervention from the courts, including the Supreme Court, the code was replaced by the MPAA film rating system in 1968.

Otto Preminger Films Featured at the Modern - The New York Times
Gene Tierney and Vincent Price in Otto Preminger’s “Laura” (1944). One of the most celebrated film noirs.

Even though the code created restrictions for artists, a few gems from the pre-code era, meaning works that were not severely censored, are worth a view if not yet seen. These include, It happened One Night (1934), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Baby Face (1933), The Black Cat (1934), among many.

The Philadelphia Story - Carolina Theatre of Greensboro
The Philadelphia Story (1940) was considered one of the best examples of a comedy of remarriage, a genre popular in the 1930s and 1940s in which a couple divorce, flirt with outsiders, and then remarry—a useful story-telling device at a time when the depiction of extramarital affairs was blocked by the production code.

Auteur Directors that Defined 70s Cinema

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Jaws (1975)
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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

An appreciator of the code or not, we can assume most movie audiences favor films made by directors with creative freedom. So, with the code ending in the ’60s, where the era allowed for more candid depictions of adult matter, a greater acceptance of more explicit degrees of nudity, sexuality, and violence, movies like Midnight Cowboy (1969) were born.

Moreover, breakthroughs for the Blaxploitation and martial arts genres, slasher, horror and disaster flicks, rebirth in neo-noir, anti-heroes, ant-war, and the birth of the blockbuster followed suit. All movies and genres that would have never been made if not for the MPAA standard. They opened up the door for other directors to unapologetically tell their stories like never before. The ’70s birthed Scorsese’s gangster films, Kubrick’s violent and controversial characters, Lucas’ imagination, Spielberg’s influence, and John Cassavetes’s raw, unconventional rendition of the afflicted “little people” and Cinéma vérité approach.

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Gena Rowlands in Cassavetes 1974 film “A Woman Under the Influence.”
“In Cassavetes’s work personality is plot; behavior is narrative. Living does not involve doing anything but being something—a much harder task for both a character and a viewer to deal with.” —Ray Carney

Additionally, Robert Altman’s highly naturalistic but stylized satirical aesthetic and Francis Ford Coppola’s stark emotional works imbued in critiques of society’s systems and inequalities. Other great auteurs include George Romero, Arthur Penn, Clint Eastwood, William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, Don Siegel, Terrence Malick, Sam Peckinpah, and more. The list goes on and on. So much talent and narrative innovation in one decade have yet to be replicated or matched in American cinema.

Some of the Greatest 70s American Cinema

Taxi Driver Review | Movie - Empire
Taxi Driver (1976)

This list is focused on films made in English and the American audience in mind.

The Godfather (1972, Coppola), Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg), Star Wars (1977, George Lucas), Alien (1979, Ridley Scott), The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich), Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn), The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin), Harold and Maude (1971, Hal Ashby), A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick), The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin), Apocalypse Now (1979, Coppola), A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974, Martin Scorsese), Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick), Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma), Dirty Harry (1971, Don Siegel), The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino), Dawn of the Dead (1978, George A. Romero), Halloween (1978, John Carpenter), Nashville (1975, Robert Altman), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974, Terry Gilliam), Network (1976, Sydney Lumet), Straw Dogs (1971, Sam Peckinpah), and many more.

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