“Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go.”—Kanye West, rapper
In the days between Christmas and New Year’s, Santa Claus is off the clock, so you can be as naughty as you want without fear of your actions affecting next year’s Christmas presents. Hollywood also had a window of time like this; it is referred to now as Pre-Code Hollywood. Pre-code.com says, “The quickest definition is this: ‘pre-code’ refers to an era in motion pictures from the arrival of sound (aka ‘talkies’) in 1927 to the mandatory enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in July 1934.”
Films during this time still had censorship through the studios, but such censorship was more of a guideline until William Hays and friends enforced the Motion Picture Production Code. Thus, the eternal Hollywood struggle between studios and censors began.
After connecting the dots that the 68-minute long Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers is Pre-Code, its edgy humor makes sense. The setting for Horse Feathers is a college, where Groucho Marx’s character has recently been elected president and wants to make sure his football team wins a game against a rival school. There are gags about teachers flirting with their students (at least the movie does not take place in a high school), disrespecting the police, and “college widows“—a ’20s reference to a young woman who remains near a college year after year to associate with its male students.
If the movie was just a string of dirty jokes, it wouldn’t be worth watching. (Here’s looking at you, Rob Schneider.) However, the cultural impact of the Marx Brothers lives on long after the projectors flicker out because these guys are so talented and smart it’s unfair. For example, on two separate occasions in Horse Feathers, Harpo does a harp solo and Chico does a piano solo. When the latter begins, his hands are hidden by the piano at first, which caused me to wonder if someone else was tickling the ivories off-screen. Then the camera angle changed, and we watch Chico’s fingers bouncing up and down the keyboard. So good.
When it comes to their smarts, let me just say that you wouldn’t want to be the person in charge of censoring a Marx Brothers film. Groucho not only used jokes that were written in such a way to outsmart the censors, he fired them off so rapidly you practically had to watch the film several times—and in slow motion—to catch everything. He was one of the rare entertainers who was able to smuggle Pre-Code Hollywood into the reign of William Hays.
At this point in my life, as a 23-year-old artist, my inclination is to grumble about the Motion Picture Production Code for stifling free speech and creativity. But I am sure that 43-year-old Keith, a parent to young children, will be more thankful that these perimeters were set in place. Were they necessary? Yes. Could they have been implemented to the film industry in a healthier way? Yes. (Did William Hays have even a teeny bit of niceness in him? Probably not.)
In the end, each viewer must be his or her own censor for what content should be consumed. Remember: Santa is always watching. Except for December 26-31.