Menace(s) to Society
October 15, 2012 2:27 PM   Subscribe

During the Golden Age of Hollywood and until 1967, mainstream movie studios were banned by the Production Code from depicting taboo topics like drug addiction, explicit murder and venereal disease, or even showing explicit nudity. But in the 1930's and 1940's, films marketed as "educational" could and did fly under the radar, and three of the best known 'educational' propaganda exploitation films are: Sex Madness (1935), Reefer Madness (1936) and The Cocaine Fiends (1938).

Each is a morality tale:

Sex Madness warns teens of the dangers of syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. Among the forms of "madness" it warns against: wild parties, lesbianism, and premarital sex. Directed by Dwain Esper, whose other exploitation movies include: Narcotic (1933), Maniac (1934), Marihuana: The Devil's Weed! (alt link) (1936) and How to Undress in Front of your Husband (1938). (Some of these may be NSFW.)

Reefer Madness dramatizes the dangers of marijuana use, depicting it leading to car accidents, manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, etc. (Wikipedia) Directed by Louis J. Gasnier, who also directed non-exploitation films such as The Perils of Pauline (1914), The Gold Racket (1937), The Sunset Murder Case (1938) and Stolen Paradise (1940).

The Cocaine Fiends has the grandest headache medicine in the world, which will also destroy your life and soul.
Like most of the exploitation movies of that era The Cocaine Fiends sheds interesting light on the anxieties engendered by the modern world. Modern life is seen as threatening and dangerous. And like most such films it faces the fascinating contradiction of condemning the very things on which it relies for its chance of commercial success, which for such movies depended entirely on the thrill of the forbidden and the illicit.

* Reviews of all three movies, Joe Bob Briggs-style.

* NPR: Remembering Hollywood's Hays Code, 40 years on:
A year after Some Like It Hot was released, the head of the MPA began suggesting that some sort of classification system might work better than a censorship system that no one was paying attention to. In 1968, his organization finally shifted from restricting filmmakers to alerting audiences, using the film-ratings system we know today.
posted by zarq (30 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

Oh man, that Production Code website is fascinating. But reading it makes me feel like a five-year-old trying to understand a dirty joke. What's obscene about the phrase "hold your hat"? What are third-degree methods? Why are British people offended by the word "shyster"?
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:37 PM on October 15, 2012

The guys from Rifftrax have covered Maniac, but even so, it's rough going.

posted by Countess Elena at 2:50 PM on October 15, 2012

Linda, Linda, Linda's got the reefer
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:51 PM on October 15, 2012

What's obscene about the phrase "hold your hat"?

Now, that, I do not know. And I must.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:53 PM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

It is worth noting that movies of the 20s and early 30s, before the Hays code, could be pretty "racy". The cononical example of pre-code hollywood films is Baby Face. Check out the opening scene of Safe in Hell directed in 1931 by William Wellman.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:53 PM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I just realized that the first Sex Madness link requires you to sign into YouTube. Sorry about that folks. Here are two alternatives: Sex Madness.
posted by zarq at 2:57 PM on October 15, 2012

Ah, I see that the good people at picked up that copy of Web Design For Idiots I left in a parking lot in 1998.
posted by mediocre at 2:58 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

For those who like the Nostalgia Critic, he did a hilarious take-down of Reefer Madness recently.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 3:02 PM on October 15, 2012

>>What's obscene about the phrase "hold your hat"?

>Now, that, I do not know. And I must.

Well, interestingly enough there is a previous MeFi thread on just this topic--or at least a very closely related one, the banning of the phrase "in your hat" by the Production Code. There is also a song--you won't want to miss it.

You'll have to read the whole thing to get the whole story, but the gist:
But why “in your hat” rather than, say, “in your shoe”? Random House compares “in your hat” to a more vulgar expression, “go shit in your hat,” which it traces to the poet William Blake’s satirical work An Island in the Moon (circa 1784): “I’ll sing you a song said the Cynic. The Trumpeter shit in his hat said the Epicurean & clapt it on his head said the Pythagorean.”
posted by flug at 3:07 PM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Those '70s Dope Fiends.
posted by Longtime Listener at 3:08 PM on October 15, 2012

Today I learned that "uplifiting" means bonerific.
posted by tommasz at 3:09 PM on October 15, 2012

Ahh, the glory of the pre-code years. I forced my wife to watch She Done Him Wrong recently. In addition to a very young and awkward Cary Grant*, it is still my favorite Mae West vehicle, with her honey drawl making every line sound like it was some kind of sex reference I didn't get. My wife was a bit shocked at how much was said outright in a movie from the 30's, having really only been exposed to the "cleaner side" of classic films from the post Hayes code era.

*who gets his own nod for sneaking a knowing wink to gay culture in New York into Bringing up Baby when he referenced the standard "don't hassle me" line of gay men being bothered by cops in with "I'm just sitting in the middle of Forty-second Street waiting for a bus..."
posted by 1f2frfbf at 3:34 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

"I just went gay all of a sudden!"
posted by Wolof at 3:38 PM on October 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

There is alsothe tailor scene from The Public Enemy.

They also slipped things into later films. The word gunsel made it into quite a few movies, it was a period term for a bottom.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:56 PM on October 15, 2012

>>What's obscene about the phrase "hold your hat"?

Makes you wonder how far Robert Benchley was pushing the limits when he put the phrase into his essay, French For Americans
posted by BWA at 4:02 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

From German Scheisser an incompetent fellow, ultimately from German Scheisse (shit). Late 19th c. British slang included a similar expression.

The third degree
Early 20th c. slang for interrogation via torture while in police custody, especially to extract a confession. Of disputed origin. See also 'the rubber hose treatment'.

But you can leave your hat on . . .
posted by Herodios at 4:12 PM on October 15, 2012

I find it funny we went from Production Code to Deep Throat (even Jackie Kennedy saw it).

And now we have things like Hostel
posted by stormpooper at 4:15 PM on October 15, 2012

Totally making this up, but in "Hold yer hat.", it sounds like hat is a euphemism for foreskin, as in; "Don't get yer hopes up, buddy. Ya better hold yer hat (in place)." Or "Don't get excited", but yea, that's total conjecture.

Thanks for the post!
posted by snsranch at 4:41 PM on October 15, 2012

The third degree is a reference to the Knights of Columbus third degree initiation, which included physical stuff.
posted by hexatron at 5:01 PM on October 15, 2012

There's another banned phrase, "in your hat". Taken together, I think that "in your hat" and "hold your hat" imply something like "hold your hat while I defecate in it", as flug explained above.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:25 PM on October 15, 2012

>What's obscene about the phrase "hold your hat"?

Actually the banning of "in your hat" is easier to explain (to me, anyway!) than "hold your hat".

As I mentioned above, "in your hat" basically was used to mean "Nothing doing--get lost!" and was also heard in the more complete versions like "go shit in your hat," "go shit in your hat and wear it," and others.

But by contrast, "hold your hat(s)" doesn't seem to have any other deep hidden meaning than the one we still use today, "hold onto your hats--we're about to start a wild, bumpy ride; something surprising, unusual, or exciting is about to happen."

The St Petersburg Times of March 29, 1941, outlined the "spicy slang some fast cafe society thinks is smart" that the Production Code had recently banned. The list included nerts, nuts, lousy, hot, broad, hold your hat, and the Bronx Cheer. The Times rather archly gave the reason for the terms' ban: "They are just too, too naughty."

Many of the banned terms relate to sex or excretory functions in some way, however tenuous (nerts, nuts=male genitals; Bronx Cheer=farting sound, etc).

But for some of the others, including louse, lousy, and hold your hat, the objection seemed to be more that they were slangy terms commonly used in "fast cafe society" and the problem lay more in how, when, where, and by whom they were commonly used, than the particulars of what they meant. In their their colloquialness rather than their particular meaning lay the problem.

They were terms used by vulgar people, never in polite society. And that alone makes them vulgar.

And with "hold your hat," part of the problem may have been the context and type of subject matter the phrase typically introduced--you can be sure that when someone in 'fast cafe society' said, "Hold your hats, boys!" whatever 'surprise' came next was most likely one that guys like Will Hays or Joseph Breen wouldn't have liked one bit.

Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen & the Production Code Administration gives a couple of examples that seem to bear this theory out. In the 1943 film Air Force, Breen banned "hold your hats, boys," "damn 'em," a joke about housebreaking a dog (vulgar connotations), and a reference to the Empire State Building (phallic!).*

But in 1954's On the Waterfront, "hold your hats" was allowed through, with the justification that "the offensiveness of this phrase has long since disappeared, and is now quite acceptable in decent society."

FWIW there was a 1926 silent picture, a 1936 musical revue (Gene Kelly's his first position as choreographer; review), and a 1937 jazz composition by Artie Shaw all entitled "Hold Your Hats"--showing the phrases currency as a slang term throughout that period.

*I swear these guys got more joy out out of sweating every possible vulgar or sexual connotation out of the most innocuous possible dialogue, than they would have gotten watching full-on scat porn. But to each his own, I guess . . .
posted by flug at 5:37 PM on October 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

>What's obscene about the phrase "hold your hat"?

OK, hold onto your hats, guys--mystery solved.

It turns out that "Hold on to your hats, boys--here we go again!" was the punchline to a bawdy joke current in the 1930s.

It's recorded in Gershon Legman's Rationale of the Dirty Joke, p. 59, which quotes sources from 1907, 1933, and 1934. The punchline was even used in the the 1941 Bugs Bunny cartoon Heckling Hare and a similar line in 1938's Daffy Duck and the Egghead.
The mountaineer and his wife and their three little boys all sleep in the same bed together, the boys wearing their coon-skin hats to keep warm. During the parents' intercourse, the bed collapses several times, the boys' hats flying in all directions. The parents wait till the children are asleep and try again. Just as their orgasm is approaching a tiny voice shouts, "Hold onto your hats, boys! Here we go again!"
posted by flug at 6:41 PM on October 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

These are neat. I've heard of a few, but seen none, or only a few scenes at most.
posted by Forktine at 7:04 PM on October 15, 2012

Wow. So there were specific dirty joke punchlines enshrined in law as obscene? That's awesome.

I mean, imagine being the guy who comes up with a dirty joke and it ends up on the Official Federal Dirty Joke List. You could die happy after that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:24 PM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

What's obscene about the phrase "hold your hat"?

posted by Greg_Ace at 7:44 PM on October 15, 2012

The third degree is a reference to the Knights of Columbus third degree initiation, which included physical stuff.

Nope; it's the Masons. Along with "on the square", "blackballed", "on the level", and several others that I can't remember at the moment.
posted by Curious Artificer at 9:59 PM on October 15, 2012

Nope; it's the Masons.

This is fascinating. The term 'third-degree' to mean physical abuse during interrogation is widely prevalent in Kannada, my native South Indian language. It is a staple phrase for the police in the usual masala movies. I had always assumed that it was somehow colonial in origin, or even a complete Indian invention. It's interesting how it found its way from the Masons.
posted by Idle Curiosity at 11:09 PM on October 15, 2012

You could die happy after that.

That's What She Said©
posted by DU at 4:31 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

That How To Undress video is really...weird. It starts off being about the marginally-realistic peeping tom problem and then quickly turns into two women undressing while the narrator makes jokes.
posted by DU at 4:33 AM on October 16, 2012

I suddenly recall an old poem I heard on the radio many many years ago (and curse the fact that I missed the old poet's name) which read in its entirely:

"Now that people are wearing hats again
I can tell people to go piss in their hats again."

(Anyone recognize the source, I would be most grateful to hear from you.)
posted by BWA at 4:43 PM on October 17, 2012

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