featuring guest authors; crafting tips and projects; recipes from food editor and sleuthing sidekick Cloris McWerther; and decorating, travel, fashion, health, beauty, and finance tips from the rest of the American Woman editors.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


After a long career in radio and TV, Sheila York began writing novels combining her love of history, mysteries, and the movies. Set in post-war Hollywood, her series features screenwriter/amateur sleuth Lauren Atwill (and her lover, private detective Peter Winslow) chasing killers in the Great Golden Age of Film. You can read or listen to more about Lauren and No Broken Hearts at her website. 

Getting Crafty with the Code
Hollywood was different in the 1940s. Not less greedy, venal, or cutthroat underneath, but it had a near-flawless veneer of sophistication, class, and glamour, created and maintained by a symbiotic relationship between studio publicity teams and mainstream magazine and newspaper publishing. The surface was illusion. But it was gorgeous.

Onscreen, it was every bit as hard to get beneath the surface. The magic we recall so fondly from the Great Golden Age of Film was crafted under censorship. Strict censorship. Hollywood studios adopted the rules known as the Production Code in reaction to local censor boards, religious groups, and individual citizens who found films of the silent era and the early 1930s too sexual and violent, a threat to family life, and a bad influence on youth. The Code governed the morals of American movies throughout the Golden Age.

“No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” This is the first tenet of the Code. I’m not kidding. And neither were the Code administrators. Your movie’s shooting script and the film’s final cut had to be approved by the Production Code office or there was no movie.

When she’s not catching killers, my heroine Lauren writes film scripts, and I remain in awe of how screenwriters (and directors) managed to still present adult themes, even if it had to be subtle. 

In a subplot in No Broken Hearts, Lauren is assigned to turn a scandalous novel into a film. So, let me give you a quick taste of crafting under the Code, with just three of the many restrictions Lauren has to work with (or around.)

1. Crime cannot pay. Lawbreakers must be punished. Crime and criminals can never be appealing. And you can never “teach methods of crime.” In the original script for the classic Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray warned Barbara Stanwyck, the schemer with whom he’s plotting murder, to “put some gloves on” before handling the insurance contract they need her husband to sign. The Code considered that to be advice to criminals and in the film, he says only, “Be careful.”

2. Sex. Adultery cannot be excused or justified. “Low forms” of relationships cannot be presented as acceptable. And even between married couples, “[L]ustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures” are all forbidden because they might arouse “dangerous emotions on the part of the immature, the young or the criminal classes.”

3. Drinking. Booze is forbidden unless essential to the plot, and then only in moderation. This led to films like The Big Clock and To Have and Have Not having a lot of action in bars where hardly anyone actually drinks!

When you watch a film from the Golden Age, think about how the screenwriters, performers and directors cleverly made implicit what they were forbidden to make explicit.

Here are five of my favorites for you to get started:

The Big Clock (1948) – The bar scenes and how they handle the mistress role.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) – Sexual trouble between the middle-aged married couple; a good girl falls for a married man and gets him(!)

The Lady Eve (1941) – Wow, that stateroom scene is steamy! Yet Stanwyck’s on a lounge while Fonda’s sitting on the floor the whole time.

Notorious (1946) – The drinking, the illicit sex. Note how Grant and Bergman manage to hold a kiss without breaking the Code in that balcony scene.

To Have and Have Not (44) – How they handle the Bacall role (a lady who has been living, shall we say, by her wits); also the lack of actual drinking. 

Personally, after trying to write a script without running afoul of the Code, I’d probably be looking for a drink. And I’d actually drink it.

They had some prodigious drinkers in the 1940s, and a good host/hostess was judged by the bar. Guests might want their booze straight – bourbon, Scotch, blended whiskeys and rye – or they might want a cocktail – a Manhattan, Gimlet, Singapore Sling, Jack Rose, Whiskey Sour, Tom Collins or its cousin, the Gin Fizz. 

But we don’t stock bars like we used to.

So, when we were creating a signature cocktail for the launch party for No Broken Hearts, I wanted one that was simple, wouldn’t require the purchase of exotic liqueurs, and would come out right every time.

The Broken Heart
2 parts gin
1 part grenadine
1 part vermouth rosso
1 part pomegranate juice
1/4 to 1/2 part Campari, to taste (It’s a Broken Heart. You need at least a hint of bitterness at the end.)

Place ingredients in a shaker with a good handful of ice cubes. Shake gently just till the cold begins to hurt the hand at the bottom of the shaker (a bartender’s trick for knowing when a drink’s properly chilled). Strain into martini glasses. Garnish with a half strawberry, its core cut out to form a broken heart. [If you don’t have a shaker, stir ingredients with the cubes in a tall glass or small pitcher till well chilled.]

Just like a real broken heart, this one packs a wallop, so don’t mix up a batch if anybody’s going to drive. Stay home and watch a Golden Age film!

No Broken Hearts
Once a promising talent, screenwriter Lauren Atwill is now relegated to doctoring other writers’ work, anonymously. Finally she gets her shot at remaking her career, bringing a scandalous novel to the screen, a sensational tale of betrayal, corruption, and a vicious killing. Then fiction turns into real life. Lauren finds a beautiful young actress brutally murdered and her leading man stained with blood. Then she discovers just how far the studio and even the police will go to cover up the killing and protect a star.
If she won’t lie, her career is over. And maybe her life.

Buy Links


Kathleen Kaska said...

I love the time and setting of your mysteries, Sheila. I'll also have to try that cocktail. Best of luck.

Morgan Mandel said...

In some ways, the old time codes were kind of a good thing, and in other ways, they were kind of silly.

Some of the flicks these days go way overboard to be tasteless, but we do have the rating system, so moviegoers do get some idea of
what they're getting into.

Angela Adams said...

Some of my favorite movies are on this list. Thanks for the post.

Sheila York said...

Thank you all for your kind words. I have been held up at my other career (the one with the really nice 401k) today. Kathleen: Don't drive! But it is a tasty drink. Angela: I have so many favorite films from the 1940s. I love movies from any period, but have a deep fondness for those from the 1940s. The Lady Eve is one of my fave films of all time! Morgan: I agree with you about the Code. It presented a rather juvenile view of life, but women got to keep their clothes on. I've often wondered whether that forced producers to come up with actual stories for them.

Linda Andrews said...

I think of the Golden Age of Hollywood as the Age of the Double Entendre. So much was said then not said. Your heroine sounds like she has enough spunk to star in her own movie of the era:D

Sheila York said...

Linda: Thanks. Yes, I like "spunk" which is much better than stubborn, though Lauren sure has plenty of that as well.