Jane and the Production Code

This is one of my university assignments from the first year of my Arts degree.

The Hay’s Office, which endeavoured to police the Production Code, influenced cinematographers to adopt a restrictive, respectable morality in their films during the 1930s.  What were effects of The Hay’s Code on the representation of Jane in the Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan movies?  A comparison of the differences in the portrayal of Jane, in Tarzan the Ape Man, Tarzan and His Mate, Tarzan Escapes, Tarzan Finds a Son, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure and Tarzan’s New York Adventure, illustrates how much power the Hay Code wielded, as these were the Tarzan movies in production when the Code was gaining in influence in Hollywood.  Did the representation of Jane, after the enforcement of the Production Code regulations, have a very different pattern of behaviour, costuming, and setting to original depiction of Jane in this movie sequence, and were the consequences to the genre and grammar of the films?

The early 1920s was in a period of economic growth for the film industry, as it was benefiting from increased consumer spending on leisure, and the technological revolution caused by the introduction of sound. However, three major scandals plagued the film industry in America. In 1922, the Hays Office was created, by the studios and cinematographers, as an attempt to stave off interference in film production by the States or Federal US government. Then, in February 1930, the Hays Office brought out a new moral code that was full of ‘Don’ts’ and ‘Becarefuls’: the Production Code. Joe Breen was the driving force behind this set of restrictions, and though it was never made into a law, it was enforced with enthusiasm. Of course, it was often ignored, particularly when the Code might seriously damage the money-making ability of a film. Generally, most production companies ensured their movies had Hay’s Office approval to prevent criticism or further censorship.

Tarzan the Ape Man was lucky enough to have minimal interference by the Hayes Office, as the Code was still being implemented.  After Tarzan and His Mate, the movie sequence suffered from a rigorous application of the Production Code, as they considered this movie had many flaws: too much nudity; a scene with Jane backlit while changing in a tent; comments about a bra; and there were concerns about the increased levels of violence against the animals.  The movies that followed were more correct and decorous, and Jane’s characterisation was changed to conform to the new restrictions imposed by the Code.

The Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan series of movies were successful due to charisma of the stars, even though both actors were relatively unknown when selected for their parts.  The first film, Tarzan the Ape Man, set about showing Jane’s character as independent and unconventional, and these traits were indicated by several scenes: the drinking of alcohol in preference to tea, being able to ‘shoot like an angel’, insisting on accompanying her father on his expedition, among others.  She wasn’t a stereotypical ‘princess’ to be rescued; she was Tarzan’s superior intellectually.  She chose to reject civilisation to join Tarzan in his jungle, on her own terms .

Jane is in Tarzan’s territory, the jungle, and at first she is a civilised girl and out of her depth, but she quickly adapts to Jungle life.  Tarzan is dominant in his knowledge of the jungle, but he is subordinate to Jane in knowledge of language and civilised behaviour.  The Hay’s Code was to redefine what was civilised behaviour for them both.  It was to change how they interacted, and was to change Jane from a sexy, adventurous, active, romantic heroine into a more stereotypical lady-like mother figure.

The Hays Office and Production Code had their way when it came time for Tarzan and Jane to enlarge their family.  The couple rescue a child, in Tarzan Finds a Son, rather than creating their child by the natural process of conception. The Hay’s Office wouldn’t let Tarzan and Jane procreate as they were unmarried, and a child of their own would be proof of their sexuality activity  This act was a denial of the sexual liberation that Jane had experienced by choosing to live with Tarzan, as she was not allowed to fully express her sexuality or her desires.

There were major changes in Jane’s costuming from Tarzan the Ape Man, Tarzan and his Mate to Tarzan Escapes and the later films, and these changes give insights into both the evolution of the character and the impact of the Hay’s Code.  In the first film, Jane arrives in the jungle wearing inappropriate white Western-style clothing, the white was a symbol of her purity of spirit, and the city fashions signified her civilised state.  As well, Jane’s whiteness is emphasised as the concept of a white woman being attracted to the primitive lifestyle is suggestive of a perverse and erotic desire.  During the course of the movie, as she moves away from Western, patriarchal values and toward Tarzan’s naturalistic values, she slowly sheds her restrictive clothes – with help from Tarzan.

In Tarzan and his Mate, Jane is wearing the briefest of her outfits, a halter top and loincloth, reflecting her complete liberation from the restrictions of civilisation.  At one point in the film, there is an attempt to lure Jane away from her new lifestyle by tempting her with fashionable European-style clothes and accessories, however she doesn’t fall into this trap.  The Hay’s Office was unimpressed with Jane’s revealing costume and the nudity in the water ballet scene.   In the third film, her outfit was a demure dress that covered her from neck to thigh.  The new lady-like outfit physically restricted Jane, so that she was unable to be as adventurous or active as she had been in the previous films.  This meant that the change in the depiction of Jane’s behaviour wasn’t just to conform to the Production Code, it was due to the physical limitations of her new costume.

Even though Jane’s decorous dress had different connotations to the previous one, it was still made out of animal skins.  Like Tarzan and Boy, Jane was usually dressed in primitive, Stone Age-styled costume, in distinct contrast to the civilised Westerners and the tribal Africans, and as they were only characters to dress as they do, it was a visual key to their family grouping.  Jane, Tarzan and Boy didn’t wear jewellery or patterned skins, so they were distanced from any item that might appear tribal or shamanistic, as miscegenation was also against the principles of the Code.

The setting for Jane’s and Tarzan’s relationship changed along with the costuming.  In the first two movies, it was a literal ‘love’ nest, a tiny hut high in a tree.  In keeping with the altered representation of Jane, in Tarzan Escapes, there was the introduction of the tree house, with all its modern, Western conveniences.  This new domestic residence comes with an elephant-propelled elevator, a fan, running water and a Cheetah-powered rotisserie oven.

The genre of the movie sequence was affected and altered by all these changes in Jane’s representation, from Jungle Romance to Family Film, though not solely by these factors.  The first two movies were definitely for an adult audience, the romance appealing to the women, and the adventure appealing to the men.  The last four films were considered family films as the innocent eroticism of Tarzan’s and Jane’s relationship was removed.  There were still romantic, intimate moments, even in the final movie, Tarzan’s New York Adventure, such as when Tarzan sweeps Jane up and walks with her into their tree house, but they lacked the impact of the first two films. The last four films are more family-style films with less sexual activity, while retaining and exaggerating the humour.

In the Pre-Hay’s Code movie, Tarzan the Ape Man, Jane is a stereotyped as a Daddy’s Girl and a Tomboy, looking for adventure in the African jungle, and wanting to spend time with her father, and she is also Eve, both the vamp and the destroyer of innocence, and the nurturing mother that teaches Tarzan about language and civilised manners.  Afterwards, with the restrictions being enforced, she is still Eve, in the Garden of Eden with Tarzan, but in her role as the Original Mother and the foster parent to Boy.

As an Eve stereotype, Jane was the person responsible for the loss of Tarzan’s virtuous simplicity and was his provider of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, teaching Tarzan about language, and then teaching him about sex, and then about caring for babies.  When in teaching mode, Jane is dominating Tarzan while still allowing him to make important decisions like naming the baby ‘Boy’, as in Tarzan Finds a Son.  In the post-Code movies, when Jane is in her maternal role, she starts acting as domestic goddess, cooking and caring for the baby.  As Jane was missing the visual clues and generic markers of motherhood, for she has no apron, matronly hair & clothing, she had to have behavioural markers instead, and so had to be depicted cooking and presenting food as a mother and homemaker.

In studying the grammar of film, the gaze was edited to mainly eye line match.  Spectators are watching as voyeurs through a window into the action.  The audience, for Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate, can assumed to be patriarchal white males, with Jane’s provocative poses and costuming.  In the first two movies, the soft focus filters were used for Jane’s emotive or reaction shots with Tarzan.  In the last four movies, the soft focus filters also were used for maternal reflections, such as when Jane is telling baby about his poor mother in Tarzan Finds a Son.

 A Summary of some of the Effects of The Hay’s Code on Representation of Jane in the Tarzan Movies with Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller.

Before the Production code After the Production Code No Alteration
Costumes Brief, revealing halter top and loincloth with string sides Dress that covers torso from neck to top of thighs Made of unpatterned skin or leather
Setting ‘Love’ nest in tree Tree house with  Western-style appliances Mutia Escarpment as sacred space
Behaviour Active, physical, adventurous,


Domesticated, barren,



Of course, the Hay’s Office and the Production Code had more consequences on the six movies than listed above.  The Code had an effect on all the movies made after it was created.  The Code was to have serious repercussions when television began to gain popularity in Western Culture.  It became the foundation of both the movie classification system and the television classification system that is still in use.

The representation of Jane, a woman rebelling against her Western, white, patriarchal society, effected representations of women in other films, even into the Twenty-First century.  An example is the characterisation of the heroine in Legally Blonde, who at first is the stereotypical sorority girl, and then Elle breaks boundaries and finds freedom from her stereotype.

The representation of Jane went through a metamorphosis when The Hay’s Office was enforcing the Production Code, and that had major repercussions on the six movies under discussion.  Jane was altered, away from the original depiction of a physically active woman who relished her freedom beyond the constraints of Western morals and civilisation, into a portrayal of domesticated, in somewhat unconventional, wife and mother.  The representation of Jane displayed a very different pattern in her behaviour, costuming, and setting to original depiction of Jane in this movie sequence, and this change did effect the genre and grammar of the films.

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