The production code and a Promising Young Woman

Despite the lurid poster, the film is notable for its restraint on a difficult subject.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

In some dreary and anonymous urban bar, Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is way too intoxicated to know what is happening around her. She seems hopelessly drunk at a bar. A male customer offers to take her home to ensure she is safe. The man then changes tracks and invites her to her apartment first. He then makes sexual advances to her comatose form. At that point, he realises that not only is she not drunk, and he is a potential sexual offender – and not the nice guy he imagines himself to be.

Director and writer Emerald Fennell’s ambitious first film Promising Young Woman is a fascinating take on the rape-revenge film. The central character Cassie was a ‘promising young woman’ when her friend was raped, which caused her friend’s and also her own breakdown. Cassie leaves her high level medical career to work in a coffe shop, while living at home. She remains highly embittered by the attack and vows revenge on the killers – and men who take advantage of drunk women.

The film is well made and astonishingly tense depiction of a troubled young woman. It also has elements that stretch back to the depression era films. The Production Code of the 1930s was issued to help the film industry avoid a raft of state and federal censorship. It was a type of industry self-censorship to forestall government intervention.[1] Although these guidelines were technically voluntary, in practice, the major Hollywood studios used the code to deal with the pressure from religious lobby groups. The code developed real teeth later in the 1930s, and films could not get a release if it violated its rules. Rape and depiction of rape were highly sensitive topics of the period. Some have argued that the Production Code meant that directors and writers were far more careful and clever in the way they depicted

While no code is in place now, as it fell apart several decades ago, Fennel employs an impressive array of techniques to depict the impact of violence, without showing it. She shows that an intelligent director does not have to be explicit.

Alexander Heller-Nicholas’s survey of rape-revenge films mentions a whole stratum of these types of films, arguing that Thirteen Women was an early example of rape-revenge film. It is certainly a distant ancestor of a Promising Young Woman. The 1932 thriller film directed by George Archainbaud did not explicitly depict rape, but the film provides clear evidence that the attack or attacks occurred. The film also even repeats the “We were young,” defence that the witnesses and the rapists employ in a Promising Young Woman. [2]

A distant ancestor of Promising Young Woman was Thirteen Women. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Of course, the Me-too Movement’s politics in 2021 is a world away from the Production Code of 1930, and some aspects have altered markedly. The rape is the now central incident in the film – there is no veiled references. What is remarkable about the film is that while the topic is odious, the depiction of sexual violence is kept to a minimum. Fennell prefers to allow the audience to project their fears rather than depict the incidents. Aside from one scene, the film is an exercise in restraint.

The writers of the production code may not have liked the nudity or the violence – very subdued by today’s standards – but they would have understood the ending and it could have got the code’s stamp of approval. Each of the people who allowed the rape to occur unpunished receives some form of retribution. One of the basic tents of the code was that overt act against the law would be punished.

Unfortunately, under the code, anyone who commits a crime must also pay the price, and Cassie is guilty of a host of offences in her pursuit of revenge for her friend. The framers of the production code would understand her penalty as a suitable corrective to anyone who considers breaking the law.

The code is still hanging in there, even in 2021.


[1] Motion Picture Association of America, A Code Governing the Making of Motion Pictures: The reason supporting it and the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation. 1930- 1935,

[2] Alexander Heller-Nicholas, Rape Revenge Film: A Critical Study, London: MacFarland, 2011.

The age of the instant legacy: Comey’s Rule, Mank and the Crown

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow,

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The TV series The Looming Tower waited 17 years, before presenting a history of the events surrounding the attack on the World Trade Centre.

When George Orwell died in 1950, he requested that no biography be written. It was request that stood for a few decades until scholars began to research one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. Now many Orwell biographies have been written, and it is certain more books are on the horizon. While Orwell’s request was followed for a long time, a major public figure would see little point in making the request. Today, we face the trend of the instant biographies of people living and working. More importantly, depictions on TV and in the movies are coming thick and fast. Indeed, the half-life between an event happening and its depiction on the screen used to be decades. The TV series The Looming Tower waited 17 years, before presenting a history of the events on TV screens surrounding the attack on the World Trade Centre.

That gap has been narrowing and it has become a matter of months before a prominent figure is depicted. At the time of writing Donald Trump – who is still president – has had a raft of books written about him. (Few seem to be interested in the new president Joe Biden.) Donald Trump has had two biographies written about his presidency by the iconic Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, but Woodward’s impact is nothing compared to the impact of TV shows. The Comey Rule is a recently released American political drama television miniseries, based on the book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by the former FBI director James Comey. The miniseries has Jeff Daniels playing Comey and Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. The remarkable aspect of this series is that it depicted a sitting President in recent events. For Comey’s book, the gap was barely two years.

Mank will shape the reputation of Herman Mankiewicz.

The impact of these shows is profound. The author of the highly regarded dual biography of Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz,  The Brothers Mankiewicz, Sydney Ladensohn Stern noted when watching the newly released film about Herman Mankiewicz: “Movies are so much more evocative than books that I knew no matter how accurate my research, how convincing my writing, and even how widely my book might be read, Mank’s Herman was going to be the Herman Mankiewicz for the ages.”[1]

The same process can be seen in other political figures. For example, the rumour of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover being in a closeted homosexual relationship with his assistant Clyde Tolson and engaging in cross dressing is widespread. Rumours about Hoover’s homosexuality had circulated for many years as he had lived and worked closely with Clyde Tolson and neither were married. Based on a verbal account, one biographer argued that Hoover was a cross dresser. The account was almost immediately attacked by investigative journalist and Hoover critic Peter Maas soon after the biography was published. He re-interviewed the sources and demonstrated that every piece of evidence to support the case was flawed.[2]Maas believed the stories were nothing more than hearsay.[3]Maas’s conclusions were backed by FBI historian Athan Theoharis, who is also a strident critic of Hoover, and has demonstrated the evidence is particularly weak and it seems unlikely that Hoover was in a homosexual relationship with Tolson.[4] Another Hoover biographer Ronald Kessler has concluded the FBI director simply could not have engaged in homosexual activity at the Plaza with a number of witnesses present, without having it leak out. “The cross-dressing allegations were as credible as McCarthy’s claim that there were 205 known Communists in the State Department, yet the press widely circulated the claim without further investigation. That Hoover was a cross-dresser is now largely presumed to be fact even by sophisticated people”.[5]  

J. Edgar shaped Hoover’s reputation as a cross dresser. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

So, you would assume that the rumour would be dismissed. However, films trounce books in setting agendas. When J. Edgar Hoover was represented in the 2001 Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar, wearing a dress, historians of the period rolled their eyes. Hoover’s cross dressing and supposed homosexuality had hit the silver screen, and no amount of detailed academic research was going to erase a discredited claim. The image had been set in stone by a film.

The Crown is helping to define the image of future King: Prince Charles.

The impact of movies and TV shows on reputations can have wide ranging consequences. The Crown is a retelling of the rule of British monarch Queen Elizabeth II and it is now colouring the perception of the royal family. Camilla and Prince Charles have spent many decades slowly building their reputation, since their divorces and eventual remarriage. The pair have worked hard to gain public trust. The most recent season of the TV series follows the relationship of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, outlining their failing marriage. The creators of the show have declared that the show is historical fiction. This statement may be their intention, but the show is seen as a historical record. Prince Charles is often depicted as being uncaring in the face of Diana’s suffering. The show has created endless debate on the fairness of the depiction, but it is now the version of history against which all must negotiate. More than any other source, a TV series is now shaping Charles’s reputation, who will be King, assuming he lives longer than his mother: Queen Elizabeth II. King Charles III – as he will possibly be called – and Trump’s eventual reputation may not be decided by the political historians and journalists, it may well be decided by the audience response to TV shows such as The Comey Rule and The Crown along with the other series that are sure to follow.


[1] Sydney Ladensohn Stern, “The Mankiewicz Brothers’ Biographer Weighs in on David Fincher’s Mank,” Literary Hub, 4 December 2020 accessed at https://lithub.com/the-mankiewicz-brothers-biographer-weighs-in-on-david-finchers-mank/ on 7 December 2020.

[2] Peter Maas, “Setting the Record Straight”. Esquire, May 1993, 119(5), pp. 56 – 59.

[3] May 1993, Esquire  and for a broader perspective see Gerry O’Sullivan “G-Wo/Man – homosexuality of J. Edgar Hoover – Against the Grain – Column,”.Humanist. retrieved from  FindArticles.com on 4 June 2010.

[4] Athan G. Theoharis, J. Edgar Hoover, Sex, and Crime: An Historical Antidote, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1995 [2009]. p. 39.

Horatio Alger and The Queen’s Gambit

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The Netflix’s series The Queen’s Gambit is based on Walter Tevis novel. which is part of a long tradition of Horatio Alger characters.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The Queen’s Gambit released by Netflix looks to be an ultra-modern series with state of the art set design and touching on a whole set of current issues – such as drug addiction and feminism. Yet the story is a particularly old fashioned Horatio Alger style tale, which is almost the quintessential American myth. Alger was a Nineteenth-Century writer whose central characters rise through meticulousness and industry to become a respected society member.[1] In many ways, the central character Beth Harmon, played with style by Anya Taylor-Joy, represents the traditional Alger protagonist. A creature of the 19th century, Horatio Alger’s characters were invariably young men. Despite the difference in gender, Harmon resembles one of his characters perfectly. Beth comes from the humblest of origins. Harmon worked hard at her craft – which in this case is chess. She succeeds through a combination of hard work and the astonishing mental gifts bestowed on her. Her gender is a barrier, and she still has to break into the chess world, but the doors were open to her through the vastly superior American system.

Alger’s central characters are usually young, white men living in big cities with low-paying jobs. Published in 1868, Alger’s first major work Ragged Dick followed the story of a young boy working as a shoeshine on New York streets. Dick befriends a customer who gives him five dollars for a service. The protagonist then uses that small sum to create a small fortune through being frugal and mostly through hard work. In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth is also given five dollars to play in a state chess tournament by a kindly janitor who taught her how to play chess. She wins the tournament and moves onto becoming US champion, before taking on the world.

In contrast, the Soviet system is no place for genius, but it allows a player such as her rival Bogrov to succeed. He is a machine, who shows no flashes of brilliance, but can crush any opponent in the end game. In the Soviet system, players with ability are hand picked by the Soviet bureaucracy, and drilled to play at their best. The state provides every assistance, and the players are a team who help each other, planning how to beat their foreign opponents.

The show depicts Harmon’s friends rallying to her assistance to meet the Soviet team on equal terms. They eventually adopt the Soviet collegiate system, where players support each other, which is a departure from the Alger myth. Beth Harmon is based on Bobby Fischer, an United States chess genius who broke the Soviet Union’s stranglehold in a cold war showdown in 1972.[2] The show does not mention that the Soviet Union dominated chess from 1948 until Fischer loosened their grip in 1972. While one of the greatest players in chess history, Fischer was only a blip to Soviet domination. It is rarely mentioned that the Soviets retook and retained command of the sport until 1990 when the Soviet Union fell apart. Russia retained its grip for a while, and it still has two players in the top ten.

Fischer and Harmon have similar traits, such as learning Russian, and both are outsiders who are obsessed with chess. In the 21st century version of the Alger myth, the protagonist must fight both external forces and internal demons. Beth Harmon must deal with her parent’s separation, her mother’s death, being an unwanted orphan in a dreadful school, a remote stepfather, a loving but crushed stepmother coupled with a drug and alcohol problem. Beth is also compared to Paul Morphy of the 19th century, one of the finest players of the era, who dazzled the world with his brilliant attacking play, then went mad after being compelled to stop. 

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A distant ancestor of Beth Harmon is Harold Lloyd, who triumphs against adversity. While Harmon had to conquer a Russian giant in chess, Lloyd had to conquer a building in Safety Last. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Horatio Alger provided the basis for many cinematic heroes. In the silent period, Harold Lloyd was the personification of the Horatio Alger myth. With his get up and go, the Lloyd character conquered massive obstacles to his ambition, of which the climb up the side of the multi-storey building in Safety Last was the most famous. Despite his glasses, his tenacity would win over the biggest obstacle and strongest opponent.

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Horatio Alger in boxing: Rocky Balboa triumphed in boxing against the USSR in Rocky IV. Beth Harmon’s triumph is far more dignified. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In more recent times, the boxer depicted in Rocky is a prime example. A loser Rocky Balboa is given one chance to fight the world champion. He trains hard and then comes close to beating Apollo Creed. In later sequels, like The Queen’s Gambit, it developed a cold war edge with Rocky going up against an inhuman Soviet Goliath and triumphing. In contrast, Beth Harmon goes up against Russians who are ruthlessly competitive, but also courteous and dignified. This a post-Cold War series and we are allowed to see the Russians as human. While Bogrov can destroy any opponent, he is polite, respectful in defeat and triumph, and appears to be a dedicated family man. He even seems genuinely happy at Harmon’s triumph.

At the time of writing, The Queen’s Gambit, is the most popular TV show on Netflix. The success of TV series shows how underlying Horatio Alger myths retain a stranglehold on the American imagination. The story may shift from a young man to a woman. It may shift from commerce to boxing to chess, but the myth remains in firmly in place.


[1] For a discussion  on  Horatio Alger see Weiss, Richard. The American Myth of Success : From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

[2] Edmonds, David & John Eidinow. Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time  provides an excellent account of the 1972 world championship.

Feydeau to Marx to Spike to Python

Occupe toi d’Amelie (1948) a film adaptation of Feydeau’s work . The poster is a fine example of Cromiere’s artwork. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

The streaming services are reviving interest in one of the excellent comedy writing teams of all time: Monty Python, a British team that dominated comedy on television and film from the late 1960s through to the 1980s. It is a pleasure to see the fish slapping scene and the brilliance of the dead parrot sketch. The pythons openly acknowledge their debt to Spike Milligan, and Milligan is clear that the Marx Brothers influenced him. This transatlantic comedic cross-fertilization has produced some astonishing results, and we are all the richer for it.

But possibly, there is a distant French relative to this family tree. Georges Feydeau was France’s leading writer of farces  – which he referred to as “vaudevilles” – since the early 1890s. He wrote about 40. Many critics have noted the similarities between the Marx Brothers and Feydeau.

The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote: “Some people like to talk rather weightily about the similarity in the lunatic logic that dominates the best of the Marx Brothers movies and Georges Feydeau’s elaborate French farces. For Canby, the Marx Brothers movies were collections of brilliant individual routines, almost like a machine gun popping off with no routine running into the other. “While each Feydeau play is a single, breathless routine in itself, designed to be framed by a proscenium arch for a spectator who, sitting in a fixed position, can appreciate the comedy of simultaneous actions and reactions. Canby argued that turning a movie camera on a Feydeau play would destroy its structure.[1]

Canby is relatively dismissive of A Flea In Her Ear (1968), which is a play by Georges Feydeau written in 1907, at the height of the Belle Époque, adapted by John Mortimer and directed by Jacques Charon. Canby’s criticism is valid to a certain extent, but Occupe-toi d’Amelie or “Keep an Eye on Amelie,” directed by Claude Autant-Lara, may give him pause. As Leslie Halliwell noted in his book Halliwell’s Hundred, it begins outside the cinema and does not pause for breath for its entire length. It begins with a running man, and the pace does not slacken for a moment.[2]

In 1948, after the revival of the play Occupe-toi d’Amelie, Autant-Lara began adapting the famous play by Feydeau, in collaboration with Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. The authors decided to develop the characters in a contemporary context, rather than the turn of the century. It was located at the Palais-Royal theater. In the film, Parisian cocotte (Danielle Darrieux) agrees to a mock marriage ceremony, and in turn, is deceived by an actual ceremony, but manages to outwit a fate worse than death – middle-class respectability. Claude Autant-Lara’s direction is very fast, a surprising change of pace from his other work, such as The Red and Black, which also starredDanielle Darrieux.

It is hard to know if the Marx Brothers were aware of the Feydeau farces. They all appeared in Vaudeville for many years and moved to the theatre. The door to Hollywood opened when sound was introduced. It is hard to imagine the Marx Brothers without sound. So it is entirely possible that they were aware of the plays. Feydeau’s The Girl from Maxim’s was in Broadway in 1899, when the Marx Brother were infants. But The Girl from Montmartre ran from August 1912 to April 1913, and Breakfast in Bed had appeared on Broadway in 1920. In 1924, the Marx Brothers appeared on Broadway, but Feydeau’s plays could have been an influence, as they had been in Vaudeville since 1905.[3]

What is certain is that they both draw from the same well of anarchic comedy. There is one scene where lines between the play and the audience are blurred and then erased. The same idea would appear in the Marx Brothers, Spike Milligan and eventually Monty Python. Maybe a long bow, but who knows.

People interested in Occupe Toi Amelie can easily find the DVD, but like many French films, it isn’t easy to source it with English subtitles.


[1] Vincent, Canby, “Screen: ‘Flea in Her Ear’: Charon Directs Movie of a Play by Feydeau,” New York Times, 28 November, 1968.

[2] Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell’s Hundred : A Nostalgic Choice of Films from the Golden Age. London ; New York: Granada, 1982, 243- 246.

[3] Internet Broadway database, https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/georges-feydeau-5878, accessed on 4 September 2020.