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Divorce in the Movies: From the Hays Code to Kramer vs. Kramer

62 Pages Posted: 7 Apr 2000  

Michael Asimow

Stanford Law School


Movies often provide a window through which we can observe human behavior and legal institutions as they existed when the film was made. However, this is not true of the subjects of marital disintegration and divorce. Hollywood's rigid system of self-censorship, embodied in the Hays Code and the Production Code Administration, nearly blotted divorce themes right off the screen. What little was said of the subject during the middle third of the twentieth century was wildly wrong. The Code was written by and administered by staunch Catholics, largely to stave off boycott threats by the Catholic Legion of Decency. As a result, it reflected Catholic moral teachings, particularly the prohibition of divorce.

This article surveys films about divorce from the pre-Code era (1930-34), the Code era (1934-68), and the immediate post-Code era (1968-1980s). It discovers that divorce themes were candidly portrayed during the pre-Code era but were thoroughly suppressed during the Code era. In the post-Code era, the subject crept back to the screen in a series of memorable films about divorce in the late 1970's and early 1980's. The article then analyzes Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) in detail, finding it to be one of the few classic treatments in film of divorce and family law.

Suggested Citation

Asimow, Michael, Divorce in the Movies: From the Hays Code to Kramer vs. Kramer. Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2000. Available at SSRN: or

Michael R. Asimow (Contact Author)

Stanford Law School ( email )

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