The Hays Code was a set of rules and guidelines that would police the production of content from major Hollywood studios, as a form of self-censorship by these same major American studios between 1934 and 1968. Formally known as the Motion Picture Production Code, but more popularly remembered as The Hays Code, named after William H. Hays president of the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America (MPPDA).
The studios had collectively selected Hays in 1922, a Presbyterian, to rehabilitate Hollywood’s image after a series of risqué films and off-screen scandals that led to nearly 100 different censorship bills issued by 37 different states of the U.S. In danger of facing either a federal-led censorship or a series of conflicting and inconsistent state-formed decency laws, Hollywood studios opted for self-censorship.
In a landmark case, Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio in 1915, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that freedom of speech did not extend to motion pictures. Matched with prominent Hollywood scandals of the 1920s, including the alleged rape of Virginia Rappe by popular movie star Roscoe Arbuckle, and the murder of William Desmond Taylor, various political, religious and civic organisations were calling for radically reformation. Certainly, there was a desire to limit the freedom of expression motion pictures had been pushing at the time.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1927 that a series of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” were proposed by the MPPDA. This series of codes were then eventually published in 1930 after revision from Martin Quigley, a Catholic layman and editor of the Motion Picture Herald, as well as Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest. Clearly there were to be serious Catholic undertones to the formation of the code. Such catholic influences were only heightened by the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency, and Roosevelt’s election in 1933, who had serious Catholic funders threatening to withdraw their financial support if action was not to be taken. While there were major concerns for safeguarding and censoring the content children were exposed to, who at the time made up 20% of cinema goers were, there were still no plans for federal age-related restrictions.
So, on the 13th of June 1934, it was established and enforced that all films released from the 1st of July 1934 would need to acquire a certificate of approval from the Production Code Administration. In order to obtain such a certificate, which at the time would impact the success of the film and its ability to be screened in all theatres, major studios could not show the following in their pictures:
- Pointed profanity—by either title or lip—this includes the words God, Lord, Jesus, Christ (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd, and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
- Any licentious or suggestive nudity—in fact or in silhouette;
- The illegal traffic in drugs;
- Any inference of sex perversion;
- White slavery
- Miscegenation (specifically sex relationships between the white and black races);
- Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
- Scenes of actual childbirth;
- Children’s sex organs;
- Ridicule of the clergy;
- Willful offense to any nation, race or creed; and
An additional series of guidelines were established to exercise special care in which the following subjects were treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness which would be eliminated and that good taste could be emphasised:
- The use of the Flag;
- International Relations (avoid picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry);
- The use of firearms;
- Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, et cetera (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
- Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
- Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
- Methods of smuggling;
- Third-degree methods;
- Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
- Sympathy for criminals;
- Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
- Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
- Branding of people or animals;
- The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
- Rape or attempted rape;
- First-night scenes;
- Man and woman in bed together;
- Deliberate seduction of girls;
- The institution of marriage;
- Surgical operations;
- The use of drugs;
- Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
- Excessive or lustful kissing;
Unsurprisingly, there were clear homophobic and racist undertones from this set of codes, which played a significant role in furthering discrimination of non-white actors, including Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star, who would not be cast in The Good Earth because of the white male lead.
Such undertones of the code needed to be matched by an enforcer who equally shared such an outlook. Joseph Breen, another prominent Catholic layman, was hired in 1934 to ensure that major studios would comply with this new code. Ironically, it was The World Moves On that was to be granted the first MPPDA seal of approval. As early as 1936, popular magazines like Liberty Magazine were commenting how Breen’s appointment had given him “more influence in standardising world thinking than Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin”, a very startling fact in light of Breen holding strong anti-communist and anti-Semitic views which certainly antagonised the (largely) Jewish movie moguls and studio heads at the time.
Certainly, the Hays Code had an instrumental effect on the production of Hollywood films during this period. Effecting Hollywood classics like Casablanca, both any explicit references to Rick and Isla sleeping together which Breen had a direct role in prohibiting, but also preventing any possibility of Rick & Isla consummating their adulterous love. Additionally, Breen vehemently sought to try and ban the use of the infamous line “Frankly Scarlett, I do not give a damn” from Gone With The Wind, although David Selznick was able to keep it in the film as it had appeared in the original movie. Despite this, Breen did succeed in ensuring that the childbirth scene was kept to only the shadows.
For almost 20 years, Hays Code managed to maintain a strong status of authority over Hollywood movies, as director Edward Dmytryk recalled how it “had a very good effect because it made us think. If we wanted to get something across that was censorable… we had to do it deviously. We had to be clever. And it usually turned out to be much better than if we had done it straight”. Nonetheless, a series of compounding events of the 1950s would no doubt lead to the ultimate demise of the Hays Code.
Hollywood simultaneously faced the growing threat of uncensored television that was becoming widely popular, as well as the strong competition of foreign films during this period which did not need an MPPDA seal of approval and were being screened in cinemas after Hollywood lost control of their vertical integration structure and ownership of theatres, after a Supreme Court ruling in 1948. Further to this, in 1952 the Supreme Court overturned their ruling in 1915, stating that freedom of speech should extend also to movies.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, famous directors like Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger demonstrated that movies like Some Like It Hot could be highly successful without the seal of approval from MPPDA. So after 10 years or so of blatant flouting of the original Hays Code, it was clear that the world was again transitioning. Finally, in 1968 the Hays Code was replaced with a film-rated system focused more on age restrictions than censorship, which remains in place still to this day.
What's Your Reaction?
Recent MA in Film Studies, interested in all facets of filmmaking and cinema - especially the notion of rebellion and Afro-Surrealism. I am a teacher, writer, podcaster of film amongst other things, based in Amsterdam.