A few weeks ago, I watched an old movie on cable, Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face of 1933. In it, the character played by Barbara Stanwyck blatantly uses sex to climb her way out of poverty until she falls in love with one of her marks, played by George Brent. There’s no disguising what Stanwyck’s character is up to (though no sex acts or nudity are shown on screen) and her amorality is not condemned. In fact, she’s rewarded in a sense since she finds great wealth, happiness, and love with Brent’s character in the end. (Ruth Chatterton’s character in Female, directed by Michael Curtiz that same year, engages in what we’d call today sexual harassment, bedding her employees as the head of an automobile manufacturer. She sends them off to corporate Siberia if they reciprocate with signs of romance, such as flowers or candy. Both screenplays were written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola.) Some years ago, I enjoyed a Spencer Tracy vehicle, Man’s Castle (sometimes listed as A Man’s Castle), directed by Frank Borzage, also in 1933. Tracy’s character is a self-satisfied bum: he lives in a hobo camp and doesn’t work when he can steal or con for money. He helps himself get by being a gigolo and unapologetically espouses a kind of twisted anti-capitalist philosophy. He also openly lives at the camp with women he’s not interested in marrying and hooks up with a young woman played by Loretta Young who becomes pregnant by him. No one, not even Young’s character, attempts to reform him—he is who he is and that’s fine with everyone, even when he attempts a burglary in which a security guard is killed. He and Young’s character hop a freight train out of town together to escape capture, and he’s depicted as a hero of the common man. (It’s not really relevant, but both the Stanwyck and Tracy movies are terrific viewing, wonderfully surprising, and entertaining, even 80 years after they were made.)
If you are even moderately discerning about old movies, you’ll have noticed a marked difference between movies made before 1934 and those made after that year. The differences are clearest in melodramas and films noirs, but there are traces of the variation in comedies and even cartoons. The cause, for those who haven’t already guessed, was the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, adopted by the studios in 1930 and enforced starting in 1934. (It was abandoned in 1968, which seems strange to me personally because it means the effects started well before I was born but continued past my teen years.)
The topic, of course, is censorship—the censorship of Hollywood movies and foreign films allowed to enter the United States for display here. The history of the Hays Code covers both the threat of official censorship by a government agency and the consequent self-censorship in which the Hollywood producers engaged to avoid such a fate and the burden this imposed on directors and screenwriters in the years that the Hays Code and its administrative center, the Breen Office (both of which became synonyms for the Production Code and industry censorship), operated. Though by the 1960s, especially the end of the decade, the Breen Office had so little authority that the Code was abandoned (in favor of the MPAA ratings system which went into effect in November 1968), the Breen Office was a powerful force in filmmaking for decades during Hollywood’s golden age, the heyday of the studios and the legendary film producers who ran them: Irving G. Thalberg and David O. Selznick of MGM, Paramount’s E. H. Allen and B. P. Schulberg, Sol Wurtzel of Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck at Warner Brothers and later Twentieth Century, Famous Players’ Adolph Zukor.
As soon as moving pictures began to appear, there were questions about whether the movie industry was morally fit to determine what went into its own products. The film business was presumed to be somewhat morally corrupt, working from questionable standards from the start. In 1909 the People’s Institute in New York City formed the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship which soon acquired a lot of influence beyond the city. Most of the big producers ultimately agreed to submit all their films to the New York Board and not to release any unless the Board approved. As its importance grew, the Board changed its name to the National Board of Censorship and in 1915 to the National Board of Review. The Board’s Seal of Approval was the first formal effort by the movie industry to ward off governmental censorship through self-regulation. Despite the authority of the Board, however, three Congressional bills were introduced in 1914 that sought to establish a Federal Motion Picture Censorship Commission. Although none of the bills was enacted, the move was a clear indication that the public was concerned about the quality, propriety, decency, and taste of the films being produced in the United States. In 1921, 37 states had nearly 100 film-censorship bills before their legislatures; by the advent of sound films, eight states had censorship boards, though few were very effective.
Then in the early 1920s, three major scandals rocked Hollywood: actor and comedian Fatty Arbuckle’s murder trial (1921-22), which included allegations of rape; the murder of actor and director William Desmond Taylor (2 February 1922), sensationalized by the press in part because of Taylor’s reportedly bizarre behavior in the days before his death; and the drug-related death of actor Wallace Reid (18 January 1923). The uproar surrounding these shocking stories, covered in lurid detail by the nation’s press, led the film studios to form the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in 1922. Intended as a public relations organization to oppose government censorship and foster a more favorable image for the motion picture industry, the MPPDA was originally headed by Will H. Hays (1879-1954), former Postmaster General in Warren G. Harding's cabinet, one-time head of the Republican National Committee, and a Presbyterian elder. Promising to impose strict standards of morality and decency on the studios, Hays’s name became synonymous with censorship, but Hays was actually a mild-mannered fellow who was easily persuaded and manipulated. He established the Studio Relations Committee and instituted plans to avert government intrusion into the film business and in 1927, the SRC produced a list of “Don'ts and Be Carefuls” to regulate production. MPPDA members agreed to avoid 11 specific objectionable topics and to handle 26 more with good judgment and appropriate sensitivity. There were, however, no means of enforcement so studio compliance was erratic and frequently minimal.
Furthermore, there was an element of Hollywood and American society in general that found the MPPDA censorship narrow-minded. The 1920s weren’t called The Roaring Twenties without a reason: the free-wheeling social mores of the Jazz Age was a reaction to the repressive Victorian era, sometimes ridiculed as naïve and backward by the sophisticates of the ’20s and early ’30s. When the Hays Code was published, liberal periodicals like The Nation assailed it. The Outlook, a monthly magazine published in New York, agreed and the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, two respected industry journals, both mocked the Code.
After talkies came in (the first feature film originally presented as a “talking picture” was The Jazz Singer, released in October 1927) until the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, the era known as pre-Code Hollywood, movie content was restricted mostly by local laws and agencies like the New York Board. Consequently, films in the late ’20s and early ’30s contained sexual suggestiveness, miscegenation, profanity, illicit drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and homosexuality. Strong female characters dominated such movies as Female, Baby Face, and Red-Headed Woman (1932, starring Jean Harlow). Such strong women appeared in films that examined female subject matters that would not be seen again in American films until around the middle ’60s. In addition, the gangster leads in films like The Public Enemy (1931, starring James Cagney), Little Caesar (1931, starring Edward G. Robinson), and Scarface (1931, starring Paul Muni) were viewed by many moviegoers as heroes rather than villains and these disreputable figures are often seen to benefit from their nefarious actions, which includes extreme violence and, in some cases, drug use, often with impunity.
By 1929, it was obvious that the MPPDA needed a much broader code imposing guidelines for movie action and language. A group of Catholic clergy and laymen from Chicago, led by Martin Quigley, editor of the prominent trade paper Motion Picture Herald, and Jesuit Father Daniel A. Lord, feared that movies were undermining the morality of the country and that children were especially vulnerable. The Catholic Church had always wielded considerable influence over the film industry from its unified threats to declare certain movies forbidden to observant Catholics. (Protestant churches, which also had objections, weren’t as effective because of the looser social organization among their worshipers.) MPPDA members met with Quigley and Lord and negotiated a uniform standard of decency. Overseen by Hays, this agreement became known as the Motion Picture Production Code, or more colloquially, the Hays Code, a regime requiring the review of all film scripts to ensure the absence of “offensive” material. (In 1915, the Supreme Court, laying the legal basis for official censorship of films, had decided unanimously in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that freedom of speech did not apply to motion pictures.) The Production Code was a system of self-censorship which the MPPDA imposed on the major Hollywood studios and after 31 March 1930, the Code represented a set of rules to which all motion pictures shown in the United States had to adhere for about thirty years.
The Hays Code was not a government effort, though the actions of the Hollywood studios to censor their own product were intended to forestall government censorship. As we’ve seen, before the Production Code was introduced, movies were deemed by many in the clergy and politics to be immoral, endorsing vice and exalting violence. A number of films portraying lascivious and violent behavior coming out of Hollywood in these years had offended conservatives, the most famous of which was 1933’s Ecstasy starring Hedy Lamarr, the first non-pornographic movie with a simulated sex-scene, which includes erotic close-ups of Lamarr's face in the throes of passion. Many cities had established boards of censors but the definition of acceptable community standards used by these local committees differed so much from locality to locality that it was hard for movies to be shown in many areas without being subjected to local cuts and editing. The Code, however, opened with the universal statement: “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.”
The document was long and wordy, but the rules boiled down to fairly straightforward provisions: there couldn’t be any nudity, suggestive dancing, depiction of sex acts, sexual perversion, rape or seduction, miscegenation, “actual” childbirth, mockery of religion, disrespect for law enforcement, sympathy for criminals, drug abuse, or offensive language. Brutal violence couldn’t be portrayed in detail and murders had to be filmed in a way that wouldn’t encourage real-life imitators. Movies had to uphold the “sanctity” of marriage and the home. Adultery or extra-marital sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could only be depicted if it were shown to be bad and the participants were punished in the end; the same was true for crime or other bad behavior: the naughty characters had to get a comeuppance or be reformed. The religious reformers believed they’d won their fight, but the movie moguls had no intention of abiding by the agreement. The Great Depression led many studios in the ’30s to make profits any way they could and movies with racy and violent content put viewers in theater seats. It seemed logical (and rewarding), therefore, to keep making such films. In 1930, the German film The Blue Angel (made simultaneously in German and English) was released, becoming the first film the SRC reviewed. The Committee passed the film without revisions, but a California censor found several scenes offensive and ordered them removed. Even though the SRC demanded cuts and revisions to many screenplays, the Hays Office had no authority to require them and the final decisions were in the hands of the studio bosses. For much of the first half of the ’30s, a lot of sensational material made it to America’s movie screens.
Hays had spent eight years attempting to enforce a moral authority over Hollywood films, but it was during the Great Depression that the Hays Office gained a sound influence over Hollywood. In 1933, the Catholic Church in the U.S. formed the Catholic Legion of Decency which in 1934 became the National Legion of Decency to protest the “immoral” content of Hollywood films. Backed by many American rabbis, along with dozens of other religious and educational groups, the Legion denounced Hollywood and the predominantly Jewish movie moguls. Public outcry over immorality in motion pictures reached a peak, and in 1934, Hays appointed Joseph Breen (1888–1965), a prominent Catholic layman, as head of the Production Code Administration (PCA), successor to the SRC, henceforth called the Breen Office, and sent him to Hollywood to bring the studio heads under control.
Under Breen, implementation of the Production Code was stricter and more unbending than it had been under Hays. The studios owned 70% of first-run movie theaters and the Breen Office used this near-monopoly to enforce compliance by denying distribution to any movie that didn't meet Code standards and bear the MPPDA’s certification. Breen's own conservative views influenced his administration of the Code as the PCA took an active role in revising screenplays and fined studios that didn’t adhere to the rules. Breen’s standards exasperated the Hollywood moguls, but the studios were threatened with financial ruin if they didn’t comply. The first important case of censorship under the Production Code occurred in 1934 with Tarzan and His Mate, in which short nude scenes involving actress Maureen O’Sullivan (replaced by a body double) were cut from the master print. Even so, Hollywood still developed ways to get around some of the restrictions, even though the Production Code specified restrictions on language and behavior, particularly obscenity, sex, and crime. The language provisions, for example, banned dozens of “offensive” words and phrases, leading to heated objections from many moviegoers when in 1939, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) in Gone with the Wind utters the word “damn” on screen. Although the Breen Office vigorously enforced its authority, leading to the disbanding of many of the local censorship boards, and some considered Breen's authority oppressive, many film historians have seen the Breen era as Hollywood's golden age.
There was also a political aspect to the Hays Code, which Breen wielded with the same zeal as his sexual and moral restrictions. A provision of the Code prohibited the “picturizing [sic] in an unfavorable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry.” This applied equally to such friendly and respected nations as Britain and France as it did, surprisingly, to Fascist Italy and Germany’s Third Reich. (There was a powerful element in congress and society that believed the U.S. should leave European problems to Europe and stay out of the conflict altogether. These conservatives pressured the stage and film producers to avoid projects that took an assertive anti-Nazi stance.) Despite an anti-fascist sentiment that was strong in the entertainment business on both coasts, the Breen Office forbade studios to make movies that depicted Nazi atrocities under the threat of bringing in the federal government; the rationale was that since the U.S. was officially neutral, our film industry couldn’t take hostile stands (until, eventually, the U.S. entered the war on the side of the Allies after Pearl Harbor and the Fascists, Nazis, and Japanese imperialists became our enemies).
This application worked two ways, of course. By 1941, the United States was in the war, allied with the Soviet Union. Movies like the British Adventure for Two (AKA The Demi-Paradise, 1943; released in the U.S. in 1945) presents a Russian naval engineer, played by Laurence Olivier, as a fish out of water in England, naïve about the British people but not a villain in the least as he would have been in the Cold War ’50s and ’60s. He comes to understand their humor, warmth, strength, and conviction and they learn to see him as a friend rather than merely a suspicious Russian, especially once Russia is attacked by Germany. In The North Star (1943), a propaganda film written by playwright Lillian Hellman, simple Ukrainian peasants must suddenly resist the German invasion in 1941. The villagers are portrayed with great sympathy and shown to be resourceful, heroic, and brave. (Contrast these portrayals of our World War II Soviet allies with their depiction in 1963’s The Victors, which takes a more cynical, bleak view of our partnership during the occupation of Berlin at the end of the film. The difference clearly reflects the Cold War outlook, in full force in 1963, by the time the Hays Code had already become virtually obsolete.)
It’s interesting to note that while the Hays Code had a pervasive influence on television production as well—commercial TV arrived in the middle of the period during which the Code held sway over Hollywood content—there was never a similarly powerful movement on Broadway. Obscenity laws were often used, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to close or censor stage plays, particularly for sexual content, and many states, including New York, had agencies vested with the authority to oversee public morals, but no industry agency was ever proposed to parallel the Breen Office and no formal document was ever devised for stage plays that emulated the Motion Picture Production Code. In fact, not a few writers, prevented by the Hays Code from presenting risky ideas or subjects in a film, turned to the theater and several well-known film producers also produced for the stage where they offered more challenging fare they couldn’t have made into a movie. In the 1920s, for instance, New York theater presented performances featuring topless women, profanity, sexually suggestive dialogue, and adult themes.
Hollywood worked under the constraints of the Production Code, revised and amended several times over the decades, until the collapse of the studio system in the 1950s. The Supreme Court anti-trust decision of 1948, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., known as the “Paramount Decision,” that went against the studios’ ownership of theaters, seriously diminished the power of the PCA to enforce any restrictions. (In 1952, in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, known as the “Miracle Decision,” the Supreme Court had unanimously overturned its 1915 decision in Mutual and ruled that motion pictures were entitled to First Amendment protections, undermining the Hays Code’s rationale as a bulwark against government censorship.) Some films that weren’t produced by the major studios defied the Code, such as Child Bride (1938), directed by Harry Revier and produced by Raymond L. Friedgen, which depicted a 12-year-old child actress in a nude scene. The Code began to weaken in the late 1940s, when the formerly taboo treatment of rape was allowed in Johnny Belinda (1948), directed by Jean Negulesco for Warner Bros., and miscegenation in Pinky (1949), directed by Elia Kazan and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck for 20th Century Fox. The Code was revised again in 1951, but when Otto Preminger released The Moon Is Blue in 1953 (United Artists), which came out without the Breen Office’s seal of approval (because of its “light and gay treatment of the subject of illicit sex and seduction”) and with the condemnation of Catholic Church, it was clear that the Legion of Decency’s influence had eroded as well. The authority of the Hays Office to enforce the Code weakened considerably by the time Breen retired in 1954, and filmmakers became more daring and more risqué in their depictions of reality on screen. (Hays had retired in 1945, the year the MPPDA had renamed itself the Motion Picture Association of America.) Movies began to defy the Production Code openly a few years after World War II ended, beginning with Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948; released in the U.S., 1949) and Otto Preminger's The Moon is Blue and The Man with the Golden Arm (United Artists, 1955). (Bicycle Thief had two objectionable scenes, one of a boy urinating against a wall, his back to the camera, and the other a chase through a brothel—showing only clothed women; The Man with the Golden Arm was rejected because of its depiction of illicit drug use and addiction.)
Aside from foreign-film competition, like that exemplified by The Bicycle Thief, movies faced a threat from television, growing ever more popular and available in the 1950s and offering movies and other entertainment for which viewers didn’t have to leave home. But TV had an even stricter code of standards than cinema, so the film studios began to offer what TV couldn’t. 1952’s Miracle Decision (so called because it pertained to Roberto Rossellini’s The Miracle, part of the director’s L’Amore, a 1948 anthology film), freed the studios to explore more and more frank treatment of life and society under the protection of the First Amendment. By the end of the 1950s and the start of the ’60s, films such as Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Columbia Pictures); Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, Columbia), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz based on Tennessee Williams’s play; and Delbert Mann’s adaptation of William Inge’s play, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960, Warner Bros.), began to appear, containing material previously unacceptable to the PCA (respectively: rape and murder; predatory homosexuality and cannibalism; homosexuality and anti-Semitism). The MPAA (successor in 1945 to the MPPDA) reluctantly certified those films, but then United Artists released Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959), with its comic treatment of cross-dressing, suggestions of both homosexuality and promiscuous heterosexuality (not to mention Marilyn Monroe’s general sexiness and allure, which, needless to say, was played up), without a seal of approval and it became a box-office smash.
Then came the film that essentially broke the back of the Hays Code: The Pawnbroker, directed by Sidney Lumet (1964, Allied Artists Pictures and American International Pictures). It had been rejected by the PCA for nudity and overly-suggestive sex scenes, but the producers appealed to the MPAA and the film was passed with some minor cuts. The Pawnbroker was the first film that showed a woman’s naked breasts to receive the Code’s approval. Then, in 1966, Warner Bros. released Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Mike Nichols’s film of Edward Albee’s stage play, the first film to be labeled “Suggested for Mature Audiences.” (The word “screw” was cut, but “hump the hostess” was left in.)
The Code was all but abandoned by the 1960s as the sexual and violent content of movies became more explicit throughout the decade. By the time MGM released Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up in 1966, the Code had plainly descended into irrelevance as the sexually frank film was a box-office smash even without MPAA certification. This led to the adoption of the voluntary, age-based MPAA film-rating system, which was instigated on 1 November 1968.
With the studios’ unbridled power over movie content vastly diminished and the establishment of free-speech protection for Hollywood’s output, films have become more independent and open to both the reality of life in the real world and the reach of human imagination. In 1969, for instance, the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow), directed by Vilgot Sjöman, initially banned in the U.S. for its frank depiction of sexuality, was cleared by the Supreme Court and though it met with hostility from critics and some activists, it was a huge success at the box office. In 1972, two pornographic films even made it into the mainstream, sort of: Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door. Even before the Internet and the blossoming of the home-video market, censorship of movies, either by officials of the government or agents of the industry itself, had become essentially untenable. Pushing the envelope at every turn has become commonplace and the receptivity of the audiences is the only real arbiter of what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
At the time of the rise of the authority of the Hays Code and the Breen Office, the forces of censorship and repression, however well-meaning they may have been, had the field pretty much to themselves. Starting in the 1960s, with its impulse toward openness, freedom of expression and thought, and political and social activism, the forces of free speech and libertarianism have become a powerful counterbalance to the bluenoses, as willing to speak out for artworks and displays that offend some viewers as their opponents are publicly to condemn those efforts. The struggle between the two opposing views of public art and public morality came to a head in the late 1980s and early ’90s when the so-called culture war broke out in full force. Though film was part of the battle field (notably Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, which was condemned for both its violence and what some Catholics, especially, saw as blasphemy), most of the attention went to art exhibitions, particularly those supported by public money, and the severest attacks were aimed not at the artists or their exhibiters but at the National Endowment for the Arts and other public-sector art-funding agencies. Movies, since they’re almost exclusively privately funded and made for profit—and so clearly protected today by the First Amendment—have gotten only token criticism on grounds of morality and public decency, even as the culture war flares up every now and again in the 21st century. Attempts at censorship and repression continue, mostly on a local level, but mostly they fail—so far, at least.