Hollywood has always had a strange relationship with the law. Throughout history, the film industry has used self-regulation as a way to avoid excessive government interference. This summer marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the notorious Hays Code, a set of internal moral guidelines for the film industry whose brevity belied its nearly four-decade impact.
The Hays Code was inspired by public outrage over several sex- and drug-related scandals involving 1920s film stars, the most famous being the death of actress Virginia Rappe at the hands of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. In response, Congress entertained the idea of creating a Federal Motion Picture Commission, whose members would have reviewed and banned films which were “obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, or […] of such a character that [their] exhibition would tend to corrupt morals and incite to crime.” (Source: Proposed Federal Motion Picture Commission: Hearings before the Committee on Education, House of Representatives, 69th Cong. (1926) at 2. Full-text link will work on campus.)
Hollywood studios scrambled to write their own moral guidelines, to be enforced by the already-established Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, helmed by former U.S. Postmaster General William Hays. The result was a 1927 short list of “‘Don’ts’ and ‘Be Carefuls’” (beginning with a total ban on profanity and ending with a caution on the use of “excessive and lustful kissing”). In 1930, the list was expanded into a formal “Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures”, but it was not until the 1934 edition that the “Hays Code” truly began impacting American cinema.
In addition to the ban on nudity which lent the Goodson Blogson a title for this post, the Hays Code stressed that films should avoid glamorizing criminal activity, could never use the word “abortion,” should depict “hangings and electrocutions […] with discretion and restraint within the careful limits of good taste,” and could show all religions and religious figures in only a positive light. Read the rest of the 1934 Hays Code and its supporting documentation reprinted in Gerald C. Gardner’s The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office, 1934-1968 (Cox Collection PN1995.62 .G37 1987), a fascinating collection of correspondence and commentary from the files of the film censors. (The 1927 studio “‘Don’ts’ and ‘Be Carefuls’” are also reproduced in Appendix II of the Gardner book. Researchers wishing to compare the 1930 and 1934 codes can read the 1930 edition reprinted in Investigation of Communist Propaganda: Hearings before a Special Committee to Investigate Communist Activities in the United States of the House of Representatives, 71st Cong. (1930) at 280-81. Full-text link will work on campus.)
The Hays Code continued long after the MPPDA became the Motion Picture Association of America in 1945. The guidelines were revised several times in the ensuing years-- Duke’s Special Collections Library even owns a 1955 edition of the Hays Code, although you’ll need to visit Perkins Library in person to view it. This version of the Code touched our own Legal DVD collection, during a battle with the Hays Office over the making of Inherit the Wind, an adaptation of the Broadway play about the Scopes “monkey trial”. In 1955, the Office informed a studio executive: “we regret to inform you that this basic story is unacceptable…and that a picture based on this material could not be approved by this office.” After several years of compromise over the depiction of fervently religious townspeople who consider the teaching of evolution to be a crime, the now-classic film was released in 1960 and earned four Oscar nominations.
The Hays Code was finally abandoned in 1968, when the MPAA adopted its now-familiar theatrical rating system (PG, R, etc.). Given the reactive history of the Code’s development, it should surprise no one to hear that this voluntary rating system was created at the same time that Congress was investigating the possibility of a federal film classification system. (Source: The Committee on Film Classification: Hearing Before the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate, 90th Cong. (1968). Full-text link will work on campus.)
For further reading:
• Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Censored: The Production Code Administration and the Hollywood Film Industry, 1930-1940, 3 FILM HISTORY 167 (1989) (full-text link will work on campus)
• RICHARD S. RANDALL, CENSORSHIP OF THE MOVIES: THE SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CONTROL OF A MASS MEDIUM (KF4300 .R3 1968).
• Catalog search: Motion pictures—Censorship—United States