How the Hays Code Censored Early Hollywood

By: Mark Mancini  | 
Safe in Hell
In this 1931 publicity photo, Dorothy Mackaill plays a secretary-turned-prostitute in "Safe in Hell," a pre-Hays Code Warner Bros. film. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

"The Following Preview Has Been Approved For All Audiences By the Motion Picture Association, Inc."

If you like going to the movies, you're probably familiar with those words. They're part of a disclaimer shown before new trailers at most American cinemas.

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The Motion Picture Association (MPA — formerly the MPAA) has been rating films for over 50 years.

Movies submitted to the group are given one of five potential ratings: "G," "PG," "PG-13," "R," or "NC-17." Parents use the letter grades to help them decide which movies are appropriate for their children.

The modern MPA rating system debuted in 1968. Before that, major studios in the U.S. policed themselves with a different tool: the sometimes-infamous Motion Picture Production Code, better known as the Hays Code.

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The Hays Code and Legal Censorship

Born in the Great Depression, the Hays Code was part of a censorship program meant to appease religious groups who denounced "indecent" movies. Hollywood didn't enforce it too strictly at first. But once that changed, the Hays Code was empowered to reshape American cinema in its own image for decades to come.

"[The] exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple," Joseph McKenna wrote in 1915.

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McKenna was a member of the U.S. Supreme Court who served from 1898 through 1925. In the landmark 1915 case Mutual Film Corp v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, he and his fellow justices unanimously ruled that the federal free speech protections outlined in the First Amendment didn't apply to movies.

Therefore, state governments — like Ohio's — could legally censor motion pictures. And in theory, so could the federal government itself.

Silent movies were the industry standard back then, but the rise of "talkies" in the late 1920s created a new age of Hollywood boundary-pushing.

"Because of the (relatively) explicit sex and violence in the films of the so-called pre-Code era ... a broad coalition of conservative groups targeted Hollywood for its unwholesome impact on American culture, and especially its allegedly corrupting influence of children," Brandeis University film historian Thomas Doherty says in an email.

It was in this climate that the Motion Picture Production Code was born.

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The Hays Code Cleans Up Hollywood

The Jazz Singer
"The Jazz Singer," one of the first "talkie" films, sent Will Hays into overdrive coming up with his list of censorship rules for the Hollywood film industry. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Our modern MPA can trace its roots back to 1922, when it was founded as the "Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America" (MPPDA for short). The organization's first president was Will H. Hays, Sr., a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

As you may have guessed, the Hays Code was nicknamed after him.

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One of his main objectives was to "clean up" Hollywood's image. In 1927, a year that saw "The Jazz Singer" become a talkie sensation, Hays worked with studio executives on a new list of industry guidelines.

They called these rules "The Don'ts and Be Carefuls." Later, the MPPDA followed that up with the Motion Picture Production Code — i.e., the Hays Code.

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The Hays Code Rules Applied

Released in 1930, the Hays Code was a much more comprehensive document (and it was often amended over the years).

Here are a few choice excerpts:

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  • "Complete nudity is never permitted."
  • "Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene."
  • "[Adultery] should not appear to be justified."
  • "Criminals should not be made heroes, even if they are historical criminals."
  • "Ministers of religion ... should not be used in comedy, as villains or as unpleasant persons."
  • "Illegal drug traffic must never be presented."
  • "Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures are not to be shown."
  • "The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust."

The Hays Code also had a lot to say about race and sexual orientation.

Under the code, open references to homosexuality were implicitly off-limits. "White slavery" could never be depicted on film. And it was forbidden to show certain interracial couples, namely those with Black and white partners.

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The Legion of Decency and the New Deal

Of Mice And Men
In the 1939 film "Of Mice And Men," the script deviated from the book by suggesting George would be arrested for killing his dear friend Lenny. Archive Photos/Getty Images

"The [Hays] Code was actually written and officially adopted by the major studios in 1930, but because there was no effective enforcement mechanism, its rules were ignored," Doherty says.

That didn't satisfy Rev. John Timothy McNicholas, a Catholic archbishop who still took issue with Hollywood movies he deemed offensive. So to push back against the studios, he organized a special interest group called the "Legion of Decency" in 1934.

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"The Legion launched boycotts of Hollywood films it deemed sinful and even threatened to keep Catholics away from all Hollywood movies," Doherty explains.

Washington came under pressure, too. Some religious groups wanted the government to step in and censor films with a new federal agency.

"FDR's New Deal at the time was creating all sorts of new regulatory agencies, so this was not a far-fetched possibility," Doherty says. "To avoid federal censorship and keep the Catholics happy, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America ... created the Production Code Administration in July 1934 to actually enforce the code."

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Enforcing the Hays Code

Bride of Frankenstein
The "Bride of Frankenstein" was considered blasphemous to Hollywood censors and its script had to be edited for content. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Will Hays, Sr. may be synonymous with the "Hays Code," but he tapped someone else to enforce it.

From 1934 through 1954, Joseph I. Breen served as the director of the Production Code Administration (PCA), a subdivision of the MPPDA. The job gave him an enormous influence over Hollywood for two decades. "It was he and not Hays who did the actual censorship of the films and scripts," Doherty says.

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Creators had little choice but to negotiate with Breen's office.

"The Bride of Frankenstein" had to change a wisecrack the villain makes about god because it was too blasphemous for the censors. "Angel," a 1937 drama, used "delightful salon" as a codeword for "brothel" to stay out of trouble.

Because the PCA didn't want criminals to look too sympathetic, "Of Mice and Men" (1939) ends by implying that George will be arrested for murder after he shoots his best friend, Lenny — which doesn't happen in the original novel.

And so on.

"At the end of 'Casablanca' (1942), when Rick shoots the Nazi Major Strasser, [he] had to be seen pulling out his gun to shoot Rick, so Rick acts in self-defense. In the original version, he just shot the Nazi, but the scene had to be reshot to satisfy the Code," Doherty says.

Cartoons weren't spared, either. Starting in 1935, Betty Boop was drawn with longer dresses (and a less curvaceous figure), as per the Hays Code wardrobe rules.

"In context, [the Code] actually had a progressive impact in some ways — forbidding the use of ethnic and racial slurs, toning down the worst kinds of stereotypes," argues Doherty. "So in 'Gone with the Wind,' unlike the book, the N-word is not used in the dialogue."

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Changing Tastes, Changing Movies

Betty Boop
Even Betty Boop's clothes were affected by the Hays Code. On the left is Betty before the Code and on the right is Betty after the Code went into place. Public Domain

Various forces slowly brought an end to the Motion Picture Production Code.

First, the Supreme Court's 1915 ruling was overturned by the Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson case in 1952. With that decision, the highest court in the land finally recognized movies as an art form protected under the First Amendment.

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Meanwhile, the entertainment industry had to rethink old assumptions.

"American culture — and moviegoers — changed after WWII [and were] less willing to accept authorities like the Code. Also, with TV keeping folks at home, the movies had to offer something TV didn't — increasingly that meant sex and other kinds of provocative material," Doherty says.

"By the mid-1960s, the Code was a paper tiger and in 1968, the MPAA adopted the present-day ratings system."

Despite all their restrictions, the Hays Code and the PCA didn't kill Hollywood's creativity. Some of the greatest movies ever made were produced on their watch, from "It's a Wonderful Life" to "The Wizard of Oz."

We can only imagine how different the films of this era might have been if creators were allowed to express themselves more fully.

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