I was asked recently to give a brief overview of the Hays Code, to which I have referred repeatedly in some of my previous entries on this blog.
The Motion Picture Production Code, known in Hollywood as the Hays Code (named after its creator, Will H. Hays), preceded the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system that currently judges thematic content within recently-released movies in the United States. The Code, informally adopted in 1930 but rarely reinforced until 1934, was comprised of three “general principles” by which all motion pictures released in the US must abide in order to be shown publicly in this country. Basically, according to the guidelines of the Code, films should avoid flouting moral standard and should not engender sympathy for evil or ridicule of the law. These initial terms being somewhat broad and open for interpretation, the Code would more clearly define “moral standard” for filmmakers, ultimately engineering a laundry list of prohibitions against nudity, “sex perversion” (homosexuality), the demonstration of drug abuse, offensive language, excessive on-screen violence, explicit adultery, and anything overtly sexual in nature … in short, all of the things that make modern cinema so very entertaining at times.
The Code is, in essence, a classic example of the encroachment of religious ideology on the creative arts. By 1930, Protestant groups were protesting the “immorality” of the motion picture industry, calling for federal intervention to censor the more unpleasant aspects in some films produced up until that time. The protests did not just focus on the films, however; Hollywood itself was decried as a den of iniquity in the wake of some high-profile scandals, including the Fatty Arbuckle trials (he was accused–and later acquitted–of raping and murdering aspiring actress Virginia Rappe).
In lieu of federal censorship, Hays, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee with impeccably conservative credentials, was hired as the first president of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (now known as the MPAA). With the assistance of several Catholic priests and other conservatives within the film industry, the Code was born. Incidentally, and rather helpfully for his cause, Hays was also instrumental in the founding of the Catholic Legion of Decency, which maintained pressure on Hollywood by promoting boycotts of films considered morally corrupt.
Still, the Code was not universally enforced for several years, resulting in the production of some movies, now labeled “pre-Code” films, that pushed the boundaries of risque behavior on screen. Consider Baby Face, a 1933 drama starring Barbara Stanwyck that is cited by many as the film that tipped the censors over the edge once and for all.
Stanwyck’s character, a young woman whose father has prostituted her from a young age, moves to New York and ends up quite literally sleeping her way to the top of the business world. And though the film was heavily edited in order to pass some state censorship boards, sexual content permeates the movie to an unmistakable degree: in Stanwyck’s slinky walk and cocked hips, in the leering glances of the men in her life, in the suggestive cutting-away from romantic scenes and the notorious camera shot ascending the exterior of a high-rise building as Stanwyck ascends the corporate ladder in her own unique way.
Less than a year later, in 1934, the morally-outraged facet of public opinion won, and the Production Code Administration (PCA) was established, making it mandatory for films to be screened and awarded a PCA certification (based on Hays Code criteria) before being released in the United States. The Breen Office, as it came to be known (after Joseph I. Breen, one of Hays’ cohorts in establishing the Code), became a somewhat loathed place in Hollywood, censoring the re-release of pre-Code films to such extents that some of the original versions of those films, in all their damnable glory, have been lost forever.
There were, thankfully, some loopholes in the Code, and strong hints of forbidden material made their way into many films produced during the Hays era. As restrictions began to relax toward the end of the 1940s, directors such as Otto Preminger began to push the boundaries of the Code, introducing more salacious material into their movies (such as Preminger’s 1955 classic heroin-addiction drama The Man with the Golden Arm). By the early 1960s, the Hays Code was all but ignored by filmmakers, as the PCA’s approval was no longer necessary to ensure a film’s financial and critical success, and the MPAA eventually introduced the Code’s replacement: the modern movie rating system, first established in 1968.
Had the Hays Code never been established–had Hollywood refused to buckle under the regulations of an overly conservative agenda–the history of film may have been quite different. It’s interesting to consider how the production of some of our favorite films may have changed had the Code continued to remain unenforced. Would we have seen much more violence and gore in the James Cagney-Edward G. Robinson gangster classics of the 30s and 40s? Would Rick and Ilsa have had a torrid sex scene (or three) while stranded together in northern Africa? What if the latent homosexuality of such characters as Bruno Anthony or Joel Cairo had been allowed to boil over and actually influence the action on the screen? We would be looking at some polarizing, but perhaps ultimately intriguing differences.
Was there any value to the Hays Code? It depends on who you ask. For some, censorship is a necessary evil designed to save society from its own flaws and spoils, and the Code served to maintain a sense of morality in a country struggling in the midst of depression and war. For others, censorship in any form is wrong and antithetical to the creative process, and there can be little value perceived in an institution that silences the creative spirit.
I’ll let you take a wild guess as to which of these camps I belong.