The Hays Code: Keeping Sex Off the Screen (But Not Out of Our Dirty-Minded Little Hearts) for More Than Three Decades.

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.

8 thoughts on “The Hays Code: Keeping Sex Off the Screen (But Not Out of Our Dirty-Minded Little Hearts) for More Than Three Decades.

  1. On the one hand I agree with your (I’m guessing) opposition to censorship. On the other hand, sometimes I think we’d see better films if love, romance or lust had to be shown in some way other than sending the characters to bed–or if strong negative emotion had to be shown in some way other than blood and gore.

  2. I have to agree that rampant censorship can strike a blow to open creativity, but I would also like to suggest that current films and TV may often fail in their creativity by going for easy or unoriginal scenes. Censorship stifles but also forced creativity in order to work within restraint.

    Also, censorship, although it can be frustrating, presents a picture of what society is thinking. Society will only accept what it wishes, and that waxes and wanes much like the moon- and that applies to pretty much everything. If we did not have censors, people would still only go to see what they enjoyed or could accept, and if society is not ready for something, it will become a cult classic at most. Sometimes being “scandalous” will move a work forward, and without censorship, there is never salacious.

  3. Exactly how would a movie by, say, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese or Steven Soderburgh be made more “original” by the imposition of censorship in any dosage? Ms. Reynolds complains too much. A major reason, in fact, why today’s movies are so much better than those made during the imaginary “Golden Age” is precisely the collapse of the Hays Code, that most lamentable triumph of religious dogma over intelligence and freedom.

  4. Obviously, I disagree with your assertion that “today’s movies are so much better than those made during the imaginary ‘Golden Age.'” I did not write this post on the assumption that the Hays Code prevented Hollywood from producing GOOD movies–to the contrary, during its enforcement, studios produced some of the best movies in the history of cinema–but on the speculation that, without the Hays Code and the influence of religious dogma on the art of moviemaking, we would have seen some vast differences in the way things were portrayed on the screen. Merely an exercise in “what-ifs,” so to speak.

    Claiming that today’s movies are somehow better BECAUSE of the freedom they are allowed is an egregious statement. Yes, the Scorseses and the Allens of the world continue to produce provocative, interesting films, but at the same time, we live in a time period now when the height of film horror is torture porn and buckets of blood, and the notion of comedy has become, by and large, a repository for fart jokes and gross-out humor–not exactly what one could label wholly “original” by any definition.

  5. Pingback: Code breakers. | True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film

  6. In the days of the Hays Code all audiences could watch any movie. Now, if we adults want to avoid blasphemy, profanity, sexual misconduct, and graphic violence, we have to be satisfied with seeing G movies with our kids. (Please note that I did not exclude these items from PG films. I have seen at least one PG film that made me wonder how it dodged the R rating. Anyone else experience the same?) These G movies have no complexity we can wrap our adult minds around. There are few pearls of wisdom that we can take with us from the theater, only the tired lessons we teach our kids in children’s tales.

    I favor censorship for adult content, because it makes all movies G, some of which will require an adult to explain complex plots and philosophical content to their youngest viewers. I favor an entertainment system that does not require parents to find babysitting for their children just to go to the movies with content for emotionally and mentally mature audiences. (When did the definition of “mature content” change?) If a single parent wants to take his/her children to the movies with him/her, he/she should be able to do so without fear of corrupting their kids’ minds. We simply cannot do this under the current system.

    The Hays code did not restrict honest, wholesome things. When we allowed filmmakers to become lax in their conformance to the Code, we Americans gave up a little bit of our American paradise.

    • Thank you for sharing your opinion, to which you are certainly entitled. However, I do feel your beliefs about censorship are short-sighted (at best) and naive beyond belief (at worst).

      It is not the responsibility of the movie industry to police what your children see. That is your job as a parent. As a parent, if you do not approve of the content of a particular film, no one is forcing you to see that film, nor is anyone forcing you to “corrupt … [your] kids’ minds” in doing so. Blanket censorship of all films released in this country is simply not feasible in our modern society. And hey, if the kids aren’t getting corrupted in the theater, there’s more than enough to do the job on television these days. Or in video games. Or in books. Or in any other kind of media that young people may somehow manage to get hold of. At the very least, they will be exposed to elements of the “adult content” you fear at school. You can’t exactly put your kids in a bubble.

      The idea of an “American paradise,” as you say, is almost laughable. Has there ever been such a thing? From the very beginning of this country, there have been periods in which life was seemingly idyllic, but the good ol’ days weren’t always good. This country was founded in the wake of war. War is not “honest” or “wholesome.” It is gritty and realistic and disturbing. History itself is filled with gritty, realistic, and disturbing elements–do you think, then, that children should not learn about such things in our collective past? You cannot honestly depict the good things in life without also depicting the bad. There is no good without evil, no paradise without its corresponding hell. It’s naive to think that censorship somehow makes everything “better.” Since when is whitewashing reality–the truth–a good thing?

      It’s also erroneous to say that “[i]n the days of the Hays Code all audiences could watch any movie.” The films may have been censored, but filmmakers still managed to get some dark or “adult” themes into their work. Would you show a child Citizen Kane? Or Notorious, with its heightened sexual tension? Or sex comedies such as Pillow Talk? These films were all rated acceptable by the Hays office, and yet somehow, I doubt you’d want your children to see them.

  7. Blanket censorship may be too great a task, but reform is certainly in order. I cannot go to the theaters today without having my Christian sensibilities offended.

    Long ago, a friend of mine advised me that I should stay in the theater past the first ten minutes of any film, no matter how foul the language gets. He explained that the writers were only trying to blow more sensitive (read “conservative”) ears out of the audience so the rest, those who won’t take a stand against blatant profanity, would be entertained in peace. That must have been twenty years ago. His advice still holds true. This kind of abuse is not necessary.

    I’d like to know when the American public will finally say, “enough is enough!”

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