March 31, 1930 – The Motion Pictures Production Code is instituted, imposing strict guidelines on the treatment of sex, crime, religion and violence in film for the next thirty eight years.
The Motion Picture Production Code was the set of industry censorship guidelines which governed the production of the vast majority of United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It was originally popularly known as the Hays Code, after its creator, Will H. Hays.
The office enforcing it was originally popularly called the Breen Office, named after its first administrator, Joseph I. Breen.
Provisions of the Code
The Production Code enumerated three "General Principles" as follows:
1.No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2.Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3.Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
Specific restrictions were spelled out as "Particular Applications" of these principles:
Nakedness and suggestive dances were prohibited.
The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.
The depiction of illegal drug use was forbidden, as well as the use of liquor, "when not required by the plot or for proper characterization".
Methods of crime (e.g. safe-cracking, arson, smuggling) were not to be explicitly presented.
References to alleged sex perversion (such as homosexuality) and venereal disease were forbidden, as were depictions of childbirth.
The language section banned various words and phrases that were considered to be offensive.
Murder scenes had to be filmed in a way that would discourage imitations in real life, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail. "Revenge in modern times" was not to be justified.
The sanctity of marriage and the home had to be upheld. "Pictures shall not imply that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing". Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.
Portrayals of miscegenation (inter-racial marriage and procreation) were forbidden.
"Scenes of Passion" were not to be introduced when not essential to the plot. "Excessive and lustful kissing" was to be avoided, along with any other treatment that might "stimulate the lower and baser element".
The flag of the United States was to be treated respectfully, and the people and history of other nations were to be presented "fairly".
The treatment of "Vulgarity", defined as "low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects" must be "subject to the dictates of good taste". Capital punishment, "third-degree methods", cruelty to children, animals, prostitution and surgical operations were to be handled with similar sensitivity.
Before the Production Code
City and state censorship ordinances are as old as the movies themselves. However, after the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1915 (Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio) that motion pictures were merely a business and not an art form, and thus not covered by the First Amendment, such ordinances banning the public exhibition of "immoral" films proliferated. The movie studios feared that federal regulations were not far off.
In the early 1920s, three major scandals rocked Hollywood: the manslaughter trials of comedy star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who was charged with being responsible for the death of actress Virginia Rappe at a wild party in San Francisco during Labor Day weekend of 1921; the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in February 1922 and the revelations regarding his bisexuality; and the drug-related death of popular actor Wallace Reid in January 1923.
Other allegedly drug-related deaths of stars Olive Thomas, Barbara La Marr, Jeanne Eagels, and Alma Rubens resulted in persistent calls for censorship and "cleaning up" of Hollywood through the 1920s. These stories were sensationalized in the press and grabbed headlines across the country. They appeared to confirm a widespread perception that many Americans had of Hollywood — that it was "Sin City".
Public outcry over perceived immorality in Hollywood and the movies, as well as the growing number of city and state censorship boards, led to the creation in 1922 of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (which became the Motion Picture Association of America in 1945), an industry trade and lobby organization. The association was headed by Will H. Hays, a well-connected Republican lawyer who had previously been United States Postmaster General and the 1920 campaign manager for President Warren G. Harding. Hays immediately banned Fatty Arbuckle from the movies and instituted a morality clause to apply to anyone working in films. He also derailed attempts to institute federal censorship over the movies.
In 1927 Hays compiled a list of subjects, culled from his experience with the various U.S. censorship boards, which he felt Hollywood studios would be wise to avoid. He called this list "the formula" but it was popularly known as the "don'ts and be carefuls" list around town. In 1930 Hays created the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) to implement his censorship code, but the SRC lacked any real enforcement capability.
1930 to 1934
The advent of talking pictures in 1927 led to a perceived need for further enforcement. Martin Quigley, the publisher of a Chicago-based motion picture trade newspaper, began lobbying for a more extensive code that not only listed material that was inappropriate for the movies, but also contained a moral system that the movies could help to promote — specifically a system based on Catholic theology. He recruited Father Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest and instructor at Saint Louis University, to write such a code and on March 31, 1930 the board of directors of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association adopted it formally. This original version became popularly known as the Hays Code, but both it and its subsequent revisions are now generally referred to as the Production Code.
However, Depression economics and changing social mores resulted in the studios producing racier fare that the Code, lacking an aggressive enforcement body, was unable to redress. This era is known as Pre-Code Hollywood.
In response to such movies as Warner Brothers' Baby Face (starring Barbara Stanwyck) and Paramount Pictures' I'm No Angel (starring and written by Mae West), Quigley and Joseph I. Breen, Will Hays's Los Angeles-based assistant, enlisted the Catholic Church to exert pressure on the Hollywood studios. They helped spearhead the creation of the Catholic Legion of Decency as well as boycotts and blacklists of the movies throughout the country.
An amendment to the Code, adopted on June 13, 1934, established the Production Code Administration (PCA), and required all films released on or after July 1 1934 to obtain a certificate of approval before being released. The first film to receive an MPPDA seal of approval was The World Moves On. For more than thirty years following, virtually all motion pictures produced in the United States adhered to the code. The Production Code was not created or enforced by federal, state, or city government. In fact, the Hollywood studios adopted the code in large part in the hopes of avoiding government censorship, preferring self-regulation to government regulation.
The enforcement of the Production Code led to the dissolution of many local censorship boards. Meanwhile, the U.S. Customs Department prohibited the importation of the Czech film Ecstasy (1933), starring an actress soon to be known as Hedy Lamarr, an action which was upheld on appeal.
In 1934, Joseph I. Breen (1888–1965) was appointed head of the new Production Code Administration (PCA). Under Breen's leadership of the PCA, which lasted until his retirement in 1954, enforcement of the Production Code became rigid and notorious. Breen's power to change scripts and scenes angered many writers, directors, and Hollywood moguls. The PCA had two offices, one in Hollywood, and the other in New York City. Films approved by the New York PCA office were issued certificate numbers that began with a zero.
Breen influenced the production of Casablanca, objecting to any explicit reference to Rick and Ilsa having slept together in Paris, and to mentioning that Captain Renault extorted sexual favors from his supplicants. However, both remained strongly implied in the finished version. Adherence to the code also ruled out in advance any possibility of the film ending with Rick and Ilsa consummating their adulterous love, effectively making inevitable the ending with Rick's noble renunciation, one of Casablanca's most famous scenes.
The first major instance of censorship under the Production Code involved the 1934 film Tarzan and His Mate, in which brief nude scenes involving a body double for actress Maureen O'Sullivan were edited out of the master negative of the film. Another famous case of enforcement involved the 1943 western The Outlaw, produced by Howard Hughes. The Outlaw was denied a certificate of approval and kept out of theaters for years because the film's advertising focused particular attention on Jane Russell's breasts. Hughes eventually persuaded Breen that the breasts did not violate the code and the film could be shown.
Some films produced outside the mainstream studio system during this time did flout the conventions of the code, such as Child Bride (1938), which featured a nude scene involving 12-year-old actress Shirley Mills. Even cartoon sex symbol Betty Boop had to change from being a flapper, and began to wear an old-fashioned housewife skirt.
The Code began to weaken in the late 1940s, when the formerly taboo subjects of rape and miscegenation were allowed in Johnny Belinda (1948) and Pinky (1949), respectively. The Moon Is Blue caused controversy due to director Otto Preminger's insistence on keeping "virgin", a word not used in Hollywood films since the early 1930s, in the script. The film eventually was nominated for several Academy Awards.
The character of Cassandra (Betty Field) posed a challenge for Warner Brothers because of incest and promiscuity in the novel Kings Row.A film adaptation of Henry Bellamann's controversial 1940 novel, Kings Row, presented problems for producers at Warner Brothers because of the Production Code. The novel contained significant sexual content, including references to incest, as well as euthanasia and the sadism of one of its principal characters, the town physician. It was initially believed that the Code made a movie adaptation of the novel impossible. Joseph I. Breen, director of the Production Code Authority, which administered the Production Code, wrote to the producers that "To attempt to translate such a story to the screen, even though it would be re-written to conform to the provisions of the Production Code is, in our judgment, a very questionable undertaking from the standpoint of the good and welfare of this industry". Breen objected to "illicit sexual relationships" between characters in the movie "without sufficient compensating moral values", and also objected to "the general suggestion of loose sex...which carries throughout the entire script". Breen said that any screenplay, no matter how well done, would likely bring condemnation of the film industry "from decent people everywhere" because of "the fact that it stems from so thoroughly questionable a novel. He said that the script was being referred to his superior, Will Hays, "for a decision as to the acceptability of any production based upon the novel, Kings Row".
Screenwriter Casey Robinson, producer Hal B. Wallis and associate producer David Lewis met with Breen to resolve these issues, with Wallis saying that the film would "illustrate how a doctor could relieve the internal destruction of a stricken community". Breen said that his office would approve the film if all references to incest, nymphomania, euthanasia and homosexuality, which had been suggested in the novel, be removed. All references to nude bathing were to be eliminated and "the suggestion of a sex affair between Randy and Drake will be eliminated entirely". It was agreed that Dr. Tower would know about the affair between Cassandra and Parris, and "that this had something to do with his killing of the girl". After several drafts were rejected, Robinson was able to satisfy Breen. The film was released in February 1942.
When Warner Bros wanted to make a film about concentration camps in Nazi Germany, the production office forbade it, with threats to take the matter to the federal government if they proceeded with making it. This policy prevented a number of anti-Nazi films being produced. In 1938, the FBI unearthed and prosecuted a Nazi spy ring, subsequently allowing Warner Bros to produce Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
The 1950s and early 1960s
Hollywood worked within the confines of the Production Code until the late 1950s, by which time the "Golden Age of Hollywood" had ended, and the movies were faced with very serious competitive threats. The first threat came from a new technology, television, which did not require Americans to leave their house to watch moving pictures. Hollywood needed to offer the public something it could not get on television, which itself was under an even more restrictive censorship code.
In addition to the threat of television, there was also increasing competition from foreign films, like Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), the Swedish film Hon dansade en sommar (English title: One Summer of Happiness) (1951), and Ingmar Bergman's Sommar med Monika (Summer with Monika) (1953). For De Sica's film, there was a censorship controversy when the MPAA demanded a scene where the lead characters talk to the prostitutes of a brothel be removed, regardless of the fact that there is no sexual or provocative activity. The Swedish films were the first to include nude love scenes, and made an international sensation.
Vertical integration in the movie industry had been found to violate anti-trust laws, and studios had been forced to give up ownership of theatres by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948). The studios had no way to keep foreign films out, and foreign films were not bound by the Production Code. The anti-trust rulings also helped pave the way for independent art houses that would show films created by people such as Andy Warhol and others working outside the studio system.
Finally, a boycott from the Legion of Decency no longer guaranteed a commercial failure, and thus the Code prohibitions began to vanish when Hollywood producers ignored the Code and were still able to earn profits.
The MPAA revised the code in 1951, not to make it more flexible but to make it more rigid. The 1951 revisions spelled out more words and subjects that were prohibited, and no doubt increased the opposition of movie-makers to the code.
In 1952, in the case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overruled its 1915 decision and held that motion pictures were entitled to First Amendment protection, so that the New York State Board of Regents could not ban The Miracle, a short film that was one half of L'Amore (1948), an anthology film directed by Roberto Rossellini. Film distributor Joseph Burstyn released the film in the U.S. in 1950, and the case became known as the "Miracle Decision" due to its connection to Rossellini's film. That in turn reduced the threat of government regulation that justified the Production Code, and the PCA's powers over the Hollywood industry were greatly reduced.
At the forefront of contesting the code was director Otto Preminger, whose films violated the code repeatedly in the 1950s. His 1953 film The Moon is Blue, about a young woman who tries to play two suitors off against each other by claiming that she plans to keep her virginity until marriage, was the first film to use the words "virgin", "seduce" and "mistress", and it was released without a certificate of approval. He later made The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) which portrayed the prohibited subject of drug abuse, and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) which dealt with rape. Preminger's films were direct assaults on the authority of the Production Code and, since they were successful, hastened its abandonment.
In 1954 Joseph Breen retired and Geoffrey Shurlock was appointed as his successor. Variety noted "a decided tendency towards a broader, more casual approach" in the enforcement of the code.
By the late 1950s increasingly explicit films began to appear, such as Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1961). The MPAA reluctantly granted the seal of approval for these films, but not until certain cuts were made. Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) was released without a certificate of approval due to its themes and became box office hits, and as a result further weakened the authority of the code.
In the early 1960s films began to deal with adult subjects and sexual matters that had not been seen in Hollywood films since the early 1930s. The MPAA reluctantly granted the seal of approval for these films, again not until certain cuts were made. The Code was finally abandoned in 1967. In that year, Warner Brothers wanted to release the new film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. When Jack Valenti became President of the MPAA in 1966, he was faced with censoring the film's explicit language. Valenti negotiated a compromise: the word "screw" was removed but other language remained, including the phrase "hump the hostess". The film received Production Code approval despite this prohibited language.
The Pawnbroker and the end of the Code
In the early 1960s, British films such as Victim (1961), A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Leather Boys (1963) offered a daring social commentary about gender roles and homosexuality, that violated the Hollywood Production Code, yet the films were still released in America. The American gay rights, civil rights, and youth movements prompted a reevaluation of the depiction of themes of race, class, gender, and sexuality that had been restricted by the Code.
In 1964, the Holocaust film The Pawnbroker, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Rod Steiger, was initially rejected because of two scenes in which the actresses Linda Geiser and Thelma Oliver fully expose their breasts, and because of a sex scene between Oliver and Jaime Sánchez which it described as "unacceptably sex suggestive and lustful". Despite the rejection, the film's producers arranged for Allied Artists to release the film without the Production Code seal, with the New York censors licensing The Pawnbroker without the cuts demanded by Code administrators. The producers also appealed the rejection to the Motion Picture Association of America.
On a 6-3 vote, the MPAA granted the film an "exception" conditional on "reduction in the length of the scenes which the Production Code Administration found unapprovable". The exception to the code was granted as a "special and unique case", and was described by The New York Times at the time as "an unprecedented move that will not, however, set a precedent". The requested reductions of nudity were minimal; the outcome was viewed in the media as a victory for the film's producers.
The Pawnbroker was the first film featuring bare breasts to receive Production Code approval. In his 2008 study of films during that era, Pictures at a Revolution, author Mark Harris wrote that the MPAA's action was "the first of a series of injuries to the Production Code that would prove fatal within three years".
The British-produced, but American financed film Blowup (1966) presented a different problem. After the film was denied Production Code approval, MGM released it anyway, the first instance of an MPAA member company distributing a film that didn't have an approval certificate. There was little the MPAA could do about it.
Enforcement had become impossible, and the Production Code was abandoned entirely. The MPAA began working on a rating system, under which film restrictions would lessen. The MPAA film rating system went into effect on November 1, 1968 with four ratings: G, M, R, and X. In 1969, the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) directed by Vilgot Sjöman, was initially banned in the U.S. for its frank depiction of sexuality; however this was overturned by the Supreme Court.
The M rating was changed to GP in 1970 and to the current PG in 1972. In 1984, in response to public complaints regarding the severity of horror elements in PG-rated titles such as Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the PG-13 rating was created as a middle tier between PG and R. In 1990, the X rating was replaced by NC-17, in part because the X rating was not trademarked by the MPAA whereas pornographic bookstores and theatres were using their own trademark X and XXX symbols to market their products.
Comics Code Authority, which functions similarly for the comics industry.
Censorship in the United States
ESRB|Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which offers ratings for video games in a similar grouping to Motion Pictures.
PMRC, a similar group which sought to control musical content with the Parental Advisory sticker.
The Celluloid Closet
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
1.^ Leff, Leonard J. Dame in the kimono Hollywood, censorship, and the production code from the 1920s to the 1960s. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. Print. pp.9
2.^ Doherty, Thomas "The Code Before 'Da Vinci'" Washington Post (May 20, 2006)
3.^ Censored Films and Television at University of Virginia online
4.^ Harmetz, pp.162–166 and Behlmer, pp.207–208 and 212–213
5.^ Wood, Brett. "Kings Row". TCM website. Turner Classic Movies.
6.^ Friedrich, Otto (1997). City of nets: a portrait of Hollywood in the 1940's. University of California Press (reprint). pp. 86–89. IS
7.^ Behlmer, Rudy (1985). Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951). New York, NY, U.S.A.: Viking. pp. 135–141.
8.^ The Brothers Warner (2008) documentary.
9.^ Sperling, Millner, and Warner (1998), Hollywood Be Thy Name, Prima Publishing, p. 325.
10.^ Leff, Leonard J. (1996). "Hollywood and the Holocaust: Remembering The Pawnbroker" (PDF). American Jewish History 84 (4): 353–376.
11.^ Harris, Mark (2008). Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. Penguin Group. pp. 173–176.
Miller, Frank, Censored Hollywood; Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1994
Lewis, Jon, Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry; New York University Press, 2000
LaSalle, Mick, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood; New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000