The Origins of the Hays Code
How Self-Censorship Influenced the Motion Picture Industry
By: guest blogger Nicole Walsh
Have you ever wondered why classic films don’t show sex scenes or graphic violence? Look no further than the Hays Code.
During the 1920s, the Motion Picture Industry in the United States changed drastically by the implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code, or Hays Code. The public image of the Hollywood movie industry at this time had started to take a turn. Scandals about movie stars were featured frequently in popular newspapers and magazines and film directors and producers were beginning to test the limits of what could be shown on screen (Mashon 20). Pushing these boundaries prompted calls for censorship.
The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), a U.S.-based trade association, was established in 1922 by the major Hollywood movie studios to help develop an industry response to these calls for censorship (Rose 12). Their president at the time, U.S. Postmaster General William Hays, was so closely associated with the group that MPPDA came to be known as the Hays office. The MPPDA is still in existence but has been renamed as the Motion Picture Association of America and continues to this day, to rate movies for the film industry (Kroon, “MPPDA”).
The Hays Code, written by a Jesuit priest and Catholic publisher, was designed as “a code regulating the moral content of feature films, designed so that Hollywood could police itself and thus avoid or minimize outside censorship (Lev 87).” It began as “advisory at first, but quickly became more obligatory thanks to outside pressures … taken by MPPDA Chairman Will Hays (Lev 88).” This code required all major and minor film producers and distributors to submit their scripts in advance of production for censorship by the MPPDA and to submit their films for code approval before release (Kroon, “MPPC”). Without this approval, their films would not be released, or they were forced to pay expensive fines.
The Hayes Code began with the following general principles:
“1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall 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-divine, natural or human-shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation (Lev 87).”
Things like vulgarity, sex, murder, obscenity, profanity and religion had standardized ways that they were to be represented. For example, when shooting a murder scene, it was imperative that, “the technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation [and] brutal killings are not be to presented in detail (Rose 14).” In the case of sex, it was deemed that the “sanctity of the institution of marriage … shall be upheld (Rose 14).” Scenes of passion, seduction, excessive kissing and even sexual relationships between different races were forbidden (Rose 14).
Strict enforcement of the code forced film producers and scriptwriters to get creative with how they represented things that had been deemed inappropriate. For example, you couldn’t show a sex scene on screen, especially between unmarried characters. But one way to get around this was to use “coded imagery” or show things that viewers would understand meant something else. Instead of showing a sex scene, the film would cut to a scene showing the actors smoking cigarettes, leaving the viewers to assume that they had had sex off screen, so to speak, in the film itself.
It was also against the code to explicitly and openly show characters that were “outside of the sanctity of marriage” so scenes or films involving gay characters used coded language like the terms, “pansy” or “dandy” and extreme examples of stereotypes were used. One of the most famous examples of code censorship “include[s] the $5,000 fine David O. Selznick had to pay in 1939 because Rhett Butler says, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ in Gone with the Wind rather than the code office’s preferred, ‘Frankly, my dear, I just don’t care (Kroon, “MPPC”).” These are just a few examples of how script writers and producers were forced to creatively get around code censorship or face expensive “punishment.”
The Hays Code was officially replaced in 1968 by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), a parental advisory ratings board rather than a censorship board, which is still in place today (Kroon, “MPPC”). Changing community standards and evolving contemporary mores throughout the 20th century had pressed the limits of the code to its breaking point. With the end of the Hays Code, U.S.-based filmmakers could now produce anything they wished without fear of repercussions.
Kroon, Richard W. “Motion Picture Production Code; MPPC.” A/V A to Z: An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Media, Entertainment and Other Audiovisual Terms, 1st edition, 2014. Credo Reference.
Kroon, Richard W. “Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America; MPPDA.” A/V A to Z: An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Media, Entertainment and Other Audiovisual Terms, 1st edition, 2014. Credo Reference.
Lev, Peter. “Censorship and Self-Regulation.” Transforming the Screen, 1950-1959, edited by Charles Harpole, vol. 7, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003, pp. 87-105. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Lugowski, David M. “Queering the (New) Deal: Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood’s Production Code.” Cinema Journal, vol. 38, no. 2, Winter 1999, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=57a77171-97d8-4794-99bb-88610d58ee1f%40sessionmgr4008
Mashon, Mike and James Bell. “Pre-Code Hollywood.” Sight & Sound, vol. 24, no.5, May 2014, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=1&sid=5266c4ab-8731-43ca-bea5-e918496730d7%40sessionmgr4006&bdata=#AN=95445521&db=asn
Rose, Cynthia, editor. “The Production Code of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc.—1930–1934.” American Decades Primary Sources, vol. 4, Gale, 2004, pp. 12-15. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Nicole Walsh is a graduate student at the iSchool at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and the Communications Specialist for Amigos Library Services at their St. Louis office. She is also a member of the Missouri Library Association and editor for their bi-monthly newsletter, MoInfo. When she’s not helping to facilitate library association events for Amigos or learning about banned books and censorship challenges, she enjoys reading (who knew?!), watching classic films and seeing local music. Some of her favorite movies include Sabrina, Roman Holiday and When Harry Met Sally.
Thanks for this article. The 1930s are my favorite era for the movies and Baby Face, in particular, has an intriguing history. It was subject to code, though both the pre-code and code versions of the film exist. It is fascinating to compare the two. In addition, I run a blog called “Hometowns to Hollywood,” in which I travel to the hometowns of classic film stars. I’m currently working on my PhD in Library and Information studies, planning on a career in film preservation and film history.