How the Hays Code Changed Hollywood Censorship (2022)

Have you ever watched an old black and white movie, maybe starring Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn, and thought some of it was a bit tame? Even when the movies are great, they seem to play it safe? Most of this is a direct result of what is popularly known as the Hays Code, which most movies had to abide by for a period of time. But what is the Hays Code, and is there more to it than just a few rules and limits?

What is the Hays Code

Origins of the Hays Code

The Hays Code is not as simple as a few rules that filmmakers had to follow, though it was definitely that, too. But before digging into its origins and historical context, let’s provide a definition.

HAYS CODE DEFINITION

What is the Hays Code?

The Hays Code is a set of rules and guidelines that Hollywood films were made to follow between the early 1930s and late 1960s. Officially named the Motion Picture Production Code, these were a set of moral guidelines and rules that were meant to make Hollywood pictures “presentable” and “safe” for the public at large, which meant not covering or featuring certain controversial topics, themes, or actions.

Hays Code examples include:

  • Keeping Catholic and family values
  • No sexually explicit content
  • Good guys always win, bad guys always lose
  • Nothing that promotes “bad values” or “perversion”
  • No swearing and saying offensive things

The Hays Code got its popular nickname from Will H. Hays, a Presbyterian elder who was made president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), who set up the Motion Picture Production Code and its guidelines.

Hays was brought to Hollywood because their image was not too pretty in the 1920s. Serious scandals in Hollywood and concerns from people across the nation was making the pre Hays Code movies look bad. States were setting up their own censorship guidelines, and Hollywood was very worried about the US government getting involved.

The video below covers not just the Hays Production Code but also censorship in general in Hollywood.

(Video) When Hollywood was Censored (The Hays Code)

What is the Hays Code • Hollywood Censorship

So while Pre-Code Hollywood was making pre Hays Code movies that covered sex and violence, they were also thinking it was best to self-censor so that they could hopefully prevent anyone else from intervening. In this way, they would have a nationwide rulebook that would cover all their bases and, hopefully, offend no one (especially the Hays office).

By the way, in case you were wondering where the First Amendment was during all this, it had been decided in a 1915 court case that free speech did not cover motion pictures because they were seen solely as a business and not an art form.

Hays Office Movies

The Hays Code in action

The MPPDA had set up its rules of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” in 1927, a set of guidelines that, among other things, said movies could not include “Pointed profanity,” “Miscegenation” (that’s relations between races), “Ridicule of the clergy,” and “Willful offense to any nation, race or creed.”

These “Don’ts” were then supplemented by the “Be Carefuls” that included “The use of firearms,” “Sympathy for criminals,” “Man and woman in bed together,” “The use of drugs,” and “Excessive or lustful kissing.” These “rules” were the basis for what would officially be the Hays Code a few years later.

How the Hays Code Changed Hollywood Censorship (1)

Hays Code 1934

1929 saw Catholic layman Martin Quigley and Jesuit priest Father Daniel A. Lord got involved to revise and solidify the Code, along with seeking the approval of the studios a year later. Studios were not exactly thrilled about the Code, but better to self-censor themselves than have the government step in.

You can get a better idea of how the Catholic church effectively helped put its values to the forefront with the Motion Picture Production Code by watching the video below.

(Video) How the Catholic Church censored Hollywood's Golden Age

What is the Hays Code • Cinema and Catholicism

All of this didn’t stop trade magazines and filmmakers from balking at the Code, and movies full of sex and violence kept being made. After all, these enforcers couldn't possibly read every script or watch every movie and expect the filmmakers to abide by their silly rules.

Enter the Production Code Administration (PCA), created in 1934 and headed by Joseph I. Breen (another Catholic layman), who helped make it a requirement that all movies produced in Hollywood be given a stamp of approval by the PCA prior to release.

From then on out, studios and filmmakers had to abide by the rules, especially since the PCA now made it more of a requirement than ever before.

How the Hays Code Changed Hollywood Censorship (2)

Hays Code 1934 • MPPDA Seal of Approval

For the next couple decades, the Hays Production Code was a way of life for Hollywood (but not for movies made outside of Hollywood, which weren’t getting widely distributed anyway). Thankfully the Hollywood Production Code didn’t stop filmmakers from making great movies, as plenty of classics came out between 1934 and the 1960s.

In some cases, like Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Outlaw (1943), filmmakers challenged the PCA to retain certain elements of their movies.

Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biography, The Aviator (2004), actually covers the situation involving The Outlaw, since Hughes was the movie’s writer-director. You can see in the clip below the film’s dramatization of how Hughes fought to convince for approval.

(Video) 4 Cinematic Victims of Hays Code Era Censorship

What is the Hays Code • Hughes vs Breen

In other cases, like Casablanca (1942), it is said that the Hollywood Production Code actually helped make the movie better. Instead of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) ending up together (which would be adulterous), he sends her away, resulting in the classic scene below.

What is the Hays Code • Casablanca

The PCA also did not allow anti-Nazi films to proliferate at first, since that would go against the whole “don’t make other countries look bad” rule. The irony, of course, was that, when it became clear how terrible the Nazis were, the US government actually commissioned Hollywood to make anti-Nazi propaganda and war films.

Related Posts

  • Pre-Code Hollywood Movies Explained →
  • A History of the Hollywood Blacklist →
  • The New Hollywood Revolution →

Hays Office Ends

The Hays Production Code demise

As you may have guessed, the Motion Picture Production Code was not built to last. The 1950s brought the first signs of its demise in the form of court cases and new foreign movies that were not bossed around by the PCA.

1948 saw the Supreme Court disband movie studio ownership of movie theaters, which then allowed foreign films of all types to be screened in the USA. 1952 also saw the Supreme Court overruling its previous decision regarding movies as a business, permitting them to now be seen as art by granting them First Amendment rights.

Some of these foreign films included classics from the Italian Neorealism movement, while the later French New Wave would also make its presence known in North America. These films featured more risque subject matter and helped give Hollywood peace of mind about government intervention, thus weakening the Film Production Code.

The Hollywood Production Code itself got revised in the mid-’50s, allowing films such as Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Psycho (1960) to be released mostly as the directors intended. Anatomy’s director, Otto Preminger, in particular was fond of covering subject matter the Code would have prohibited prior to the 1950s, such as drug addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which was critically acclaimed and nominated for three Oscars.

(Video) The Old Rules Of Hollywood : The Hays Code

The Man with the Golden Arm directed by Otto Preminger

If any movie proved that the Hays Code was no longer relevant or something to fear, it was Billy Wilder’sSome Like It Hot (1959). Featuring men in drag, murder, booze, and Marilyn Monroe, the film was actually not approved by the PCA. But of course that didn’t matter because the film went on to be a huge success and is seen as a comedic classic today.

As the 1960s rolled on, the old Hays Code was basically a joke that no one followed. Times were changing, and what was once seen as offensive in the ‘30s was a lot less problematic in the ‘60s.

Movies like The Pawnbroker (1964) dealt with the Holocaust and featured not only women’s bare breasts but a homosexual character; it got approved by the PCA with only minimal edits required.

The Film Production Code was on its last legs by the time Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) came out, a film that also did not get PCA approval, but the MGM released it anyway. An American film by a famed Italian director, Blow-Up was more frank in its sexual topics, which in itself came with controversy.

An analysis of Blow-Up

In 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code was abandoned for good, and by that time, the MPPDA was renamed the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), who set up the ratings system that we now have today. That same ratings system allowed for the burgeoning New Hollywood scene to be as varied and daring as it was.

(Video) The History of Hollywood Censorship and the Ratings System

Times continue to change, but with the support of filmmakers, law makers, and the ‘60s counter culture movement, movies were able to finally free themselves from a system that was outdated from its inception.

UP NEXT

The New Hollywood Revolution

Now that we have gone over the Hays Code and what it was all about, why not see what came after its retirement? The end of the Hays Code coincided with the creation of the New Hollywood era, which included giants like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese making films unlike anyone had ever seen before.

Up Next: New Hollywood →

FAQs

How the Hays Code Changed Hollywood Censorship? ›

Hays sold the Code as the money-saving measure they were searching for. Instead of paying to revise the film after the censorship boards made their edits, the studios could simply follow the Code before making their movies and everyone would be happy. The Code was adopted in 1930.

How did the Hays Code affect Hollywood? ›

Remembering Hollywood's Hays Code, 40 Years On For more than three decades, the code applied rigid moral scrutiny to films, banning everything from interracial dating to "lustful kissing." It died officially in 1968 — but in practice, it was always taking hits.

What did the Hays Code censor? ›

HAYS CODE DEFINITION

Officially named the Motion Picture Production Code, these were a set of moral guidelines and rules that were meant to make Hollywood pictures “presentable” and “safe” for the public at large, which meant not covering or featuring certain controversial topics, themes, or actions.

How did the Hays Code affect film noir? ›

' Hollywood studios walked a fine line between appearing to comply with Hays office Production Code censorship while simultaneously pushing the envelope of its moral constraints, then hyping and sensationalizing censorable sex, violence and hard-hitting themes to sell noir films to the public.

What was the purpose of the Hollywood Production Code? ›

The code was created to help rehabilitate the image of the movie industry after a number of Hollywood scandals, including the murder and alleged rape of actress Virginia Rappe.

What is the Hays Code and why did Hollywood adopt it? ›

“The Hays Code was this self-imposed industry set of guidelines for all the motion pictures that were released between 1934 and 1968,” says O'Brien. “The code prohibited profanity, suggestive nudity, graphic or realistic violence, sexual persuasions and rape.

Why did the Hays Office run by the movie industry censor films? ›

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 ...

When did censorship begin in Hollywood? ›

In 1907, Chicago became the first major U.S. city to enforce censorship of films based on “moral grounds.” 1968 marked the beginning of New Hollywood, which is largely synonymous with the end of governmental censorship of American films.

When did movies start getting censored? ›

The established film industry in the United States began a form of self-censorship in the late 1920s called the Motion Picture Production Code to forestall any possible formation of a federal censoring agency. In 1968, the Production Code was superseded by the MPAA film rating system.

What was the first banned or censored film? ›

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.

What movies were affected by the Hays Code? ›

  • 10 Notorious (1946)
  • 9 Top Hat (1935)
  • 8 The Girl Can't Help It (1956)
  • 7 Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
  • 6 Strangers on a Train (1951)
  • 5 Wings (1927)
  • 4 Gone with the Wind (1939)
  • 3 Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938)
Jan 27, 2021

What is one surprising thing you learned about the Hays Code? ›

Facts about the Hays Code - Effect on American Movies

Hays Code Fact 1: The Hays Code required that women, in love scenes, at all times have "at least one foot on the floor" (in other words, no love scenes in bed). Hays Code Fact 2: People could not be in a horizontal position if they were kissing.

How did World War 2 affect movies? ›

During World War II, Hollywood produced films that acted as propaganda, increased military recruitment rates, assisted in military training, and boosted the morale of American soldiers and civilians alike, easily making cinema the most important form of popular media in the war effort.

Why is it important to have censorship of movies? ›

According to the Supreme Court of India “Film censorship becomes necessary because a film motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word.

Is censorship of movies an outdated concept? ›

There is no censorship to content on Television and Internet. Hence there is no point in censoring just movies. Censorship causes imposition of majoritarian ideals on others. It violates Freedom of speech and expression, which is guaranteed to Indians under Article 19(1) of Indian Constitution.

What film first pushed back against the production code? ›

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.

How many types of film censorship are there? ›

1) U (Universal exhibition); 2) A (restricted to adult audiences). In June 1983 two additional classes were added: 3) U/A (Unrestricted public exhibition required parental guidelines for children below the age of 12);

What period in Hollywood is generally referred to as the pre code era? ›

Pre-Code Hollywood was the brief era in the American film industry between the widespread adoption of sound in pictures in 1929 and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines, popularly known as the "Hays Code", in mid-1934.

When did the Hollywood Production Code end? ›

The Production Code's days were numbered in 1952 when movies were finally granted free speech protection under the First Amendment. The motion picture industry officially abandoned the Code in 1968 and soon replaced it with the system of age-based ratings that still exist today.

How did movies get us through the Great Depression? ›

Having Fun – Movies during the 1930s. Movies provided an escape from the hardships of the Great Depression, allowing a glimpse into high society life, so far from rural life. People were fascinated by the movies themselves and by the glamorous lives of the men and women who starred in the films.

When did censorship begin in movies? ›

The established film industry in the United States began a form of self-censorship in the late 1920s called the Motion Picture Production Code to forestall any possible formation of a federal censoring agency. In 1968, the Production Code was superseded by the MPAA film rating system.

What movies were affected by the Hays Code? ›

  • 10 Notorious (1946)
  • 9 Top Hat (1935)
  • 8 The Girl Can't Help It (1956)
  • 7 Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
  • 6 Strangers on a Train (1951)
  • 5 Wings (1927)
  • 4 Gone with the Wind (1939)
  • 3 Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938)
Jan 27, 2021

What film first pushed back against the Production Code? ›

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.

When did censorship begin in Hollywood? ›

In 1907, Chicago became the first major U.S. city to enforce censorship of films based on “moral grounds.” 1968 marked the beginning of New Hollywood, which is largely synonymous with the end of governmental censorship of American films.

What was the first banned or censored film? ›

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.

Was Hollywood affected by the Great Depression? ›

The crash culminating in the March 1933 bank holiday — in which workers felt studios used the crisis to cut salaries and increase corporate profits — proved a pivotal moment for the industry, as depicted in forthcoming book 'Ink-Stained Hollywood. '

Why was the 1930s the golden age of Hollywood? ›

The Golden Age is so called because it was a time in which many movie stars were at their peak and when many classic films were released. Many critics cite Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles, as one of the best movies ever made, and also one of the pinnacles of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

What changes did the 1930s bring to cinema? ›

During the 1930s, the entire film industry transformed and “Hollywood” became synonymous with big studio pictures and became the standard for movies around the world. Films became cheaper to produce as studios vertically integrated the production process, which allowed the price of film attendance to go down.

Videos

1. Alfred Hitchcock and Hollywood’s Production Code: So to Speak podcast
(Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression)
2. Hays Code Documentary- History of the Information Age
(Maddie Shiflett)
3. The Law That Changed Hollywood Film Forever
(The StudyTube Project)
4. The Effects of the Production Code
(Ben Kessler)
5. Counterculture and the End of the Hollywood Censorship - Going to the Movies - 1960 to 1970
(Classic Kelly)
6. Hollywood vs. Censorship - The Creation of the MPAA (Documentary)
(LCC Productions)

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