The Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, was a set of guidelines designed to regulate the content of motion pictures produced in America between 1934 and 1968. The Code gained its name from Will H. Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America from 1922 to 1945.
From the beginning, many people felt that the film industry possessed questionable morals. The ‘trouble’ started in 1896 with The Kiss, a short feature by Edison Studios. An actress kissed an actor, drawing outrage from civic and religious leaders. These leaders, supported by politicians, lobbied for censorship bills, which were introduced in various states in a haphazard fashion. In a quest for uniformity, the studios turned to Hays.
Questionable personal behaviour
In 1915 the Supreme Court had decided that free speech did not extend to motion pictures. With this in mind, Hays produced his “Magna Charta”, which became the basis for his Code. He invited the studios to self-censor the following: profanity, licentious or suggestive nudity in fact or in silhouette, illegal trafficking of drugs, misuse of the flag, a man and woman in bed together, excessive or lustful kissing, ‘first-night’ scenes, arson, theft, robbery, and dynamiting; keeping in mind “the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron.”
To be fair to the Hays Code, it also included protections for children and animals. Furthermore, it frowned upon any offensive remarks or gestures made towards people of any nation, race, or creed.
The questionable personal behaviour of some screen stars was used to justify control of what appeared on the screen. When William Reid, ‘the screen’s most perfect lover’ (1891–1923) died from complications associated with his drug habit, everyone in the movie industry concluded that something must be done. A fact they overlooked, however, was that Reid was addicted to morphine prescribed to relieve pain after he severely injured his head in a train accident. His addiction was fuelled by medical incompetence or ignorance, not character.
To prevent direct government intervention, the studios placed ‘morality clauses’ in the contracts of their stars. These gave the studios the right to cancel those contracts should the stars misbehave in their private lives. However, some stars, like Clara Bow, were too big to control. Always a free spirit, Bow refused to sign the morality clause in her contract.
The studios also agreed to implement the Hays Code and by 1930 its recommendations were in place. However, at that point in time the Hays Office did not have the authority to order studios to remove material from a film, nor the staffing to study the steady stream of scripts and movies. So, until 1934, responsibility for censorship largely fell to the studios.
Flouting the Hays Code
During that four-year period, battling the effects of the Great Depression, many studios flouted the Code simply because movies containing racy and violent content attracted bigger audiences. This led, on 13 June 1934, to an amendment to the Code. This stated that from 1 July 1934 all films needed a certificate of approval before being released. The first film to receive a certificate was The World Moves On, starring Madeleine Carroll. For the next 30 years virtually all motion pictures made in America were produced according to the Code.
Through the control of movie content, the Hays Code sought to promote ‘traditional’ values. Sexual relations outside marriage were frowned upon. Same-sex relationships were banned. Respect for the clergy and authority figures was paramount. The feeling was that art should be monitored carefully because it could be “morally evil in its effects”.
In Frankenstein (1931) the scientist was free to proclaim, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” However, in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) the stricter rules of the Code forbade any suggestion of the scientist’s overt God complex.
Though the scriptwriters of Casablanca (1942) insisted they had no idea how the movie would end when filming commenced, they knew Rick and Ilsa could not walk off into the sunset together. Such an ending would have condoned adultery and breached the Code. Alfred Hitchcock could not film Rebecca (1940) as written because the Code stipulated that a major character could not both get away with murder and live happily ever after.
The Code was omnipresent. Even cartoon sex symbol Betty Boop had to change her flapper personality and dress, and adopt a more staid appearance. Political censorship followed. The Code forbade Warner Brothers from making a film about Nazi concentration camps, citing the prohibition on depicting certain groups “in an unfavorable light”.
Some directors subverted the Code. In Notorious (1946) Alfred Hitchcock worked around the three-second-kissing rule by instructing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to break off every three seconds. The result: the kissing sequence lasted for two and a half minutes.
Lust in the dust
Although the stricter aspects of the Hays Code remained in place, by the 1940s and 1950s adherence began to wane. Initially, Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw (1943) was denied a certificate of approval because the film’s advertising focused too much attention on Jane Russell’s breasts. Duel in the Sun, aka Lust in the Dust, was released in 1946 without the approval of the Hays Office. Due to its themes, Some Like It Hot (1959) also failed to gain approval. However, the financial success of these movies further weakened the Code.
The arrival of television and the influence of European cinema troubled the Hollywood studios. In response, they shifted their focus to movies aimed specifically at adults, such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Written on the Wind (1958), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). A new decade, and era, beckoned.
By 1966 a combination of liberal attitudes and maverick directors led to the closure of the Hays Office and the implementation of a rating system. From 1 November 1968, movies contained a rating symbol: G for general exhibition, M for mature audiences, R for restricted (persons under 16 not admitted unless accompanied by a parent or guardian), and X for people over 16 only. The first film to feature a ‘Suggested for Mature Audiences’ label was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
The Hays Code limited the narrative of Golden Age movies. However, it also inspired creativity as writers and directors sought ways to tell their stories in spite of the Code’s shackles. In Golden Age movies, the lighting of a cigarette took on a whole new meaning.
Suppressors will always seek to suppress, but creatives will always find ways to win through.
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