A system of film censorship existed in the United States as early as 1907, when it was introduced in Chicago under pressure from social reformers. The rapid emergence of the nickelodeons gave rise to concerns not only about the fire hazards within them, but also the content of films being viewed by unaccompanied children in these darkened venues. In Chicago an ordinance decreed that all films within the city had to be screened first to the police for approval. Similar concerns existed wherever the nickelodeons emerged and, in New York one proprietor was arrested for projecting a film to children that showed a Chinese opium den. On Christmas Eve in 1908, the New York City police commissioner, as part of his tough stance on nickelodeons, revoked the licenses of 550 such film venues, requiring them to apply for a new entertainment license. The film industry, then based in New York, funded a Board of Censorship for the city in March 1909. As more states adopted a practice of film censorship, the US film industry formed its own national regulatory body, the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry, in 1916. This failed to satisfactorily control the content of film, and in 1921 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America was created, an association fronted by Will Hays, formerly the US Postmaster General. This too failed to establish the desired control, and under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, the Production Code, a list of guidelines and prohibitions developed from Hays's earlier unsuccessful thirty-six rules, was adopted on 31 March 1930. The code was prepared by a Catholic layman, Martin Quigley, and a Jesuit priest, Father Daniel
Dubbed by Variety as the "czar of all the Rushes," William Harrison Hays is best remembered for overseeing the creation of the Production Code that would informally bear his name. However, Hays's responsibilities and influence extended far beyond a censorial arena. His centrality in manufacturing positive public relations for the Hollywood film industry, maintaining political contacts through four presidential administrations, and consolidating control of international distribution channels cannot be overstated.
Following his early career as a church elder and small-town lawyer, Hays gained public prominence as chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1918. Demonstrating a gift for diplomacy and political machinations, he won the public support of several studios for Warren Harding's presidential campaign. In return, Harding appointed him Postmaster General shortly after coming to office in 1921. At this time, studio chiefs were facing a three-pronged threat: an onslaught of criticism in the popular press for their apparent celebration of vice and the scandalous offscreen behavior of their creative personnel, the hearing of pro-censorship bills in thirty-six states, and a looming federal antitrust suit instigated by the Federal Trade Commission. To combat these problems, the studios hired Hays in March 1922 to head a newly created trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America (MPPDA).
Hays's first ambition for the MPPDA was to generate publicity for a "reformed," civically responsible Hollywood. Under Hays, beginning in 1925, the MPPDA's Committee on Public Relations labored intensively to mollify policy makers and shapers of public opinion. Such good relations would help quell the threat of government regulation and at the same time mute small exhibitors' complaints about the "smut" pushed upon them by the industry's block-booking practices. Second, Hays organized a system of voluntary self-regulation to ensure that propriety was maintained in the content of all studio productions. The Motion Picture Production Code was drafted in 1930, but its purpose was not only to regulate screen content; its implementation would also draw attention away from the industry's monopolistic trade practices and prevent lost revenues caused by the arbitrary proscriptions of state censor boards.
Finally, by nurturing local political alliances developed during the Coolidge administration, Hays helped prevent successful antitrust legislation from taking effect for almost twenty years after his appointment to the MPPDA. Indeed, the studios' efforts toward vertical integration were actually sanctioned under President Franklin Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and spared from the Justice Department's investigation throughout World War II. Above all, Hays aimed to ensure that the international market remained open to Hollywood product. In 1926 he successfully lobbied Congress to allow the Departments of State and Commerce to financially support Hollywood exports overseas via a Motion Pictures Division. Through such efforts, American domination of international distribution channels is maintained to this day.
Gomery, Douglas, ed. The Will Hays Papers . Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1967.
Hays, Will H. The Memoirs of Will H. Hays . Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955.
Maltby, Richard. "The Genesis of the Production Code." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 15, no. 4 (1995): 5–63.
——. "The Production Code and the Hays Office." In Grand Design: Hollywood as Modern Business Enterprise, 1930–1939 , edited by Tino Balio, 37–72. New York: Scribners, 1993.
Moley, Raymond. The Hays Office . 1945. New York: J. S. Ozer, 1971.
Aaron E. N. Taylor
Lord; supervised by Hays, it was referred to as the Hays Code. The Code operated as a guide to film companies as to what was allowed in a film; any film that contained prohibited images or dialogue was denied a Code Seal and was therefore unable to receive distribution or exhibition through the companies that were part of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA).
The years 1930 to 1934, which preceded the Code's effective enforcement, are known as the "pre-Code" period in US cinema. Censorship in this period was markedly lax, with films such as Frankenstein (1931), The Sign of the Cross (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), Scarface (1932), She Done Him Wrong (1933), and Baby Face (1933) pushing the boundaries of permissible film content with stories focused on horror, sex, gangsters, and religion. The Hays Code was ridiculed for its inability to enforce censorship; American Catholics began a crusade against Hollywood in 1933, and the newly formed Catholic Legion of Decency placed films on its own "banned" list. To appease such a powerful body, in July 1934 a tougher Code was applied under the new control of the Production Code Adminstration and its chief, Joseph Breen. Films such as Blonde Venus and Baby Face were categorized as Class I movies, which meant they were removed immediately from distribution and with the view they would never again be released.
A period of tightly regulated Hollywood production followed, with figures such as Mae West and the cartoon character Betty Boop losing their appeal as their overt sexuality was constrained or erased. Films were still capable of generating controversy: Scarlet Street (1945), The Outlaw (1943), and Baby Doll (1956) were condemned, and in places banned, for their immorality. Baby Doll , a story of lust, sexual repression, and seduction scripted by Tennessee Williams, was described in a Time magazine review as "the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited." Cinemas exhibiting the film were picketed, while clergymen attempted to record the names of any parishioners who attended screenings. The city of Aurora, Illinois, complained that the film was "scandalous, indecent, immoral, lewd, and obscene," and successfully managed to bar its local exhibition. Clearly, state and municipal authorities were still able to exert their power to censor and prohibit the exhibition of particular films. In 1965 a Supreme Court decision, Freedman v. The State of Maryland , declared this practice unconstitutional, and by 1981 state and local film boards had disappeared.
In the 1960s an influx of foreign films with a stronger adult content, and the emergence of a postclassical Hollywood, with a new wave of directors drawn to a more aggressive and "truthful" cinema, rendered the old Code system unusable. The Production Code was dismantled in 1968, and a ratings system was introduced in its place. This system had four classifications ranging from "G" (Suggested for General Audiences) through "X" (Persons Under 16 Not Admitted; the age was increased to 17 in 1972). The "X"-rating was associated predominantly with films of a pornographic nature, and for some there was a stigma attached to receiving the classification. The art film Henry & June (1990) became the first film to receive the new "NC-17" rating, designed to distance certain films with explicit sexual content from any associations with pornography. Nevertheless, some "NC-17"–rated films, such as Kids (1995) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), retained the stigma, with the major video-rental chains, Blockbuster and Hollywood, refusing to carry such titles.