Since its inception, American cinema has been fascinated with violence. A breakthrough film in the development of narrative was Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903). Filmed in New Jersey, this proto-western suggests the appealing, deeply embedded nature of violence in the frontier experience and the American civilizing process, and the rather spontaneous way that the attendant violence appears in the earliest developments of cinema. The film's final image, of a mustachioed gunman firing a revolver directly at the camera/spectator, became iconic on several levels, not least of which was the assault on the audience effectuated by the violent image. The film's explicit idea—that one takes what one wants with the use of guns—has been said by various directors and critics to be a controlling idea of the American cinema. Martin Scorsese (b. 1942) concludes GoodFellas (1990) with an image of the actor Joe Pesci firing at the camera in a manner replicating the final shot of The Great Train Robbery .
While regional censorship as well as internal industry monitoring had some impact on the amount of violence in the early cinema, film at its inception contained startling scenes of graphic violence. D. W. Griffith's (1875–1948) Intolerance (1916) is notable not only for its baroque parallel narratives, but also for its scenes of decapitation, dismemberment, and stabbings. A conservative populist, Griffith surprises contemporary audiences with the "Jenkins Mill" sequence in Intolerance , which is a loose reconstruction of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in which the National Guard and hired goons gunned down striking coal miners opposed to the brutal labor policies of the Rockefeller family. A director of great contradictions—most obviously in his racist rendering of the Civil War, The Birth of a Nation (1915)—Griffith was among the early American filmmakers who believed that the portrayal of violence must be uncompromised to show its consequences for humanity. Other works of the early American cinema such as Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924), based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris, offered a gritty portrayal of a rapacious society, culminating in a famous grueling scene in Death Valley in which the protagonist pistol-whips his pursuer to death before expiring of heat exhaustion.
The relatively free use of violence in early American film narrative did not go unnoticed by various bodies that saw Hollywood culture as a "new Babylon," and its films as depraved renderings of human civilization. In order to fend off increasing calls for government censorship, the Hollywood industry worked out an arrangement to police all in-house productions. In 1922 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) was constituted. It was chaired by former postmaster general Will Hays (1887–1937), hence it was commonly referred to as the Hays Office. The Hays Office developed within ten years an enforcement arm with a rigid and complicated set of rules known as the Production Code Administration (PCA). The monitoring of films in production by the PCA eventually was effected by an agreement worked out between the industry and two representatives of the Catholic Church—Daniel Lord, a priest, and Martin Quigley, an ultraconservative writer and publisher. As the Catholic Church played an increasing role in the monitoring of Hollywood, the industry balked at restrictions placed on their creativity, and this conflict led to the establishment of the Studio Relations Committee, whose intent was to negotiate differences between the studios and the PCA. The PCA focused not merely on violence but especially on all forms of sexual expression outside of heterosexual marriage—which itself had to be presented within strict and rather absurd guidelines (for example, married couples had to be depicted as sleeping in separate beds). As the industry complained, the Catholic Church took renewed steps to pressure filmmakers by forming in 1934 the Catholic Legion of Decency, which put in place a rating system that could "condemn" or render "morally objectionable" films seen as indecent. The Legion had a powerful influence not only on the Catholic audience but also on general public perception of Hollywood fare. Joseph Breen (1890–1965), a Catholic known for rabidly anti-Semitic views, became head of the PCA in 1934; the office and its policies were often referred to as the "Breen Code."
Despite the increasingly rigid policing of films from within and without the industry, film directors tried to subvert the Code. Images of violence could be portrayed so long as they fit within the moral and political precepts of the PCA. Three popular films of the early 1930s, released before the Code took hold, Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), and Little Caesar (1931), popularized the gangster film, in part due to fascination with small- and big-time criminals as rebel figures during the Prohibition era and the first years of the Great Depression. These three films were in many respects test cases for later violations of the Production Code. While all three contained scenes of shootings and acts of sadistic violence, they presented themselves as public-service films aimed at addressing conscientiously (rather than glamorizing) the image of the criminal, and at debunking crime as a form of social rebellion. Public Enemy , Scarface , and Little Caesar all conclude with the demise of the "villain" (who actually is the most charismatic figure in all three films). But because this basic moral point—that crime doesn't pay—is hammered home in these films, the Code rules that were violated—including one that forbade the depiction of a gunman and the person being shot in the same frame—were violated with impunity.
Censorious intervention on the subject of violence sometimes had disastrous and counterproductive results, as is so often the case in matters of censorship. A key example is the treatment of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). The horror film was seen as an inherently low-brow and immoral genre by church groups and other authorities, and it came under even greater scrutiny than the crime film in regard to the rendering of violence. In an important scene in Frankenstein , the monster, brilliantly played by Boris Karloff, encounters a little girl playing with flowers by a pond. The monster, who behaves like an overgrown child, joins the girl in her game of tossing flowers on the pond to watch them float, then innocently throws the child onto the pond to see if she too will float. When she drowns, the monster becomes alarmed and flees into the forest. Regional censorship boards preempted the Code and demanded that much of this sequence be removed, so instead of seeing the monster's innocence in his play, and his panic when the girl drowns, we only see the monster reaching for the child, then the film cuts to an image of the girl's father, in a state of shock, carrying his dead child through the local village, the girl's stockings around her ankles. This edit of the film remained in circulation as the standard version of Frankenstein for more forty years. The audience is led to imagine all sorts of images of child molestation and murder, and the notion of the monster as actual victim, scorned and persecuted by his creator/father, is turned upside down in service of a perverse, simpleminded morality.