A Brief History
On March 31, 1930, censorship came to Hollywood!
The United States roared through the 1920’s and left the prudish Victorian period behind.
Until of course somebody decided they knew better than you what you should be watching! The 1920’s saw risqué films that shocked conservative audiences and Hollywood scandals that led people to believe that Hollywood was full of sex and violence oriented miscreants! The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America hired the former Postmaster General, Will Hays, to be the public face of Hollywood to reassure the public and smooth over State and local attempts at restrictive censorship laws.
If the industry could police itself, lawmakers would not have to.
The Motion Picture Production Code originated in 1930 under the direction of Hays, and became enforced starting in 1934. Despite the distaste that censorship evokes, the Code must have been successful because it lasted until 1968 and Hollywood certainly prospered during the 38 years the Code existed.
In 1968, the MPPC was replaced by the movie rating system we know of today, which allows much more artistic expression while warning movie goers of the type of content ahead of time, allowing them to choose for themselves the type of film they want to see.
The types of subjects the Code “protected” us from included references or depictions of child sexual activity or genitals, sex between races, profanity, irreverent religious references and any negative depiction of religion. Perversion, illegal drugs, child birth (actual, not implied), venereal disease, and a host of other subjects were closely monitored so that any use or reference to those subjects would somehow be manipulated to provide the status quo moral lesson.
Care would have to be taken to avoid offensive depiction of our national flag, any particular race or nationality, detailed criminal activity (to avoid becoming a “how to” film), rape, prostitution, gruesome or graphic bloody and gory scenes, and explicit executions or surgeries. Kisses were limited to 3 seconds each!
Although Hays, and later Joseph Breen (starting in 1934) did not have the authority to force a studio to make the “recommended” changes to movies being reviewed for compliance with the Code, the prospect of facing legal problems from zealous state and local censors convinced producers to comply with enforcement of the Code.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s filmmakers chafed under the Code’s restrictions and pushed back, stretching content to or past the limits outlined in the Code. When it became obvious that something had to change, it did, and the industry developed the ratings that are used today.
Censorship in all forms remains a controversial subject, whether in movies, television, radio, or print. Some people believe it is vital to the morals and well being of our society, while others believe there should be free expression period. Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think? And would you watch any of the following films with your parents? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Doherty, Thomas. Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. Columbia University Press, 2007.
Gilbert, Nora. Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films, and the Benefits of Censorship (The Cultural Lives of Law). Stanford Law Books, 2013.