The Motion Picture Production Code was the set of industry moral guidelines that was applied to most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It is also popularly known as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945. Under Hays' leadership, the MPPDA, later known as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), adopted the Production Code in 1930 and began strictly enforcing it in 1934. The Production Code spelled out what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States.
From 1934 to 1954, the code was closely identified with Joseph Breen, the administrator appointed by Hays to enforce the code in Hollywood. The film industry followed the guidelines set by the code well into the late 1950s, but during this time the code began to weaken due to the combined impact of television, influence from foreign films, controversial directors (such as Otto Preminger) pushing boundaries, and intervention from the courts, including the Supreme Court. In 1968, after several years of minimal enforcement, the Production Code was replaced by the MPAA film rating system.
In 1922, after several risqué films and a series of off-screen scandals involving Hollywood stars, the studios enlisted Presbyterian elder Will H. Hays to rehabilitate Hollywood's image. Hollywood in the 1920s was badgered by a number of widespread scandals, such as the murder of William Desmond Taylor and alleged rape of Virginia Rappe by popular movie star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, which brought widespread condemnation from religious, civic, and political organizations. Many felt the movie industry had always been morally questionable. Political pressure was increasing, with legislators in 37 states introducing almost one hundred movie censorship bills in 1921. Faced with the prospect of having to comply with hundreds, and potentially thousands, of inconsistent and easily-changed decency laws in order to show their movies, the studios chose self-regulation as the preferable option. Hays was paid the then-lavish sum of $100,000 a year ($1.4 million, adjusted for inflation). Hays, Postmaster General under Warren G. Harding and former head of the Republican National Committee, served for 25 years as president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), where he "defended the industry from attacks, recited soothing nostrums, and negotiated treaties to cease hostilities".
The move mimicked the decision Major League Baseball had made in hiring judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as League Commissioner the previous year to quell questions about the integrity of baseball in the wake of the 1919 World Series gambling scandal; The New York Times even called Hays the "screen Landis". In 1924, Hays introduced a set of recommendations dubbed "The Formula", which the studios were advised to heed, and asked filmmakers to describe to his office the plots of pictures they were planning on making. The Supreme Court had already decided unanimously in 1915 in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that free speech did not extend to motion pictures, and while there had been token attempts to clean up the movies before—such as when the studios formed the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI) in 1916—little had come of the efforts.
New York became the first state to take advantage of the Supreme Court's decision by instituting a censorship board in 1921. Virginia followed suit the following year, with eight individual states having a board by the advent of sound film, but many of these were ineffectual. By the 1920s, the New York stage — a frequent source of subsequent screen material — had topless shows, performances filled with curse words, mature subject matters, and sexually suggestive dialogue. Early in the sound system conversion process, it became apparent that what might be acceptable in New York would not be so in Kansas. Moviemakers were looking at the possibility that many states and cities would adopt their own codes of censorship, requiring a multiplicity of versions of movies made for national distribution. Self-censorship seemed a preferable outcome.
In 1927, Hays suggested to studio executives that they form a committee to discuss film censorship. Irving G. Thalberg of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Sol Wurtzel of Fox, and E. H. Allen of Paramount responded by collaborating on a list they called the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls", which was based on items that were challenged by local censor boards. This list consisted of eleven subjects best avoided and twenty-six to be handled very carefully. The list was approved by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and Hays created the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) to oversee its implementation; however, there was still no way to enforce tenets. The controversy surrounding film standards came to a head in 1929.
The Code enumerated a number of key points known as the "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls":
Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:
- Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words "God", "Lord", "Jesus", "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell", "damn", "Gawd", and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
- Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
- The illegal traffic in drugs;
- Any inference of sex perversion;
- White slavery;
- Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
- Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
- Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
- Children's sex organs;
- Ridicule of the clergy;
- Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;
And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
- The use of the flag;
- International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
- The use of firearms;
- Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
- Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
- Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
- Methods of smuggling;
- Third-degree methods;
- Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
- Sympathy for criminals;
- Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
- Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
- Branding of people or animals;
- The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
- Rape or attempted rape;
- First-night scenes;
- Man and woman in bed together;
- Deliberate seduction of girls;
- The institution of marriage;
- Surgical operations;
- The use of drugs;
- Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
- Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a "heavy".
In 1929, a Catholic layman, Martin Quigley (editor of the prominent trade paper Motion Picture Herald) and the Jesuit priest Father Daniel A. Lord created a code of standards and submitted it to the studios. Lord was particularly concerned with the effects of sound film on children, whom he considered especially susceptible to their allure.
In February 1930, several studio heads — including Irving Thalberg of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) — met with Lord and Quigley. After some revisions, they agreed to the stipulations of the Code. One of the main motivating factors in adopting the Code was to avoid direct government intervention. It was the responsibility of the SRC (headed by Colonel Jason S. Joy, a former American Red Cross Executive Secretary) to supervise film production and advise the studios when changes or cuts were required. On March 31, the MPPDA agreed it would abide by the Code.
The code was divided into two parts. The first was a set of "general principles" which prohibited a picture from "lowering the moral standards of those who see it", called for depictions of the "correct standards of life", and lastly forbade a picture to show any sort of ridicule towards a law or "creating sympathy for its violation". The second part was a set of "particular applications," which was an exacting list of items that could not be depicted. Some restrictions, such as the ban on homosexuality or on the use of specific curse words, were never directly mentioned, but were assumed to be understood without clear demarcation. Depiction of miscegenation (i.e. marital or sexual relations between different races) was forbidden. It also stated that the notion of an "adults-only policy" would be a dubious, ineffective strategy that would be difficult to enforce; however, it did allow that "maturer minds may easily understand and accept without harm subject matter in plots which does younger people positive harm". If children were supervised and the events implied elliptically, the code allowed "the possibility of a cinematically inspired thought crime".
The code sought not only to determine what could be portrayed on screen but also to promote traditional values. Sexual relations outside marriage—which were forbidden to be portrayed as attractive or beautiful—were to be presented in a way that would not arouse passion or make them seem permissible. All criminal action had to be punished, and neither the crime nor the criminal could elicit sympathy from the audience, or the audience must at least be aware that such behavior is wrong, usually through "compensating moral value". Authority figures had to be treated with respect, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Under some circumstances, politicians, police officers, and judges could be villains, as long as it was clear that those individuals portrayed as villains were the exceptions to the rule.
The entire document was written with Catholic undertones and stated that art must be handled carefully because it could be "morally evil in its effects" and because its "deep moral significance" was unquestionable. It was initially decided to keep the Catholic influence on the Code secret. A recurring theme was "that throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right". The Code also contained an addendum commonly referred to as the Advertising Code, which regulated advertising copy and imagery.
On February 19, 1930, Variety published the entire content of the Code and predicted that state film censorship boards would soon become obsolete; however, the men obliged to enforce the code—Jason Joy (head of the Committee until 1932) and his successor, Dr. James Wingate—were generally unenthusiastic and/or ineffective. The first film the office reviewed, The Blue Angel, which was passed by Joy with no revisions, was considered indecent by a California censor. Although there were several instances where Joy negotiated cuts from films and there were definite—albeit loose—constraints, a significant amount of lurid material made it to the screen. Joy had to review 500 films a year with a small staff and little power. He was more willing to work with the studios, and his creative writing skills led to his hiring at Fox. On the other hand, Wingate struggled to keep up with the flood of scripts coming in, to the point where Warner Bros.' head of production Darryl Zanuck wrote him a letter imploring him to pick up the pace. In 1930, the Hays office did not have the authority to order studios to remove material from a film, and instead worked by reasoning and sometimes pleading with them. Complicating matters, the appeals process ultimately put the responsibility for making the final decision in the hands of the studios.
One factor in ignoring the code was the fact that some found such censorship prudish, due to the libertine social attitudes of the 1920s and early 1930s. This was a period in which the Victorian era was sometimes ridiculed as being naïve and backward. When the Code was announced, the liberal periodical The Nation attacked it. The publication stated that if crime were never to be presented in a sympathetic light, then taken literally that would mean that "law" and "justice" would become one and the same. Therefore, events such as the Boston Tea Party could not be portrayed. If clergy must always be presented in a positive way, then hypocrisy could not be dealt with either. The Outlook agreed, and, unlike Variety, The Outlook predicted from the beginning that the Code would be difficult to enforce. The Great Depression of the 1930s led many studios to seek income by any way possible. Since films containing racy and violent content resulted in high ticket sales, it seemed reasonable to continue producing such films. Soon, the flouting of the code became an open secret. In 1931, The Hollywood Reporter mocked the code and quoted an anonymous screenwriter saying that "the Hays moral code is not even a joke any more; it's just a memory"; two years later Variety followed suit.
On June 13, 1934, an amendment to the Code was adopted which established the Production Code Administration (PCA) and required all films released on or after July 1, 1934, to obtain a certificate of approval before being released. The PCA had two offices: one in Hollywood and the other in New York City. The first film to receive an MPPDA seal of approval was The World Moves On (1934). For more than thirty years, virtually all motion pictures produced in the United States adhered to the code. The Production Code was not created or enforced by federal, state, or city government; the Hollywood studios adopted the code in large part in the hopes of avoiding government censorship, preferring self-regulation to government regulation. The enforcement of the Production Code led to the dissolution of many local censorship boards.
Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit, wrote: "Silent smut had been bad. Vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance." Thomas Doherty, Professor of American studies at Brandeis University, has defined the code as "... no mere list of Thou-Shalt-Nots but a homily that sought to yoke Catholic doctrine to Hollywood formula. The guilty are punished, the virtuous rewarded, the authority of church and state is legitimate, and the bonds of matrimony are sacred." What resulted has been described as "a Jewish owned business selling Roman Catholic theology to Protestant America".
In 1934, Joseph I. Breen — a prominent Roman Catholic layman who had worked in public relations — was appointed head of the new Production Code Administration (PCA). Under Breen's leadership of the PCA, which lasted until his retirement in 1954, enforcement of the Production Code became rigid and notorious. (Even cartoon sex symbol Betty Boop had to change from being a flapper and began to wear an old-fashioned housewife's skirt.) Breen's power to change scripts and scenes angered many writers, directors, and Hollywood moguls. Breen influenced the production of Casablanca, objecting to any explicit reference to Rick and Ilsa having slept together in Paris and to the film mentioning that Captain Renault extorted sexual favors from his supplicants; however, both remained strongly implied in the finished version. Adherence to the Code also ruled out any possibility of the film ending with Rick and Ilsa consummating their adulterous love, making inevitable the ending with Rick's noble renunciation, one of Casablanca's most famous scenes.
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. Another famous case of enforcement involved the 1943 western The Outlaw, produced by Howard Hughes. The Outlaw was denied a certificate of approval and kept out of theaters for years, because the film's advertising focused particular attention on Jane Russell's breasts. Hughes eventually persuaded Breen that the breasts did not violate the code and the film could be shown.
The PCA also engaged in political censorship. When Warner Bros. wanted to make a film about concentration camps in Nazi Germany, the production office forbade it—citing the above-mentioned prohibition on depicting "in an unfavorable light" another country's "institutions [and] prominent people"—with threats to take the matter to the federal government if the studio went ahead. This policy prevented a number of anti-Nazi films being produced. In 1938, the FBI unearthed and prosecuted a Nazi spy ring, subsequently allowing Warner to produce Confessions of a Nazi Spy, with the Three Stooges' short subject You Nazty Spy! (January 1940) being the first Hollywood film of any sort to openly spoof the Third Reich's leadership.
Some films produced outside the mainstream studio system flouted the code. One example is Child Bride (1938), which featured a nude scene involving a twelve-year-old child actress (Shirley Mills). The Code began to weaken in the late 1940s, when the formerly taboo subjects of rape and miscegenation were allowed in Johnny Belinda (1948) and Pinky (1949), respectively. In 1951, the MPAA revised the code to make it more rigid; the 1951 revisions spelled out more words and subjects that were prohibited. In 1954, Breen retired, largely due to ill health, and Geoffrey Shurlock was appointed as his successor. Variety noted "a decided tendency towards a broader, more casual approach" in the enforcement of the Code.
Hollywood continued to work within the confines of the Production Code throughout the 1950s, but during this time the movie industry was faced with very serious competitive threats. The first threat came from a new technology, television, which did not require Americans to leave their house to watch moving pictures. Hollywood needed to offer the public something it could not get on television, which itself was under an even more restrictive censorship code. In addition to the threat of television, there was also increasing competition from foreign films, such as Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), the Swedish film One Summer of Happiness (1951), and Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monika (1953). Vertical integration in the movie industry had been found to violate anti-trust laws, and studios had been forced to give up ownership of theaters by the Supreme Court in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948). The studios had no way to keep foreign films out, and foreign films were not bound by the Production Code. Some British films — Victim (1961), A Taste of Honey (1961), and The Leather Boys (1963) — challenged traditional gender roles and openly confronted the prejudices against homosexuals, all in clear violation of the Hollywood Production Code. In keeping with the changes in society, sexual content that would have previously been banned by the Code was being retained.
In 1952, in the case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overruled its 1915 decision (Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio) and held that motion pictures were entitled to First Amendment protection, so that the New York State Board of Regents could not ban The Miracle, a short film that was one half of L'Amore (1948), an anthology film directed by Roberto Rossellini. Film distributor Joseph Burstyn released the film in the U.S. in 1950, and the case became known as the "Miracle Decision" due to its connection to Rossellini's film. That reduced the threat of government regulation, which had formerly been cited as justification for the Production Code, and the PCA's powers over the Hollywood industry were greatly reduced. By the 1950s, American culture also began to change. A boycott by the National Legion of Decency no longer guaranteed a film's commercial failure, and several aspects of the code had slowly lost their taboo. In 1956, areas of the code were rewritten to accept subjects such as miscegenation, adultery, and prostitution. For example, the remake of a pre-Code film dealing with prostitution, Anna Christie, was cancelled by MGM twice, in 1940 and in 1946, as the character of Anna was not allowed to be portrayed as a prostitute. By 1962, such subject matter was acceptable and the original film was given a seal of approval.
By the late 1950s, increasingly explicit films began to appear, such as Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1961). The MPAA reluctantly granted the seal of approval for these films, although not until certain cuts were made. Due to its themes, Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) was not granted a certificate of approval, but it still became a box office smash, and, as a result, it further weakened the authority of the Code.
At the forefront of contesting the Code was director Otto Preminger, whose films violated the Code repeatedly in the 1950s. His 1953 film The Moon Is Blue, about a young woman who tries to play two suitors off against each other by claiming that she plans to keep her virginity until marriage, was released without a certificate of approval. He later made The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which portrayed the prohibited subject of drug abuse, and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which dealt with murder and rape. Like Some Like It Hot, Preminger's films were direct assaults on the authority of the Production Code, and their success hastened its abandonment. In the early 1960s, films began to deal with adult subjects and sexual matters that had not been seen in Hollywood films since the early 1930s. The MPAA reluctantly granted the seal of approval for these films, although again not until certain cuts were made.
In 1964, the Holocaust film The Pawnbroker, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Rod Steiger, was initially rejected because of two scenes in which the actresses Linda Geiser and Thelma Oliver fully expose their breasts, as well as due to a sex scene between Oliver and Jaime Sánchez described as "unacceptably sex suggestive and lustful". Despite the rejection, the film's producers arranged for Allied Artists to release the film without the Production Code seal, with the New York censors licensing the film without the cuts demanded by Code administrators. The producers appealed the rejection to the Motion Picture Association of America. On a 6–3 vote, the MPAA granted the film an exception conditional on "reduction in the length of the scenes which the Production Code Administration found unapprovable". The requested reductions of nudity were minimal; the outcome was viewed in the media as a victory for the film's producers.
The Pawnbroker was the first film featuring bare breasts to receive Production Code approval. The exception to the code was granted as a "special and unique case" and was described by The New York Times at the time as "an unprecedented move that will not, however, set a precedent". In Pictures at a Revolution, a 2008 study of films during that era, Mark Harris wrote that the MPAA approval was "the first of a series of injuries to the Production Code that would prove fatal within three years".
In 1966, Warner Bros. released Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the first film to feature the "Suggested for Mature Audiences" (SMA) label. When Jack Valenti became President of the MPAA in 1966, he was faced with censoring the film's explicit language. Valenti negotiated a compromise: the word "screw" was removed, but other language remained, including the phrase "hump the hostess". The film received Production Code approval despite the previously prohibited language.
That same year, the British-produced, American-financed film Blowup was denied Production Code approval. MGM released it anyway, the first instance of an MPAA member company distributing a film that did not have an approval certificate. That same year, the original and lengthy code was replaced by a list of eleven points. The points outlined that the boundaries of the new code would be current community standards and good taste. Any film containing content deemed suitable for older audiences would feature the label SMA in its advertising. With the creation of this new label, the MPAA unofficially began classifying films.
By the late 1960s, enforcement had become impossible and the Production Code was abandoned entirely. The MPAA began working on a rating system, under which film restrictions would lessen. The MPAA film rating system went into effect on November 1, 1968, with four ratings: G for general audiences, M for mature content, R for restricted (under 17 not admitted without an adult), and X for sexually explicit content. By the end of 1968, Geoffrey Shurlock stepped down from his post.
In 1969, the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow), directed by Vilgot Sjöman, was initially banned in the U.S. for its frank depiction of sexuality; however, this was overturned by the Supreme Court. In 1970, because of confusion over the meaning of "mature audiences", the M rating was changed to GP, and then in 1972 to the current PG, for "parental guidance suggested". In 1984, in response to public complaints regarding the severity of horror elements in PG-rated titles such as Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the PG-13 rating was created as a middle tier between PG and R. In 1990, the X rating was replaced by NC-17 (under 17 not admitted), partly because of the stigma associated with the X rating, and partly because the X rating was not trademarked by the MPAA; pornographic bookstores and theaters were using their own X, XX, and XXX symbols to market products.
Despite the name change from X to NC-17, this highest rating is very rarely issued due to its ongoing stigma. As the American Humane Association's Hollywood office depended on the Hays Office for the right to monitor sets, the closure of the Hays Office in 1966 corresponded with an increase in animal cruelty on movie sets. According to a writer for Turner Classic Movies, the association's access did not return to Hays-era standards until 1980.