Motion Picture Production Code
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
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
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.
2 Pre-code: "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls", as proposed in 1927
3 Creation of the Code and its contents
4.1 Pre-Code Hollywood
4.2 Breen era
4.3 Decline of the Production Code
4.4 Production Code abandoned
5 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
In 1922, after several risqué films and a series of off-screen
scandals involving Hollywood stars, the studios enlisted Presbyterian
Will H. Hays
Will H. Hays to rehabilitate Hollywood's image. Hollywood in the
1920s was badgered by a number of widespread scandals, such as the
William Desmond Taylor
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
Warren G. Harding
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
Major League Baseball had made in
Kenesaw Mountain Landis
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
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
Irving G. Thalberg of Metro
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
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.
Pre-code: "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls", as proposed in 1927
The Code enumerated a number of key points known as the "Don'ts" and
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
Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and
any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the
The illegal traffic in drugs;
Any inference of sex perversion;
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
The use of the flag;
International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light
another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people,
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;
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;
Man and woman in bed together;
Deliberate seduction of girls;
The institution of marriage;
The use of drugs;
Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing
Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the
other is a "heavy".
Creation of the Code and its contents
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
In February 1930, several studio heads — including Irving Thalberg
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
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
Main article: Pre-Code Hollywood
The Kiss (1896), starring May Irwin, from the Edison Studios, drew
general outrage from moviegoers, civic leaders, and religious leaders,
as shocking, obscene, and immoral.
A still, from the 1900 Biograph film, The Temptation of St. Anthony
A famous shot from the 1903 film, The Great Train Robbery. Scenes
where criminals aimed guns at the camera were considered inappropriate
by the New York state censor board in the 1920s, and usually
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
Doctor Frankenstein's creation; actor Boris Karloff, the 1931 film,
Frankenstein, in the famous monster makeup. By the time the film's
sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, arrived in 1935, enforcement of the
Code was in full effect, and the doctor's overt God complex was
forbidden. In the first picture, however, when the creature was
born his mad scientist creator was free to proclaim "Now I know what
it feels like to be God!"
From Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932)
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
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
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
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
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
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
and prosecuted a Nazi spy ring, subsequently allowing Warner to
produce Confessions of a Nazi Spy, with the Three Stooges' short
You Nazty Spy!
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.
Decline of the Production 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
One Summer of Happiness
One Summer of Happiness (1951), and Ingmar Bergman's
Summer with Monika
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),
The Leather Boys
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.
Some directors found ways to get around the Code guidelines; an
example of this was in Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 film, Notorious, where
he worked around the rule of three-second-kissing only by having the
two actors break off every three seconds. The whole sequence lasts two
and a half minutes.
By the late 1950s, increasingly explicit films began to appear, such
Anatomy of a Murder
Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Psycho
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
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
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
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)
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
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
Production Code abandoned
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
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.
Code of Practices for
Television Broadcasters, which served the same
purpose for television series
Comics Code Authority, which functioned similarly for the comics
Censorship in the United States
Entertainment Software Rating Board, which offers ratings for video
games in a similar grouping to motion pictures
PMRC, a similar group, which sought to control musical content with
Parental Advisory sticker
List of pre-Code films
Pre-Code sex films
The Celluloid Closet
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
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Speech and expression
banned video games
Burying of scholars
Conspiracy of silence
computer & network
Suppression of dissent
Freedom of speech