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Hays Code in Hollywood: sex and violence (1930-1967)

Tim Stanley’s article was wonderful. Seeing a film in the early 1900s could be shocking, not just for the content, but for the darkness of those early films. Birth of a Nation (1915) depicted suic­ide, lynch­ing and racist vigilantism. And nud­ity was rampant in The Legend of Tarzan.

Pre-Code films did not go uncensored, but they were covered only by local laws. So Holly­wood had to instigate its own self-censorship. In 1922 the stud­ios created the Motion Picture Prod­ucers and Dis­tributors Assoc­iation/MPPDA. They gave Will H Hays, a Republican lawyer and Presbyt­erian deacon, a huge salary to launch a camp­aign against Federal censor­ship. A unified, industry-wide censorship programme was needed.

Marlene Dietrich, 1930
in Morocco
The actress embraced bisexuality, glamorous mystique and provocation

The first official industry’s list of rules, written in 1927, was largely ignored. It was only with the arrival of sound films that the campaign for active self-censorship within Hollywood increased. In­volved Cath­olic bishops and lay people included Catholic layman Martin Quigley, publisher of a trade mag­az­ine. During 1929, Joseph Breen, Father Daniel Lord and the Cardinal of Chicago auth­ored a new, stringent Code for films, later known as The Product­ion Code or Hays Code. Will Hays was delighted.

The studio heads agreed to make the Code the rule of the industry, albeit with many loopholes to override the Hays Office. From 1930-4, the Code was only slightly effective. Here are some Code “failures”. In Mor­oc­co (1930) Marlene Dietrich played an andogynous cabaret singer who dressed in a man’s white tie suit and kissed a girl in the aud­ience! Barb­ara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell showed off their lingerie in Night Nurse (1931). Little Caesar (1931) dep­icted Edward G Robinson going down in a hail of bullets. Homosexual char­act­ers were on view in Our Bet­t­ers (1933), Sailor’s Luck (1933) and Caval­cade (1933). Jean Harlow casually undress­ed in Red Headed Wo­m­an (1932). In Gold Diggers (1933), parts had to be rewritten to circ­um­vent the censors.

In 1934 there were serious threats of Catholic boycotts of im­moral films. The Code clamped down on prof­anity, sex pervers­ion, nudity, childbirth, brutality, sedition, clergy abuse and miscegenation i.e inter-racial breeding. Instead the Code urged promotion of wholesome, American values.

In 1934 the Production Code Administration/PCA required all new films to obtain a certificate of approval. Joseph Breen, a Catholic chauvinist with very mixed attitudes towards Hollywood, became head of the PCA that year. The studios granted the MPPDA auth­or­ity to enforce the Code, creating a strict regime that lasted until 1967.

Jean Harlow, 1932
under-dressed in Red-Headed Woman.

Joan Blondell's banned promotional poster
for Night Nurse 1932, 

The Code was a Good Thing
Clearly the Code ushered in an era of moral conserv­at­ism that rev­ersed the earlier liberating trends. But here is where Tim Stanley and I part ways. Stanley noted that the Code was ad­her­ed to volunt­arily by the studios, in order to make Federal censor­ship unnec­ess­ary. Its supporters believed that it presented liberal, free market princip­les that created citizens free from antisocial sex and violence.

How effective was the Code in achieving its own goals? The first film to fail the Code-test was Tarzan and His Mate (1934). When the PCA refused to approve the Tarzan film, MGM protested. MGM lost the fight and cuts had to be made, proving for the first time that the Code had real teeth!

Dark Victory (1939) starred Bette Davis who drank, smoked and socialised in bars. The Code insisted that when Dav­is’ char­acter discovered she was dying from brain tumour, she decided to give up fast living and settle down with her loving doctor.. as a satisfied housewife. Job done!

Jon Elster gave examples of the Code actually increasing the sex­ual or dramatic tension of a scene. Key Largo (1948), for example, initially had Ed­ward G Rob­inson taunting Laur­en Bacall with sexual suggestions. Recognising that Breen would never tol­erate the scene, the words were whispered inaudibly instead. This invited the audience to imagine their content, adding an electric charge.

Regarding The Seven Year Itch (1955), in which Marilyn Monroe stood above a grate and her dress ballooned upwards, the PCA said Mon­roe’s sexy smile, bosom and skirt hinted at sensual poss­ib­il­ities just out of reach! 

Nor did the Code entirely reduce women to passivity. In Out of the Past (1947), Jane Greer was a victim: a pretty gangster’s moll who had fled her violent lover. But halfway through, untrustworthy Greer killed a hood­lum and set up Robert Mit­ch­um as a patsy. Similarly, women viewers could watch Greer or Bet­te Davis in All About Eve (1950) or Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon (1941) where women used their sexuality to dominate men.

Tim Stanley concluded that the film industry’s negotiation with Am­erican morality proved to be a source of inspir­at­ion, so the film industry thrived!

The Code was a Bad Thing
If there was a kiss in Hollywood films, the part­ies had to keep one foot on the floor. In films like Notorious and Seven Year Itch, this was said to create an atmosphere of erot­icism. I strongly disagree with this argument; implied smuttiness created juvenile sniggers, not adult excitement.

In any case, the Code was often ignored or modified. In 1941 The Outlaw’s Director Howard Hughes wanted to maximise Jane Russell’s cleavage. The PCA disapproved. Hughes calculated that a campaign to ban The Outlaw could be great publicity, so he act­ive­ly en­couraged conservatives to ban the film. The film was held back and then given a much publicised release in 1946. A box office hit!

In 1954 Jane Russell appeared scantily clad in The French Line, far beyond the Hays Code limits. The PCA refused to give The French Line a certific­ate and the Catholic National Legion of Decency wanted a boy­cott. 

I found precious little about guns in the Code, arguably the worst Hollywood offence. Regarding murder in films, they ruled that “the technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not ins­p­ire imitation.. or throw sympathy with the crime”. In Dec 1938, the Code merely added that there must never be a display of machine guns in the hands of gang­sters. Oh dear.

And I found even less discussion about the overlap between Church and State powers. Especially since the Catholic Church accounted for only a minority (c24%) of the citizens in the USA back then.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kissing in
Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 film Notorious.

Jane Russell, 1943
in Howard Hughes' western, The Outlaw

The Code continued as long as the studios deferred to it, partially because cinemas refused to show uncertificated films. But when the public’s appetite for sex (and violence) was becoming more profit­able, film makers ignored the Code. Some Like It Hot (1959) and Psycho (1960) were both released with­out a certificate, yet made enormous profits. Rather than reject works of obvious quality & mass appeal, the MPAA broke its own rules & passed them. By 1967 The Code effectively ended.


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