The Hays Code was the informal name for The Motion Picture Production Code, adopted in 1930 but not seriously enforced until 1934. The Code was a set of rules governing American filmmaking that shaped—and in many ways stifled—American cinema for over three decades. It also happened to completely overlap with The Golden Age of Hollywood.
The Pre-Code Era of Hollywood cinema stretched from around 1928 to 1933, and the contrast between films made before and after the Hays Code was enacted shows the impact censorship had on American cinema. Films like Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932) were far more brazen and upfront about Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!, lacking the Do Not Do This Cool Thing tacked-on correctives seen in films like Angels with Dirty Faces (though even during this era, with Hawks' film, the studio added scenes and changed the title to Scarface: The Shame of the Nation to appease local censorship boards). The landscape was also less politically correct, as actors and actresses played all kinds of roles. Lots of pre-Code films have a surprisingly feminist slant; working women are even regarded with sympathy and affection. William A. Wellman's Heroes for Sale (1933) shows a Shell-Shocked Veteran returning from World War I falling into morphine addiction. Directors such as Josef von Sternberg worked with Marlene Dietrich to create provocative explorations of sexuality and power. 1930's Morocco even featured the first lesbian kiss in sound cinema.
During the later years of The Silent Age of Hollywood and the Rise of the Talkies, Hollywood became inundated with public complaints about the perceived lewd content of films. Scandals centered around big stars (most infamously Fatty Arbuckle) and the ensuing media frenzy made vocal sections of the public call for the government to rein in Hollywood. As luck would have it, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that films did not qualify for First Amendment protection.note Congress began to consider creating a national censorship board akin to the ones found in several states both before and after the Mutual Decision.
To stop the government from censoring or banning films, Hollywood decided to do the deed themselves with the Hays Code, a set of production directives voluntarily adopted by all the major studios that would ostensibly prove to Congress (and the public) that Hollywood had cleaned up its act. Will H. Hays, a former Postmaster General, did not create the Code, but he was the first head of the office of its enforcement, so his name became more-or-less permanently attached to it. Amongst filmmakers, Joseph Breen was the main man behind censorship, and the Hays Code was also known as the Breen Code. The Code placed a number of restrictions on all films produced, distributed, or exhibited by the members of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), the organization today known as the Motion Picture Association (MPA).
The Hays Code restrictions were as follows:
- Crime and immorality could never be portrayed in a positive light. If someone performed an immoral act, they had to be punished on screen, resulting in numerous cases of Adaptational Karma.
- This forced a change to the ending of The Bad Seed. In the novel and stage play, Christine gives an overdose of sleeping pills to her dangerous sociopathic daughter Rhoda, and Christine shoots herself, but Rhoda survives, with the implication she will kill again (especially now that her mother, the only person aware of her true nature, is gone). The film version has Christine survive her suicide attempt, whereas Rhoda dies in a contrived and implausible Karmic Death (she goes to the lake to find the penmanship medal for which she killed a boy, and a tree is struck by lightning and falls on her).
- The Hays Office made the ending of The Big Sleep more violent and decisive than the one originally planned.
- The Reveal in Rebecca suffered as a result of this rule. Originally, the cruel and faithless Rebecca is murdered by her husband Maxim, but in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 film version, her death is accidental and Maxim covers it up because he feels nobody will believe his innocence.
- This rule also disallowed morally derelict characters being Driven to Suicide, which changed the originally planned ending of Angel Face and the circumstances of Billy's death in Carousel.
- In the 1935 film adaptation of David Copperfield, when the thief who robs young David of his money takes off in his cart, the authorities are shown chasing after him, something not present in the original novel and very obviously added to comply with the code.
- The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad portrayed Toad as being framed for theft, whereas in the book (and all future adaptations), he actually does steal the motorcar.
- In This Our Life radically changed the ending of the novel in which the racist politics of the time allow Parry to go to jail because it's Stanley's word against his. The film now has Parry being found innocent and Stanley perishes in a fiery car crash. This severely diluted the story's statements on racial bias.
- The "Rise and Fall" Gangster Arc becoming a mainstay of gangster films is widely considered a byproduct of this restriction.
- Films could only present "correct standards of life" (for the times) unless the plot called for something else.
- One strange repercussion of this rule: some directors avoided taking on films that centered on poverty, as it could have conflicted with the Code.
- The 1940 Pride and Prejudice had changed Lady Catherine de Bourgh's opposition of Elizabeth marrying Mr. Darcy into a test of wits to prove her worth, which takes away Lady Catherine de Bourgh's antagonistic role from the story.
- The law had to be respected and upheld.
- Nudity and overt portrayals and references to sexual behavior (even between consenting adults) could not be shown.
- Under this rule, the aftermath of sexual activity—pregnancy and the resulting childbirth—weren't allowed. In Gone with the Wind, when Melanie Hamilton Wilkes is giving birth, she and Scarlett and Prissy are literally shown only as shadows on a wall because of this rule.
- The ban on anything that could be construed as sexual is what pretty much killed the Betty Boop cartoons. It also made Mae West a star, as her films made good use of her innuendo-laden humor.
- Red Hot Riding Hood pushed the limits of what was allowed for fanservice on the silver screen. A lot of the sexually-charged wild takes were removed from prints for general audiences, but were reinstated in copies made for American soldiers fighting overseas during World War II.
- The Walter Lantz shorts "Abou Ben Boogie" and "The Greatest Man In Siam" also got away with a surprising amount of fanservice, although this eventually kept them banned from TV airings in later years.
- The word "virgin" was banned for this reason, and it was Bowdlerised out of the film versions of Carousel and The Rose Tattoo. It was mostly because of the usage of that word that led to The Moon is Blue being released without Hays Code approval.
- Although depicting men and women in bed together wasn't strictly forbidden—it was in the "be careful" section, rather than the "don't" section—Sleeping Single became a universal trope thanks to this rule, and it remained such until the 1960s.
- It was necessary in all romantic scenes for a woman to have at least one foot on the floor, to prevent love scenes in bed. This led to Foot Popping becoming popular.
- The Hays Office had many issues with Casablanca, most of them related to sexual content. In the unproduced play which the film was based on, the ending featured Lois (renamed Ilsa in the film) sleeping with Rick for the letters of transit. The Hays Code put an end to that. Rick and Ilsa's affair in Paris was only allowed because she believed her husband was dead at the time. Still, the censors tried to quash any hint that they might have slept together while in Paris. The Hays Office also objected to Captain Renault's use of the Scarpia Ultimatum, only allowing it after it was toned down so that it's only implied.
- Christian faith and Christian clergy could never be depicted in a mocking manner.
- This rule almost got the Censored Eleven short "Clean Pastures" banned in the time it was released, as it showed a burlesque of religion with black people depicted as angels going to Heaven (not to mention glorifying gambling and jazz in the same mention as Heaven, both of which were considered taboo back then).
- This rule also led to characters who had previously been depicted as less than exemplary members of the clergy getting new careers in secular fields. Four notable examples:
- Frollo in the 1939 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who was split between an archbishop with his positive traits and a judge with his negative ones (predating the Disney version by several decades).
- Mr. Collins in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice, who became a librarian.
- Cardinal Richelieu became Prime Minister Richelieu when played by Vincent Price in The Three Musketeers (1948) (to be fair, he actually did hold the position of First Minister in Louis XIII's court).
- Robert Mitchum's now-iconic Sinister Minister in The Night of the Hunter got a lot of flack from the censors and the producers only managed to get away with it by suggesting that he was not ordained, technically making him a mere religious fanatic.
- Drug use, including alcohol consumption, could not be shown unless the plot called for it.
- Under the first version of the Code, drug use was allowed only if the story was a cautionary tale against drug abuse, or if the druggie got what they deserved for doing it in the first place (this was why Reefer Madness managed to be released, even if the message that drugs are bad was artificial and tacked-on). Illegal narcotics were strictly prohibited, no matter what the circumstances.
- All detailed (that is, imitable) depiction of crime had to be removed. This included lockpicking, safe-cracking, or the mixing of chemicals to make explosives.
- Films could not use revenge as a theme or premise in stories set during modern times, since it could be seen as glorifying violence (specifically murder).
- The Code made exceptions for historical settings—particularly where there was no law to punish the offender—so Westerns became the only movies allowed to have revenge as a theme or premise.
- Topics considered "perverse" could not be discussed or depicted in any way. Such topics included—but were not limited to— homosexuality, miscegenation (interracial relationships), bestiality, and venereal diseases.
- Studios used the explicitly racist ban on depicting miscegenation to justify the exclusion of non-white actors from employment: they reasoned that the Code would be breached if either actor or character was of a differing race. Anna May Wong, the leading Chinese-American actress of the time, was rejected as the female lead in The Good Earth because the male lead was white actor Paul Muni. In fact, Anna May Wong only made one film in which she got to kiss her white co-star (Java Head, which was made in the UK). Ironically, this was done despite the fact that the Code actually advocated for the "inherent dignity of foreign peoples" and insisted that their cultures not be undeservedly slurred of course, this didn't really help American non-whites (especially not the Japanese during World War II).
- The bestiality ban was part of the reason for changes to Red Hot Riding Hood's original ending, which showed the Wolf forced into marriage by the Grandma, then years later taking his half-human, half-lupine children to the nightclub to see Red perform. (The original ending, much like the "erection takes", existed on a Director's Cut that was sent to overseas soldiers.)
- The decision to kill off half-Native American Pearl in Duel in the Sun was based on this rule. In the book, Pearl lives and marries the good brother, Jesse.
- Imitation of Life (1934) struggled to get approved because it featured a biracial character who tried to pass for white, and was played by an actual mixed-race actress. It was ultimately approved after two weeks of shooting - although a scene in which a black man nearly gets lynched for flirting with a white woman was ordered cut from the script.
- From Here to Eternity cut all references to homosexuality (the soldiers fraternise with male prostitutes in the book) and Karen's infertility from gonorrhea (which is now caused by a bad miscarriage). Hilariously the brothel is turned into a gentleman's club with the whores being called "hostesses" - but the characters still act like they are.
- Tea and Sympathy deals with a character being Mistaken for Gay, but the film eliminates a gay teacher who is fired for being seen sunbathing with Tom on the beach (which starts the whole thing off). Tom instead just gets mocked for being found sewing.
- The sanctity of marriage had to be upheld.
- The Code is often credited as creating the Comedy of Remarriage genre, as an act of infidelity wouldn't actually count as infidelity if the leads were (temporarily) divorced, but that genre already existed pre-Code, so the credit is unwarranted.
- Tea and Sympathy again, where the censors insisted on a Framing Device being tacked on - where a letter from Laura preaches about how her affair with Tom was wrong and she was a scarlet woman.
- Blasphemy—including using the name of God as an expletive or exclamation—was not allowed. Using the word "God" was allowed, but only if used in a reverent tone or meaning. In addition, profanity of any kind was prohibited.
- These rules led to supposedly tough-and-gritty protagonists using mixtures of Unusual Euphemism and Gosh Dang It to Heck!. Any word stronger than "damn" was completely disallowed, and any usage of profanity was likely to result in a hefty fine. Rhett Butler's famous line in Gone with the Wind was considered a big deal back then, because of this rule; the production did face a fine, but more than made up for it at the box office.
- During the dying years of the Code, the famous line in Planet of the Apes (1968), "God damn you all to Hell!" was presented to the censors as not being blasphemous, because Taylor was literally calling on God to damn humanity to Hell for what they had done (destroying themselves in nuclear warfare). It managed to get by, though as mentioned, the Code was already on its way out by then.
- The United States flag was to be treated with utmost respect. Other flags, not so much.
These rules could be slightly skirted in film adaptations; for example, they managed to keep the famous line "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn" in Gone with the Wind because the (mild) swearing was in the original novel. This was especially true for faithful adaptations of William Shakespeare's plays, which were likely considered too artistically significant to censor (Hamlet, for instance, was filmed over a dozen times despite its main theme of revenge being something normally prohibited by the Office).
Since the Code did not apply to the stage, aspiring screenwriters could (and did) write plays about subjects too sexy or politically controversial for Hollywood. In New York (at least), stage censorship—though not unheard of—was far less of a threat than it had been in the 1920s (when Mae West was jailed and the Wales Padlock Act was passed), and comedies quite freely made fun of the movie censors. One particular pin-up image was created specifically to see if someone could break every single Code provision in a single still.
But even in the period of the worst censorship, several films and directors managed to subvert it. The Preston Sturges comedy The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is a case in point; the film stars Betty Hutton as a good-time girl who gets impregnated by a GI Soldier and gives birth to six children. Martin Scorsese, in his documentary on American movies of the same period, noted that some filmmakers used cinematic means and subtlety to suggest complex themes (and even subvert censorship mandates). This always involved the usage of subtext, Meaningful Background Event, and Stylistic Suck in the Happy Ending, which often made such endings very unconvincing to audiences and helped them sense the subtext lying just underneath. Scorsese cites films like Johnny Guitar, which was a major Take That! to the Witch Hunt and the Red Scare, and directors like Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk, who kept pushing the boundaries of content. Fuller's The Steel Helmet, made in 1950, was the first film that addressed the internment of Japanese-Americans in the Second World War, and he continued to make anti-racist films throughout that decade. His Film Noir, Pickup on South Street, provoked the ire of J. Edgar Hoover himself—but Fuller had the friendship of 20th Century-Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck, who backed him through all this. Douglas Sirk's Imitation Of Life, made in 1959, was the most successful Universal film until Airport, and it portrayed the reality of race relations in pre-Civil Rights era with a stark eye. Elia Kazan, on the other hand, pushed the boundaries of sexuality with films like Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd, and Splendor in the Grass.
The mere fact that censorship had to be so rigorously enforced in the first place stands as a testament to how (and how often) directors and screenwriters tried to resist it. Even a classic like Rebel Without a Cause featured a barely-concealed gay character who was treated sympathetically. (Bury Your Gays is enforced, but it's clearly treated as a tragedy.) Genre films tended to fall Beneath Suspicion, so directors of Film Noir or The Western often had a freer hand than directors who made Oscar Bait films, the Epic Movie, or The Musical. The B-Movie side of things wasn't taken seriously by Moral Guardians; as a result, films like The Big Combo, Detour, Touch of Evil, Murder by Contract, and The Crimson Kimono had more progressive and interesting content than the A-movies they played with on a double bill.
In 1948, the Supreme Court neutered the MPAA's ability to enforce the Code over all films shown in the US. The "Paramount Decision" (read more about that in Fall of the Studio System), among many other things, ended the ability of the "Big 5" (MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and RKO) studios to own the entirety of movie production, distribution, and exhibition. The major studios sold their theater chains, which meant they technically lost all say in what could be shown in those theaters. The new theater owners were no more eager to incur the wrath of the US government than the Big Five had been, though.
But the Supreme Court itself began to undercut the purpose of the Code (to prevent federal government censorship of the film industry) starting in 1952. The Italian film The Miracle by Roberto Rossellini featured controversial use of religious imagery; its American release provoked a severe outcry. Film distributor Joseph Burstyn sued to have the short film's license reinstated in New York, and the Supreme Court did just that in what is now known as the "Miracle Decision", which helped give film First Amendment protections as an artistic medium. In the 1960s, a wave of European films (particularly British and Italian films like Alfie and Bicycle Thieves), none of which were subject to the Code, tackled gritty topics that American studios couldn't touch because of the Code. American theaters could show these films without the MPAA's prior approval thanks to the Paramount Decision; when the MPAA tried to demand the censorship of those films, its efforts backfired and the Code ended up looking even more ridiculous. The Supreme Court essentially ended the MPAA's ability to even attempt censorship over any film with the 1965 Freedman v Maryland decision.
Prior to the Court loosening the reins, domestic filmmakers mounted serious challenges to the Code in the 1960s. The Pawnbroker featured an artistically-essential topless scene and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? featured equally-essential harsh language. Against the considerable critical acclaim of these films and overwhelming public sentiment, the Hays Code tried to bend—those films were considered "special exceptions"—but this opened the door for every daring filmmaker of the day to ask for similar consideration. This change of criteria also encouraged film company executives to stop cooperating with the Code: it was one thing for the Code's censors to have objections about specific content that fell into agreed-upon criteria, but it was quite another for those censors to act as de facto film critics who could arbitrarily determine which films were of good enough quality to make them "exceptions".
In 1966, MGM released the film Blowup—which failed to gain Hays approval due to its relatively explicit erotic content—in direct defiance of the Code. The MPAA and the Code could do nothing to stop MGM from distributing the critically-hailed film, which became a smash hit. Other studios soon followed MGM's lead when it became clear that the public's opinion of the Code had changed. Also in 1966, Jack Valenti was elected MPAA president with the specific promise to move from the Code to a ratings system, in theory based on the age-appropriateness of the film. The MPAA Film Rating System eventually replaced the Code, and though it has altered slightly over the years, it is still in use to this day. The fall of the Hays Code rid Hollywood of the last Golden Age relic and marked the beginning of the "New Hollywood" era of the late '60s and the '70s. Unfortunately, the transition to the rating system proved awkward with ugly incidents such as kids watching the first modern adult horror film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), and a review by Roger Ebert's is as much about how the kids were becoming genuinely traumatized seeing a high-intensity story definitely not made for them.
In the years since its creation, the MPAA rating system has itself been criticized by many people—notably film critic Roger Ebert and the filmmakers of This Film is Not Yet Rated —for doling higher ratings based on depictions of sex, gay people, or other controversial topics (and obscenity, to a certain extent) than depictions of violence. Other complaints note the lack of transparency about exactly why certain films get the ratings they do (for example, several films listed with "nothing offensive" as the whole MPAA content description have received PG ratings).
Stephen Colbert's book I Am America (And So Can You!) contains a parody "excerpt" from the Code, including rules such as "Characters may not walk and chew gum at the same time," "If a train is shown entering a tunnel, the tunnel shall not be portrayed as enjoying it," "Characters may not discuss the high suicide rate among dentists in a manner that implies they have it coming," and "For Christ's sake, somebody put a bra on Jean Harlow". The excerpt also deliberately omits rule #666, and also #669 for good measure.
Another example of mocking the Hays Code goes all the way back to 1942. In "A Tale of Two Kitties", a classic Looney Tunes cartoon directed by Bob Clampett, the cats Babitt and Catstello plot to devour the ever-prepared Tweety Bird. At one point, Catstello is on a ladder to Tweety's nest and struggling with his fear of heights, while from the ground, Babitt starts pushing his buttons by yelling, "Give me the Bird! Give me the Bird!"—to which Catstello turns to the audience to say, "If the Hays Office would only let me, I'd give 'im the boid, all right". The really fun thing here is that animated shorts like this showed many different examples of breaking the Code—excessive violence (though completely bloodless, of course) and (what was then) harsh language—simply because they were animated in ways that took everything to a level of pure parody. Rules were subverted, but in as overt a way as possible. (A non-animation example of this sort of Hays Code subversion would be The Three Stooges shorts, which were able to be the first to satirize Adolf Hitler in Hollywood.)
Critic Michael Medved, who is one of the very few film critics who supports Moral Guardians in many cases and who is more recently a right-wing Talk Radio host, makes the argument in at least partial support of the Code: "While many of the specific rules in the old Production Code look thoroughly ludicrous by todays standards, it is instructive to recall that Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, John Ford and Billy Wilder, George Cukor and Frank Capra and Orson Welles all somehow managed to create their masterpieces under its auspices." He was rebuked with the counter-argument that films by these directors were made in spite of the Code, and Executive Meddling is responsible for flaws in even the greatest films of this time, especially in the case of Welles. Medved also argues that after the demise of the Code, motion picture attendance fell—from ~44 million per week in 1965 to ~19 million per week in 1969—and that attendance has never reached the levels of the post-TV, pre-ratings age since, in absolute numbers (since 2000, for example, attendance in the US & Canada has fluctuated between 2528 million tickets sold per week). Others note that this has little to do with the Code in any real sense. Hollywood had been paranoid about the drop in movie attendance since the loss of their distribution arm, and throughout The '50s they countered television with a bunch of gimmicky movie exhibitions, and then expensive roadshow releases which in The '60s became unprofitable thanks to the failures of Cleopatra and Hello, Dolly!. There are additional factors that have nothing to do with the importance of censorship.note It's also pointed out that, although the attendance of motion pictures did drop significantly, the movie industry still survived and even prospered. Indeed, the 50 highest grossing movies of all time were all made years after the collapse of the Code. The biggest point missing is that the Hays Code was never erected to increase movie attendance; it was erected out of fear of local organizations interrupting or halting distribution in a number of states and out of fear of national censorship. These external tensions happened because of the movie business's great popularity and expansion. The fact that other popular media such as television, video games and comic books have their own censorship systems, and that TV especially in the The New '10s has broken boundaries in nudity and violence and still maintained its mass viewership, proves that moral censorship has little or no relation to viewership as opposed to technology and accessibility.