The Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was a set of industry guidelines governing the production of American motion pictures. The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), which later became the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), adopted the code in 1930, began effectively enforcing it in 1934, and abandoned it in 1967 in favor of the subsequent MPAA film rating system. The Production Code spelled out what was and was not considered morally acceptable in the production of motion pictures for a public audience.
Provisions of the Code
The Production Code enumerated three "General Principles": AS Follow:
- No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
- Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
- Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
Specific restrictions were spelled out as "Particular Applications" of these principles:
- Nudity and suggestive dances were prohibited.
- The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.
- The depiction of illegal drug use was forbidden, as well as the use of liquor, "when not required by the plot or for proper characterization."
- Methods of crime (e.g. safe-cracking, arson, smuggling) were not to be explicitly presented.
- References to alleged "sex perversion" (such as homosexuality) and venereal disease were forbidden, as were depictions of childbirth.
- The language section banned various words and phrases that were considered to be offensive.
- Murder scenes had to be filmed in a way that would discourage imitations in real life, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail. "Revenge in modern times" was not to be justified.
- The sanctity of marriage and the home had to be upheld. "Pictures shall not imply that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing." Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.
- Portrayals of miscegenation were forbidden.
- "Scenes of Passion" were not to be introduced when not essential to the plot. "Excessive and lustful kissing" was to be avoided, along with any other treatment that might "stimulate the lower and baser element."
- The flag of the United States was to be treated respectfully, and the people and history of other nations were to be presented "fairly."
- "Vulgarity," defined as "low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects" must be treated within the "subject to the dictates of good taste." Capital punishment, torture and third-degree methods, cruelty to children and cruelty to animals, prostitution and surgical operations were to be handled with similar sensitivity.
Before the Production Code
After the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1915 (Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio) that motion pictures were not covered by the First Amendment, cities began to pass ordinances banning the public exhibition of "immoral" films, and the studios feared that state or federal regulations were not far off.
In the early 1920s, three major scandals had rocked Hollywood: the manslaughter trials of comedy star Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle who was charged with being responsible for the death of actress Virginia Rappe at a wild party in San Francisco during Labor Day weekend of 1921; the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in February 1922 and the revelations regarding his bisexuality; and the drug-related death of popular actor Wallace Reid in January 1923.
Other drug-related deaths of stars Olive Thomas, Barbara La Marr, Jeanne Eagels, and Alma Rubens resulted in persistent calls for censorship and "cleaning up" of Hollywood all through the '20s. These stories were sensationalized in the press and grabbed headlines across the country. They appeared to confirm a widespread perception that many Americans had of Hollywood — that it was "Sin City".
Public outcry over perceived immorality, both in Hollywood and in the movies, led to the creation in 1922 of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (which became the Motion Picture Association of America in 1945), which now headed Hollywood production. Intended to project a positive image of the movie industry, the association was headed by Will H. Hays, who had previously been United States Postmaster General and the 1920 campaign manager for President Warren G. Harding. Hays pledged to establish a set of moral standards for the movies.
Hays spent eight years attempting to enforce a moral authority over Hollywood films, with little effect. The Hays office did issue a list of "don'ts and be carefuls" in 1927, but filmmakers continued to do pretty much what they wanted, although in numerous cases, certain lines of dialogue, scenes, or shots would not make the final cut. Due to pressure of government censorship, Hays officially introduced the Production (Hays) Code in 1930.
1930 to 1934: The start of the Hays Code
With the advent of talking pictures in 1927, it was felt that a more formal written code was needed. The Production Code was written, and adopted on March 31, 1930, but no provisions were made for effective enforcement. Even though the Code existed, consistent application of its provisions had not yet been attained.
This and future codes were often called the Hays Code due to its leadership. Although Hays' name is thus often associated with censorship, he was fairly mild-mannered and easily persuaded and manipulated.
The MPPDA responded to criticism of the racy and violent pre-Code films by strengthening the Code- as religious criticism became high after Mae West gained great success through sex appealing appearances in She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel. The Code was further fortified by the creation of the Catholic Legion of Decency, which designated "indecent" films that Catholics should boycott, and was finally enforced.
As adopted in 1930, the code had no effective method of enforcement. An amendment to the Code, adopted on June 13, 1934, established the Production Code Administration, and required all films released on or after July 1, 1934 to obtain a certificate of approval before being released. For more than thirty years following, 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. In fact, 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. Meanwhile, the U.S. Customs Department prohibited the importation of the Czech film Ecstasy (1933), starring an actress soon to be known as Hedy Lamarr, an action which was upheld on appeal.
In 1934, Joseph I. Breen (1888-1965) 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. Breen's power to change scripts and scenes angered many writers, directors, and Hollywood moguls.
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.
Some films produced outside the mainstream studio system during this time did flout the conventions of the code, such as Child Bride (1938), which featured a nude scene involving 12-year-old actress Shirley Mills. Even cartoon sex symbol Betty Boop had to change from being a flapper, and began to wear an old-fashioned housewife skirt.
The 1950s and early 1960s
Hollywood worked within the confines of the Production Code until the late 1950s, by which time the "Golden Age of Hollywood" had ended, and the movies were 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, like Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thieves (1948), the Swedish film Hon dansade en sommar (English title: One Summer of Happiness) (1951), and Ingmar Bergman's Sommar med Monika (Summer with Monika) (1953). For De Sica's film, there was a censorship controversy when the MPAA demanded a scene where the lead characters talk to the prostitutes of a brothel be removed, regardless of the fact that there is no sexual or provocative activity. The Swedish films were the first to include nude love scenes, and made an international sensation.
Vertical integration in the movie industry had been found to violate anti-trust laws, and studios had been forced to give up ownership of theatres by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948). The studios had no way to keep foreign films out, and foreign films weren't bound by the Production Code. The anti-trust rulings also helped pave the way for independent art houses that would show films created by people such as Andy Warhol and others working outside the studio system.
Finally, a boycott from the Catholic Legion of Decency (formed in 1933) no longer guaranteed a commercial failure, and thus the Code prohibitions began to vanish when Hollywood producers ignored the Code and were still able to earn profits.
The MPAA revised the code in 1951, not to make it more flexible, but to make it more rigid. The 1951 revisions spelled out more words and subjects that were prohibited, and no doubt increased the opposition of movie-makers to the code.
In 1952, in the case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the United States Supreme Court unanimously overruled its 1915 decision and held that motion pictures were entitled to First Amendment protection, so that the New York Board of Regents could not ban Roberto Rossellini's The Miracle. This became known as the "Miracle Decision" due to its connection to Rossellini's film. That in turn reduced the threat of government regulation that justified the production code.
- (Joseph Burstyn was the (subtitled) English version of The Miracle. The film's plot centered around a man, "Saint Joseph", who villainously impregnates "Nanni", a disturbed peasant who believes herself to be the "Virgin Mary".)
At the forefront of challenges to 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 the first film to use the words "virgin", "seduce" and "mistress", and it was released without a certificate of approval. He later made The Man with the Golden Arm (with Frank Sinatra, 1955), which portrayed the prohibited subject of drug abuse, and Anatomy of a Murder (with James Stewart and Lee Remick, 1959) which dealt with rape. Preminger's films were direct assaults on the authority of the Production Code and, since they were successful, hastened its abandonment.
In 1954, Joseph Breen retired 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.
Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, 1959) and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (with Norman Bates, 1960) were also released without a certificate of approval due to their themes, and further weakened the authority of the code.
The end of the Code
In the early 1960s, British films such as Victim (1961), A Taste of Honey (1961), and The Leather Boys (1963) offered a daring social commentary about gender roles and homophobia that violated the Hollywood Production Code, yet the films were still released in America. The American gay rights, civil rights, and youth movements prompted a reevaluation of the depiction of themes of race, class, gender, and sexuality that had been restricted by the Code.
When Jack Valenti became President of the MPAA in 1966, he was immediately faced with a problem regarding language in the film version of Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Valenti negotiated a compromise: The word "screw" was removed, but other language, including the phrase "hump the hostess," remained. The film received Production Code approval despite having language that was clearly prohibited.
The film Blowup (reportedly the first British feature film to show full frontal female nudity, 1967) presented a different problem. After the film was denied Production Code approval, MGM released it anyway, the first instance of an MPAA member company distributing a film that didn't have an approval certificate. There was little the MPAA could do about it.
Enforcement had become impossible, and the Production Code was abandoned entirely. The MPAA began working on a rating system, under which there would be virtually no restriction on what could be in a film. The MPAA film rating system went into effect on November 1, 1968 with four ratings: G, M, R, and X. 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.
The M rating was changed to GP in 1970 and to the current PG in 1972. 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, in part because the X rating was not trademarked by the MPAA and pornographic bookstores and theatres had used the X and XXX rating.
- Also see the page [ Complete list of the 36 'Don'ts and Be Carefuls' of 1927 ]
- Complete text of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930
- The Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry (includes examples and articles)
- More Sinned Against than Sinning: The Fabrications of "Pre-Code Cinema"
- Filmnummers: Numbered list of Production Code certificates of approval