23 April 2019

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.


Andrew said...

That is especially funny about Key Largo. I can well imagine. We have lived through a time of extreme sexual conservatism in American films, but absolutely no restraint with violence and killing. Good summary of history, thanks

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I doubt the benignity of the Hays Code and Breen Office. By eliminating what they considered "off-color" they created an unreal universe, but so many people saw those films that "conservative" people cry, "look what life was like in the old days--let's go back to that, and then everything will be just as it was in an old movie."

On the internet you can find the Breen notes for the innocent movie Meet Me in St. Louis. Here are a couple samples of their level of censorship: "Page 13: The expression 'Mon dieu' is unacceptable." Later, when there is some laundry on the line: "Page 114: We presume that these bloomers, etc., will not include any intimate female garments." These are the lines they were excising, not just major nudity or scandal. (However, it does seem to me that the lingerie was left in the movie; the 'Mon dieu' line, I forget.

As you suggest, some scenes may have been intensified by turning to innuendo, but by crystallizing Victorian morals, the censors were blocking any advances in accepting people how they are in many aspects, a concept which curiously started with the end of the Hays Code. (Imagine the 1950's, with the Hayes Code and the Blacklist operating simultaneously.)

Of course, all of the above arguments can be refuted by saying "Look what happened to the movies post-Hays." I can't tell you the last time I saw a newer American-made movie, but simply hearing the synopses drives me straight to my bookshelf.

Joseph said...

Agreed Andrew. The Code continued celebrating gun culture and murders, and did very little to stop the practice.

Hels said...


Even if there was general agreement on the need to maintain community standards, note Will Hays was paid a great deal of money for a specific reason - to STOP Federal censorship. In the absence of Federal supervision of the film industry, how did anyone know what was acceptable around the country and what was not? Imagine sexism and racism being perfectly acceptable but ladies' knickers being censored.

Hels said...


I tried very hard to follow the PCA thinking, but I come from a different generation and another culture.

Re the Breen notes that you mentioned: if they haven't been hidden, redacted or destroyed, they will provide an excellent view into the men's thinking. Still, we need to ask: will the Breen notes be available if the film did NOT receive the relevant certificate?

Hels said...


Films can certainly encourage school boys to kill their fellow students and teachers with guns. In places like Columbine, the mass murders apparently did their detailed planning by watching murder-filled Hollywood films over and over again.

Dr. F said...

Whatever the reason for the adoption of the Production Code, there is no doubt that its adoption ushered in a "Golden Age" in American film. 1939, for example, is still held up as a pinnacle year for film. Can anyone really argue that the pre-code films are watchable anymore? With the adoption of the Code, directors, writers, actors, and actresses had to develop their skills to a higher lever than before. The twenty years that followed were a true Renaissance in American film where filmmaking really became a legitimate art form.

In The Best Years of Our Lives, for example, none of the women in that film had to undress to show that they were women. Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Kathy O'Donnell, and even Gladys George all gave powerful performances who more than matched their male counterparts.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I can’t help remembering all those TV shows in which husbands and wives have separate beds, and that episode of Bonanza in which a slender young woman gives birth despite not looking remotely pregnant. (A surprise to her husband, whom she hadn't told she was pregnant). I don’t think they even used the word.

Hels said...

Dr F

I agree totally that pre-Code films are not watchable anymore, except out of some historical interest in the film world. And I have no doubt that the era of the Code produced a Golden Age in American films. As the industry became more professional, directors, writers and actors really did develop their skills to a higher level - as did camera staff, lighting and sound people.

My argument is that you cannot have a small group of elderly, religious men making decisions for the entire country... it has to be a Federal Government responsibility with experts from all parts of the industry and academe.

Hels said...


I would have hoped that the word "pregnant" was not too dangerous to utter, especially between a husband and wife. But that reminds me of the news THIS VERY week. The USA is going veto a United Nations resolution on combatting the use of rape as a weapon of war, not because of the words actually in the resolution, but because of the words that readers will _think_ in their own minds eg vagina, penis, contraception, abortion. The USA has also opposed the use of the word “gender”, seeing it as a cover for liberal promotion of transgender rights.

So censorship can be very broad indeed.

bazza said...

I am almost salivating at the mention of so many great films mentioned here! Censorship has often been a way of promoting the arts. If the BBC banned a record, such as Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's Je t'ame it often went to number one! Lady Chatterly's Lover would have remained an obscure D H Lawrence novel if it hadn't been for the famous obscenity trial.
I think the Hays Office could have had a similar effect on Hollywood movies. As a teenage the appeal of an 'X' certificate film was irresistible.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s madly munificent Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


That is funny. When the Production Code Administration required all new films to obtain a certificate of approval, it was hoped that banned films would not see the light of day.. or, if the film was shown anyhow, it would fail.

The studio heads agreed to make the Code the rule of the industry, yet they may have been a bit dodgy. Sometimes the Code's requirements accidentally gave a film lots of publicity, and the film did far better than it would have, had it disappeared quietly into oblivion. Then there were more manipulative attempts to give a film fame... or infamy. The director of Outlaw, as we saw, maximised the negative publicity and guaranteed a box office hit!

You clearly remember the trial of Lady Chatterly's Lover, in the late 1950s. Penguin was charged with publishing obscene material in one of the most infamous trials ever. No wonder it did so well :)

bazza said...

A wonderful question posed by the lead prosecutor to the jury in the Lady Chatterley trial was, "would you let your wife and servants read this book?"
In rejecting the prosecutions case the Victorian era was finally coming to an end!

Hels said...


Oh dear. I hope that question was asked in the British obscenity trial at the Old Bailey and not in the USA. Class issues were never the concern of the Hayes Code, as far as I could see.

David M. Gascoigne, said...

A very interesting summary of codes I knew nothing about before reading this post.

Hels said...


The Motion Picture Production Code, initially established to prevent the formation of a censorship body by the Federal Government, fulfilled the role in the USA for decades. But now I think we should also be examining censorship in the UK, France, Germany, Australia, Canada etc.