originally published May 17, 2013
Having recently wrapped up my film studies degree, and now poised in that no-doubt brief window between finishing classes and discovering how this degree will make me an instant multi-gazillionaire, I find myself thrilled to be facing a film-related topic. Every student in a film studies class should eventually learn about the Hays Code.
But most of the public knows nothing about it. They look at old movies, at the lack of blood, gore, boobies and liberal use of the term ‘Fuckity-Fuck-Fuck’, and assume it was just a “different time” with “old-fashioned morals” that wouldn’t allow those things on the screen. Well, those morals had a name, and that name was the Hays Code.
I was disappointed when I learned this. I was hoping the Hays Code had something to do with putting Robert Hays in more movies.
In 1922, the movie industry was unrestrained. This was proving to be a PR fiasco, with some racy movies slipping from the studios and a few notorious scandals (thanks a lot, Fatty Arbuckle). The government waved its spiky shoe of censorship in the air, and the major studios decided they’d best find a way to police themselves, lest they be subject to the shifting morality of whomever was in power.
Over 100 censorship bills in 37 states had been thrown on the table the year before. The Supreme Court had already ruled that the First Amendment didn’t apply to movies. It was only a matter of time before a government clamp-down, so the studios looked to the wisdom of Major League Baseball. MLB had appointed Kenesaw Mountain Landis as commissioner to oversee the league after the corrupt 1919 World Series had shaken the public’s confidence in the sport. The studios turned to this guy:
That mug belongs to Presbyterian minister Will H. Hays, the movie industry’s self-appointed nanny. Hays, along with the heads of Paramount, MGM and Fox put together a list of “don’ts” and “be carefuls”. Among the “don’ts”: no swearing (even ‘God’, ‘Jesus’ and ‘damn’, unless in a proper religious context), no ridiculing the clergy (sheesh), no VD, no interracial romance, and no childbirth. To be handled carefully are things like sympathy for criminals, use of drugs or firearms, and any detailed descriptions of safe-cracking or dynamiting trains. They didn’t want to accidentally train any real-life bad-guys.
The Code was officially adopted in 1929, after numerous executives and religious meddlers had been satisfied with the list of things they’ll never see in movies. Sex outside marriage was to be inferred only, never portrayed or even directly talked about. Homosexuality was not ruled out in print, but it was understood to be a no-no. Criminals had to be punished, which really killed off a lot of suspense in the emerging gangster genre.
The weird thing about the Hays Code was that there was really no way to enforce it. Hays and his team didn’t have any authority to order a studio to recut a movie; the most they could do was beg and plead. Then in 1934 they amended the code to create the Production Code Administration, placing Roman Catholic PR man (and alleged anti-Semite) Joseph Ignatius Breen in charge. The PCA did have the power to censor, and they swooped in right away, pulling the plug on Tarzan And His Mate because of brief nudity in shots of Maureen O’Sullivan’s body double.
Under Breen, the PCA nixed a Warner Brothers film about concentration camps in Nazi Germany, because it was against policy to portray another country’s institutions and prominent people in a negative way. It wasn’t until the FBI actually unearthed an America-based Nazi spy ring, which opened up the Reich to criticism and/or mockery in the movie biz. The first two anti-Nazi movies allowed under the PCA were the dark, gritty Confessions Of A Nazi Spy and the Three Stooges’ short, You Nazty Spy!
The Code was tested in 1938 with the movie Child Bride (actual tagline: “A Throbbing Drama Of Shackled Youth!”), in which a 12-year-old Shirley Mills – she was the youngest daughter in The Grapes Of Wrath movie – stripped down and skinny-dipped. They got away with this by distributing the film independently (free of the studios), and calling it ‘educational.’ In the 40’s, issues like rape and interracial boinking were hinted at (though still not shown). Alfred Hitchcock got cute with the Code in his 1946 film Notorious, which featured Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman pushing the envelope on the three-second-maximum rule for kissing. The extensive make-out scene featured the actors smooching for three seconds, pulling briefly away and locking lips again. The scene was two and a half minutes, but didn’t break the rules.
The MPAA tried to tighten the reigns in 1951, adding in more words that aren’t allowed, perhaps because the American public was being creative in inventing new dirty words. I assume ‘cunt-punting’ was not an allowed threat between characters, for example.
This is one way the new medium of television actually helped out the movie business. The rules imposed on the in-home device were even more strict, and the studios felt it was acceptable to stretch their naughtiness just a little, in order to give their audiences something they couldn’t see on the little screen. It also helped that Joseph Breen stepped down in 1954, taking his wagging little finger with him. Screw that guy. I found a despicable anti-Semitic rant the guy made prior to his appointment to the PCA. That’s the guy who was in charge of morality in Hollywood.
Foreign films began to show up more frequently in theatres in the 50’s, outside the Code’s control. Also, the ruling about movies being exempt from First Amendment protection was reversed in 1952. Then the public began throwing their dollars at movies which defied the Code, weakening its position even further. Some Like It Hot (1956) did not get a certificate of approval, but audiences loved it. Anatomy Of A Murder (1959) was all about a rape case coming to trial. In 1964, Sydney Lumet’s Holocaust film The Pawnbroker actually featured bared breasts. That was a hard-fought victory for the producers, but I think we all gained from that win.
The MPAA came up with the SMA (Suggested for Mature Audiences) rating, which allowed them to approve films like 1966’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, which features the phrase “hump the hostess.” By 1968, the Hays Code was trashed entirely, being replaced by the MPAA’s new rating system: G, M, R, and X.
And so ended an era of non-censorship censorship. At last there was a way for filmmakers to more realistically depict language, the mature content of everyday life, and maybe even allow the bad guy to get away with it sometimes.
Plus, we get to see boobies and/or full-front Fassbender, depending on your tastes. So there’s that.