Hays Code Facts
Many controversial Hollywood movies were made in the era of silent movies, the 1920's and the early 1930s before the Hays Code was adopted.
The reaction to the 1915 movie the 'Birth of a Nation' directed by D. W. Griffith brought the full realization of the power of the movies. The inflammatory movie glorified the original Ku Klux Klan that resulted in the resurgence of the 1920s KKK and brought vehement protests by the NAACP with riots in Philadelphia and Boston.
In 1921 legislators in 37 states introduced nearly 100 movie censorship bills. Throughout the 1920s political pressure increased to get Hollywood and the movie industry to "clean up its act".
The period referred to as the Roaring Twenties were aptly named. It was the age of automobiles, consumerism and the continuing rise in the popularity of the movies. It was also the age of the nonconformist Flappers who challenged the traditional ideas of behavior. Young women emulated the movie stars by wearing make-up, smoking in public, drinking prohibited liquor and acting in an unladylike fashion. The older generation were scandalized. Many Americans believed that the morals of the nation were in sharp decline in the 1920's as people cast aside old social conventions .
Movies in the 1920s had used nudity, profanity, blasphemy and immorality and appeared to endorse illegal drinking during the Prohibition Era. The lives of movie actresses, or "vamps", with their heavy makeup, scant clothing and loose morals brought Hollywood under close scrutiny and considerable criticism. Famous scandals involving stars such as "Fatty" Arbuckle, Clara Bow, Tallulah Bankhead, Mabel Normand, Wallace Reid and Barbara La Marr tarnished the Hollywood image even further.
Notorious Pre-Code Hollywood movies were made in a four year period, from March 31, 1930 to July 2, 1934, before the Hays Code was rigidly enforced. The names of many Pre-Code Hollywood films provides a fast insight into the subject matter of some of the movies that were being produced during the period. The names of the movies include Blackmail, The Godless Girl, Unashamed, Blonde Venus, She Done Him Wrong, Madame Satan, Her Private Life, Madame X, The Racketeer, Ladies Love Brutes, The Cheat, The Criminal Code, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, The Sin Ship and the Sign of the Cross.
The immoral content of so many Hollywood films and the scandals surrounding famous actors and actresses provoked a media frenzy and the outrage of many Americans.
The picture is a screen shot from the Cecil B. DeMille epic movie, the Sign of the Cross (1932) depicting a naked woman prepared for sacrifice in the Colosseum. The movie was released before the Hays Cod Code came into effect, and also included scenes of violent gladiatorial combat, the erotic "Dance of the Naked Moon" and featured Claudette Colbert bathing in asses' milk. The religious epic detailed the Christians against the Roman emperor Nero. The movie blended themes of religious spirituality with debauchery and also included scenes of orgies, homosexuality, mass murder and torture.
The reaction to the movie led to the 1934 formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency that aimed to combat questionable content in motion pictures and strong objections and complaints from other religious organizations.
Children and the Movies: There were no federal government restrictions in place regarding the attendance of children at the movies.
The 1927 release of the Jazz Singer, the first talking movie, brought a new dimension to films. People could be influenced by the words, spoken by their screen idols as well as the subject of the film and its plot. Hollywood in the 1920s was changing fast and the advent of the "Talkies" gave even more power to the movies.
In 1929 the mood of the nation changed from the exuberant mood of prosperity and revelry of the Roaring Twenties to the dark days and hard times of the Great Depression when 25% of Americans were unemployed.
Movies in the 1920s had used nudity, profanity, blasphemy, immorality and appeared to endorse illegal drinking during the Prohibition Era. The lives of movie actresses, or "vamps", with their heavy makeup, scant clothing and loose morals together with a series of famous scandals had brought Hollywood under close scrutiny and mounting criticism. The Movie Industry really had to "clean up its act".
The public outcry against the lack of regulation and the questionable content of the movies, together with the loose morals of some movie icons, was so great that strong, conservative forces applied political pressure for the federal government to establish a National Censorship Board.
The movie industry obviously did not want the federal government to have the power to censor or ban their films. To prevent this happening the Hollywood moguls and the movie studios decided to voluntarily apply censorship to the movies themselves which led to the adoption of the Hays Production Code.
The "General Principles" of the Hays Code provide an overview of the regulations and standards and an indication to the level of censorship it provided.
For details of the rules, regulations and standards stipulated in the Hays Code and the effect of censorship on American movies refer to our article on the Hays Code and Censorship
Will Hays (November 5, 1879 – March 7, 1954) was President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and a former US Postmaster General (1921–1922). Will Hays had resigned from his cabinet position to take up this highly lucrative position in the movie industry. His appointment was a great public relations coup and considerable publicity was given to his political career and his roles as a Presbyterian deacon.
His main roles were to reduce studio costs, improve the movie industry's image and to persuade individual state censor boards not to ban specific movies outright. He was the perfect choice to head the censorship team to formulate the Hays Code.
He appointed tough, Irish Catholic Joseph Breen (October 14, 1890 – December 5, 1965) as "chief" of the Production Code Administration (PCA) to impose the more rigorous standards in the movie industry. Joseph Breen was journalist and an influential layperson in the Roman Catholic community which met the approval of the Catholic Legion of Decency. Breen's appointment did not meet the approval of many members of the Hollywood Movie community.
Joseph Breen held strong anticommunist and anti-Semitic views which antagonized the (largely) Jewish movie moguls and studio heads. In 1936 Liberty Magazine, a popular general-interest magazine wrote that Joseph Breen's appointment had given him "more influence in standardizing world thinking than Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin."
The Hays Code was abandoned in 1965 when the MPPDA adopted the age-based rating system that is in force today.
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