The Hays Code, named after the man who oversaw its creation, Will H. Hays (although he didn’t actually write the code), was a set of guidelines for the content of American films that was introduced in 1930s with the purpose of censoring anything that could possibly promote an immoral message. It was suggested that films should be an “improving” medium:
“If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind.” – Introduction to Motion Picture Production Code (1930)
While the Hays Code may sound like classic nanny state or religious interference in art, it was actually brought in voluntarily by Hollywood studios.
The emergence of talkies in the 1920s and 30s saw a rise in complaints from the public about the content of films. Whilst filmmakers of the time were hardly pumping out super-hardcore porn, they were pushing boundaries with language, violence, sex and, in general, immoral actions that were not punished.
The public hub-bub aroused the attention of the US government. So, before the Feds stepped in and put Jean Harlow in a smock, the studios came up with the Hays Code as a way to show they were sensitive to the public and the government’s concerns, and would clean up their act. The Hays board was set up to review new motion pictures in the 1930s, but the code was not rigourously enforced from 1934.
The code (technically know as the Motion Picture Production Code) was essentially of a list of actions that were either a) prohibited, or b) to be addressed with caution in films. It was quite extensive, from the obvious, such as, not showing “children’s sex organs”, to the less obvious, such as, caution showing “branding livestock”.
Along with the list of more than 30 specific items to be wary of, there was also a 3-point, general guidance for filmmakers:
1. 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.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
The scope of these general guidelines caused filmmakers to avoid certain topics in fear of accidentally contravening them. In particular, the subjects of poverty, race relations and sexual equality (three of the most pressing social concerns over the nearly 40 year lifespan of the code), could prove to be Hays Code minefields.
The whole list of Do’s and Don’ts (mainly don’ts) might seem prohibitive to any filmmaker making anything other than the most twee and inoffensive material. But during the time of Hays some of cinema’s greatest directors produced some of their greatest films. The likes of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, John Ford, Howard Hawks, et al, found ways to work within the confines of the code and produce classics that are still revered today, even by our cynical, morally bankrupt standards.
The power of the code began to wane in the 1950’s though, as more prominent foreign films, which did not adhere to the code, entered US cinemas, and American directors began to push the boundaries of the code.
The first clear punch in the face of the code came in 1952 with the banning of L’Amore, which featured a controversial segment by Roberto Rossellini called Il Miracolo (The Miracle) that mixed religion with sex. The US distributor of the film, Joseph Burstyn, took his case to the Supreme Court, which decided that films deserved First Amendment rights as an artistic medium. Up to this point, film was not deemed worthy as an artistic medium.
The Supreme Court’s decision sent a signal to brave directors, showing them that the Hays Code was not really, legally enforceable. However, it was still a force and and would still be a massive ball-ache for any American director who was looking to make a film in defiance of it.
The Hays Code carried on for the rest of the 50s, although the interpretation and enforcement of its rules became more lax (just look at Welles’ Touch of Evil from 1958.). By the 60s the code, and in turn the films that Hollywood was making within its boundaries, was starting to looking incredibly tame, especially as European films from the time began to tackle grittier social topics and push boundaries even more.
The knockout blow was inevitably delivered by one of the studios. In 1966, Blowup, a film about a fashion photographer and murder that featured sexually explicit scenes, was produced by MGM. The Hays Board refused to approve it, and so… MGM released it anyway. It was a critical and commercial smash and the Hays’ non-approval meant nothing. The market had spoken, the Hays’ days were numbered.
The Hays Code had the pillow of progress held over its face in 1968 when it was officially binned and a formal ratings system was introduced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which is more or less intact today.
As mentioned, it’s interesting to consider the huge raft of all-time classic films that were made in Hollywood during this time of censorship. I would argue that it proves that censorship does not damage storytelling or filmmaking in itself. It doesn’t ban third acts or antagonists, so it doesn’t impede the mechanics that allow a filmmaker to tell a great story. However, on an artistic level it is highly pernicious; it limits the palette that the artist can sample.
By censoring films, even with ostensibly noble aims of promoting a virtuous life, the Hays hamstrung Hollywood when it came to tackling the most vital and troubling issues of the time. Consider the code covered the 30s to the end of the 50s (roughly), that encompases the rise of the civil rights movement, a major phase in feminism, millions of veterans returning from war, the great depression, fear of communism and McCarthyism, and other socially disruptive trends. And while there were films that did feature these issues, I would argue that they were not explored with the kind of vigour, depth and honesty that was needed.
Ultimately, films, like any artistic medium, don’t exist to promote a certain view of the world or a certain way of living, virtuous or otherwise. Films exist to explore all of life, in all its glory and all its foulness. If it presents its audience with truths they find uncomfortable, then it is not a fault with film, it is a fault with society at large. And silencing the message doesn’t erase the issue.
Having said that, the repeal of the Hays Code did lead to the collapse of western civilisation.