The Hays Code: Censorship, Sexism And The Code That Built Pop Culture
By Alex Cranz
Contrary to popular belief the United States has always been a bit more conservative than its peers of modern western civilization. When those Puritans toddled over to escape King James’s religious persecution they brought with them a few boat loads of social hangups that have managed to persist in American culture well into the modern day.
But waging war against the American prude (who probably lives to some degree in all Americans) there have been the artists. Painters, writers, cartoonists, and artists of more traditional mediums have pushed the boundaries of social appropriateness and over the centuries pulled America, ever so slowly, away from its Puritan mindset.
And in the 1920s filmmakers were the artists reaching the most people. Films from filmmakers like Lois Weber, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Land and Georg Pabst were causing actual riots with their frank portrayals of sex and their brazen heroines whom rejected traditional “moralist” thought and did as they pleased when they pleased. Every year saw new radical (and radically popular) films.
Lawmakers, fueled by the conservative religious zeal that had found them enacting Prohibition ten years earlier were horrified by what was coming out of Hollywood. Their hackles raised they started talking about government oversight and heavy-duty censorship. They didn’t like these films where people had sex out of wedlock and wore revealing clothes and where women were just as likely as the men to be cruel and rotten and, more importantly, get away and be rewarded for their cruel and rotten behavior.
The studios, desperate to avoid the oversight of a bunch of politicians resolved to create their own board of standards. In 1921 they organized the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and asked Presbyterian elder Will H. Hays to run things.
And for the next few years Hays and his organization spat out rules and made demands of filmmakers, but there wasn’t actually anything stopping filmmakers from ignoring Hays and the MPPDA. Local theaters would still screen their films and people would still go and faint or riot because someone showed a little skin or made a pass at a man or woman.
Things became more urgent in 1927 when sound quickly became a major part of films. Now you could hear the sighs and moans of pleasure and the images on-screen suddenly felt…more realistic than they had before.
In 1929 Daniel Lord and Martin Quigley, developed a new and quite rigid code. Hays loved the code and worked with the two men to get it adopted.
Included in the code were things like:
- Sex out of wedlock could not be portrayed in a desirable light.
- Authority figures must be respected.
- Criminals must be punished.
- Miscegenation is prohibited.
- White slavery is prohibited (and only white).
- Sex perversion (homosexuals, trans persons, sexually fluid persons) prohibited.
- Child birth prohibited.
- No complete nudity and highly restricted partial nudity.
- No sexy dancing.
- No mocking of religion.
- Lynching, branding, cruelty to children and animals, and the sale of women were all permissable as long as in “good taste.”
By 1930 the code had been adopted by the MPPDA and widely haled as wonderful by Hollywood.
Mainly because Hays and MPPDA still weren’t actually capable of enforcing their new code. Studios agreed with it but continued to churn out films full of sex and violence that a nation beaten by the Great Depression were quick to embrace.
Actresses like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich became huge stars. Garbo appeared in films like Queen Christina, where she plays the bisexual queen of Sweden, and Anna Christie, where she’s a prostitute who finds love. Dietrich was also big on playing sexually liberated women. In her breakout film, The Blue Angel she’s a dancer so gorgeous it drives a man mad. In Blond Venus, one of the best examples of “Pre-Code” cinema, Dietrich is a dancer who has an affair to help pay for her husband’s medical treatment. It’s notable because (spoiler) she isn’t punished for her adultery by the end of the film. Indeed she gets a happy ending.
Both women, besides being known for playing strong and sexually confident women, were also themselves strong and sexually confident. Dietrich was openly bisexual and wore men’s clothes in her films and around town, much to the consternation of moralists, and rumors of lesbianism swirled around Garbo. These women simply didn’t give a damn how they were perceived by the conservatives of the day.
But everything changed June 13, 1934. That’s when Hays established the Production Code Administration and required that every film made in the US be approved by the PCA before it could be screened for the public. And to head this new administration he appointed Joseph Breen.
A lot of people haven’t heard of Breen. A quick look at his Wikipedia page reveals little more than his vocation and date of birth and death, but for the next twenty years Joseph Breen would be the most powerful man in Hollywood and his vision would shape the entirety of American culture. How we now perceive the late 30s through the early fifties? The picket fences and the idyllic families and the two bed master bedrooms? That was all due to Joseph Breen.
He was the gatekeeper of morality and he was extraordinarily stern.
Betty Boop’s costume was forced to change because of Breen. He demanded revisions to famous films like Casablanca, demanded significant edits from other films and actually kept some films from being screened. Most famously with Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw. Apparently Jane Russell’s breasts were too magnificent to be seen on screen. It took over two years and repeated visits to Breen before Hughes’s film was screened.
Actors and actresses who had found success in the Pre-Code era playing multifaceted characters found themselves suddenly struggling with badly written roles in bland films.
It got so bad that many of the biggest Pre-Code actresses still working in the late 30s were labelled “Box Office Poison.” Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Mae West, Kay Francis and Joan Crawford were singled out in a full page ad that ran in The Hollywood Reporter. These women had dominated the box off in the early thirties and taken the studios to the cleaners with lucrative contracts that made them the best paid actresses in Hollywood. They’d earn their livings playing conflicted prostitutes, adulterers, and sexually liberated women. But when the PCA started enforcing Hays’s rules these women’s bread and butter films disappeared and their box office draw suffered.
Hepburn, Dietrich and Crawford would experience a resurgence during World War 2 playing strong women that men could feel comfortable leaving behind to see to the nation’s well being. Sadly the same opportunities didn’t arrive for Garbo, West or Francis. The films that had made them stars were banned from theaters and they drifted out of the public eye, and in Francis’s case, into obscurity.
Meanwhile the filmmakers had to figure out a way around Breen’s draconian rule. None were better at it then Preston Sturges. Sturges only made a handful of films before dying in 1959 but every single one was a subversive gem of a film. The Lady Eve starred Barbara Stanwyck as a criminally clever con artist out to seduce and rob Henry Fonda. Normally, in the Breen era, her fate would have been death and the film would have been a maudlin melodrama. But Sturges made a comedy and wrote a script so smart the censors didn’t even realize it was violating their rules. Stanwyck survives the film, life and dignity intact.
His later film Miracle of Morgan Creek is a pseudo-sequel to his sartorial The Great McGinty and is one of the slyest films to ever squeak past the censors. Betty Hutton is a dim-witted young woman who loves to party. So much that she gets wildly drunk one night and wakes up pregnant. Then, because her character really likes dudes, she has to figure out which former lover is the father of her child. Naturally Breen and company were upset. So upset that they refused to approve of the majority of the script. When Sturges started filming he only had ten pages complete.
No one is quite sure how the film managed to make it into theaters. James Agee, one of the founding fathers of film criticism posited (in an oh so charming manner) in The Nation that:
…Thanks to these devices the Hays office has been either hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep.
Yeah, it was confusing how the film made it through intact, but it did, and it was a wild success, earning its studio, Paramount, millions and playing to theaters with standing room only.
By 1951 Breen and the PCA were becoming a bit of a joke. Films like Johnny Belinda, about a black woman who can pass for white (she was, in fact, played by a white woman) and falls in love with a white man, were making it to theaters despite clearly violating Hays’s beloved code (remember even though the actress was white her character was black and the romance counted as miscegenation).
So they revised the code. Made it stricter and from 1951 to 1954 they desperately tried to maintain their power despite major things happening politically. Like Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson (1952), a Supreme Court decision that granted films protection under the First Amendment and significantly reduced the potential for government censorship.
Then in 1954 Breen, no doubt exhausted by twenty years of telling women to stop looking so sexy, retired. His replacement, Geoffrey Shurlock, was worthless and studios began to ignore Shurlock and the PCA so they could try making films that would pull people away from their new fangled televisions where genies showed off their belly buttons.
When Some Like It Hot premiered in 1959 sans PCA approval and was wildly successful financially and critically things turned worse for the PCA. It was a dinosaur. Seven years later the new head of the MPAA (its name was changed from MPPDA in the late 40s), Jack Valenti (yes the guy who only recently retired and passed away), completely abandoned the Hays Code for a new ratings system.
But that system and it’s effect on film’s portrayal of women is a conversation for another day.