Censorship in Hollywood  

   
  
           The 1920's was a period of rapid change. People in America were disillusioned due to the devastation of World War I and many found their ideals crushed. The former innocence of the nation was replaced by a longing for fun and escape from the bitterness that followed the war. As the 1920's began, Hollywood began to realize that the cleaner movies they had formerly produced would no longer satisfy the people's thirst.  As a result, they stopped producing such films as Birth of a Nation (1915) which was a sort of documentary on the Ku Klux Klan, and went on to produce films with more sex and violence.  Some examples of this were Know Thy Husband (1919) which told the story of a young man who goes into the city for excitement and contracts a horrible disease that prevents him from marrying or Outside the Law (1921), a typical crime movie of the time.
            Long before films such as these had become mainstream in society, certain groups such as the Catholic church and conservative Protestants opposed films that threatened morality such as The Kiss (1896) which was a kiss between a man and a woman that lasted less than a minute or The Night Riders (1907) which was one of the first westerns.  The main organizations that were pushing for censorship in those days were religious groups, but anyone who was concerned about the impact of movies was also involved.  Even though the conservatives of this time were aware that immorality had long been present in burlesque houses and dime novels, they were concerned that moving pictures would have a much greater influence.  As a result, many parents, educators, civic organizations and religious groups pushed continuously for censorship in the first half of the 20th century.  The main concerns of these groups was that Hollywood was, for better or worse, reflecting mainstream, modern and urban American values.  Because the youth of that time was so involved in films, conservatives feared that these youngsters might imitate values which they deemed immoral.  
              As a response to the protests of these groups, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915) that films were subject to censorship and could not claim protection under the First Amendment.  The Motion Picture Commission was then created in 1921 which became the major form of government induced censorship of films for the next 44 years.
            But it was three scandals in the early part of the decade which prompted the first act of censorship on the part of Hollywood.  After Fatty Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter in the death of the young actress Virginia Rappe and Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered (with the actresses Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter named as the prime suspects), people began to see Hollywood as immoral.  When two young actors, Olive Thomas and Wallace Reid, died from drug abuse, Hollywood was castigated as "the Sodom of the western world."  The movie industry was faced with the prospect of either cleaning up their act or paying for the scandals. Seeing their need to act quickly, restore public confidence and avoid the government resuming control of censorship, Hollywood acted to police themselves by organizing the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) with Will H. Hays as president.
            Hays saw his task not as making Hollywood like Puritans, but instead to make them "mature enough to bear censure, conservative enough to value goodwill and shrewd enough to advocate middle class morals."  However, his main objective was to avoid and oppose state censorship.  Hays tried to convince the industry that they would save a lot more money in the long run if they made clean movies, rather than having to pay to redo films after cuts were made by the Commission or losing money when a film was censored.  For a large part of the 1920's, however, his methods were not producing a satisfactory solution for either Hollywood or the pro-censorship groups:  "Invariably they [the films] are too clean and they [the public] stay away on account of it," noted the president of Universal pictures after trying it Hays' way.  On the other hand, a censorship board declared that movies had actually become more objectionable under Hays' leadership.  With the release of the first "talkie" or a movie with sound, a whole new set of issues arose.  As one religious leader put it: "Silent smut had been bad, vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance."  Hollywood came under fire once again from the pro-censorship groups and Hays realized that his gentle nudging of it would no longer satisfy these groups.  Therefore, the Hays Office formulated a list of "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls" which they promised Hollywood would obey.  This list is as follows:

                    Don'ts                                                                                                                           Be Carefuls
- profanity                                                                                                          - use of the flag                        - sedition
- licentiousness or suggestive nudity                                                                  - international relations           - cruelty to children or animals
- illegal drug traffic                                                                                            - firearms                                - the sale of women
- inference of sexual perversion                                                                         - arson                                     - rape or attempted rape
- white slavery                                                                                                    - theft                                      - first night scenes
- miscegenation                                                                                                   - robbery                                 - man and woman in bed
- sex hygiene and venereal diseases                                                                    - brutality                                - deliberate seduction of girls
- childbirth                                                                                                           - murder techniques                - institution of marriage
- children's sex organs                                                                                         - methods of smuggling           - surgical operations
- ridicule of the clergy                                                                                         - hangings or electrocutions   - the use of drugs
- willful offense to any nation race or creed                                                        - sympathy with criminals       - excessive kissing
  
            However, the movie industry hardly abided by these codes and most producers systematically found a way of getting around them.  Their main objective was to make money and to make money they had to make movies that would attract the most people.  Unfortunately, the things that Hays was blacklisting were what the people wanted.  As a result, Hollywood movies became more and more immoral.  In Mating Call (1929), an actress swam nude and then wore a wet shirt home and The Flesh and the Devil (1921) featured a dangerous seductress.  The pro-censorship groups were outraged and many people began to reinstate their support for government censorship since it had become apparent that Hollywood was incapable of regulating itself and that Hays had failed to make them do so.
            It was clear that a change was necessary, so in 1929 a new man named Martin Quigley came onto the scene.  Quigley had been acting as a matchmaker between Hollywood and the Catholic church for a number of years.  Unlike Hays, Quigley saw that he had to please both sides if he was ever going to convince Hollywood to clean up their films.  Therefore, he formulated the Production Code which had three main principles: 1) No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it.  2) Law, natural or divine, must not be belittled, ridiculed, nor must a sentiment be created against it. 3) As far as possible, life should not be misinterpreted, at least not in such a way as to place in the mind of youth false values on life.  It also termed movies as entertainment and said that those who produced them must produce "correct entertainment" for the masses in a way that honored the "moral responsibilities of the motion pictures."
            Hays' reaction to the new Production Code was very positive: " My eyes nearly popped out when I read it. This was the very thing I had been looking for."  He quickly convinced the studios that this was the best and cheapest answer to their problems, and in 1930 it was adopted.  The studios understood that their adoption of the Code was purely voluntary, but they knew that if they did not abide by it they faced government censorship.  As a result, the Production Code stayed in place and was reasonably effective for the next 30 years or so until it was replaced by the rating system we have today.

Related Links:
www.artsreformation.com
www.brightlightsfilm.com
www.filmsite.org
www.paulsann.org
www.pbs.org