Chasing Smut In Every Medium

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Hays, then a forty-one-year-old Republican politician from Indiana, was Harding’s Postmaster General. He was less the voice of embattled righteousness than of “normal” America. A contemporary described him as “a human flivver … the one hundred per cent American we have all heard so much talk about.” He therefore was an appealing symbol to a movie business not far from its penny-arcade origins that had a huge public relations problem. Films attended by as many as forty million people a week were courting viewers with spicy pictures whose ads (according to Frederick Lewis Alien’s Only Yesterday ) promised “beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties … white kisses, red kisses [whatever those might be], pleasure-mad daughters, sensation-craving mothers … the truth—bold, naked, sensational.” A wave of anti-Jazz Age reaction had led to talk of federal censorship.

Influenced by the example of the baseball owners who had just appointed Kenesaw Mountain Landis as “czar” of baseball to scrub its image after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, the film moguls offered Hays the job of chairing their trade association, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), with broad powers to help the industry achieve “the consideration and dignity to which it is justly entitled.” Hays, however, was neither an autocrat like Landis nor a Comstock type of zealot. He was, rather, a negotiator and politician, and he had one huge advantage over Comstock: Movie-making, unlike nineteenth-century publishing, was already so concentrated that a handful of production companies acting in unison could control the content of virtually every American film.

The Hays Office first got the studio heads to subscribe to a voluntary formula of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls.” The absolute taboos included profanity, “licentious or suggestive nudity,” “any inference of sex perversion,” venereal diseases, and “willful offense to any nation, race or creed” (which will come as a surprise to those who remember watching Stepin Fetchit). Like all voluntary agreements among competitors, the formula was skirted or stretched when big money was at stake. Not until the 1930s did Hays begin to make a difference. Frightened by falling revenues during the Depression, the moviemakers in 1930 subscribed to an enlarged and more specific Production Code drawn up by Martin Quigley, a Catholic layman who published an influential trade paper, The Motion Picture Herald , and by the Reverend Daniel J. Lord, SJ.

The code expanded the “formula” and buttressed it with a list of “Reasons.” Quigley and Lord declared that popular entertainment must strengthen the unsophisticated audience’s faith in the moral basis of society. Though evil might be shown, Quigley wrote, there was “a grave difference between a presentation of what is wrong when the effect is only to acquaint the audience with the wrong and a presentation of wrong which encourages approval.”

At last in 1934 the code got teeth thanks to a crusade of American Catholic bishops who organized a Legion of Decency among their flocks, pledged to boycott not only the films dubbed indecent by church authorities but also the theaters that showed them. Faced with this threat to the box office, the producers gave the Hays Office an almost unlimited veto over the release of any movie.

And so began the long era of Hays Office self-censorship of films, during which on-screen sin was always punished, courtship ended at the altar, the marital boudoir itself had twin beds, and God ruled over a wholesome nation where every wrong was righted before the fade-out. And since, during the thirties, eighty million Americans went to at least one show a week, Hays realized his objective of making movie attendance an established ritual of the American way of life.

Postwar changes in Hollywood and the nation began the eventual dissolution of the code. As early as 1953, the year before Hays’s death, Otto Preminger defiantly and successfully distributed The Moon Is Blue without the MPPDA seal. The film had been refused an O.K. merely because the script used words like virgin and mistress and lightly treated attempted—but unsuccessful—seduction. In the end the establishment that Hays built was no more successful than Anthony Cornstock in prevailing against the tides of cultural change.