Hollywood Cleans Up Its Act
The curious career of the Hays Office
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
The comparisons were inevitable. Just a year earlier, in 1921, organized baseball had tried to counter the effects of the Black Sox scandal by appointing the august Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to the newly created position of commissioner. Now the motion-picture industry, faced with a clamor for censorship brought on by the wellpublicized excesses of film actors, and by Hollywood’s long-standing propensity for making salacious films, was naming William Harrison Hays, President Harding’s postmaster-general, to the directorship of their new trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA)—which would forever be known as the Hays Office. Obviously, the handful of moguls who ran the studios had hired Hays at an annual salary of one hundred thousand dollars because they wanted, as the New York Times reported, a “screen Landis”—some untainted notable who could clear the name of their industry.
For a number of reasons, Hays—a forty-two-year-old Hoosier with a wideopen, big-toothed smile that caricaturists loved—seemed the right man for the job. His was an influential voice with the party in power; he had been Republican national chairman before his Cabinet appointment and would provide a bulwark against not only federal censorship, but any antitrust action, a perennial Hollywood fear. He was a nonsmoker and teetotaler, an elder of the Presbyterian Church and, as postmaster, an avowed opponent of smut in the mails—a man, in other words, very much like the rural churchgoers who had been giving the movies their biggest problems. And perhaps the studio heads spied in Hays the qualities that reporter Edmund G. Lowry had remarked on a year before: “He is the one hundred per cent American we have all heard so much about. Submit him to any test and you get a perfect reaction.”
Hays gave the moguls their money’s worth, and more, but it turned out he wasn’t the paragon of virtue he appeared to be. For instance, he had taken part in some funny business involving “loans” made to the party by oilman Harry F. Sinclair, which figured in two conversations with Senator Joseph Walsh, the first in 1922 and the second four years later:
Walsh: To whom did Mr. Sinclair make this contribution?
Hays: To some member of the committee, I think. I am not sure.
Walsh: He did not make it to you, Mr. Hays?
Hays: No sir, he did not.
Walsh: Did Mr. Sinclair give those bonds to you personally?
Hays: Yes, sir.
But Hays’s virtual admission that he had lied before the U.S. Senate did not create much of a stir. People didn’t seem surprised when the motion-picture “czar” (as Hays was invariably known to the newspapers) proved not to be so upright; after all, there had always been something suspicious about the movie business.
Ever since their inception, the movies had flirted with the tawdry, the risqué, the immoral (the adjective varied with the speaker). The upholders of public virtue made periodic protests, and occasionally had their way. In 1894, just two weeks after Thomas Edison unveiled his Kinescope, some Atlantic City residents spoke out against a primitive epic called Dolorita in the Passion Dance . Three years later, a New York judge closed a film that showed a bride preparing for her wedding night, calling it an “outrage upon public decency.” Chicago established a strict censorship board in 1907; several states and some ninety municipalities soon followed suit. And during Christmas week, 1908, New York Mayor George B. McLellan shut down every nickelodeon in the city, ostensibly because of licensing irregularities.
Except for a 1912 law prohibiting interstate shipment of boxing films passed when the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeff ries bout stirred ugly racial feelings, federal censorship always had been averted. It was a continual threat to the industry, though, especially after a 1915 Supreme Court decision, Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio , decreed that prior censorship of films was not unconstitutional. Justice Joseph McKenna wrote, “The argument is wrong or strained which extends the guaranties of free opinion and speech to the multitudinous shows which are advertised on the billboards of our cities and towns … the exhibition of motion pictures is a business pure and simple … not to be regarded … as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion.” The movies, then, were not protected by the First Amendment.