- Historic Sites
Hollywood Cleans Up Its Act
The curious career of the Hays Office
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
First among the industry’s lines of defense was the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. Begun in 1909 in response to the New York theater closings, the board was a nongovernmental organization, staffed by high-minded volunteers, that’ previewed all films and rated their suitability for various audiences. Unfortunately, over the years, the board’s rulings had grown increasingly liberal, and its financial ties to the film industry had become increasingly apparent. In 1916 the worried moviemakers instituted the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry. This precursor to the Hays Office issued the “Thirteen Points,” a list of themes and stories they promised to avoid. Included were films “thematically making prominent an illicit love affair which tends to make virtue odious and vice attractive” and those “with scenes which exhibit nakedness or persons scantily dressed, particularly suggestive bedroom and bathroom scenes and scenes of inciting dancing.” But with no enforcement machinery to speak of, the points were honored mainly in the breach. After New York State passed a stringent censorship bill in August, it was clear that a better strategy was needed.
Enter Will H. Hays. The czar’s first actions amounted to a massive public relations campaign to improve the movies’ image. Three months after his appointment, he invited representatives of sixty public service organizations to a meeting in the Waldorf Hotel, and announced the “Open Door” policy: a new committee on public relations would make sure that anyone with a complaint about the movies would get a hearing. He advised the studio publicity departments to play down the high salaries and luxurious living conditions of players and executives, and convinced the studio heads to write contract clauses making actors subject to dismissal if they were even accused of moral turpitude. He instituted the Central Casting Corporation—a consolidation of the “extra” business that did much to rid Hollywood of unsavory hangers-on. And in speeches and pamphlets with titles like “The Voice of a Free People” and “What’s Right With America,” he spoke the party line: that Hollywood had entered its majoritys that it could tame its own free spirits, and that self-regulation was infinitely preferable to and more effective than censorship.
Hays laid it on thick, but his homespun approach was no act. He was always something of an innocent: after refusing Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer permission to make a movie of Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat because “they tell me the heroine is a nymphomaniac,” he paused and asked, “By the way, what is a nymphomaniac?” In his own Memoirs , he tells of visiting a set, on his first trip to Hollywood, where the child star Jackie Coogan was “bidding a silent good-bye to his sleeping grandparents because he realized that … they could no longer support him … he was … blinking at the sleeping old couple and brushing away the tears with his ragged little sleeve. I broke down and started to cry myself.… What the world needed … was more human and heart-warming pictures like that.”
At first, the country took Hays at his word. The congressional legislation was defeated, and only one of the state censorship bills pending at the end of 1921 became law.
But there was trouble ahead for the Hays Office. Just two months after the czar took command, one of his fellow elders announced, “Will Hays sold his Presbyterian birthright … for a mess of motion picture pottage.” Similar reactions followed, especially after Hays removed the employment ban against Arbuckle in late 1922, and after it was revealed that the Hays Office had paid secret honoraria to some of those who had cooperated with the committee on public relations, and had blatantly disregarded the objections of others. The censorship cries started up once more, the forces of good charging—in the words of a pamphlet called “Broken Promises of the Motion Picture Industry”—that “the ‘Open Door,’ with Mr. Hays as a doorkeeper, was nothing but a trapdoor.”