- Historic Sites
Hollywood Cleans Up Its Act
The curious career of the Hays Office
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
Throughout the twenties and thirties, the besieged industry periodically would meet these demands with ineffective programs for reform. First came the 1924 “Formula,” which, in order “to prevent the prevalent type of book and play from becoming the prevalent type of picture,” asked producers to present all books or plays to be adapted for the screen to the Hays Office; it would rule on their acceptability. But the Formula did not even apply to original scripts and, like the Thirteen Points, it was wholly voluntary; although sixty-seven rejections were made in its first year, only twenty and ten were made the next two. In 1927 Hays issued the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” a list of eleven subjects to be avoided in films and twenty-six to be treated with special care. Included in the former were “miscegenation” and “scenes of actual childbirth—in fact or in silhouette,” and in the latter “branding of people or animals” and “excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or another is a ‘heavy.’ ” Once again, though, there was no way to enforce compliance. The Don’ts were superseded, in 1930, by the Motion Picture Production Code, written by Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest, and Martin Quigley, a leading trade publisher and a lay Catholic. The producers eventually agreed to submit all scripts and completed films to the Production Code Administration (PCA), within the Hays Office. But decisions could be overridden by an appeals board composed of studio executives—who, following a philosophy of mutual back-scratching in hard times, were hardly strict constructionists.
In Hollywood, meanwhile, the flood of scandals had dwindled to a stream, but the content of pictures had become more problematic. Throughout the twenties, the studios acted on the theory that spice sold tickets, as did advertisements like “Helen of Troy—an A.D. Mamma in a B.C. Town” and “neckers, petters, white kisses, red kisses, pleasuremad daughters, sensation-craving mothers.” But when the Depression hit Hollywood, producers tried to hold on to their audiences by offering them more violent, sensational material than ever before. And the advent of sound brought a new dimension—and new problems. As one historian has written, “The frenzied filming of Broadway plays … brought the clink of highball glasses, the squeal of bedsprings, the crackle of fast conversation to a thousand Main Streets.”
The antimovie campaign of the early thirties differed from earlier crusades not so much in content as in militancy, constituency, and efficacy. It was fueled in large part by something that had always been lacking and that, in this social-science-obsessed age, was invaluable: “scholarly” evidence about the influence of movies on the nation’s young. The Payne Fund studies conducted by the Motion Picture Research Council were the inspiration of William H. Short, a censorship advocate who previously had lamented that “the absence of an adequate and wellauthenticated fact” had prevented “the civic-minded forces of the country” from really throwing their weight around. A total of eleven volumes, all written by academics, appeared between 1933 and 1935; they discussed movies’ effects on children’s sleep, behavior, and attitudes, and catalogued their contents. In 1930, for instance, one of the studies reported that 81 per cent of all films released dealt with crime, sex, love, mystery, or war. The most provocative findings had to do with the way movies colored sexual and criminal ideas and actions. Herbert Blumer went to the horse’s mouth, presenting in his Movies and Conduct the testimony of adolescents: “It was directly through the movies that I learned to kiss a girl on her ears, neck and cheeks, as well as on her mouth.” “I think the movies have a great deal to do with the present socalled wildness. If we did not see such examples in the movies, where would we get the idea of being ‘hot’?” And, from a young reformatory inmate: “Movies have shown me the way of stealing automobiles, the charge for which I am now serving sentence.”