Hollywood Cleans Up Its Act


Each year, Hollywood, faced with steadily declining attendance, stretched the code more; at the PCA, Vizzard makes clear, it was like trying to stop a hurricane with an umbrella. After Hays’s successor, Eric Johnston, retired, the beleaguered studios looked to the party in power in Washington once again: in 1966, they tapped Jack Valenti, a White House aide of Lyndon Johnson. Valenti realized that the code had become, in the language of the day, irrelevant, and in 1968 he decided to junk it. Its replacement was a system that merely rated films—X, R, M (later changed to GP, and then to PG), and G—and that is still in effect. The ratings involve self-regulation of a sort, since restricted ratings do limit bookings: producers bargain with the ratings board—if so much nudity, foul language, or violence is excised, can an X be reduced to an R, or an R to a PG? Still, assuming one accepts the rating that is given, everything is permitted.


It would be hard to overestimate the influence of the Hays Office on the American movies of the thirties, forties, and fifties. As Vizzard wrote, the code was “a value system … the articulation of a homogeneous set of definitions regarding Man, and Life, and Reality, and the Nature of the Human Condition and the Business of Man in Life.” Films made under the code’s everwatchful eye could not help mirroring its creed. Possibly more than any other agency, the code helped forge the Hollywood vision. That vision was so powerful, ironically, that a remarkable number of the cynical products of the “new” Hollywood—from Bonnie and Clyde to Blazing Saddles to The Godfather —were reactions more to it than to the world around them.