December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
Once again the voice of the censor is heard in the land, and so are the contesting arguments of the civil libertarian, the artist, and the businessman who markets entertainment. It’s an old fight with a new twist. The Supreme Court has struck down parts of a Communications Decency Act aimed at shielding young people from pornographic material on the Internet. Under threat of similar hostile legislation, the television industry has also been thrashing its way to a system of ratings (like those used by moviemakers) to guide parents in deciding what to let the children watch. It’s significant that while television has been coping with critics for some fifty years now, and movies for a hundred, it’s the Internet that actually drew a federal censorship law.
I think it’s because the Internet is newer, more wide open, and therefore more frightening. When new inventions multiply the dissemination of words and images, they refocus our attention on an old issue: Where is the proper boundary between freedom of expression and the requirements of social order? In the 1870s, during an explosion of cheap reading matter, these same sources produced a noted antismut crusader, Anthony Comstock, whose name passed into the language as a synonym for censorship of the printed word. Half a century later the battlefield was Hollywood, where movies, still a daring novelty, fell under attack and warded it off by self-censorship under the guidance of Will H. Hays, who thereby left his imprint on the public mind as the voice of “thou shalt not” on celluloid.
Comstock and Hays were actually very different types. Comstock, born a Connecticut Yankee in 1844, seems from boyhood onward to have been a zealous Christian. As a Civil War enlisted man in a quiet theater in Florida, he was sorely tried by the profanity, drinking, and blaspheming of his fellow soldiers. “It seems,” he recorded in his diary, “as though Satan were set loose to drag men to destruction.”
After the war Comstock moved to New York, married, and had one child, who died in infancy. His breadwinning duties as a dry goods salesman seemed from the start to absorb him less than his work in the YMCA. His specialty was dragging into court local saloonkeepers who defied Sunday closing laws. But Comstock’s most relentlessly pursued enemy would turn out not to be rum but lewd literature. Cheap pulp paper and high-powered printing presses were creating a new mass readership among the young men and women flocking to the cities. Along with the “yellow” dailies and dime novels that they consumed were publications described by the directors of the New York YMCA in 1866 as “feeders for brothels.” Technology had given Satan new weapons, and Comstock rose wholeheartedly to the challenge. He began to seek out booksellers who handled such smut, get the damning evidence against them by a purchase, and then make a citizen’s arrest under state obscenity statutes. He was so effective that the YMCA’s businessmen bankrollers set up and funded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, of which Comstock was made secretary. He soon gave up his business career to make a full-time calling out of cleansing literary stables. In 1873 he succeeded in lobbying a willing Congress to pass a federal statute (thereafter known as the Comstock Laws) against the use of the mails to distribute obscene matter, including information on contraception.
For the next forty-two years, Comstock made himself the nemesis of whatever he deemed obscene. He was tireless, bold, and physically brave. During one of his arrests the exasperated quarry lunged at him with a knife and severed two facial arteries, leaving a scar that Comstock hid behind side-whiskers. There were other assaults as well, but he gloried in the risk of martyrdom: “Jesus was never moved from the path of duty, however hard, by public opinion. Why should I be?” Though financially incorruptible and reputedly kind to children, he had a hard streak that belied his self-proclaimed humility. When one of his victims, a sixty-seven-year-old abortionist, cut her throat while awaiting trial, he merely commented, “A bloody ending to a bloody life.” Unswayed by charges of dishonesty and entrapment, he answered ads under false names or prowled bookstores in disguise, a necessity as he became a national figure whose bald head, muttonchops, and stocky body were widely caricatured.
He was the loser in the long run as the high tide of Victorianism subsided. He made himself ridiculous because he could not distinguish among really vile trash, harmless titillation, and genuine art. When he railed against George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession , Shaw coined the word Comstockery and called it “the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States.” Comstock in turn labeled the playwright “this Irish smut-dealer.”
He died in 1915 soon after attending an International Purity Congress. Six years later a brand-new threat to purity was coming of age, generating a new struggle, in which a landmark shot was the 1921 appointment of Will Hays to clean up the new enchanter of the masses, the picture show.
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.