Skip to main content

Hollywood Cleans Up Its Act

July 2024
16min read

The curious career of the Hays Office

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.


The steady murmur of opposition that had kept up since the turn of the century grew into a shout after World War I. The principal reason was not any worsening of the movies themselves but a succession of scandals and innuendoes involving the off-screen behavior of the people who made them. The industry had moved to Hollywood during the teens; its success brought tens of thousands of hopefuls to the Los Angeles area. There weren’t enough jobs to go around, of course, and most of the newcomers ended up as drifters or worse. But still they referred to themselves as actors or extras; as a result, newspapers continually carried reports of “movie stars” caught in raids on brothels or marijuana parties.


Not all the scandals were bogus, though. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, an enormously successful—and enormous—comic actor, rented a San Francisco hotel suite over Labor Day, 1921, and filled it with women and bootleg whisky. It was a boisterous affair, until one of the revelers, a little-known actress, was found in a bedroom, in torn clothing and severe pain. She died four days later of peritonitis; witnesses placed Arbuckle with her behind locked doors, and he was tried for manslaughter. After two mistrials he was acquitted, but the damage had been done: the public believed the comedian had crushed the maiden to death. Paramount withdrew his films from distribution, and his career was ruined.

While Arbuckle’s first trial was in progress, another scandal hit the headlines—the director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered. The mystery of his death has never been solved, but during the investigation it was revealed that Taylor had had affairs with the popular actresses Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minier, that he had connections with the drug trade, and that on coming to Hollywood he had changed his name and adopted a whole new identity. These were preceded and followed by a string of similar incidents: Wallace Reid announced that he was a drug addict and was confined to a sanitarium; Olive Thomas was found poisoned in a Paris hotel room; and even Mary Pickford—“America’s Sweetheart”—was involved in a questionable divorce. Hollywood seemed to be a hotbed of dissolution; the nation couldn’t help thinking, as a book called The Sins of Hollywood put it, that “there is something about the pictures which seems to make men and women less human, more animal-like.”


The censorship forces girded their loins. Their arguments were summed up in a strange tract put out by one of their leaders, the Reverend William Sheaf e Chase, under the snappy title of Catechism on Motion Pictures in Inter-State Commerce: Shall This Inter-State Business, Dangerous to Morals and Politics, Be Nationally Controlled, a Trust Prevented and an Attack Upon Free Government Be Thwarted? Like a catechism, it was in the form of questions: “Shall no effective control be exercised over these Jews to prevent their showing such pictures as will bring them the greatest financial returns, irrespective of the moral injury they inflict upon the public?” and answers: “It is a crime too hideous for consideration to seize the idle, playful moments of a child in his most impressionable age and show him scenes of saf ecracking, drunken debauchery, sensuous love-making, abduction, and arson.” Between 1920 and 1922, resolutions condemning sinfulness in films were passed by the Southern Baptist Conference, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Christian Endeavor organizations. In 1921 alone, nearly one hundred censorship bills were introduced in the legislatures of thirty-seven states.


Still more alarming to the studios was the looming specter of federal censorship—it would open the door for stricter measures, and for regulation of the industry’s near-monopolistic marketing and distribution practices. In 1920 and 1921, several congressmen proposed investigation or regulation of movies. One of them, South Dakota senator Henry L. Myers, referred on the Senate floor to Arbuckle, Taylor, and Rudolph Valentine and concluded, “At Hollywood, California, is a colony of these people, where debauchery, riotous living, drunkenness, ribaldry, dissipation, free love seem to be conspicuous.”


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.”


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.”


The final push came from an unexpected source: the Catholic Church, which hitherto had lagged far behind the Protestants in lobbying against Hollywood: But the cavalier disregard for Lord and Quigley’s code evidently angered Catholic leaders, and they were able to give to the cleanup drive the ideological and organizational unity it always had lacked. In late summer, 1933, Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, the newly arrived Apostolic Delegate to the United States, announced: “Catholics are called by God, the Pope, the bishops and the priests to a unified and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema.” Shortly thereafter American bishops organized the National Legion of Decency, and asked Catholics to sign a pledge that read, in part, “I wish to join the Legion of Decency. … I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land.… I hereby promise to stay away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality. I promise further to secure as many members as possible for the Legion of Decency.” An estimated 7,000,000 to 9,000,000 people, among them many non-Catholics, signed the pledge. Movie attendance dropped significantly nationwide, and in Philadelphia, where the Cardinal had forbidden attendance at any film (reputedly because Warner Brothers had erected a particularly offensive billboard opposite his residence), box-office receipts fell some 40 per cent.


Nineteen thirty-three was a bad year for Hollywood. The effects of the Depression were being felt harder than ever; several studios were near bankruptcy or in receivership. The Legion campaign had not even reached its stride when the producers gave in. They agreed to eliminate the liberal studio committee and to levy a twenty-fivethousand-dollar fine for producing, distributing, or exhibiting any picture without the PCA’s seal of approval. The code was now law, with an enforcement machinery that was to hold up for thirty years.

The code is an exceedingly curious and—considering its power—littleknown document. Originally running some four thousand words (several amendments were added over the years), it was divided into two distinct parts. The first, “Particular Applications,” was essentially a new version of the Thirteen Points and the Dont’s and Be Carefuls. The difference was the exhaustive detail of the code. Where the Don’ts prohibited the use of only seven particular words, for example, the code listed no fewer than forty-three, including broad, cripes, fairy (in a vulgar sense), hot (applied to a woman), in your hat, nerts, and tomcat (applied to a man) . But the code treated more than risqué dialogue: “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer [sic] that low forms of sex relationships are the accepted or common thing. ” “In general, passion should be treated in such a manner as not to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.” “The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste or delicacy.” Contrary to popular belief, however, nowhere does the code say that when a man and woman are shown in bed together one of them must always have a foot on the floor.


What was truly new about the code, however, was its heavy theoretical emphasis; about twice as much space was allotted to philosophical exegesis as to the Particular Applications. The point was summarized in three general principles:

  1. 1. “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience will never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.
  2. 2. “Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. 3. “Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.”

Quigley and Lord believed in the capacity of art to do moral damage, and their emphasis therefore was not simply on subject matter but on theme and message. The code repeats over and over, in various wordings, “That throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right .” Quigley and Lord, however, never cited their authority for what constituted “wrong-doing,” “correct standards of life,” “natural law,” or “moral” (the word and its derivatives appear twentysix times in the code); they confined themselves to referring blithely to “the law which is written in the hearts of all mankind.”


Problems of philosophy notwithstanding, the code worked like a charm. Not only was the Legion of Decency campaign dropped (although the Legion did continue to rate films), but Pope Pius XI, in his 1936 encyclical letter on movies, wrote that the U.S. motion-picture industry “has recognized and accepts its responsibility before society. ” What was more surprising, the studios seemed happy to comply—within a year, some of them had even set up their own censorship operations. Under the leadership of second-generation moguls like Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick, and Darryl F. Zanuck, Hollywood in the thirties seemed determined to prove it could be “literary”; it concentrated on lofty films, generally drawn from the classics, or from respectable best sellers, such as David Copperfield, The Good Earth, The Barretts of Wimpale Street , and Gone With the Wind . By 1938 Fortune could report that while six states carried “ancient censorship legislation on their books and maintain boards of motion-picture review, these laws and groups have lost much of their raison d’être and they rarely cause the industry any trouble.”

Under the leadership of Joseph Ignatius Breen, a strong-willed Irish-Catholic ex-newspaperman, the Production Code Administration acquired a startling amount of clout. Even the czar was eclipsed—the PCA began to be known as the Breen Office, and until he stepped down in 1954, Hays spent most of his time spewing forth public relations. All scripts, prints, and works to be adapted had to be submitted, and Breen and his assistants were not at all hesitant in telling producers what would and wouldn’t wash. Among their tens of thousands of decisions and recommendations were: cautioning a producer of one projected film that “we presume there will be no suggestive reactions to the playing of ‘Let’s Put Out the Lights and Go to Bed’ ”; changing the title of a Joan Crawford picture from Infidelity to Fidelity , without touching the contents; banning—in 1941, at the peak of Lana Turner’s glory—“Sweater Art” from the screen; and forbidding Walt Disney to show a cow’s udder in one of his cartoons.


The classics got the same treatment. When MGM wanted to adapt Anna Karenina , problems were immediate; after all, the code said the subject of adultery should be avoided. After extensive consultations with the PCA, the studio agreed that the illegitimate child who appears in the novel should be eliminated; that the “matrimonial bond” would be “positively defended” by prominently featuring two happily married couples; that Vronsky would be portrayed unfavorably and would be miserable; and that no scenes could be played in Anna’s bedroom.


Not surprisingly, Breen eventually got too strong a sense of his own power. A former staff member, Jack Vizzard, writes in his memoirs that his boss “nurtured not the slightest seed of selfdoubt regarding his mission or his rectitude. He was right, the moviemakers were wrong, and that was that.” Breen once told a subordinate who was perusing the code, “Don’t pay any attention to that thing. Just you listen to me . I am the code. ”

It was inevitable that such personal and institutional hubris should crumble, and in the fifties the code began its decline. As television sets began illuminating living room after living room, film producers found they had to win audiences away from the tube, where family entertainment was the order of the day; they increasingly did so, as in the twenties and early thirties, with a program of sex and violence. At the same time, Supreme Court decisions began to chip away at the code’s power and rationale. In 1948 the Court ruled that studios could no longer hold giant theater chains, and, in 1952, that contrary to the 1915 Mutual decision, movies were in fact protected by freedom of speech and of the press. As a result, independently produced films without the PCA seal could be distributed relatively easily, and censorship—which self-regulation originally was designed to forestall—was no longer a threat. When Otto Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue was refused a seal in 1953, its distributor, United Artists, resigned from the MPPDA and released the film anyway.


Finally, the man who said he was the code stepped aside. In October, 1954, Breen was replaced by Geoffrey Shurlock, a transplanted Englishman who proved to be a far more liberal interpreter. His attitude brought him into conflict with the Legion of Decency, whose ties with the PCA had always been close, and which was still very much around. The break came in 1956, over Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll : for the first time, a film rated “Condemned” by the Legion was granted a seal by the PCA. (And condemned it was: Catholics in Albany were forbidden for six months to attend any theater that had shown it.) But things had changed in twenty years: by then, a Catholic boycott was likely to enhance a film’s appeal.


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.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.