In the 1920s, millions of Americans began watching Hollywood movies and movie theaters spread across America. Almost as soon as film developed into the preeminent art form of 20th century mass culture, some Americans began to worry that mass entertainment was corrupting morals.
The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“Self-appointed guardians of public morality, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Federal Motion Picture Council, and the Catholic Church, called for government censorship. They noted that in 1915, the Supreme Court had ruled that making movies was a business and was thereby subject to prior restraint, and could not claim protection under the free speech clause of the First Amendment …”
Hollywood moguls were legally vulnerable due a recent Supreme Court ruling in Mutual Film Corp v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915) which ruled that film wasn’t protected by the First Amendment. They took the threat of censorship seriously and thwarted it by adopting the Hays Code:
“The moguls were terrified that these and other scandals would inspire Congress to impose government censorship upon the industry. “Hollywood is a colony of … people where debauchery, riotous living, drunkenness, ribaldry, dissipation [and] free love seem to be conspicuous,” thundered one U.S. senator. Following the example of organized baseball, which hired Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to restore the game’s image after the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, they created the post of movie czar and gave it to Will Hays, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and postmaster general in President Harding’s cabinet.
Hays, head of the newly organized Motion Picture Producers and distributors of America at a yearly salary of $100,000, use his influence in Washington to block federal censorship and the formation of censorship boards in all but six states. Hays inserted a “morals clause” in the contracts signed by movie stars that permitted the studios to cancel a contract for even the slightest hint of turpitude. Only Rin-Tin-Tin was said to be absolved from the clause. The studios also voluntarily agreed to submit all scripts to the Hays Office to ensure that they contained no questionable material. Hays’s most brilliant ploy was to involve the groups urging censorship in the creation of the Production Code. Satisfied with the lengthy list of dos and don’ts, they dropped their demands for government controls. Barred from the screens were profanity, licentiousness, nudity, illegal drugs, sexual perversion, white slavery, miscegenation, venereal disease, childbirth, children’s sex organs, ridicule of the clergy, and insults to nations, creeds, and races. For the next four decades, married coupled in the movies always slept in twin beds, wore pajamas and nightgowns, and kept one foot ont he floor when lying down together.”
The Golden Age of Hollywood lasted from the 1910s to the 1960s.
Film was shackled by prudent self censorship and the full implications of the Modernist doctrine of art for art’s sake would be delayed until the late 1960s. In 1952, the Supreme Court overturned Mutual Film Court in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson (1952) and Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s increasingly backed away from self-censorship until adopting the MPA film rating system.
The Hays Code only kept some of the worst content out of Hollywood movies while the studios built up a loyal mass audience.
“Louise Brooks exemplified the youth and good looks worshipped by the Twenties. Strikingly beautiful, the girl with the sleek helmet of raven black hair was “cool and looked hot.” Fair-skinned, long-legged, and slim, she came to New York from a small town in Kansas as a teenager for a brief but memorable fling as a Ziegfeld Follies dancer, model, and movie star. On film, she was luminous and her gaze was both inviting and enigmatic. “Exquisitely hard-boiled,” in the words of Photoplay magazine, she was radiant, energetic, volatile, voluble, brazen, outspoken, rebellious, and set the standard for the flapper. Young women did their best not only to look like Louise Brooks but to act like her.
Pretty and impudent, the flapper was the symbol of the sexual revolution associated with the postwar era. She challenged prevailing notions about gender roles and defied the double standard. In essence, she demanded the same social freedoms for herself that men enjoyed. Flappers flouted conventionality, drank in speakeasies and the new nightclubs, doubled the nation’s consumption of cigarettes by reaching “for a Lucky instead of a sweet,” and flirted openly. Scott Fitzgerald described her as “lovely and expensive and about nineteen …
Suddenly, women everywhere were wearing makeup, which had earlier been regarded as the mark of a “fast” woman. Seventy-three percent of women over eighteen used perfume, 90 percent face powder, 73 percent toilet water, and 50 percent rouge. Kissproof lipstick was the rage. Helena Rubinstein, Charles Revson, and Elizabeth Arden made fortunes by persuading American women they could capture their dream man if they used the right lipstick, mascara, or skin lotion. Palmolive soap promised the “beauty secret of Cleopatra hidden in every cake.” New York, the hub of fashion, began the decade with 750 beauty salons, most catering to wealthy women. Within five years, three thousand such establishments were pampering working women as well as the rich. Nationwide, there were forty thousand beauty salons in 1930, and the cosmetic industry’s earnings grew from $17 million a year to $200 million over the same period.
Young women no longer patterned themselves on their mothers, mothers imitated their daughters. The role models of the era were such rising movie stars as red-haired Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Colleen Moore, among others, who from the screen projected sexual attractiveness, energy, and independence …
Young people of college age made drinking fashionable. Formerly, any girl of good family would have been horrified if offered a drink, but by the second part of the decade, drinking was common among students at dances and football games. Hip flasks were part of party attire and the young man who couldn’t offer his girl a silver flask and a drink was “a drip.” Students were contemptuous of the self-righteous moralists they associated with Prohibition and accused them of invading the privacy of others. “To presume that one can define decency or legislate virtue is folly, said The Daily Princetonian in a typical statement.
Society was paying greater attention to the young than ever before. In every age, youth has a sense of destiny, of experiencing – rightly or wrongly – what no one else has ever experienced before, but this sentiment reached an unmatched intensity during the Twenties. For the first time – and in a prelude to the Sixties – the nation’s youth rather than their elders set the standards for American society.”
Naturally, Modernist libertines who believed in art for art’s sake objected that it WAS NOT a slippery slope and that it did not necessarily follow that impressionable young women who watched Hollywood movies would start imitating the lifestyles of glamorous Hollywood movie stars as role models. It was just conservative puritans and philistines who hated art who thought this way.
Long before the 1960s, Hollywood movies were reshaping American culture and redefining American values in a more libertine and egalitarian direction. By the 1940s, Hollywood movies were already promoting antiracism and establishing the postwar taboo on anti-Semitism. Racial attitudes changed in sync with with World War II propaganda and the shift in tone of how race was covered in the mass media in the early 1940s. Film would later be used to normalize miscegenation and homosexuality. In the age of Cuties, it is being used to normalize pedophilia and Modernists blithely make the same laughable argument that the “philistines” just hate art and there is nothing to worry about.
My research into how Victorianism gave way to Modernism has convinced me that we get the culture that we deserve. In fact, the reverse was true with Victorianism. British and American society became more elevated, refined and moral in the 19th century than it had been in the 18th century. The focus was on uplifting the masses to a higher standard rather than “liberating” them from conventional norms.