The Hays Code

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.

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  1. Hays censorship: Privatization of public morality, like for-profit Google, Bing, Youtube, etc. being entrusted with “protecting” the public from pornography today.

  2. Unless I misunderstand the history, the Hays Code didn’t really kick in until 1934, when, in response to pressure from the Catholic Legion of Decency, enforcement of it was turned over to the Irish Catholic Joseph Breen, as head of the MPPDA’s newly-created Production Code Administration.

    Breen, a Philadelphian, born in 1888, attended Roman Catholic High School, whose 1890 founding marks, in my mind, the arrival, for better or worse, of Catholic Philadelphia (which supplanted Quaker Philadelphia and was supplanted, in turn, by black Philadelphia).

    Yes—for two or three decades, I guess, through the influence of Breen, America was rather a Catholic country. Those were the best years of your lives, Anglos. We Philly Papists did the best we could to save you.

      • Just another example of Catholics sticking their noses in where it didn’t belong for profit.

        What was that dago’s name who was in charge of Hollywood censorship from the 1960’s to not too many years ago? Jack Valenti or Valente? Made a nice living at it. Kickbacks and all.

    • An Italian Roman Catholic named Jack Valenti replaced the Hays code with MPAA rating system, which paved the way for pornography and obscenity in mainstream films. There was not really much difference between the pre-code and Hays code era motion pictures. However, after the ratings system was introduced in 1968, all sorts of filth and depravity were permitted to be displayed in the cinemas, including, among other things, interracial love and homosexuality. So, There is not much there to thank the Papists for. Your Popish ancestors from the European ghettos, who brought with them their indecency and licentiousness, caused this problem in the first place.

      • I’ll say one thing for you prots, you’re predictable. Our country is collapsing around our ears from the communist insurrection and you’re still babbling about Catholics. Good work supporting our race.

        • “Communist”? None of them are communist, or really socialist. They’re neo-liberal capitalists, and green capitalists, all “capitalist to the bone” as Nancy Pelosi says.

          Roman Catholicism is a real, existential threat, NOT nearly-nonexistent communism.

          • While Cristina is a child, and not an American, her Mexican catholicism is far more tangible, than the perverted, sodomitical version we Anglo Americans have been force fed (oh, the image!) for lo, these forty-plus years. cf.

            The Protestants who are true Christians on this forum, are correct- on this one point.
            – This nation WAS conceived to be an Anglo-Protestant land, and only as those non-Reformational groups came to America and were ‘assimilated,’ could we consider them to even BE American. (On almost everything else, they are as wrong as their Romanist elder sister)

            And it was (yes, here it comes!) the JEWs- the true AshkeNAZIS, who sought to ‘remake America in their own corrupt image’ that began the changes, around the 1890’s, beginning with the Dreyfuss Affair in Europe, the ‘legitimization of Jewry’ in the UK, and the Bolsheviks in Russia. ONE GROUP TO RULE THEM, and in the DARKNESS, BIND THEM.

            With Vatican Eww now being in the forefront of Bolshevism aligned to (in bed with?) Religion, (because while the Bolshies murdered millions of Orthodox, they learned you cannot destroy True religion) … a FALSE religion CAN be controlled; or if it is/becomes a CORRUPTED religion- i.e., Papism.

            Which means, ‘bone of contention’ as much as I adore most things Italian, and I will never condemn my Irish roots, both groups are mired in such a false theology- with a spurious sacramentology, imbalanced Trinitarianism, and meritorious works paradigms, that it is only IN SPITE OF, and not BECAUSE of, their Catholicism… that any are saved. That, and the reality that perhaps the CI paradigm that [Adamic] Man is already ‘primed’ (i.e., Elected) for salvation, that gives them any ‘edge up’ on their graced life.

          • Father John,

            Thank you for your sweet comment. Yes the United States was obviously built by the WASP for the WASP. No one should blame me for them giving it away. I continue to be amazed that they did it.

    • Thanks for the helpful info on the code, John. It was adopted in 1930, but being Hollyweird, it took a few years to get them to implement moral strictures. It had to be forced on them, of course, because reasoning with them to excise questionable scenes from movies wasn’t working.

      But now Krafty and Robert Browning will be coming for you, John! Praising the Irish and Catholics in the same comment? Ruh-roh!!

      • I’m glad you appreciated the historical detail, which is of some value, I guess, Boomer X; but commenter Micah Jenkins is probably right that it’s cant, as a narrative promulgated by liberals (and, in this case, parroted by me) tends to be. By that, I mean that liberals probably want to make Breen’s rise to censor something more dramatic, more significant, than it was. He (Jenkins) is probably right that there was not really much difference between the pre-Code pictures and the Hays Code pictures, as I myself, who’ve viewed only a small bit of the movie evidence, have, at least, considered. Whether he’s right that Catholics brought to America indecency and licentiousness that hadn’t been there before their arrival, I don’t know.

        I tend to agree with Krafty Wurker, too, that the Legion of Decency was “Catholics sticking their noses in where it [sic] didn’t belong,” though I don’t know that it was “for profit,” as he adds. If they’d done it for profit, you could almost excuse it.

        In bringing up the eventual role of Jack Valenti in all this, both Micah and Krafty have probably brought up something pretty important; but even though it played out right in front of my eyes, historically speaking, I know almost nothing about it.

        • I had studied silent films for awhile as a youngster. There were scenes of brief nudity and other suggestive scenes that were commonly not edited out of movies. I recall that pre-Code movies, even in comedy, had some parts that would’ve not made it in films until today. One with a second-tier comic at the Hal Roach studios named Max Davidson (“Call of the Cuckoo”) had a bit where the bathtub falls apart, leaving him sitting there naked. His arm was over his privates, but it’s not a pleasant sight.

          There were various movies where women not wearing undergarments beneath their dresses, left nothing to the imagination, because of how the particular shot was lit. Foreign films brought over here in the Twenties, including an old favorite of mine, “Menilmontant,” had a nude scene that wasn’t cut out. In that, at one point the lovers were dancing in the apartment, and as they turned their clothes faded away. So, enforcement of moral standards was eventually required, because the studios wouldn’t do it otherwise.

          • Ah, so our Brunce Vilanch doppelganger boomer was into silent films and chastising his peers for fornicating, swearing, and sporting long hair and skimpy clothing in the 60s and 70s eh? You must’ve been real popular in school huh? For somebody constantly judging the morality and religious convictions of others, you sure sound knowledgeable on soft porn silent movies. What else are you hiding in that huge closet of yours, poor man’s Ted Haggard? How expected and pathetic.

            Trump Trump
            Wally Wally
            USA USA

          • Your incoherent foaming at the mouth is always a fun read! Tell your mom to up the dosage, though. You’re obviously spinning out of control. The voices in your head must be getting harder to ignore!

    • Re: Bonaccorsi: “Catholic Philadelphia (…) supplanted Quaker Philadelphia and was supplanted, in turn, by black Philadelphia (…) two or three decades, I guess (…) America was rather a Catholic country. Those were the best years of your lives, Anglos. We Philly Papists did the best we could to save you”:

      In June, the statue of Frank Rizzo, the most infamous leader of Roman Catholic Philadephia was finally taken down. A large outdoor mural of Rizzo at the Italian Market that had been defaced and restored many times, was also finally removed (painted over) in June.

  3. You’re right that the effort in the Victorian era was to uplift the masses. It was a time of mutual aid societies and self-improvenent. Working man’s institutes were created with such leading intellectuals as John Ruskin as lecturers. Publishers created affordable editions to bring the classics of literature within the reach of the many. Self-help books, such as those by Samuel Smiles, were best sellers.

    On Samuel Smiles, many of his works are still in print and well worth the effort to read. Though not as widely known today as Smiles was in his day, writers, such as Sam Guzman with his ‘The Catholic Gentleman: Living Authentic Manhood Today’, have tried to continue the good work, We should be doing more to spread these works among both the young and the old. You’re never too old to be better, nor too young to start doing so.

    • The moral self improvement books were replaced by people like Lenny Bruce and his How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, Jerry Springer and a variety of others in direct contradiction to the spirit of the Hays code. The Jerry Springer type debauchery has replaced the moral uplift attitude of the Victorians. Society is not better for this change regardless of the Victorians’ shortcomings.

  4. First, only a few Protestant rubes in the sticks hate Catholics anymore.

    Second, it sounds like OP HW is critical of post-Hays Code entertainment, but is it a coincidence that most of the greatest movies (except a few like Gone With The Wind) came after the Hays Code ended? Just like music before rock, movies before the abolishment of the Hays Code were pretty boring.

    Third, most people in the civilized world, especially Americans, hate being told how to live our lives. Most of us are live and let live when it comes to what consenting adults want to do as long as it doesn’t harm others. That’s why the the religious right and Falwell’s Moral Majority were bound to fail. That’s why Trump won over moderate independents and working class Dems in 2016 while Cruz just appealed to religious and hard right conservatives.

    Fourth, are we really to believe that the moral puritan types are all innocent virgins and never indulged in any “sins” or watch, read, enjoy, or listen to the very things you’re preaching against? Hypocrisy is why moral puritanism always fails in the end.

    Wally Wally
    Trump Trump

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