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What was Hollywood’s Hays Code: A Comprehensive Guide

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If you’re a fan of classic Hollywood films, you may have heard of the Hays Code. This was a set of guidelines that the movie industry used to regulate the content of films from the early 1930s until the late 1960s. The Hays Code was named after Will H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) at the time.

The Hays Code was created in response to growing concerns about the moral content of films. Many people felt that movies were becoming too violent, too sexual, and too profane. In many ways, it was the precursor to the MPAA rating system that we know today. However, The Hays Code went far beyond simply rating and classifying films; the Code outright prohibited many things, such as nudity, profanity, and excessive violence. It also prohibited depictions of interracial relationships and homosexuality.

What is the Hays Code?

The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was a set of guidelines for the film industry in the United States that regulated the content of movies from 1930 to 1968. The code was named after Will H. Hays, who was the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) at the time. The code was created in response to public outrage over the perceived immorality of Hollywood films.

Origins of the Hays Code

The origins of the Hays Code can be traced back to the 1920s when Hollywood films were becoming increasingly provocative and explicit. This led to calls for censorship from religious groups and concerned citizens. In 1927, Martin Quigley and Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest, founded the Catholic Motion Picture Guild to combat what they perceived as the corrupting influence of movies.

The Catholic Motion Picture Guild worked closely with the MPPDA to create a set of guidelines for the film industry. The first version of the code was written by Lord and submitted to the MPPDA in 1930. The code was later revised by a committee that included representatives from the film industry and religious groups.

The Hays Code was officially adopted by the MPPDA in 1930 and became mandatory for all Hollywood films in 1934. The code was designed to promote “wholesome entertainment” and prevent the portrayal of immoral behavior on screen. The code banned depictions of nudity, drug use, and profanity and required that criminals be punished for their crimes.

Despite its strict guidelines, the Hays Code was not always effective in preventing the portrayal of immoral behavior in films. Some filmmakers found ways to work around the code, using suggestive dialogue and imagery to hint at forbidden subjects. In the 1960s, the code was replaced by the MPAA film rating system, which allowed for greater artistic freedom in filmmaking.

The Hays Code Guidelines

If you’re wondering what the Hays Code is, it was a set of guidelines created by Hollywood’s Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in 1930 to regulate the content of films. The code was named after Will H. Hays, who was the president of the MPPDA at the time.

The main purpose of the Hays Code was to ensure that films were morally acceptable and did not offend the sensibilities of the audience.

The Hays Code had a long list of “don’ts and be carefuls” that filmmakers had to follow. Some of the Hays Code rules included:

  • Lustful kissing was not allowed. Kissing scenes had to be brief and not too passionate.
  • Nudity was strictly prohibited.
  • Religion and God could not be ridiculed or treated with disrespect. The clergy could not be portrayed as villains or fools.
  • Drugs could not be shown in a positive light.
  • Homosexuality was not allowed to be depicted on screen.
  • Crime could not be glorified, and criminals had to be punished.
  • Adultery and sex hygiene were not allowed to be shown.
  • Venereal diseases and childbirth could not be depicted.
  • Jesus and Christ could not be portrayed on screen.
  • The word damn could not be used.
  • Rape could not be shown on screen.
  • Offense to any nation, race, or creed was not allowed.
  • Firearms could not be shown in a positive light.
  • Sympathy for criminals was not allowed.
  • Men and women in bed together were not allowed.

These were just some of the guidelines that filmmakers had to follow. The Hays Code was strict, and filmmakers had to submit their scripts to the Production Code Administration for approval. If a film did not follow the guidelines, it would not receive a seal of approval from the PCA, which meant that it could not be shown in theaters.

Overall, the Hays Code was an attempt to regulate the moral content of films. While it was in effect, it had a significant impact on the films that were produced in Hollywood. However, it was eventually replaced by the MPAA film rating system in 1968, which allowed filmmakers to have more creative freedom.

Implementation and Enforcement

Once the Motion Picture Production Code was established, it was enforced by the Production Code Administration (PCA), which was created by the Motion Picture Association in 1934. Joseph I. Breen was appointed as the head of the PCA, and he was responsible for ensuring that Hollywood films complied with the Code.

The PCA had the power to review scripts, storylines, and films themselves to ensure that they were in compliance with the Code. If a film was found to be in violation of the Code, the PCA would request changes to be made before issuing a Certificate of Approval. Without this certificate, a film could not be released in theaters.

The Hollywood Production Code was enforced strictly, and filmmakers had to be careful not to include anything that could be deemed offensive. The Legion of Decency, a Catholic censorship board, also played a role in enforcing the Code by rating films and advising the public on what films to avoid.

Despite the strict enforcement of the Code, some filmmakers found ways to push the boundaries. For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho” was able to include a shower scene with nudity by creatively filming it in a way that did not violate the Code.

Impact on Hollywood Filmmaking

The Hays Code had a significant impact on Hollywood filmmaking during its enforcement period from 1934 to 1968. Filmmakers had to navigate a complex set of rules that dictated what could and could not be shown on screen.

This led to the development of creative ways to imply or suggest certain content without actually showing it on screen.

Some movies, such as “Gone with the Wind” and “The Outlaw,” faced challenges with the PCA due to their controversial content. Howard Hughes, the producer of “The Outlaw,” famously defied the code’s guidelines by featuring a provocative poster of actress Jane Russell. The film was eventually released with some modifications, but it marked a turning point in Hollywood’s relationship with the PCA.

Despite the code’s restrictions, some of Hollywood’s most iconic films were produced during this era. “Casablanca” and “Some Like It Hot” are just two examples of films that managed to push the boundaries of what was acceptable while still complying with the code’s guidelines.

The Hays Code also had a significant impact on the film industry as a whole. Hollywood studios, such as MGM and Columbia, had to invest in the PCA’s review process and ensure that their films complied with the code’s guidelines. This added an extra layer of expense and bureaucracy to the filmmaking process.

Controversies and Criticisms

The Hays Code’s strict guidelines attracted many controversies and criticisms. While it aimed to regulate the motion picture industry and promote morality, it also faced opposition from various groups.

One of the main criticisms of the Hays Code was that it was a form of censorship. The Code’s strict guidelines on what was considered acceptable content limited the filmmakers’ creative freedom and expression. Some argued that it violated the First Amendment’s right to free speech.

The Code’s restrictions on sexual content also drew criticism. It prohibited any depiction of sex, including kissing, and any suggestion of perversion or sexual immorality. This led to some films being heavily edited or banned altogether, which sparked debates about the Code’s effectiveness in promoting morality.

The Hays Code also faced criticism for its restrictions on interracial relationships. The Code prohibited any depiction of miscegenation, which limited the representation of people of color in Hollywood films. This led to controversy, particularly with the casting of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong in roles that were not considered appropriate for her ethnicity.

Furthermore, the Code’s restrictions on violence and criminal behavior were also controversial. It prohibited any glorification of criminals or criminal behavior, which led to some films being criticized for their unrealistic portrayal of violence and murder.

The Demise of the Hays Code

As time passed, the code became increasingly outdated and restrictive. It prevented the portrayal of certain topics and characters, such as Betty Boop, and limited the creative freedom of filmmakers. Moreover, the code failed to prevent the rise of immorality and anti-social behavior in society.

The Hays Code began to lose its relevance in the 1950s and 1960s as society became more liberal and open-minded. The censorship board faced criticism for its conservative views and was unable to keep up with the changing times. In 1968, the MPAA replaced the Hays Code with the Motion Picture Rating System, which classified movies into different categories based on their content.

The demise of the Hays Code marked a significant shift in the movie industry, as filmmakers gained more artistic freedom and were able to explore more complex and controversial topics. It also reflected the changing attitudes of society towards censorship and the role of government in regulating the media.

Overall, the Hays Code played an important role in shaping the movie industry and promoting wholesome and “good taste” content. However, its restrictive guidelines and conservative views eventually led to its downfall, paving the way for a more liberal and diverse movie industry.

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