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The Voice Squad - Censorship, THE MOTION PICTURE PRODUCTION CODE OF 1930

film sound films

Psychologically, the larger the audience, the lower the moral mass resistance to suggestion .


The transition to sound in American cinema set off a struggle to control and contain the social effects of the talkies. Audiences, the media, censors, and the film industry’s internal custodians were disturbed by the changes they were seeing and hearing. The new and unregulated utterances coming from the screen stirred up a simmering debate over what screen actors should say and how they should say it, over who should control the end-users’ access to films, and who should monitor the movies’ implicit values. During the 1920s seven states and several major cities had established boards of censorship to regulate films shown within their jurisdiction, and in 1930 legislation was pending to establish others. These agencies professed to safeguard citizens from the movies’ possibly hazardous moral environment. Local boards of review also provided a bully pulpit from which the local clergy, uplifters, and police vented their opinions. Besides these officially sanctioned outlets, informal influences such as newspaper editorialists, writers in mass-circulation magazines, fan magazines, and, to a limited extent, trade journals took aim at film content and claimed both to sway and to reflect public opinion. Although the efforts of censors and the rhetoric of the popular press may at first seem to be unrelated or antagonistic, these groups had a common goal of defining and restraining the power of film to affect the attitudes and behavior of viewers. Insisting on issues of quality, propriety, decency, and taste was a strategy for channeling the new film-making into acceptable forms. And sound was the catalyst. Censors, both formal and informal, may have intended to preserve the public good or the art of cinema, but both these agendas were also heavily marked by issues of class and culture.

Criticism and censorship both tried to control the voice but were inherently different. Unlike censorship, public commentary had no statutory right to change films. Public discourse does, however, represent considerable economic influence. A critical anomaly results: public reaction, if it has any effect, influences unmade not current films. Unlike a theatrical performance, which may be revised or fine-tuned, the response of the film audience and critics can have little effect on an individual film. In this sense, films are like novels, which are not normally revised after publication. But unlike novels, movies had a finite, usually very short, shelf life in the days before videocassettes. Massive public approval could occasionally result in a holdover at the theater, but disruptions of the exhibition schedule had to be justified by exceptional box-office performance. Sometimes a studio recalled a film after preview screenings for repairs, fine-tuning, or a major overhaul. But once a title was released, the film usually circulated unrevised to fulfill the producers’ booking contracts. Since Hollywood had few quantifiable means for receiving feedback from large masses, producers relied on gross receipts as the best measure of a film’s popularity. Favorable critical response and the volume of fan mail sent by the actors were usually regarded as secondary indicators. Certainly a rave or pan by Robert Sherwood or Mordaunt Hall might cause a noticeable shift in attendance, but in general the correlation between critics’ reviews and box-office receipts was weak.

Producers tried to predispose customers to attend their shows. Prevue trailers enticed moviegoers with snippets of a story and glimpses of stars. Press agents and publicity offices supplied stills, press books, serializations, and newspaper copy. They arranged star appearances and interviews and set up press screenings. Feature promotions, such as comic-strip tie-ins or Sunday supplement photo sections, were available as free filler. Criticism, especially at the level of the local reviewer, was often based on prompts found in the studio’s press kit. Sometimes studio executives got involved. At Paramount in particular, directors and managers often went public. Editorial pieces (that is, not explicit publicity for their studio) by Jesse L. Lasky, Cecil B. DeMille, and William deMille blurred the boundaries between producer commentary and public commentary.

Censorship boards, however, were empowered to change or to deny a license to show a film. The majority of movies were routinely passed in toto. New York State censors   under James Wingate, for instance, viewed 2,543 subjects from 1 July 1928 through 30 June 1929 and rejected eight of them. This good rate of passage, as Lea Jacobs has shown, reflects the MPPDA’s pre-release negotiations with the censors and the studios’ willingness to accommodate them. Censors’ cuts imposed additional expenses if they deemed it necessary to tamper with a film. The advent of sound greatly elevated the stakes for studios. An offending movie might have to be resynchronized or even partly reshot to secure a release in New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Chicago.

Of the many debates circulating around the film industry, the struggle for control over the voice was the most inclusive. Arguments ranged over two broad areas: shaping the form of the voice according to preconceived ideals, and restricting the content of language in order to protect the welfare of the listener.


While sound studios claimed to be bringing the best of Broadway to the nation, motion picture detractors pointed out that they brought undesirable elements too. Raymond Moley of the Hays Office wrote:

Execrable girl-and-music shows, heretofore seen only by the out-of-towner on an occasional trip to New York, were being brought by the talkies to every hamlet. The frenzied filming of Broadway plays without regard for the fact that a motion picture, whether talking or silent, is certainly not a play from the point of view of either art or prudence, brought the clink of highball glasses, the squeal of bedsprings, the crackle of fast conversation to a thousand Main Streets. (Raymond Moley, The Hays Office [New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945], p. 65)

This account, a little hysterical, captures the impression made by the talkies on those guardians of social norms who feared the movies’ influence. This was the downside of film as a “democratic” art; it had the potential of spreading the opposite of the quality voice. Public watchdogs were bolstered by the Supreme Courts declaration in Mutual Film Corporation v. Ohio Industrial Commission that motion pictures were “capable of evil, having power for it.” The 1915 ruling had legalized prior censorship of motion pictures and empowered state and local boards to ban them. One reason the Hays Office existed was to fend off efforts to further regulate film content. The “fast conversation” Page 464  of the talkies gave those who wished to subdue cinema’s social power a highly visible (and audible) excuse to rally around the banner of morality.

In September 1929, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America discussed the threat of intensified censorship at its national conference. The upshot was See and Hear , a “textbook or community handbook,” nominally authored by Will Hays, extolling the social virtues of the sound film. One might not guess from a cursory reading of the little book that the movie czar’s puff piece was an image-building response to a critical situation. Hays sings the praises of the producers’ good deeds, which range from filming “surgical operations by the masters, in colors,” to sending movies to leper colonies in the Canal Zone. When he describes “the Formula,” referring to the procedure of acquiring “recent books and plays that deal in themes and situations and topics which in previous years were discussed only in whispers,” his message about censorship is unmistakable:

The method, which is of course thoroughly legal and which has proved efficient, is not censorship in any sense of the word. No censorship could have brought about the results which have been attained. At the same time, the formula does not, by any possible interpretation, limit the production of vital or artistic pictures. Any method which did that would fail absolutely. (Will Hays, See and Hear: A Brief History of Motion Pictures and the Development of Sound [New York: MPPDA, 1929], p. 29)

But many people were claiming that it was the Formula, a policy in effect since 1924, and the 1927 list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” which had failed. The latest drive was by Senator Smith Brookhart of Iowa, a confirmed movie-hater. His bill’s chief proponents were women’s organizations and Protestant laymen, led by William Sheafe Chase. For years Chase had testified in favor of various bills that would have mandated national censorship. Film Daily’s opinion of his latest crusade was openly hostile: “Rev. Canon William Sheafe Chase, generally regarded an arch foe of pictures, and world’s long distance champion mudslinger, is at it again, this time circularizing members of Congress with a reprint from Harrison’s Reports , in which that publication pans alleged filth in WEST OF ZANZIBAR and points to that picture as an argument in favor of passage of the Brookhart bill.” 33

While censorship was always annoying to the industry, the addition of sound transformed the issue into a financial one. Trouble began as early as 1926, when Chicago required scenes to be cut from four reels of DON JUAN . Warner Bros. re-scored and rerecorded the discs for those sections, about forty minutes of film. Frank Woodhull, head of the Motion Picture Theater Owners, clearly viewed the matter as one concerning money, not morals: “[Censorship] must be stopped if the public is to be properly served with synchronized film. It surely is apparent to a mind not in the least mechanically inclined, that to delete parts of scenes would destroy the accompanying melodies and in many instances force the tremendous expenditure of remaking the entire picture.”

In 1928 censorship boards started taking a close look at, and a listen to, the talkies. Preparing to join in the battle, Hays set up an office in Los Angeles maintained by “Colonel” Jason Joy and a staff of a half-dozen assistants. Joy’s assignment was to help the industry respond to union demands, to review scripts to head off possible trouble, and to form liaisons with women’s groups, social reformers, and others in positions of power who might need to be convinced that the MPPDA’s self-censorship was already vigilant enough.

Even before all the studios had signed with ERPI, censors were anticipating the coming of sound and securing their jurisdiction over it. In May 1928, James Wingate, director of the New York state board, requested $5,000 from the legislature to purchase sound equipment for checking dialogue. GLORIOUS BETSY was the first film to run in New York accompanied by a trailer announcing that the talking part had been passed by censors. Beginning with THE LIGHTS OF NEW YORK , producers were required to present synopses and transcripts of the dialogue to the board. Following that lead, Maryland, Virginia, and most of the other state boards also began censoring sound tracks.

One of the most influential boards was Ohio’s, since many midwestern states relied on its judgment. The board asked the state’s attorney general to empower it to pass on film dialogue. He complied in July 1928, giving it the right to censor sound films “with the same privileges as with ‘Ordinary picture films.’” (The presumption was that sound was an extraordinary addition to the “ordinary” entity.) Rather than conform, Fox schemed to embarrass the board by refusing to submit a Movietone newsreel showing Herbert Hoover accepting the Republican presidential nomination. Would Ohio ban Hoover? Imagine the headlines. The board did not take the bait and, indeed, proved itself to be as clever as Fox. It passed the film without screening it, declaring that its “special nature” made it an exceptional case. Edwin Hullinger was heartened by the industry’s resistance. He saw Hollywood “girding itself for a struggle against the censor-ship which it alone, among our agencies of expression, has been called upon to endure.” He maintained that, “in moving picture headquarters in New York, no secret is made of the fact that the industry is only waiting for a favorable opening to launch a general offensive against the institution of censorship wherever it exists and to carry its case before the American people.” 37 Hullinger’s sources were Lewis Innerarity, representing Pathé Exchange, Carl Milliken, former governor of Maine and now secretary of the MPPDA, and Harry Warner, in his capacity as president of Vitaphone. Warner took the unusual slant that censorship “creates a tyranny of one generation over another generation the members of which possess an entirely different set of standards.” His remarks were remarkably frank.

My grandmother would have thought herself eternally damned if she did the things my wife and children do today without a second thought; and young people are openly discussing subjects that could never be mentioned in mixed society a score of years back. The everyday chatter of our modern youth would make our grandparents’ hair stand on end. Everybody except the censors knows this—knows that America is throwing off the prudery of the past…. An examination of the personal background of the incumbent film reviewers [i.e., the censors] would tell its own story. A generation that has lived its life is trying to regulate the amusements of a world with which it is no longer in spiritual harmony. Naturally there is friction.

He added a personal note:

When I was five years old, my parents left Poland to escape the suffocation of a rigid censorship which forbade free speech. My family had large property holdings; my father came to America for spiritual rather than economic reasons. And today I find myself obliged to struggle against an attempt to create in America another censorship slightly different in character but Page 466  Page 467  equally as rigid, in its way, as the one my parents thought they were leaving behind forever! (Quoted in Edwin Hullinger, “Free Speech for Talkies?,” North American Review , July 1929, p. 742)

Although this statement has the fragrance of a press agent’s melting-pot fantasy, the executive’s declaration puts a fine point on the debate over censorship as a mixture of economics and democratic principles. Warner cast the conflict as a family metaphor not unlike the theme of the tyranny of the older generation in and THE JAZZ SINGER FIRST AUTO . Warner’s sentiments about the censors being out of touch with film audiences were echoed by a New Republic claim that civic leaders were usually appointed to boards as figureheads or window dressing, but the actual work was done by “sub-censors.” These were “young girls, or well meaning elderly ladies with political pull, or men so incompetent that they are willing to accept small pay.”

Flaunting its strength, the Ohio censors ordered substantial cuts in THE WILD PARTY . But the Paramount exchange resisted by substituting black leader for the censored picture track and letting the sound on disc continue. Clara Bow kept talking while the screen went blank. Things became tricky in Boston, where “there are some lines that can be spoken on week days that are entirely improper on Sunday. Which makes it necessary to have Sunday cues and week-day cues for the operators.” 39 Censorship previously had been invisible, but with the addition of the sound track, its interruption of the flow of the story was joltingly apparent. Audiences and critics were aware that something was being withheld from them.

When the Pennsylvania board announced that it would not approve sound films without reviewing their words, both Fox and Vitaphone vigorously protested. The latter sought an injunction in Philadelphia to prevent having to submit the sound track of POLLY MORAN (1928) for review, claiming that the state law which established the board mentioned only pictures. The court of common pleas denied the injunction. Fox joined Vitaphone in lodging an appeal, using SHE’S STILL MY BABY (1928) as a test case. Confusingly, Warners-Vitaphone lost its appeal to Judge Martin, while Fox won its plea to Judge McKevitt. The case was argued in the state supreme court, which affirmed, on 4 February 1929, that censors did indeed have the right to control dialogue in films.

There were a few victories for producers. In Kansas the attorney general ruled that the state board of review exceeded its authority when it censored dialogue. Pathé secured a temporary restraining order enjoining New York censors from deleting sound portions of SAL OF SINGAPORE (1929). The board had already passed the silent version, but it had appended a special stamp reading, “This license is invalid when the film or any part thereof is used in conjunction with mechanical devices for the reproduction of sound or by the use of persons for the utterance of language.” Pathé lawyers claimed that such power gave censors the right to prohibit lectures illustrated with films and therefore abridged freedom of speech. The board eventually won. One area which saw a loosening of censorship after the coming of sound was the newsreel. Fox attorneys argued that constitutional guarantees of press freedom extended to news reportage in films. In 1929 the governor of Pennsylvania signed a bill exempting newsreels from censorship, and most other states followed suit.

The Supreme Court had sanctioned controlling motion pictures, so there seemed to be little recourse. Meanwhile, constraints against novels and theater had been for the most part removed. Hollywood wanted to annex this sophisticated market for the talkies. Also, the critical pressure to adopt the “natural” voice colloquialized film dialogue in pursuit of everyday language. Hullinger set the tone for a lively debate: “The question still remains, why should the movies and talkies be subjected to a supervision that magazines, playwrights and comic strip artists escape?” New York Mayor Jimmy Walker observed: “We have censorship of motion pictures in six [sic] states. Are we to conclude from this that damnation is running rampant in the other forty-two states where there is no censorship? And even with censorship I can’t find that humanity, that society, has materially changed in this country of ours.” President Campbell of the University of Chicago told a meeting of the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America that censorship was “un-American in principle and resented by the majority of our population.” Dr. Joseph L. Holmes, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, attacked government censorship at the 1930 National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Conference. The democratic solution, he proclaimed, resided in “a social control, expressed in a community demand for the best in motion pictures recreationally and educationally.” 42 Yet Seldes, regarded as a liberal social commentator, endorsed cautious controls:

I think it desirable that the opponents of the censor should bear always in mind the peculiar circumstances of the moving picture, instead of assuming that the movie resembles in any way a book read in solitude; they should be aware also of the dirty sexual pictures available in secret places in most large cities and be ready to answer when asked whether they want these pictures publicly shown. It seems to me that as soon as the opponents of the censor-ship have a positive plan, they can do something to undermine the censor’s authority, and not before. (Gilbert Seldes, An Hour with the Movies and the Talkies [Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1929], p. 115)

Though most debate centered on First Amendment issues, there were other arguments about the economic effects of censorship. Hullinger, for instance, pointed out (quoting statistics in all likelihood furnished by Hays) that one-third of the American film audience resided in areas controlled by state or municipal censors. Even George Jean Nathan produced a curious economically oriented argument. He suggested that higher standards of dialogue censorship would be bad for movie business because of a double standard pertaining to visual and audio censorship. Suggestive poses had become tolerated, but saucy dialogue was unacceptable. He maintained that

Clara Bow is currently allowed to display her anatomy for the incalescence of sailors, to the great profit of the Messrs. Zukor and Lasky, but the moment Clara opens her mouth and says, “Come on, boys, get a load of this!” the censors will hop on her and the Messrs. Zukor and Lasky will be out money….

The silent movies, with very few exceptions in the last three or four years, have prospered most greatly from the display of sex garbage. The talkies, without this sex garbage, after their novelty has worn off, will have a difficult time of it. The statistics show clearly that the movie public, save for an occasional airplane or seltzer-syphon picture, wants to spend its money on stories dealing with fornication either contemplated or achieved….

For a while … that public will get a kick from hearing its favorite dummies speak, but it will not be long before it will yearn again for the days when, censorship or no censorship, it could work itself up over the French Page 470  post-card insinuations of Hungarian, Mexican and Scandinavian houris stretched out languorously on sofas, of Brooklyn and Flatbush ex-stenographers coyly showing their backsides and of side-burned former counterjumpers lighting the incense in their louvered bachelor apartments and licking their chops over the imminent prospect of bolting the door on one of the Talmadges. (George Jean Nathan, “The Living Corpse,” American Mercury , September 1929, p. 505)

His argument is that dialogue is more censorable, so the talkies would be less overtly sexual than the silents were, and therefore derive fewer profits from the prurient desires of the lowbrow consumer. Other critics felt that censorship actually increased the sleaziness of movies. The Nation pointed out this hypocrisy, editorializing that “censorship has succeeded only in removing from the films every trace of intelligence, while it has left them dripping with every variety of implied sensuality.”

On the New York stage, four-letter words were increasingly heard, comedy was ribald, drama was “adult,” and revues featured topless showgirls. As wired movie houses became more abundant in every region and in smaller towns by mid-1929, different standards of what constituted acceptable material inevitably became a problem. Joseph Jackson, who wrote THE SINGING FOOL and THE TERROR , said, “Audiences who have been fed on the raw beef of What Price Glory? and other such frank stage plays will hardly keep a straight face if they hear a top sergeant declare: ‘My Goodness, I’ve never been so shocked in all my life.’” 44 Sherwood concurred that it was inappropriate and unrealistic to use soft language in films of war like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT , or in prison pictures like THE BIG HOUSE . He also savored the capricious nature of movie censorship:

One of the many odd things about the movie business is that whereas you can have films entitled Hell’s Angels, Hell’s Heroes, Hell Harbor or Hell’s Island , you cannot permit a character on the screen to use the word “hell.” In communities where censorship laws exist the prohibitions against profanity in all its forms are strict and definite and the celluloid merchants are bound to respect them. ( Film Daily , 26 August 1930, p. 5)

Many others, however, especially in the educational community, maintained that films harmed children. “In my judgment,” said E. A. Ross, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, “children under ten years of age should not be allowed to attend the movies except those shown under the auspices of schools, churches or other agencies dedicated to the promotion of child welfare. The ordinary commercial film is intended for a general audience and cannot possibly be expected to take into account the mentality of children under ten. Such children are likely to obtain the most twisted and unreal idea of life from following the ordinary commercial film.” Professor Patty S. Hill, Teachers College, New York, agreed: “Personally I have always urged parents not to build up in young children a taste for movies in the early days of child life. At this period he lives in a theater of his own making. He is the actor, his playmates are fellowactors.” A judge of the New York City Children’s Court, Franklin Chase Hoyt, cited the medical basis for suspecting the movies’ deleterious effects: “I entertain grave doubts as to the advisability of permitting young children to be subjected frequently to the constant eye-strain of the movies at a time in life when this delicate organ is in its plastic   period of formation. Nor is the foul air or the nervous tension the right sort of hygienic diet to prescribe for a ten-year-old child.” These concerns echo the research programs sponsored by the Payne Fund then under way. Sound was conjectured to be a threat to public health and safety.

While it consistently editorialized against “external” censorship, Film Daily , speaking for exhibitors, also objected to the content of some films, feeling that the studios went too far. It was the local manager who took the brunt of angry parents’ and civic groups’ anger. On THE WILD PARTY , for instance, Jack Alicoate commented, “The scenes are far too wild in spots for nice young girls and boys to absorb.” Von Steinberg’s direction of THUNDERBOLT (1929) was praised, but the death-house sequence was “hardly in good taste.” Alicoate cautioned exhibitors to watch APPLAUSE first before playing it. “One of the lines regarding a couple of chorus girls and the Catholic Church must come out immediately.” In retrospect, most of these opinions seem quaint. This example from HOT SHOTS (1929) illustrated a scene which was too risqué: “A boy and a girl hesitatingly approach the marriage license bureau. They enter and the clerk asks how old they are. Then a few lines about the necessity of parental consent. Whereupon the boy turns and says: ‘Who do you think that guy is over there with the shotgun?’”

Alicoate presented the exhibitors’ view in an editorial entitled “The Public Must Be Catered To”:

All this theoretical talk of reformers about what to give them [movie customers] in the way of production and story fare is so much sliced liver-pudding. If this great international industry is to continue as a dominant force in the worlds activity and progress it must continue to give its millions of patrons what they demand in the way of story material and what the ever changing demands of thought, demeanor and morals warrant.

There were limits, though: “Modernism is not smut…. Our thought rather is that the progressive and modern ideas of our younger thinkers must be considered if we are not to let the parade pass us by. Public demand cannot be sidetracked.” Alicoate presented an analogy with the movies’ hypothetical feminine audience: “If the dear ladies wish to wear their hair long and their skirts short no power on earth can stop them. So with picture story material. Keep a finger on the public pulse. The answer is manifest. Give the dear old public what it wants and ninety-nine percent of the home folks will be satisfied.” He concluded with this advice for the exhibitor:

When you are next approached by the self-esteemed local censor and told how much good he or she is doing by cutting the very heart and life out of fine, splendid pictures, ask point blank if his or her morals have, up to this time, been impaired by seeing so many salacious pictures in the raw, and if not, why not. ( Film Daily , 24 March 1930, pp. 1-2)

The Hays Office found itself in the impossible situation of trying to appease groups with diametrically opposed notions of how film sound should be controlled. Producers wanted to score with mature adults in big cities, young audiences, flappers, and “jazz babies” keen to hear their own argot on the screen. The intelligentsia wanted films to have the intellectual dialogue and linguistic freedom of the stage. Moralists, religious leaders, and protectors of women and children wanted movies to reflect the Ten Commandments and small-town virtues. Meanwhile, Hays still assumed that movies were made for a homogeneous audience consisting of “the family.” Yet it was clear from the reactions to sound that the cinema audience was heterogeneous, composed of many different groups with incompatible standards. In the same screening, a risqué gag might amuse some and embarrass others. Getting pressure from all sides, Hays decided to bolster Hollywood’s audible morality.


Will Hays appealed to his associations members in January 1929 to avoid censorship by making clean films. He said, “Coincident with the full realization of the fact that the motion picture industry must resist the attempt in some places to censor speech from the screen is the renewed determination on the part of the industry to make certain that its pictures are of such quality that no reasonable person can claim any need for censorship.” At the time, the industry’s guidelines for self-control took the form of the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” a list of proscribed words and situations written by a committee chaired by MGM’s Irving Thalberg. The spirit of the text was ignored by Hollywood, not the least flagrantly by MGM. In A WOMAN OF AFFAIRS (1928), for example, “director Clarence Brown … cunningly dodged the censor stuff by treating the many-lover episodes as a series of photos with captions taken from a newspapers files.” 47 Reviewers regularly characterized current films as licentious. HOT FOR PARIS (1929), from the Fox studio, one of the consistent providers of this type of material, was described by the New York Daily Mirror: “The comedy is very frank. The dialogue is very stag…. But it’s still an hilarious comedy, particularly for the men.” Hall said it was “a rowdy, raw affair.” 48 With the prospect of sound unleashing a torrent of expletives, cuss words, and naughty jokes, such as could be heard on the New York stage, Hays moved to forestall a trend that could become a linguistic lightning rod attracting more serious reforms.

Another impetus for changing the self-regulatory protocol was economic. Fox’s takeover of Loew’s had triggered the Justice Department’s investigation of the industry’s monopolistic practices. The October 1929 Crash made the industry skittish about any threat to the box office. There was a general need to get the house in order. The industry’s dependence on stable financing and debt management meant that shareholders, banks, and investment houses wanted assurance that the product would circulate freely and that cash flow would be regular. Censorship not only threatened this stability but generated wasteful re-shooting, re-recording, and re-editing. Nearly a year before the Production Code was adopted, Lasky had urged replacing the hodgepodge of local censors with a system whereby scenarios would be submitted to a central agency and approved in advance, “before the story is filmed and before the music accompaniment has been engraved on the discs.”

A production code was drafted by another committee chaired by Thalberg, but this time it had a strong dose of Catholic conscience. The genesis of the 1930 Code has been traced to a surprising coalition of industry, religious, and banking interests. Early in 1929, Martin Quigley, the publisher of Exhibitor’s Herald-World , complained to Hays that Hollywood was not suppressing adult content unless forced to do so. He was primarily concerned about the salacious advertising featuring suggestive poses and hints of female nudity that he was obliged to run in his trade paper. (The same ads ran in other periodicals.) Fox’s ads featuring bare-breasted chorus girls may have been the specific ones which offended Quigley, a devout Catholic. Hays approached Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest at St. Louis University. A traditionalist and an enemy of “modernism” in contemporary life, Lord had written numerous pamphlets about religion and the movies and had been Cecil B. DeMille’s religious adviser on KING OF KINGS . (George Bernard Shaw, whose plays and philosophy he abhorred, was Lord’s bête noire.) Lord was in consultation with George Cardinal Mundelein of the Chicago archdiocese, who already had been discussing movie morality with Hays, Jason Joy, and C. C. Pettijohn of the MPPDA. Mundelein approved of Lord’s draft of a new production code containing theological justifications for moral content and suggested another powerful ally—Harold Stuart, of Halsey, Stuart and Company. He was the Chicago banker who then was fighting to reorganize William Fox’s empire. He had strong personal and business connections to Mundelein as a friend and a creditor, and a demonstrated antipathy to Fox. The cardinal passed the draft of the code to Stuart, who in turn lobbied Zukor to get it okayed by Hays.

In February 1930, Lord made a presentation to an assembly of film industry executives. There were major differences between Quigley and Lord’s draft and Thalberg’s draft. The producers insisted on the freedom to adapt best-selling “frank” novels. Thalberg, Jack Warner, B. P. Schulberg, and Sol Wurtzel of Fox “argued that the advent of sound brought a wider, not a more restrictive, latitude in subject matter to the movies. With the addition of screen dialogue, they held, actors and actresses could ‘speak delicately and exactly’ on sensitive subjects that could not be portrayed in silent films.” Yet the producers accepted the Code the next day, “without a whimper.” 50 Gregory Black, wondering why the industry would adopt restrictions so clearly against its interests, offers two explanations. The Code would enable Will Hays to extend his influence over the Los Angeles studios; and accepting the Code made sense from the economic angle. Besides, producers had no intention of following its literal mandates (some of which were practically impossible to interpret anyway). According to Stephen Vaughn, the producers retreated, but they had not surrendered. “They still argued that they be allowed greater freedom in choosing subjects for stories…. They pledged themselves to make ‘a sincere effort’ to ‘clean up’ characterizations that might violate public taste. But the primary concern for the producers remained the box office. If a picture ‘does not please its audiences,’ they explained, ‘it is a failure.’”

Timely pressure on the producers came in March 1930 when Representative Hudson introduced a bill that would have made the motion picture industry a public utility and forced studios to pay the salaries of federal regulators. Hays’s counsel Pettijohn denounced it as “so socialistic and radical as to constitute a dangerous threat to all branches of the industry.” While Hudson’s bill had little chance of passage—his 1928 version had failed—it was symptomatic of the type of assault the producers feared. The MPPDA adopted the Motion Picture Production Code on 31 March 1930. Soon after-ward, President Frank Woods endorsed it on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The final version drafted by Jason Joy (following Lord and Quigley) was a compromise document in which theological idealism mingled uncomfortably with producers’ pragmatism. Our chief interest is in how the accepted draft responded to the struggle to control dialogue content.

The preamble to the Code acknowledged that sound was a motivating factor: “During the rapid transition from silent to talking pictures they [motion picture producers] realized the necessity and the opportunity of subscribing to a Code to govern the production of talking pictures and of reacknowledging this responsibility.” The section that forbade obscenity was one sentence: “Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden.” However, the section banning profanity included a Rabelaisian list of taboo utterances:

Alley cat (applied to a woman); bat (applied to a woman); broad (applied to a woman); Bronx cheer (the sound); chippie; cocotte; God, Lord, Jesus, Christ (unless used reverently); cripes; fanny; fairy (in a vulgar sense); finger (the); fire, cries of; Gawd; goose (in a vulgar sense); “hold your hat” or “hats”; hot (applied to a woman); “in your hat”; louse; lousy; Madam (relating to prostitution); nance; nerts; nuts (except when meaning crazy); pansy; razzberry [ sic ] (the sound); slut (applied to a woman); S.O.B.; son-of-a; tart; toilet gags; torn cat (applied to a man); traveling salesman and farmer’s daughter jokes; whore; damn, hell (excepting when the use of said last two words shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact or folklore, or for the presentation in proper literary context of a Biblical, or other religious quotation, or a quotation from a literary work provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste). (MPPDA, “A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures,” 1930, reprinted in Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art [Boston: Little, Brown, 1976], pp. 468-470)

There was also a list of specific racial epithets which, though neither profane nor banned, were “obviously offensive to the patrons of motion pictures in the United States and more particularly to the patrons of motion pictures in foreign countries.” Enumerating the banned words gave screenwriters and in-house censors their “Don’ts” list, which they could use to determine whether a film was clean.

The film moralists’ demands were represented by general imperatives. The philosophical rationale was contained in a separate declaration, “Reasons Supporting Preamble of Code.” Recent commentators have claimed that Hays suppressed this statement until it served his purpose to release it in 1934, in order to hide the pervasive Catholic influence on the Code. The author of “Reasons,” who is assumed to have been primarily Father Lord with advice from Quigley, observes that “this art of the motion picture, combining as it does the two fundamental appeals of looking at a picture and listening to a story, at once reached every class of society.” This view is consistent with the notion that film sound was separate from the visuals. There is an implication that these two “appeals” are unsophisticated activities, since the lower as well as upper classes may participate. The author of “Reasons” also justified restraining film’s freedom in comparison to that accorded the novel and the newspaper because its audience was more diverse.

Black argues that “there was a fundamental misunderstanding” between Lord, Quigley and the Catholics on one side, and the producers and Hays on the other. Contrarily, it is also possible to read the code as a victory for both sides; each left the conference thinking it had pulled a fast one on the other. For instance, Hays (or his ghostwriter) went public in Ladies’ Home Journal in July 1930 and used the Code to reassure readers that the industry was responding to the new moral problems precipitated by the sound picture. “The work of reflecting social and community values in the Page 476  production of motion-picture entertainment,” he wrote, “has constantly progressed.” It was the “constructive criticism” of women’s clubs and similar groups that had impressed the producers with the desirability of revising the Code. “Sound brought new dramatists, new artists and new dramatic material to the motion-picture industry, and it was found necessary to formulate additional and new principles of self-regulation which would guide the making of silent, synchronized and talking motion pictures.” 54 While he congratulated the women on their moral victory, a glance at many films from the 1930-1934 period shows that the Production Code was flagrantly ignored. Among the biggest offenders were sly sex comedies like Mamoulian’s LOVE ME TONIGHT (1932), and Wheeler and Woolsey’s lewdness is legendary. Horror films like DRACULA (1931) and crime films, including CITY STREETS (1931), THE SECRET SIX (1931), PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), and SCARFACE (1932), appalled. Women used language to express sexual knowledge—and most shockingly, desire. There were “kept woman” films like B ACK S TREET (1932). Hedonist Mae West’s saucy dialogue in her Paramount comedies NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (1932—"Goodness had nothing to do with it"), SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933), and I’ M NO ANGEL (1933—"Beulah, peel me a grape") stunned censors. Dietrich’s eroticism in THE BLUE ANGEL and MOROCCO raised eyebrows in many venues but sailed by the MPPDA watchdogs. Screenwriters grew adept at combining sexuality with platitudes and retribution. The moralists wanted cinema to be “twentieth-century morality plays that illustrated proper behavior to the masses.” Richard Maltby suggests that the Code can be read as a sign of how far producers were out of touch with their consumers. “Like other Hollywood conventions, the Production Code was one of several substitutes for detailed audience research…. In its practical application, the Code was the mechanism by which this multiplicity of viewing positions was achieved.”

Self-censorship was a misnomer for what the Hays Office did. Jacobs has suggested that the “enforcement” of the Code was mainly a publicity ploy, that regulation was very unsystematic, and that negotiation still occurred case by case. If there was a potential problem, as with POSSESSED (1931), the studio might “forget” to submit the script for MPPDA review. Two genres in particular were problematic: the “fallen woman” story, with its suggestion of adultery and ungoverned female sexuality, and the gangster story, with its ambivalent idealization of Capone-like anti-heroes. These genres burgeoned inspite of the Code because the MPPDA allowed hypocritical redemptive endings. Evading the Code and detecting the run-around became a game for studios and viewers “in the know.”

MPPDA reviewers passed on scripts before viewing films, so the procedure made it easy to stay pure in word but to sin in deed. In MOROCCO’S first scene, Gary Cooper is silently gesturing to a prostitute. His commander catches him and demands, “What are you doing with those fingers?” Cooper drawls, “Nothin’—yet.” Though considerably tamed from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s stage play, THE FRONT PAGE (1931) still contains its share of double entendres. A report comes into the newsroom that a Swedish masseuse has been arrested on the complaint of a lot of angry wives. She’s treating their husbands with electricity “at a dollar a time.” Half the stock exchange is at the police station offering to post bail. The producer Howard Hughes also defied the banned word list (“nerts”). In PUBLIC ENEMY , the gangster Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) is singing at the piano: “Mrs. Jones, big and fat, slipped on the ice and broke her——.” At this point he is interrupted by an offscreen whistle. Since nothing has been uttered, the spectator is free to complete the rhyme. Two possibilities would be hat and cat , but both were on the taboo list because they were slang for genitalia and prostitute. A more likely possibility would be the obscene slang twat , which would be narratively appropriate in the lowlife beer-joint setting and consistent with the “natural” speech of such characters. In either case, the profanity has been artfully constructed to exist in the mind of the viewer-auditor, not in the censorable script or on the sound track.

The frank “realistic” speech of the protagonists in PUBLIC ENEMY was both a novelty effect and a scary evocation of the characters’ antisocial menace. Ironically, the Hays Office’s intervention appears to have been instrumental in defining one of the eternally memorable mobster voices. Moralists had denounced DOORWAY TO HELL (1930) because the gangster star, Lew Ayres, was too charming and sympathetic. According to Robert Sklar, Hays wrote to Warners questioning whether “a young man of fine features” was right for such a role. Underlying Hays’s criticism is an assumption that gangsters should be portrayed as ethnic stereotypes, not as WASPs. In the meantime, Edward Woods, a “juvenile” character actor, had been cast for the role of Tom Powers in PUBLIC ENEMY . Heeding Hays’s suggestion, Darryl F. Zanuck reassigned the Tom Powers role to the actor who had played Ayres’s sidekick in the earlier film, James Cagney. Instantly, Cagney’s punk hero and his tough Irish-inflected speech captivated the country—and appalled censors.

How effective were the standards and strictures of the press and the censors against the talkies? The question is still open. Rather than self-censorship, negotiated self-restraint might be a more accurate description of the Hays Office’s work. As Mick Eaton put it, “The establishment of the Hays Code ensured the industry’s freedom from outside censorship by either state or federal governments. Similarly, the establishment of the code ensured that the studios acquired a stranglehold over the outlets for distribution throughout the states. The cinema became a much safer investment than, say, the press or radio.”

There is no question that the Code, as accepted and interpreted, was designed to promote Christianity and enforced to benefit the industry. The producers and exhibitors supported the Code in theory and probably did not really mind self-censorship in practice because the institution potentially could spare them the onus of deciding whether each title was marketable. The need for exchanges to alter prints for different communities was alleviated. Thus, indirectly, the Code accelerated the standardization of the sound film. But since there was little respect for the Code among censors, self-regulation was not completely successful in eliminating costly editing. NUMBERED MEN , a First National prison film released in June 1930, for example, was so “drastically cut by the [New York] censors at the preview that [the] print had to be sent back to the Coast for some refilming and re-recording.”

There was also the problem of the independents. Without power to enforce its bans, the Hays Office could be ignored by any promoter who could find a house willing to show his film. This was the case with WHITE CARGO (1929), a British “white slavery” exploitation film. American studios had shied away from filming the story since the novel from which it was adapted had been banned by Hays according to the Formula. This action benefited MPPDA members because each producer knew that no other would compete by producing this “hot” property. When the RKO theater chain started negotiating to show the film, Hays stepped in to block the screening of the foreign interloper. He did not succeed. The promoter, Harold Auten, rented the George M. Cohan Theater, charged $2 admission, and sold the film nationally through states’ rights. Audiences saw WHITE CARGO and numerous other exploitation films—but not at theaters controlled by MPPDA affiliates. 61 “Sex hygiene” movies like HER UNBORN CHILD (1929), exotic films   like INGAGI (1930), and nudist films made the rounds of what Film Daily called “junk” houses. Frequently these were silent films of foreign origin, revitalized by adding narration and sound effects. One exception was ELYSIA , one of the most famous nudist features. It was produced and directed in 1933 by none other than Bryan Foy.

The Production Code was unsatisfying to just about everyone. Hollywood did not “reform.” It still saw its mission as giving the audience what it wanted. If that was to hear heart-rending cries, violent shouts, or lewd remarks, the studios were ready to provide them. If the Code could supply a framework wherein the industry could pay lip service to God-fearing morality, stave off outside intervention, satisfy its creditors that it was stable and legitimate, while continuing to make films that attracted large urban crowds, so much the better. As the trade papers, exhibitors, and influential producers like Thalberg and Zukor agreed, there was a consensus that Hollywood should observe limits. But they argued that if the box office favored sex, violence, and “fast” talk, studios had to compete to supply the demand. And in the years 1930-1933, films like these provided the industry with a few financial bright spots and audiences with thrills and diversion in an otherwise bleak era. Meanwhile, the guardians of society’s values and the nascent Catholic Legion of Decency looked on in frustration and contemplated future remedies.

Despite the rhetoric of uplift from Hollywood concerning its mission of improving the nation’s language and morality, what really counted was reaching out to and holding larger audiences. When the studios turned to the stage for fresh story material, new voices, and an existing pattern for speaking—the enunciative style—they no doubt envisioned a quick patch for the problem of what to do about sound. Theater was a reservoir of vocal talent and stories with proven merit. It also served the rhetorical purpose of enabling the moguls to wrap themselves in class and culture and to spread proper English to the “hamlets.” But their quest for refinement encountered inherent differences between Broadway and the movies. The New York stage was characterized by highly conventional vocal style, and few social controls over vocal content. In Hollywood, on the contrary, there were no existing conventions for the movie voice, but numerous social strictures controlled the content of vocal expression.

The 1928-1929 tendency to dissociate the voice from the actor’s body allowed competition among various groups for jurisdiction over the voice as a commodity: producers who contracted for it; actors who articulated it; critics who wanted to limit its range and restrict its use according to class and ethnicity; and censors who feared its potential for religious, social, and class disruption. The box-office popularity of “bad” voices, the general willingness to tolerate seemingly antisocial subjects, and the spread of vulgar language were genuinely disturbing to the gatekeepers of decency. Profound distrust of the actual filmgoing public and its “mass psychology” pervades the “Reasons Supporting the Code.” The mandarins distrusted their constituents. Joseph Breen, who would become the chief industry censor in 1934, described the motion picture audience as “youngsters between 16 and 26…, most of them nit-wits, dolts and imbeciles.”

By 1931 the critics were no longer assuming a distinction between the speaker and his or her vocals; voice had become desegregated into “personality,” part of the actor’s distinctive identity. Also, the provenance of a story (whether an original screenplay or adapted from a play or novel) did not really matter as long as it was a good one. As for morality, there is scant evidence that most people regarded the movies as any more deleterious than amusements like miniature golf, or that they wanted the government to prescribe entertainment for them. Censorship did not have strong grassroots support. Most   municipalities did not control access to films. Numerous legislative bills strengthening censorship were regularly introduced during this period, but all failed to pass.

Because of lack of enforcement and the MPPDA’s lack of jurisdiction over exhibition (especially by independents), audiences seldom were completely denied the right to see questionable films. “Sensational” subjects often attracted crowds to theaters. For example, the powerful Chicago board practiced giving “pink slips” (admission restricted to adults only) to controversial movies. The Balaban and Katz theaters reported that THE LETTER (1929) and CAREERS (1929) did land-office business under this “restriction.” Critics pointed out—and producers surely took note—that more people were seeing these films than would have normally, and that the censors were providing great free publicity.

The struggle to control the voice through proactive influence and external constraints failed, at least until enforcement of the Code was stepped up in 1934. By then, sound films had long become the norm, and the moralists shifted their attention from dialogue to “situations,” such as adultery. Until then, Hollywood filmmakers’ creativity was not seriously stifled. The movie fans looked neither to the artful use of the voice nor to whether it embodied Christian rectitude. For most of them, the stars continued to be the object of secular worship, selected according to idiosyncratic and largely unpredictable criteria. Their voices became just another ingredient added to the star mix.

Just when the end of the Jazz Age was witnessing a perceived loosening of morals and an expansion of artistic license in literature and theater, the film studios were applying their new talking capacity to themes from best-selling novels, subjects from mature plays, and language which was commonplace in conversation at home, in the workplace, and in intimate situations but unheard and unheard-of in public. Limiting speech and expression in entertainment for the public good, particularly when it is a product of unfamiliar new technology, remains controversial to this day as we debate television ratings and expression on the Internet. Then as now, the controversy centers on the question of whether language reflects harmful dystopic tendencies in society—or causes them.

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