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The Origins of the Code

censorship “the entertainment moral

Debates about the censorship of popular culture have always been debates about the social control of its audiences. Although these debates have focused on the content or structure of the entertainment form, their real concern has been with its effects on consumers and with underlying issues of class and cultural power. From amusement parks to rock ‘n’ roll, different sites and forms of popular cultural expression in the twentieth century have derived their innovative energies from culturally and socially disreputable sources, but they have also operated under systems of convention and regulation that keep contained the subversive potential of their origins and that ensure they endorse, rather than challenge, the existing distribution of social, political, and economic power. The issue has seldom been expressed in such overt terms: more commonly, it has been articulated as an anxiety about the effects of entertainment on children, and specifically on the criminal behavior of adolescent males and the sexual behavior of adolescent females. Partially concealed by the concern for youth has been a deeper, class-based anxiety about the extent to which the sites of entertainment provide opportunities for the heterogeneous mixing of classes.

Since the first motion-picture censorship ordinance was introduced in Chicago in 1907, public debate has revolved around the question of whether the motion-picture industry was morally fit to control the manufacture of its own   products. The terms of this debate were established by Progressive reformers who regarded “commercialized amusements” as an ameliorated form of “commercialized vice” rather than an acceptable mode of “recreation.” After 1921, state censorship, declared constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1915, operated in seven of the forty-eight states. In addition, from Vermont villages to Chicago, municipal authorities operated local censor boards, usually administered by the police with varying degrees of rigor, predictability, and frequency. More than 60 percent of domestic sales, together with virtually the entire foreign market, were made in territories under “political censorship.” State censorship boards exerted an essentially negative power to cut or ban films; as both the industry and its critics acknowledged, they could not positively influence the quality of Holly-wood production. By its nature, political censorship was concerned with what happened at the site of exhibition, not the site of production. Exhibitors often readily acquiesced in the practice of censorship as a means of ensuring that movies offended as few of their community’s cultural and legislative leadership as possible and that their commercial operations might thereby continue unhindered. Exhibitor organizations had on a number of occasions supported the establishment of censorship boards as the best means of protecting their commercial interests.

Attitudes toward censorship constituted only one among several issues that separated the interests of exhibitors and those of producer-distributor combines. Like most industries, the American film business was structured by a basic antagonism between manufacturers and retailers, exacerbated since the late 1910s by the emergence of a production-distribution oligopoly that dictated business terms to independent theater owners. The MPPDA was established in 1922 to safeguard the political interests of the emerging oligopoly, and while censorship and the regulation of content was an important aspect of its work, the Association’s central concern was with the threat of legislation or court action to impose a strict application of the antitrust laws to the industry. The Association pursued policies of industrial self-regulation not only in regard to film content but also in matters of arbitration, intra-industry relations, and negotiations with the government, attaching the movies to the “associative state” fostered by Herbert Hoover’s Department of Commerce.

Hays presented the MPPDA as an innovative trade association at the forefront of corporate organizational development, largely responsible for the industry’s maturation into respectability, standardizing trade practices and stabilizing the relationship between distributors and small exhibitors through film boards of trade, arbitration, and the standard exhibition contract. The establishment of “the highest possible moral and artistic standards of motion picture production” was in one sense simply an extension of this practice, but it also implicitly accepted that “pure” entertainment—amusement that was not harmful to its consumer—was a commodity comparable to the pure meat guaranteed by the Food and Drug Administration. For all industry parties, issues of oligopoly control and trade practice were much more important than censorship. But questions of censorship were of greater public interest, and could also be resolved at less economic risk to the majors. These factors encouraged the MPPDA to displace disputes over the industry’s distribution of profits onto another arena—quite literally, from the economic base to the ideological superstructure of movie content.


As Lary May has suggested, Hays’s strategy was to transfer “the old moral guardianship of the small city and town to the movie corporations.” In constructing affiliations with nationally federated civic, religious, and educational organizations, Hays had aimed to make “this important portion of public opinion a friendly rather than a hostile critic of pictures” and to contain the threat posed by their lobbying power. There was, however, no dispute over the need to regulate entertainment and relatively little dispute during the 1920s over the standards by which it should be regulated. The question was rather who possessed the appropriate authority to police the ideological apparatus of representation. Although the MPPDA succeeded in preventing the spread of state censorship after 1922, its attempts to abolish existing boards failed, so that its mechanisms for self-regulation became an additional, rather than a replacement, structure.

In 1924, Hays established a mechanism for vetting source material—called “the Formula”—in order “to exercise every possible care that only books or plays which are of the right type are used for screen presentation.” In 1927 the Association published a code to govern production, administered by its Studio Relations Committee (SRC) in Hollywood. The “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” as this code was familiarly known, was compiled by a committee chaired by Irving Thalberg and synthesized the restrictions and eliminations applied by state and foreign censors. Although the Association was always careful to differentiate the “self-regulation” of its advisory activities from “political censorship,” Hays recognized that the industry could gain autonomy over production only by voluntarily accepting the standards that external agencies would in any event impose on them.

The extent to which any of these procedures were effective in regulating production is a matter of debate, but it is an oversimplification to suggest, as many accounts do, that so long as the MPPDA had no punitive sanctions, producers blithely ignored their suggestions. Films were modified after production but before release in order to assuage the concerns of civic, religious, or manufacturing interests. Until the publication of the Production Code in 1930, however, Jason Joy had only an advisory function, and the principal weapon in his persuasive armory was an economic one: the savings that would accrue to production companies if they avoided filming material they would be unable to use. Although producers had to gauge the costs and disruptiveness of censorship against the possibility of additional profit coming from the use of censorable material, they were less concerned about the principle of censorship than they were about the limitation of their legal liability for shaping public sentiment. “We do not create the types of entertainment,” argued Thalberg, their most articulate spokesperson, “we merely present them.” Thalberg viewed entertainment as a form of cultural barometer, in which “people see … a reflection of their own average thoughts and attitudes. If the reflection is much lower or much higher than their own plane they reject it.” People, he insisted, “influence pictures far more than pictures influence people.” However, in denying their responsibility for creating public taste, producers surrendered much of the ground over which the cultural function of movies was debated by the press, religious and civic groups, and legislators.

Producers saw the need for a new code in the complexities of sound   production. Silent film had been easily altered by local censors, regional distributors, or even individual exhibitors. Early sound technology drastically restricted this malleability, since any subsequent editing of a print would destroy synchronization. Accepting the imperatives of Joy’s economic arguments, producers began to demand something firmer than advice from the SRC, but at the same time, they wanted to establish a more permissive code for sound, since, as Thalberg argued, with dialogue characters could “delicately” discuss subjects “the silent picture was forced to shun.” 13 Such desires to accommodate the movies to the Broadway of Elmer Rice and Eugene O’Neill ran counter to the increasing hostility among vocal sections of the middle class toward the Broadway of Earl Carroll’s Vanities and Mae West. An increasingly insecure Protestant provincial middle class sought to defend its cultural hegemony from the incursions of a modernist, metropolitan culture that the provincials regarded as alien—a word that was often, but not always, a synonym for Jewish. With the roadhouse and the dance hall, the movie theater was one site at which they felt their values and their children endangered by a newer, urban, immigrant, largely Jewish and Catholic culture. The movies were particularly threatening both because they were apparently owned by aliens and because their advertising (which was all many of their critics saw of them) suggested that their permissive representations of sex and violence were designed to cater to the baser instincts of “morons,” a term widely used to refer indirectly to the immigrant working class. Combining hostility to monopoly with a barely concealed anti-Semitism, provincial Protestantism saw movies threaten the ability of small communities to exercise control over the cultural influences they tolerated.

It was in 1929 that Hollywood brought Broadway to Main Street: seventy-five hundred theaters (more than 50 percent of the total) were wired for sound during the year. Throughout the 1920s, Broadway had been castigated for its “realism,” particularly in its representation of sexual mores. Now its dubious dialogue and “sophisticated” plot material was playing on Main Street for the children to see. In April 1929 the Washington Star told producers titles such as UNDERWORLD , SYNTHETIC SIN , and OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS provoked censorship. If the problem were “killed at the source, in the studios,” calls for censorship would vanish. In October, reviewing Paramount’s backstage melodrama APPLAUSE , MPPDA Secretary Carl Milliken suggested that “the folks who represent the intelligentsia in the country towns and small cities are not yet prepared to view with approval a long series of scenes including close-ups which show the heroine clad only in breechclout and brassiere.”

In the fall of 1929 the MPPDA was the subject of heavy criticism for reasons only tangentially related to movie content. Its relationship with the federal government had been strained by the mergers and theater buying among the major companies and by their “steady policy of aggrandizement, discrimination and exclusion” in dealing with independent exhibitors. At the same time, the stability of the public relations edifice Hays had constructed during the preceding seven years was threatened by the Association’s failure to construct a cooperative relationship with the Protestant churches comparable to the one they enjoyed with the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae (IFCA). In June 1929 the liberal Episcopalian journal The Churchman accused Hays of being selected by “shrewd Hebrews … as a smoke screen to mask their meretricious   methods,” and asserted that “the motion picture industry is concerned not at all about standards either of taste or morals…. The only thing that the industry is interested in cleaning up is box-office revenue by playing to the tabloid mind.”

The Churchman alleged that the Association had “retained” prominent figures in civic, educational, and religious organizations to use their influence “to see to it that nothing [was] done to interfere with the freedom of the motion picture producers.” The campaign was adopted by much of the Protestant religious press, including the widely circulated liberal Christian Century. It provided an opportunity for independent exhibitors to combine their attack on the majors’ trade practices with a morals charge. Confronted with local criticism about the moral standards of the movies they showed, small exhibitors often defended themselves by arguing that the majors’ insistence on block booking obliged the well-intentioned but powerless independent exhibitor in upstate New York or the small-town Midwest to show “sex-smut,” regardless of his own or his community’s preferences. Their trade association, Allied States, insisted that the only way to secure decency on Main Street was through federal regulation of the industry, and the Protestant press joined them in what Hays regarded as an unholy alliance.

In September 1929 the MPPDA held a conference with its “public relations family” on “The Community and the Motion Picture” in New York. This marked the end of its attempt to form alliances with opinion-forming groups, in the face of a barrage of hostile press comment, again directed at Hays and the Association’s activities rather than at film content. The regulation of content, however, represented the one area of industry activity where the Association, under attack from all sides, might be able to demonstrate its usefulness to both the public and its members. During the conference Hays began discussing modifying the 1927 Code with Colonel Joy, who prepared several drafts in the remainder of 1929. A committee of producers chaired by Thalberg also worked on a draft. A quite separate document emanated from Chicago, where the Association’s general counsel, Charles C. Pettijohn, was working to repeal the city’s censorship ordinance by gaining the support of the city’s Catholic archbishop, Cardinal George Mundelein. His campaign led to the involvement of Martin Quigley, a prominent Chicago Catholic and publisher of the Exhibitor’s Herald World (later Motion Picture Herald), in the Code’s rewriting. As an alternative to Pettijohn’s plan, Quigley proposed a much more elaborate Code enunciating the moral principles underlying screen entertainment. He recruited the leading figure in the revival of the Catholic Sodality youth movement, Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., to draft it.

As a document, the Production Code can be distinguished from the processes by which it was implemented. The Code was a corporate statement of policy about the appropriate content of entertainment cinema and acknowledged the possible influence of movies on the morals and conduct of those who saw them. It represented the industry’s acceptance of its difference from the book, magazine, or theater business. As Lord argued, it was difficult to confine films to “only certain classes of people. The exhibitor’s theaters are built for the masses, for the cultivated and the rude, the mature and the immature, the self-respecting and the criminal.” Small communities, “remote from sophistication and from the hardening process which often takes place in the ethical and moral standards of groups in larger cities,” were particularly vulnerable, but Lord was concerned that cinema’s “mobility, popularity, accessibility, emotional appeal, vividness, [and] straightforward presentation of fact” affected audiences more intimately and more powerfully than other forms of expression.

Lord’s instrumentalist view of culture emphasized the industry’s responsibility for the manufacture of “correct” entertainment, “which tends to improve the race, or at least to re-create and rebuild human beings exhausted with the realities of life.” But Lord’s voice was only one of several raised in the writing of the Code, and its history as a document is the history of the attempted and failed compromise of those competing voices. The most important figure overtly contending Lord’s position was Irving Thalberg, and his and Lord’s drafts could hardly have been further apart. Thalberg began by asserting that “there is a very general tendency to over-emphasize the moral and educational influence of the motion pictures” and that “the sole purpose of the commercial motion picture is to entertain. It cannot be considered as education or as a sermon or even indirectly as an essentially moral or immoral force.”

Thalberg and Lord were addressing different issues because they were concerned with different audiences. Thalberg’s document spoke to the overwhelmingly adult audiences of the majors’ first-run theaters, where 70 percent of revenues were generated. Lord and other reformers saw “the vital problem” as “the selection of entertainment for children,” a small part of the first-run audience, but frequent attenders at neighborhood and small-town theaters. Their strategies were also at odds. Thalberg intended to do no more than make “a special effort … to include compensating moral values” in borderline cases while reiterating the “Don’ts.” Lord required a more positive commitment to “the magnificent possibilities of the screen” for “the building of right ideals” and “the inculcation in story form of right principles.” If movies “consistently held up high types of characters,” he argued, “they could become the greatest natural force for the improvement of mankind.”

Joy spent January 1930 attempting to shape a compromise between the two drafts, with their differing ambitions. More closely than either of them or than the published document, Joy’s draft encapsulated the pragmatic attitude that he brought to his dealings with the studios and that set the tone for the SRC’s activities until 1932. With Lord, Joy felt that films should “build up … our national ideals of government, of family and social relations and religious reverence…. The trend of every picture should uphold the good and condemn evil.” But he qualified this by adding that “more weight should attach to the tone and effect of the picture as a whole” than individual incidents. In arguing that the industry should produce at least some pictures targeted at specific audiences—some for children, others “that will appeal to a relatively smaller audience, which might be considered a vanguard leading the general public to more discriminating standards”—he was closer to Thalberg, whom he greatly respected. His understanding of “compensating moral values” also concurred with Thalberg’s. In “debatable” cases, scenes upholding “accepted moral and spiritual standards” should be included, and “a sincere effort” made to “clean up” characters and situations “in every instance when the theme of the picture may present them in a temporarily dubious light.” “Good taste” should be “the ruling factor.” His main concerns—to eliminate profanity, the gratuitous use of liquor, and “the treatment of sex in such a way that it violates the standards of family relations”—came from his experience of external censorship.

Joy’s formulations represented the practical policy he would adopt in applying the Code, but his document proved too much of a compromise to be acceptable to Martin Quigley, who called Lord to Los Angeles to present his Code to the producers on 10 February. When he left Hollywood a week later, Lord was confident that his Code had been accepted by the producers. A committee had produced a “condensed” version, and he and Hays had rewritten his draft as the “Reasons Underlying the Code.” With the consent of both parties, Catholic involvement in the Code was to remain secret, together with its implementation procedure, the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation. Hays understood self-regulation to mean that responsibility for Code implementation should be placed firmly on the companies themselves. It was for this reason that the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation did not make submission of scripts to the SRC compulsory, and placed responsibility for making changes in finished films with the companies concerned. It also appointed a “jury” composed of the heads of production of each of the member companies as final arbiters of whether a film conformed “to the spirit and the letter of the Code.” As Quigley noted with distrust, since the Association position lacked what he regarded as adequate enforcement procedures, it carefully avoided any commitment to which producers could subsequently be held and permitted them to agree to a document they could then evade.

The “Reasons” were not included in the Code published by the MPPDA on 31 March; the text provided a list of prohibitions rather than the moral arguments of Lord’s original draft. The “Particular Applications” of the published Code elaborated the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” and added only clauses addressing Joy’s concerns with “the use of liquor in American life,” “adultery and illicit sex,” vulgarity, and obscenity. Its preamble also provided a rationale that compromised Thalberg’s and Lord’s positions: it saw motion pictures “primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda,” but acknowledged that “within its own field of entertainment,” a film could be “directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.” Lord’s contribution was most visible in the three “General Principles” that preceded the “Particular Applications”:

  1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation. (“A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures,” MPPDA, 1930, repr. in Moley, p. 241)

The Code did not explain how these principles (specifically Catholic only in their reference to “natural law”) related to the “Particular Applications.” It was over the interpretation of this relationship between the “spirit” and the “letter” of the Code that the SRC negotiated with the studios for the next three years.

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