Wednesday, July 02, 2014

When the Hays Code Started Enforcing Movie Censorship

If "It Happened One Night" had been made a few months later, Claudette Colbert
might not have been able to get away with making this iconic scene.

Eighty years ago, the motion picture industry began enforcing the Hays Code, a production code informally named after Hollywood's chief censor, Will Hays.

The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), later the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), adopted the code in 1930, began enforcing it in 1934 and dropped it entirely in 1968 in favor of a ratings system, but, for nearly 35 years, the Hays Code acted as censor for motion pictures. What was acceptable (by implication) and what was not acceptable was spelled out in two lists — the "Don'ts" and the "Be Carefuls."

The Production Code was written by a Catholic layman and a Jesuit priest. As a result, it had decidedly Catholic undertones.

The "Don'ts" were 11 things that "shall not appear in pictures ... irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:"
Pointed profanity — by either title or lip — this includes the words 'God,' 'Lord,' 'Jesus,' 'Christ' (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), 'hell,' 'damn,' 'Gawd,' and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
Any licentious or suggestive nudity — in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
The illegal traffic in drugs;
Any inference of sex perversion;
White slavery;
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
Scenes of actual childbirth — in fact or in silhouette;
Children's sex organs;
Ridicule of the clergy;
Willful offense to any nation, race or creed.

Those were the things that were not allowed under any circumstances. Some probably were rarely, if ever, included in pre–1934 movies, but the Hayes Code went ahead and spelled it out, anyway.

The items on the "Be Careful" list could be permitted, but movie producers had to be very careful. Hence, the title. There were more than twice as many of those:
The use of the flag;
International relations (avoiding picturizing [sic] in an unfavorable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
The use of firearms;
Theft, robbery, safe–cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too–detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
Methods of smuggling;
Third–degree methods;
Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
Sympathy for criminals;
Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
Branding of people or animals;
The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
Rape or attempted rape;
First–night scenes;
Man and woman in bed together;
Deliberate seduction of girls;
The institution of marriage;
Surgical operations;
The use of drugs;
Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law–enforcing officers;
Excessive or lustful kissing.

By the late 1960s, the Hays Code had simply become unenforceable.

I majored in journalism. I worked for newspapers and a trade magazine. I have taught and am teaching journalism students.

And I have very strong opinions about censorship.

I understand that there are times when it is a necessary evil, but it should be severely restricted. If an exception to a general censorship policy is to be made, it should favor the one being censored, not the one doing the censoring.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were mentioned in the First Amendment to the Constitution for a pretty good reason. The Founding Fathers knew that those freedoms were — and are — essential.