The Hays Code may sound like a vague technical rule, it was incredibly important to the style of Classic Hollywood. It’s the reason why this era is known for its class, old-fashioned morals and etiquette. This industry code of moral guidelines forced Hollywood to not just portray men and women, but gentlemen and ladies. As soon as the code’s reign was over, Classic Hollywood crumbled.
The Start of the Code
The Hays Code is officially named The Motion Picture Production Code and to know why it was created in the first place, we need to go back to the beginning. The 1920’s had just roared its way through America and Hollywood had exploded with the invention of the talkies. Mae West told audiences: ‘When I’m good, I’m very, very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better’, in the aptly called ‘I’m No Angel’ (1933). Miriam Hopkins couldn’t choose between two men in Design For A Living (1933), so she decided to live with both of them. Clara Bow showed audiences a gay bar in Call Her Savage (1932). Jean Harlow got slapped in the face by her married lover in Read Headed Women (1932) and told him: ‘Do it again, I like it, do it again!’. Richard Barthelmess became addicted to morphine after returning from World War I in Heroes For Sale (1933) and Howard Hughes glorified gangster life in 1932’s Scarface. Hollywood was drunk on the freedom the Roaring 20’s had brought, but the audience was not ready for it.
The public started to see Hollywood as Sodom and Gommorah and they were outraged at the frequent scandals around big stars. Washington took notice and Hollywood feared legislation preventing them from creative expression. So in the 1920’s the big Hollywood studio’s banded together to form a ‘code’, hoping it would keep law-makers at bay.
A brief overview of the code (as found in Hollywood v. Hard Core by Jon Lewis):
Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, 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;
And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
- The use of the flag;
- International relations (avoiding picturizing 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.;
- 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.
The Hays Code Heyday
Former Postmaster General Will H. Hays presided over the enforcement of the code. Although he did not make the code, it was based on the complaints from the public and religious elders, his name would be permanently attached to it. At first, nobody adhered to the code and movies even taunted regulations by becoming racier. But Hollywood had to take the code seriously when the Catholic Legion of Decency was formed and President Roosevelt took office in 1933. Catholic financers threatened to withdraw funding and Roosevelt hinted that a federal censorship would take place if nothing changed. Hollywood had no choice but to listen. Joseph Breen, a prominent Catholic and former newspaperman, was hired to administer the Code. Breen and his team checked scripts, demanded changes and approved a film upon completion. From then on, nothing would get past The Motion Picture Production Code.
The Code was strict, but Hollywood is nothing if not creative and they found ways around it. They used subtlety and subtext to get their message across and that wasn’t lost on the public. In films like How To Catch A Thief fireworks are seen after a kiss, instead of a sex scene. Fred Astaire’s movies were famous for their playful dance scene’s with his romantic counter parts, a stand-in for seduction and flirting. It made the Code a strength: Hollywood was forced to add layers and subtext creating rich plots. Romantic comedies especially were full of innuendo, which audiences then and today can appreciate.
But it proved to be a major obstacle as well. Howard Hughes was livid when his film The Outlaw wasn’t approved because of the emphasis on Jane Russell’s breasts in the advertisements. It took him five years to get it approved and released. I Love Lucy had audiences laughing when the two main characters had to sleep in twin beds, despite the fact that they were married.
But it wasn’t just the films that had to adhere to the Code, the actors were watched too. The studios added morality clauses to their contracts and if the actors violated them, they were suspended or even blackballed from the industry. Ingrid Bergman was a victim of that practice when she became pregnant with a man who was not her husband. Both film and actor had to be an example of grace and moral virtue.
Multiple decisions and changes caused The Hays Code to lose its power. First, in 1948, the big studios lost their dominance over theatre chains with the ‘Paramount Decision’ by the Supreme Court. This gave small studios and theatres, who didn’t care about the code, a chance to release successful films. In 1952 New York banned the Italian film The Miracle, which featured a controversial religious storyline. But The Supreme Court decided that a state may not ban a film under the First Amendment, a big blow to the Code’s power. The change in the world was unstoppable and Hollywood pushed forward. In 1959 Some Like It Hot shocked audiences with a cross-dressing Tony Curtis and a barely clothed Marilyn Monroe. The movie was extremely successful and signalled a changing world. When the sixties began all bets were off and The Motion Picture Production Code had lost its power. It relented in the late sixties and implemented the film rating system (rated R, PG and so on) that Hollywood still has today.