The 1920s aptly became known as the Roaring Twenties. It was the age of automobiles, the continuing rise in the popularity of the movies, and flappers. The movies used nudity, profanity, blasphemy, and immoral acts with abandon.
Because of the risqué films and several off-screen scandals, Hollywood came under much scrutiny and considerable criticism. The public outcry against the lack of regulation and the questionable content of the movies was so great that conservatives applied political pressure for the federal government to establish a National Censorship Board.
To prevent the federal government from having the power to censor or ban films, the Hollywood moguls and movie studios decided to voluntarily apply censorship to the movies themselves, which led to the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code. The code became commonly known as the Hays Code after Will H. Hays, the president of what was called the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) at that time. [It later became the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).] The code spelled out what was and wasn’t acceptable content for movies.
Although The Production Code was adopted in 1930, it wasn’t rigidly enforced until 1934 when two things happened: 1) the Code was amended to establish the Production Code Administration (PCA) and required all films released on or after July 1, 1934, to obtain a certificate of approval before being released. 2) Joseph Breen, a prominent Roman Catholic, was appointed head of the new Production Code Administration (PCA). Breen’s enforcement was so strict that even the Betty Boop cartoon character had to change from being a flapper to wearing a housewife’s dress.
The Preamble of the Code made a point of emphasizing that movies were entertainment but recognized that as such could be either helpful or harmful to the human race and therefore stressed the moral importance and moral obligations of the standards stating that the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.
The two parts of the Code became popularly known as the Don’ts and Be Carefuls.
The Don’ts was a list of eleven “general principles” which prohibited a picture from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it”, called for depictions of the “correct standards of life”, and forbade a picture from showing any sort of ridicule towards a law or “creating sympathy for its violation”.
The Be Carefuls was an exacting list of 25 items which could not be depicted. Some restrictions, such as the ban on homosexuality or on the use of specific curse words, while not directly mentioned, were assumed to be understood without clear demarcation. Depiction of miscegenation (i.e., marital or sexual relations between different races) was forbidden. It was noted that an “adults-only policy” would be difficult to enforce; however, it did allow that “maturer minds may easily understand and accept without harm subject matter in plots which does younger people positive harm”. If children were supervised and the events implied elliptically, the code allowed “the possibility of a cinematically inspired thought crime”.
“The production code sought not only to determine what could be portrayed on screen but also to promote traditional values. Sexual relations outside of marriage—which were forbidden from being portrayed as attractive or beautiful—were to be presented in a way that would not arouse passion or make them seem permissible. All criminal action had to be punished, and neither the crime nor the criminal could elicit sympathy from the audience, or the audience must at least be aware that such behavior is wrong, usually through “compensating moral value”. Authority figures had to be treated with respect, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Under some circumstances, politicians, police officers, and judges could be villains, as long as it was clear that those individuals portrayed as villains were the exceptions to the rule.” Source
Although Hollywood worked within the confines of the Production Code throughout the 1950s, the movie industry was faced with very serious competitive threats. The first threat came from television, which did not require Americans to leave their house to watch moving pictures. Hollywood also faced increasing competition from foreign films. Foreign films were not bound by the Production Code and studios had no way to keep them out.
American culture also began to change. In keeping with the changes in society, sexual content that would have previously been banned by the Code was being retained. The anti-trust rulings of 1948 (United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.) also had helped pave the way for independent art houses that would show films created by people such as Andy Warhol who worked outside the studio system.
A boycott by the National Legion of Decency no longer guaranteed a film’s commercial failure, and several aspects of the code had slowly lost their taboo. Areas of the code were re-written in 1956 to accept subjects such as miscegenation (marriage or sexual relations between different races), adultery and prostitution. Increasingly explicit films began to appear in the late 1950s, although the MPAA reluctantly granted the seal of approval if certain cuts were made. Otto Preminger’s films violated the Code repeatedly. His films were direct assaults on the authority of the Production Code, and their success led the way to abandonment of the Code. Films again began to deal with adult subjects and sexual matters in the early 1960s. Again, the MPAA reluctantly granted the seal of approval if certain cuts were made.
By the late 1960s, enforcement had become impossible and the Production Code was abandoned entirely. The MPAA began working on a rating system, under which film restrictions would lessen. The current film rating system went into effect on November 1, 1968, with four ratings: G for general audiences, M for mature content, R for restricted (under 17 not admitted without an adult), and X for sexually explicit content.