Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Hollywood Production Code

I am fascinated with Pre-Code Hollywood films. The term “pre-code” generally designates films made between the advent of talk pictures—circa 1929-1930—and the strict enforcement of the censorious Hollywood Production Code in 1934. I am planning a series of entries discussing pre-code films, but for now I want to take a look at the actual “code”.
The film industry has long been under scrutiny of cultural conservatives, fearful that movie content may lead the public’s morals astray. In the 1920s, the most popular stories of the day depicted Jazz Age excess—wild youth, adulterous spouses, sophisticated seducers, and such. To fend off increasingly combative civic and religious groups and possible government regulation, the studios hired Will Hays—a former postmaster general under President Warren G. Harding—to clean up the industry. In 1930, under Hays’ direction, Father Daniel Lord (a Jesuit priest) and Martin Quigley (a prominent Roman Catholic layman) wrote the Hollywood Production Code. The overriding theme of the document is stated as such: “No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it.” The multi-page code and its addenda spell out everything, from a film’s “moral obligation” to how to depict certain plots such as crime and love, to certain strictures on costumes and dancing and definitions of what is obscene and vulgar. I have tried to find the entire Hollywood Production Code text on the internet to no avail, but a tiny sampling of some of its content is as follows:

Not plot theme should definitely side with evil against good.
The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust.
“Pure Love”—the love of a man for a woman permitted by the law of God and man—is a rightful subject for plots.
Miscegenation (sex relationship between white and black races) is forbidden.
Ministers of religion…should not be used in comedy, as villains, or as unpleasant persons.
Bedrooms: in themselves are perfectly innocent…However, under certain conditions they are bad dramatic locations [when they suggest sex laxity and obscenity].
The code was adopted in 1930, yet it was viewed mainly as a PR move. There was lax oversight and very little enforcement, with unfavorable rulings easily appealed. Most films that violated the spirit of the code were released. So really, the term “pre-code” for films released during this time is somewhat of a misnomer—a code was in place, no one was following it.
By 1934, under a new outcry to clean up Hollywood and the threat of government censorship under Roosevelt’s New Deal, the studios began harsh enforcement of the code. Will Hays appointed Joseph I. Breen (a former newspaperman and influential Roman Catholic) to enforce the code, which he did with, as one author notes, “missionary zeal.” All Hollywood films were made under the strident code from 1934 until the late 1960s. In a new era of freedom of expression and civil rights, the code came increasingly under attack in the 1950s and 1960s as antiquated and intrusive. Finally, in 1968, the code was dropped altogether for the ratings system (G, PG, R) used today.

As I mentioned above, I could not find a full text of the Hollywood Production Code on the internet. The code appears in Thomas Doherty’s excellent book PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD: SEX, IMMORALITY, AND INSURRECTION IN AMERICAN CINEMA 1930-1934, available in bookstores or at your local library. This book aided in the preparation of this entry.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can find the complete texts of the Production Codes in Film Daily Yearbooks. The Code was not as monolith as suggested. It was constantly modified to reflect changing cultural mores. Hays retired in the early forties and the actual administration was under
Joseph Breen until 1954. He was followed by Geoffrey Sherlock who
modified the Code and was much more lenient. Movies made between 1955-1968 contain more explicit sex, violence and strong language than anything made in the inaccurately described "Pre-Code"
era of 1930-1934. Even in the silent year there was a loosely enforced Standards of Production.

The real reason for the Code was economic. State and city censors kept cutting the prints up. The way films were distributed back then was regionally, not nationally like now. Between 100-400 prints were made. These same prints were shipped around the country on a region by region basis. When individual censors cut up the prints, the next theater
would receive a very splicey copy even though their state censors might have been more lenient. The Production Code enacted in 1934 enabled prints to play intact throughout the US with few exceptions. It also gave theaters cover in case a local censor objected to something in the movie.
The Production Code would go to bat for the theater. From a distribution perspective, it was a pragmatic move to make since it wasn't feasable to make different prints for each territory.

It was only rigorously enforced for the first few years. By 1939, the restrictions began to be chipped away on a year by year basis.

The other consideration was the types of theaters that existed before the seventies. Most cinemas were single screen houses with anywhere from 600-5000 seats.
In order to fill those seats they needed the family audience. When they dumped the Production Code and replaced it with the Ratings System, more and more restricted movied were produced each year so that by the mid-seventies, there were more R rated movies than PG or G. As a result, attendence was cut in half and theaters began folding or getting twinned. Muliplexes with fewer seats replaced the movie palaces. That was the trade off of producting and distributing films without a Production Code to keep content mainstream. Movies also became very politicized in the late sixties which was another result of the demise of the Production Code.

Richard W. Haines

5:10 PM  
Anonymous BBCD said...

The complete Production Code is online at Not only is it all there, but this site shows changes made to it over the years. This site has been online since 1999.

12:33 PM  

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