The Hayes Code, Censorship, and its Effect on Culture

Images retrieved from: on August 24th, 2014. on August 24th, 2014.

Pre-Code Hollywood

Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound in the late 1920s[1] and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) censorship guidelines. Although the Code was adopted in 1930, oversight was poor and it did not become effectively enforced until July 1, 1934. Before that date, movie content was restricted more by local laws, negotiations between the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) and the major studios, and popular opinion than strict adherence to the Hays Code, which was often ignored by Hollywood filmmakers.

As a result, films in the late 1920s and early 1930s included sexual innuendos, references to homosexuality, miscegenation, illegal drug use, infidelity, abortion, and profane language, as well as women in their undergarments. Strong women dominated the screen in films such as Baby Face, and Red-Headed Woman. Gangsters in films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface were more heroic than evil. In addition to stronger female characters, films dealt with female subject matters that were not revisited until much later in Hollywood history. Nefarious characters were seen to profit from their deeds, in some cases without significant repercussions, and drug use was a topic of several films. Text retrieved from on August 24th, 2014.

The two clips above are from from (2008) Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood and (2003) Complicated Women. Censorship of Hollywood had a huge impact on everyone's culture (including the cannabis culture), and not a positive one. It stifled dissemination of culture and enforced a monocultural point of view.

Video: Pre-Code Hollywood: Overview of Pre-Code Film Festival
This is an overview of a pre-Code film festival at the Roxie Cinema in 1997.

The Enforcement of the Hays Code

Video: The History of Hollywood Censorship and the Ratings System

In March 31, 1930, the MPPDA issued a statement of policy called the The Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code). It set up a small jury to review films for content, Understaffed and headed by ineffectual but mostly uninterested board members, the Hays Code was still without teeth and largely mocked by industry insiders.

That changed when the American Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church organized The Legion of Decency and in 1934 with the support of Protestant and Jewish Organizations began calling for boycotts of films deemed unacceptable.

This was the dollar that broke the camel’s back – The Hollywood studios, still reeling from the losses of 1933 due in large part to the delayed effects of the Great Depression, were forced to act.

The Hays Office authorized to set up the Production Code Administration (PCA) with Catholic laymen Joseph I. Breen as head.
Joseph I. Breen

The MPPDA agreed to show only films that carried the PCA seal of approval and the studios voluntarily gave the PCA the authority to review and delete morally objectionable material from both the final script and the final cut of the film.

Breen enforced the code zealously. Forbidden were scenes of passion – films had to uphold the sanctity of marriage. Adultery, seduction and rape were never to be more than suggested and only if absolutely necessary to the plot and always punished at the end. Profanity, racial epithets, implications of prostitution, drug addiction, nudity, sexually suggestive dancing and costumes were all verboten.

The code also addressed violence. It was forbidden to go into detail of a crime, display machine guns or illegal weapons or even discuss weapons on screen. Law Enforcement was never to be shown dying at the hands of a criminal and all crime had to be punished in the end.

This rigid Catholic sensibility of good vs evil was a far cry from the loose morals of the anything goes Jazz Age.

So why did the studios agree to such Draconian self censorship? There are several reasons. It kept Washington from exercising even more control over the studios, It quelled fears from religious groups threatening boycotts during economically unstable times. And lastly, and perhaps most cynically, the Production Code was sort of a blue print for screenwriters. Stories could move in only one direction – love ended in marriage, crime ended in punishment – a simple efficient method for the studio system to streamline the story process and mass produce as many movies as possible.Text retrieved from on August 24th, 2014.