Movie Censorship in the United States
(A Brief History)
by: Ken Robichaux
© 2007 All Rights Reserved
Beginning with some of the earliest exhibitions of motion pictures, there was public debate about the question of whether the motion picture industry was morally fit to control the content of its own products. As early as 1909 the People’s Institute in New York City created “The New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship”. This board quickly acquired a great deal of influence beyond New York City, and most of the major motion picture producers eventually agreed to submit all of their films to the board and to not release any films unless approved by it. To reflect its growing importance, the board changed its name to “The National Board of Censorship” and then, in 1915, to “The National Board of Review”. The Board’s “Seal of Approval” became the first formal attempt by the film industry to ward off legal film censorship through quasi self–regulation. Despite this effort, in 1914 three Congressional bills were introduced seeking to establish a Federal Motion Picture Censorship Commission. Each bill sought to establish that, “no copyright shall be issued for any film which has not previously received the certificate and seal of the commission.” Although none of these bills became law, they were a clear reflection of public concerns over the quality, propriety, decency and taste of the movies being produced by Hollywood.
Powerful religious groups and other concerned authorities in many states were ready to respond when no federal laws were enacted to control the content of motion pictures. After state censorship of motion pictures was declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1915 (Mutual Film Corporation v. Ohio Industrial Commission), seven states and numerous cities and towns across the country established and administered movie censorship boards that decreed what could and couldn’t be shown in their communities. By the early 1930s one–third of the American film audience resided in areas controlled by state or municipal movie censors.
To fight the exhibition chaos that ensued from having multiple authorities chop up movies in multiple ways, or ban them altogether, the major Hollywood studios and distributors formed a trade association in 1922 called The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). They hired Will H. Hays to be the MPPDA’s first president, at an annual salary of $150,000, and this politically savvy former U.S. Postmaster General would be their advisor and advocate for the next 23 years.
The MPPDA pursued policies of self–regulation with regard to film content, arbitration, intra–industry relations, and negotiations with government entities. They agreed to voluntarily regulate film content by establishing a branch to oversee and control the moral values of the stories they filmed. Initially called The Studio Relations Committee (SRC), but eventually known as the “Hays Office”, this branch of the MPPDA consolidated and synthesized the restrictions and eliminations that had been deemed necessary by state and foreign censors and, in 1927, produced a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” to govern production. Members agreed to specifically avoid 11 objectionable topics and to treat 26 others with care and good taste. Studio compliance, however, was often weak and inconsistent because there were no penalties for not following this “code”. For instance, of the 572 films submitted to the various censorship boards in 1928, only 42 passed review unscathed.
By the time “talking pictures” began to replace silent pictures, it became clear that a new expanded code providing guidelines for movie dialogue needed to be written. (In 1929 alone, 7,500 theaters — more than 50% of the total — were wired for sound.) With angry church groups threatening to campaign for federal regulation of the motion picture industry because of what they considered the continuing indecency and immorality of Hollywood’s movies and stars, the MPPDA produced a corporate statement of policy about the appropriate content of entertainment cinema and acknowledged the possible influence of movies on the morals and conduct of those who saw them. This statement, called The Motion Picture Production Code (and known informally as “The Hays Code”), was published on March 31, 1930. This new code provided for an appointed “jury” (composed of three heads of production chosen from studios who were MPPDA members) that would be the final arbiters of whether a film conformed “to the spirit and letter of the Code”. Determining exactly what the “spirit and letter of the Code” was, however, generated a tremendous amount of debate for the next four years and proved to be an enormous loophole for producers wishing to challenge the guidelines.
When the new Production Code was announced church groups and other moral arbiters received its guidelines with a great deal of skepticism, and as the moral boundaries of good taste continued to be tested and challenged by a number of feature movies their skepticism became overt anger. In 1934 the Catholic Church’s bishops voted to establish The Legion of Decency — a group that evaluated the content of movies, advised Catholic congregations about a film’s moral content, and asked Catholics to sign a pledge promising “to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.” Boycotts of selected films in major cities were threatened, although the only actual boycott of any size occurred in Philadelphia. This boycott, however, was enough to convince the major Hollywood studios that immediate action had to be taken. On the 13th of June, 1934, the SRC was renamed The Production Code Administration (PCA), and a Catholic reformer named Joseph Breen was made its director. Breen enforced the Code with a potent mixture of missionary zeal and administrative tenacity, and after Will Hays retired in the early 1940s many began referring to the PCA as the “Breen” Office instead of the Hays Office.
The members of the MPPDA agreed that each film passed by the PCA would receive a certificate number. This number would be displayed with the MPPDA seal on every print released by their studios, including short subjects and cartoons. Without this certificate the movie would not be shown in any theater owned by a major studio, or distributed by any MPPDA member. (The theater chains owned by the major Hollywood studios accounted for more than 70% of America’s first–run movie houses in cities with a population greater than 100,000.) The PCA was given the authority to review and delete what it felt was morally objectionable material from both the final script before a movie was shot, and the finished movie before it was released. The producers “jury” was eliminated, and the PCA was authorized to impose a $25,000 fine on any studio that made changes to a film after it received the PCA certificate. The only way a ruling by the PCA could be overturned was through a direct appeal to the MPPDA’s Board of Directors, something that was rarely allowed.
The Motion Picture Production Code began by stating that, “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” While acknowledging that, “Motion pictures are very important as Art”, the Code made it clear that, ” . . . the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” The Code went on to provide specific moral obligations, working principles, and production guidelines for the treatment of various plots and plot elements.
Although by 1940 Code enforcement had become standard operating procedure in America’s motion picture industry, there was a gradual weakening of compliance during and after World War II. Open resistance to the Code started with a few major independent producers and, at first, focused on pictures geared to more sophisticated urban audiences.
Howard Hughes, for instance, conducted a much–publicized battle over “The Outlaw”, his 1943 “adult western” starring Jane Russell. The Hays Office instructed Hughes to reshoot or eliminate 37 specific shots in which they felt Russell’s breasts were overemphasized. Hughes refused to comply and appealed the PCA’s decision to the MPPDA’s Board of Directors. The Board, made up of studio executives who were dealing with similar scenes in their own productions, agreed to grant the Seal of Approval if a few minor cuts were made. Although Hughes made the cuts and finally received a Seal, he ended up shelving the movie. In 1946, however, Hughes suddenly decided to openly defy the PCA, the Legion of Decency (who had condemned “The Outlaw”), and many local censorship boards by distributing the movie as it was originally filmed using a risqué advertising campaign that “openly and repeatedly” violated the PCA’s advertising code. Even though the PCA revoked the movie’s Seal of Approval and many movie theaters refused to show it, “The Outlaw” was a major box–office success wherever it was shown.
After Will Hays retired in 1945 the MPPDA was renamed The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a name it still retains. Hays’ sudden absence was another blow to the faltering authority of the Production Code Administration, and his guidance, reputation, and judgment were greatly missed.
Pressure to relax the PCA’s guidelines continued to grow and came from many quarters. In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its momentous “Paramount Decision” (United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.), an antitrust decree that ordered the major Hollywood studios to divest themselves of their theater chains. Without its theaters as an enforcement tool, the MPAA and its Production Code Administration lost a great deal of clout. Then there was the growing popularity of television during the early 1950s, and the growing competition from foreign films, both of which contributed to the declining attendance at Hollywood’s movies. (Many in Hollywood felt that one way to lure back audiences was to make their sophisticated, adult productions more cutting–edge.) Finally, the legal standing of state and local censorship boards was greatly limited by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1952 (Joseph Burstyn v. Wilson) that is often referred to as the “Miracle Decision”. Ruling on this case, that concerned an Italian film called “The Miracle” which had been banned in New York City, the Supreme Court overturned its 1915 decision and ruled that “expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guaranty of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” Although some municipal and state censorship of movies would continue for the next decade, the “Miracle Decision” effectively sounded the death knell for local government oversight of the movie industry. After a number of other court challenges were lost by film censors, government censorship of movies in the United States eventually disappeared by the mid–1960s.
In 1953 Otto Preminger released his film “The Moon is Blue” without a Seal of Approval. Despite not having a PCA Seal, and despite being condemned by the Roman Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency, and despite being shut out of many theaters, “The Moon is Blue” ended up being both a critical and financial success. Because this suggested that the guidelines of the Production Code no longer fit the needs of the 1950s, and its Seal of Approval no longer determined the economic destiny of a movie, the PCA responded by becoming increasingly more flexible. After Joseph Breen resigned from the PCA in 1954, his successor, Geoffrey Shurlock, rather quickly acquiesced to pressure from both Hollywood and the public, and by 1956 the Production Code was revised. The Code now approved such formerly controversial subjects as miscegenation, abortion, childbirth, and drug addiction. By 1959 Shurlock admitted that any subject except homosexuality could be presented in PCA–approved films as long as a “moral conflict” provided the “proper frame of reference.” Meanwhile, The Legion of Decency’s influence gradually declined during the 1950s when it became clear that its objections no longer automatically hurt a film at the box–office.
In the spring of 1961 the head of the Motion Picture Association of America suggested for the first time that the organization might be willing to consider dropping the Production Code entirely in favor of some sort of voluntary classification system for movies. By the time the movie “Blow–Up” was released in 1966 without a Seal of Approval, and enjoyed extraordinarily good box-office business in its first six weeks, it became clear to many observers that the Production Code had become irrelevant. In the autumn of 1966 another revision of the Production Code was unveiled which recommended that movies, ” . . . keep in closer harmony with the mores, the culture, the moral sense and the expectation of our society.” The weekly news magazine NEWSWEEK called the new Code “a glittering diadem of hypocrisy.”
On November 1, 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code was officially replaced by the first version of the MPAA’s voluntary movie classification system. This classification system assigns a rating (currently: G, PG, PG–13, R, or NC–17) to a movie based on the movie’s content and the way that content is handled. These ratings are cautionary warnings for parents rather than an endorsement. (Read more on the MPAA’s website.) Although the MPAA continues to issue certificate numbers for all films assigned one of its classifications , and its seal and certificate number are still displayed at the end of a film’s credits, the certificate number now merely indicates that the movie has been viewed by the MPAA and has received an MPAA rating.
More Motion Picture History
Are you interested in movie history? Check out this article on the first color used in motion pictures.
© 2007 The Picture Show Man. All Rights Reserved.
The following products will help you explore this subject further:
- The History of the American Cinema series:
1990 – Vol. 2: The Transformation of Cinema: 1907 – 1915, by Eileen
1990 – Vol. 3: An Evening’s Entertainment: 1915 – 1928, by Richard
1997 – Vol. 4: The Talkies: 1926 – 1931, by Donald Crafton
1993 – Vol. 5: Grand Design: 1930 – 1939, by Tino Balio
1997 – Vol. 6: Boom and Bust: the 1940s, by Thomas Schatz
2003 – Vol. 7: The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, 1950–1959, by Peter Lev
2001 – Vol. 8: The Sixties: 1960 – 1969, by Paul Monaco
- 1999 – Pre–Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, & Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934, by Thomas Doherty
- 2001 – The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, & the Production Code, (2nd edition), by Leonard J. Leff & Jerold L. Simmons
- 2006 – Movie Censorship & American Culture, (2nd edition) edited by Francis G. Couvares
- 2007 – Banned in Kansas: Motion Picture Censorship, 1915–1966, by Gerald R. Butters, Jr.
- 2007 – Freedom to Offend: How New York Remade Movie Culture, by Raymond J. Haberski, Jr.
- 2007 – Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen & the Production Code Administration, by Thomas Doherty
- 2007 – Miracles & Sacrilege: Roberto Rossellini, the Church, & Film
Censorship in Hollywood, by William Bruce Johnson
- 2007 – Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, by Foster Hirsch
- 2008 – Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915–1981, by Laura Wittern–Keller
- 2008 – The Miracle Case: Film Censorship & the Supreme Court, by Laura Wittern–Keller & Raymond J. Haberski, Jr.
- 2008 – The World & Its Double: The Life & Work of Otto Preminger, by Chris Fujiwara
- 2009 – Obscene, Indecent, Immoral & Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned, and Controversial Films, by Stephen Tropiano
- 1931–1933: Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 1, (the TCM Archives – 3 films on 2 discs)
- 1930–1933: Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 2, (5 films + documentary on 3 discs)
- 1931–1933: Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 3, (6 films + 2 documentaries on 4 discs)
- 1931–1934: Pre–Code Hollywood Collection, (6 films on 3 discs)
- 1932–1940: Mae West: The Glamour Collection, (5 films on 3 discs)
- 1932–1942: The Tarzan Collection, (6 films on 4 discs) starring Johnny Weissmuller & Maureen O’Sullivan
- 1955 – The Man With the Golden Arm (50th Anniversary Edition), starring Frank Sinatra, directed by Otto Preminger
- 1996 – The Celluloid Closet (Special Edition), narrated by Lily Tomlin
- 2008 – Why Be Good? Sexuality & Censorship in Early Cinema, narrated by Diane Lane