Hays Code

The Hays Code Explained [Short History of Hollywood]

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Table of contents

You might have noticed that old Hollywood films feature a lot less sex and violence. This is a result of the Hays Code, a set of rules that banned certain topics on screen. From the 1930s to the 1960s, this code stopped filmmakers from having freedom over their films.

The code mainly follows Catholic values, for example, an unmarried couple should not share a bed. It also stopped darker topics such as murder and the use of drugs. As a result, it controlled thousands of films and stopped releases if they did not follow the guidelines.

To help you learn more about this important part of cinema history, we have put together the following guide. Below, you will learn everything about the Hays Code, including a definition, a list of the code rules, and examples of films affected by the code.

What is the Hays Code?

In the 1920s, Hollywood had a lot of bad press, including the famous trial of movie star Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. These issues brought negative attention to the film industry. In response, American states began to enforce their own movie censorship rules. 

In 1927, Will H. Hays, the president of the Motion Pictures Association, created a list of codes. He called these codes “Don’ts and Be Carefuls”, although they later became known as the Hays Code. Hays wished to unify all states and create a fixed set of rules for Hollywood. 

By 1930, all major studios adopted the Hays Code and applied it to all future movies. The plan was to clean up Hollywood’s image by banning certain subjects and controlling storylines. Overall, the goal was to make movies that promoted Catholic family values.

Hays Code Rules

The original 1927 Hay’s list of codes is separated into two sections. First, “Don’ts”, which include subjects, themes, and actions banned in all movies. Second, “Be Careful’s”, which contains subjects, themes, and actions that filmmakers should avoid in their films.

Don’tsBe Careful’s
Swearing The use of the Flag
Nudity Foreign Relations
Use of Illegal DrugsArson
Sex Scenes The use of Firearms 
White SlaveryTheft, Robbery, Safe Cracking 
Mixed Racial RelationshipsGruesome Imagery
Sex Education and STDsMurder
Childbirth Scenes Methods of Smuggling
Child Nudity Torture
Mocking the ChurchHangings 
Offending another NationSympathy for Criminals
 Mocking Public Relations
 Cruelty to Children and Animals 
 Branding of Animals
 First Night of Marriage
 Man and Woman in Bed 
 Seduction of Girls
 Mocking Marriage 
 Surgical Operations
 Use of Drugs 
 Police Scenes 

Hays Code Enforcement  

In 1930, Hollywood movie studios introduced the Hays Code. However, the first attempts to enforce the code failed due to a lack of funding and clarity on what to censor. In addition to this, the press heavily mocked the code and its attack on freedom of speech.

Then, in 1934, movie studios created the Production Code Administration (PCA), which would watch and rate every movie before release. The head of the PCA was Joseph L. Breen, a Catholic layman who heavily carried out the orders until 1954.

During this time, all movies released in the United States had a brutal rating process. The PCA refused to release any film that did not follow their guidelines. These strict rules changed how filmmakers made movies during the Hollywood Golden Age.

Hays Code Movie Examples 

Movies made under Hay’s Code had to follow the guidelines set out by the PCA. If a film does not meet their standards, the filmmakers would need to cut scenes before release. Thousands of films went through this process, below are some notable cases.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

The first major film released under the code was Tarzan and His Mate by director Cedric Gibbons. This PCA advised that the filmmakers cut a nude swimming scene and several shots from the film with revealing costumes. In response, producer Paul Tatara said, ‘Such big-screen impropriety was virtually unheard of at the time, and the Code Office had a fit’.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)

The PCA also banned films that ‘offended other nations’, including the Nazi party. As a result, Hollywood studios were originally banned from making Nazi movies. However, in 1939, they lifted the code after the FBI found a Nazi spy ring in the United States. The first anti-Nazi Hollywood film was Confessions Of a Nazi Spy by director Anatole Litvak.  

Rebecca (1940)

Film director Alfred Hitchcock made significant changes to his adaptation of the novel Rebecca. In the original story, the main character gets away with murder and commits adultery. The nature of the book made it impossible to create under the PCA. As a result, Hitcock had to rewrite the film’s overall plot and the ending to follow the Hays Code.

Casablanca (1942)

Film critics regard Casablanca by director Michael Curtiz, as one of the best films of all time. Ironically, the film came about only because of the Hays Code. The script purposely followed the PCA guidelines, including the removal of sex scenes and swearing. As such, the PCA influenced the film’s famous ending by ruling out the possibility of adultery. 

The Outlaw (1943)

This western movie by director Howard Hughes was first completed in 1941. However, the PCA would not approve the picture due to scenes where actress Jane Russell wears a low-cut top. As a result, Hughes reluctantly removed 30 seconds of footage from the film. Eventually, the film had a cinema release two years later and a major release in 1946. 

The End Of The Code

In the late 1940s, Hollywood faced two new threats, foreign cinema and television. First, films made overseas, such as those of Italian Neorealism, did not follow the Hays Code but still made money from cinema releases. As a result, in 1956, the PCA lifted areas of the code, particularly topics of adultery, mixed-race relationships, and prostitution.

In the late 50s, studios began to make more risky films with the hope of competing with television. In 1959, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot did not follow the PCA guidelines, yet still went on to become a box office hit. As did several films by director Otto Preminger, who stood strongly against the code with daring films such as Anatomy of a Murder (1959). 

Then in 1968, the PCA introduced a new MPAA rating system. The four rating symbols included G for general audiences, M for mature, R for restricted, and X for over 16s. With the new rating system in place, the PCA dissolved, resulting in the end of the Hays Code.

Wrapping Up

To sum up, the Hays Code controlled the freedom of Hollywood filmmakers from the 1930s to the 1960s. It changed cinema by dictating the film topics and imagery they could show on screen. Because of this, the films of the time were distinctively less violent and safe.

As a result of the Hays Code, studios now have the current cinema rating system. The code also encouraged other actions, such as animal welfare in movies. So, even though the code caused disruption in the film industry, some good came out of its development.

Amy Clarke
Amy Clarke
Amy is a content writer at the Video Collective. She is a former script supervisor and writes about careers in the film industry. Follow her on Facebook.
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