Two years into his tenure as President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Will H. Hays was in front of Congress. Not for movie-related business, but for accepting and then obfuscating a small fortune from the founder of Sinclair Oil during the Teapot Dome bribery scandal. The former campaign manager for Warren G. Harding—a man who was, until recently, a shoo-in for running our most corrupt presidential administration—Hays was “the moral supervisor of the movies” by the time he accepted $185,000 in cash and bonds, which he laundered and applied to the debts of the Republican National Committee. Just a few years later, Hays was synonymous with artistic censorship masquerading as dubious morality. The Catholic-pushed Motion Picture Production Code (AKA the Hays Code) came to define American cinema through both its limits and its loopholes for decades. Money still lurked beneath it all. Now, freed from the Code but under similar moral scrutiny, movies are often judged for their ethics by audiences weaned on revenue-driven discourse. And it all started with Hays’ appointment to the newly formed MPPDA 100 years ago.
Hays, a “nervous little” ex-traffic cop whom Time called a “human flivver” (I’ll save you the Google: It means he was a busted-up jalopy of a dude) with a “twisted grin” in their 1926 cover story, left his appointment as Postmaster General on January 14, 1922 to become “the dictator of the fourth largest industry” of the time. It was a post Hays would hold for 24 years before passing it off to Eric Johnson, who would shift the position’s ostensible focus from film’s morals to film’s international economic/diplomatic potential. But, really, capitalism always was—and continues to be—the driving force of censorship efforts.
State censorship boards reigned before the MPPDA, and making movies for a slew of arbitrary committees with no formal standard was expensive for everyone and made the final product sloppy—even incoherent—for audiences, as offending movies had to be chopped to bits (in different mangled formations) in order to screen in local theaters. Lawmakers across 37 states tried to pass over 100 censorship bills in 1921 alone. Overarching federal censorship and the anti-trust attention that may well follow seemed even worse for an industry that was just now finally becoming, well, an industry. Enter self-preservational self-censorship, here to sweep the real-life sex and drugs of Hollywood under the rug of sanitized films to put Wall Street at ease. But enforcement of these moral clauses always reflected what studio heads thought would be best for the bottom line.
In a speech to the National Education Association in July of 1922, Hays said that the influence of the movie industry—an industry that had “settled down commercially into a sanity and conservatism like that of the banking world”—was “limitless,” not just on “our taste” but on “our conduct,” “our aspirations,” “our youth” and “our future.” Movies, you know, the things that, before violent videogames, were blamed for America’s gun problems and general moral failures.
“And so its integrity must, and shall, be protected just as we protect the integrity of our churches,” Hays declared. The speech goes on to half-heartedly condemn political censorship, before reiterating a commitment to ethical censorship where “real evil can and must be kept out”—a hypocrisy as American as comparing art to banks and churches.
Yet, during the ‘20s, Hays’ early passes at a Code—known first as The Formula and, later, a long list of Don’ts and Be Carefuls—were often ignored. But, like that speech, they were good PR. Placated by the coverage these rulesets got in the press (and publicity moves like banning any movie featuring Fatty Arbuckle, whose high-profile manslaughter accusation was an instigating factor to Hays’ recruitment), those same financial powers that got Hays appointed in the first place didn’t see a rush for strict enforcement. Money was being made.
Initially, the Hays Code was also disobeyed. It was the Depression, and studios needed butts in seats any way they could get them. Movies actually got more lascivious for a while. But when the Catholic Legion of Decency put its supervillain supergroup name to good use in the early ‘30s, designating what its large and pious audience should or shouldn’t see, the script flipped. Profits were now on the line, as the faithful realized they were far more organized than the degenerates that enjoyed any kind of realism in their cinema. Millions of Catholics pledged to stay away from unapproved and thus immoral films, and the Legion of Decency became influential enough to warrant a response from an industry that would love millions of Catholics to buy tickets, please.
The power of these religious tastemakers and their odd relationship to the movies is perhaps best and most hilariously displayed in this scene from Hail, Caesar!, which riffs on the counsel of denominational consultants advising Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (one of whom was future Hays Code co-author Reverend Daniel A. Lord):
No matter your beliefs, Hollywood really, really wants your money. To keep this specific religious faction coming to theaters, Hays created the Production Code Administration and appointed a tough Catholic as its head. Joseph Breen’s PCA could fine producers releasing films without a stamp of approval, and the Hays Code (expanded from Hays’ Be Carefuls list by Lord and Catholic publisher Martin Quigley) finally had some teeth. Profits were once again protected. It’s not like people didn’t know what Hays and his ilk were up to at the time. Here’re humorists Will Rogers and Irvin S. Cobb on a 1935 radio program:
Rogers: “Do you find that this censorship that Will Hays has got in on us now, does it kind of interfere with you, kind of cramp your emotions in any way?
Cobb: “Well, I noticed as a result of Will Hays’ campaign they no longer talk about putting a tax on raw film.”
Not to get too into the weeds on the Hays Code and its future (our Ken Lowe already did a thorough rundown of the MPAA rating system it evolved into), but doesn’t that all sound a little familiar? The code—which not only made sure criminals were explicitly unsympathic and priests went unmocked, but also prohibited “scenes of passion” when “not essential to the plot,” as well as “sex perversion” and “dances which emphasize indecent movements”—reflected attitudes surrounding marketable prudishness still visible today.
As Code-verbatim complaints about sex scenes and immoral characters inspire thinkpieces considering the decline of the erotic thriller and the roots of people believing that depiction means endorsement, it’s no wonder why the biggest modern movies star sexless PG-13 brands like Captain America or The Rock rather than people. It’s no wonder that the biggest modern movies expect (and obtain!) praise based on their moral messaging alone. It’s all marketing, all about being palatable to those increasingly raised on four-quadrant films. The potential ostracized group is no longer a literal Legion of Catholics, but those who’d be influenced by a Fortnite skin crossover. Family-friendly still means ticket sales, but also merchandising opportunities.
Then, you have the international market. Not only was the Hays Code important in desexing movies (at least on the textual surface), it helped suppress politically minded films that might insult lucrative global box offices like that of…Nazi Germany. While anti-fascist Hollywood films eventually got made, there were years of self-censorship aimed at making sure distribution continued as we ramped up to WWII—a dismal failure mirrored by many, many American businesses (though Ford and DuPont didn’t tout hoity-toity morality codes). Today, companies self-censoring subject matter that might offend certain countries’ administrations has been as visible as ever: Netflix pulling a Patriot Act monologue critical of Saudi Arabian royalty after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; various China-pleasing cast additions, straight-washes, product placements and political scrubbings affecting every single blockbuster. It’s never really gone away. Disney’s Michael Eisner apologized to China and hired Henry Kissinger to deal with Martin Scorsese’s Dalai Lama-centric Kundun back in 1998. Now, the film remains hard to find and definitely unavailable to stream on Disney+. Why? As always, money. China’s film market surpassed North America’s in size in 2020, hungry for a specific kind of inoffensive Hollywood film (plot-light, star and effects-heavy—F9 was 2021’s most successful crossover hit).
Of course, this kind of crass and shameless censorship has a silver lining, because it will always encourage those lovely sickos looking for exactly what’s being banned in the first place. What’s a more enticing film to a thrill-seeking teen than a former video nasty, an ex-X, or a film loathed by the Chinese government? When George Mundelein, Archbishop of Chicago, protested “indecent pictures” in the early ‘30s, contemporary reports noted that “cynical opponents suggest that the Legion of Decency has aided indecent pictures by advertising them.” As anyone who was paying attention to last year’s Benedetta knows, some humorless Catholics still love to give movies free protest publicity.
But movies that are irreparably altered by censors, fail to get distribution, or go unmade in the first place—as shifting industry trends erase the mid-budget movie, quash specific subgenres and infect every film’s third act with half-assed sequel set-ups—are the true victims of Hays’ legacy. This reminds me of a Stanley Kubrick quote, which our Natalia Keogan brought up when discussing the filmmaker’s A Clockwork Orange (a film with heavy roots in Catholicism and with plenty of experience with censorship): “No work of art has ever done social harm, though a great deal of social harm has been done by those who have sought to protect society against works of art which they regarded as dangerous.” And what of those that don’t really even seek to protect society, but those that withhold any element that might prevent a sale? How much harm have these mercenaries done, and how much do they continue to do?
When looking back on Hays’ influence on the film industry over the past century, there’s little nuance to be had. He and sociologist Mary van Kleeck’s development of Central Casting, which revolutionized and regulated the world of extras, won’t ever be his legacy. Nor will his surprisingly successful political career or subsequent scandal. Instead, what remains is a negotiation-heavy dance between executives, filmmakers, religious leaders and self-righteous censors—as individual morals colored industry-wide economic policies—simplified into the Puritanical catch-all of “the Hays Code.” But so too, as blockbusters boom bigger than ever, remains the idea of playing it as safe as possible in order to make a buck. No Code required.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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