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Cleaning Up the Movies.

In the 1930s, people said Hollywood was a bad influence. So it cracked down on itself.

The girlfriend gets a pouty look and says, "Maybe you've found someone you like better." So gangster James Cagney, in reply, picks up half a grapefruit from the breakfast table and shoves it in her face.

What's wrong with this picture? Plenty, said critics of Hollywood in 1931, when this classic scene from The Pub& Enemy first appeared on America's movie screens. Religious leaders and politicians said films like this one glamorized violence and sex and set a bad example for the nation's youth. Sound familiar?

These leaders' protests--and the threat of government censorship they hinted at--led producers to establish a tough code for what was acceptable in movies. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the office that administered that code, the Hays Office, told the studios what they could and could not put on the screen. Its record is worth recalling, now that entertainment's influence on youth is a hot issue once again.

When sex scandals had rocked Hollywood in the early 1920s, the movie studios had formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to stop the bad publicity and supposedly make sure the films themselves were clean. They chose Will H. Hays from Indiana, President Warren G. Harding's Postmaster General, to head the group. But Hays wasn't given much real power over the content of films. Racy movies were simply too popular.

In the early 1930s, however, the Great Depression began to hurt ticket sales, and religious groups offended by movies like The Public Enemy threatened to drain Hollywood's pocketbook further. A Roman Catholic organization called the Legion of Decency, flanked by Protestant and Jewish groups, called for a boycott of the movies. On June 9, 1934, Philadelphia's Catholic cardinal told The New York Times:

Perhaps the greatest menace to faith and morals in America today is the motion picture theater.... The Catholic people of this diocese are, therefore, urged to register their united protest against immoral and indecent films by remaining away entirely from all motion picture theaters.

Religious leaders across the country also began lobbying Congress to censor movies. A 1915 U.S. Supreme Court decision had ruled that movies were not protected free speech under the Constitution. As a result, some state and local governments had set up censorship boards, but so far their influence had been spotty.

This time, Hollywood listened. To head off the boycott and the threat of nationwide censorship, the studios gave the Hays Office a new production code, written by a Catholic priest, and new power to enforce it. The code ordered:

1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil, or sin. 2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented. 3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

The code limited sexual situations and violence and banned profanity, as well as expressions such as "nuts," "lousy," and "Oh, God." Producers submitted scripts to the Hays Office. If censors found anything objectionable, it had to be cut or changed. Censors also studied the finished movie for code violations. Only if there were none could a film get a seal of approval. Movie studios then owned most theaters, so no theater would show a movie without this seal.

The effects of the production code were apparent in the 1939 blockbuster Gone With the Wind. Because prostitution was a forbidden topic, Belle Watling's brothel became a saloon. Scenes of childbirth were also outlawed, so Scarlett O'Hara had to deliver a baby in silhouette. And the studio had to fight to keep the famous Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) line at the end, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Instead, censors wanted, "My dear, I don't care."

The code made films so wholesome that Hollywood was praised by Pope Pius XI and other religious leaders. But it also hamstrung writers, actors, and directors. In 1954, writer Ben Hecht complained that movies had slapped into the American mind mere human misinformation in one evening than the Dark Ages could muster in a decade. One basic plot only has appeared in their fifteen thousand theaters--the triumph of virtue and the overthrow of wickedness.

By that time, though, the Hays Office was losing clout. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered movie studios to sell off the theaters they owned. That meant they could no longer force theaters to accept only movies with a Hays Office seal.

Then, in 1952, the Court reversed its 1915 decision, declaring that government could not censor movies after all. Suddenly, the biggest legal threat facing moviemakers was gone. Also, old ideas about morality and sex were being challenged. Religious groups found that boycotting a movie actually helped it at the box office.

By the late 1960s, the combination of increased competition and changing values had all but destroyed the production code. In 1968, the movie industry introduced a new system of alphabetical ratings designed to identify movies unsuitable for children, or for children without adults. Though it has changed several times, the system is still in place today.

Polls show that some 80 percent of Americans support Hollywood's ratings system. Yet it is an open secret that many theaters do not enforce the system's age limits. In September, a U.S. government study found that studios deliberately market R-rated movies to kids as young as 12. Outraged parents and lawmakers are once again demanding that Hollywood clean up its act.

FOCUS: In the 1930s, Hollywood Set Up a Special Office to Censor Its Films


To help students understand that today's debate about sex and violence in entertainment echoes an earlier controversy in the 1930s; then, the Hays office was set to cut any scene that would "lower the moral standards of those who see it."

Discussion Questions:

* Do you believe viewing violence and explicit sex in movies can produce antisocial behavior in some people?

* How have views of what is acceptable in movies changed since the 1930s?

* In view of the ongoing concern about sex and violence in movies, does the country need a new version of the Hays Office to censor movies?


Before Reading: Hook students into the issue by referring them to the Eminem cover story, UPFRONT, October 16. Is worry about Eminem today similar to the uproar over "immoral" films in the 1930s?

Critical Thinking: What bothered people about the famous grapefruit scene in the movie The Public Enemy? Would the same things equally disturb viewers today?

Decoding the Code: Was the Hays code sufficiently specific? For example, what is "wrongdoing"? Would it be wrong to tell the story of a happy family that does not attend religious services? What is a "correct standard of life"? How might the Hays office react to a film about a polygamous society in the South Pacific? Is lawbreaking always bad? Would a movie character who refused to obey racial-segregation laws get a veto from the Hays Office?

Discussion: Note the Supreme Court decisions on movie censorship. Ask why the Court reversed its 1915 ruling. Was the Court reflecting changed societal attitudes? Does such change also figure in the article on pre-game prayer on page 8? Help students understand that government, including the Supreme Court, often responds to society's changing values.

(Note: Such change has involved attitudes toward race and citizenship as well as toward morality in culture. In February 2001, for Black History Month, UPFRONT will examine three key Supreme Court decisions of the 19th and 20th centuries that powerfully affected racial justice and the lives of African Americans.)
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Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 27, 2000
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