From virtually the earliest years of their existence, movies were regarded by many people as a baleful influence on public morality. In the United States, censorship was exercised pretty much on a local option basis. Many states and individual cities had their own censorship boards that often ordered the deletion of shots, scenes, and/or title cards before a film could be exhibited within its borders, sometimes banning films outright. The fact that a film was banned somewhere was very often turned into a marketing ploy to gain publicity in other, less easily offended cities.
By 1922, however, spurred by several recent high-profile scandals involving Hollywood celebrities, calls for some type of federal action were heard. In self-defense, motion picture producers passed a succession of moral rules or “codes” meant to guide the content of motion pictures, overseen by former postmaster Will Hays and often referred to as the “Hays Code.” Although most producers followed these voluntary rules, after a few years the guidelines started to relax and by the coming of sound in the late 1920s the treatment of crime, violence, sexual infidelity, profanity and even nudity became alarming to some people. It is possible that the advent of synchronized sound, with gunshots and swear words suddenly audible, added to their impact on sensitive ears, and increasing use of color photography left less to the imagination with suggestive costumes. More calls came for public censorship.
In 1930, therefore, a new code—which came to be known as the Hollywood Production Code—was written. The industry accepted it nominally, although many movies stretched it to its limits or simply ignored it, prompting more public outcry. Movies made between 1930-34 are thus often referred to as “pre-code,” even though the Production Code was theoretically in effect. Many filmmakers during this period tried to stretch the code to its limits, if not defying it outright, especially in their use of sexual innuendoes, risqué costumes, and implicitly immoral characters. In 1934, due partly in response to 1933 films like Baby Face, Gold Diggers of 1933, She Done Him Wrong, I’m No Angel, and many others, a mechanism was set up to enforce the code. For the next thirty years, virtually every film produced or exhibited in the United States had to receive a seal of approval from the office of Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration.
Films were not rated for different ages by the Production Code Administration. They were either approved by the Code for release or not, and the major studios would not release a film without the Code’s seal of approval. In the 1950s a few filmmakers and distributors started to defy the code (especially with foreign imports), and by the 1960s many of the code’s restrictions were loosened if a film’s advertising carried a notice recommending it for mature audiences.
The current system of Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) letter ratings was first established in 1968 (and later slightly modified), freeing filmmakers to include whatever content they desired and submit it for an official rating. These ratings, however, were not based upon moral values or attitudes (as the Production Code’s guidelines had emphasized), but simply upon the content itself. Somewhat vague quotas for levels of violence, sexual activity or discussions, nudity, and profanity were used to divide films into groups, with a letter assigned to give viewers a rough idea of what it might or might not contain. Ratings were G for general audiences, M for mature audiences (later changed to GP and then to PG, with “parental guidance” suggested, since some theatre owners complained the “mature” rating kept away family audiences), R for restricted audiences (under 17 required an adult guardian or parent), and X for no children under 17 admitted even with a parent (later changed to NC-17). After a number of years, producers again stretched the limits of various ratings, and another public outcry led to the creation of the “PG-13” rating between the PG and R ratings. This was largely due to public confusion over the meaning of the letter “G” in the PG rating (since all ages were admitted without any restrictions) and the widespread (false) assumption that all “G” rated films were intended specifically for children rather than for general audiences of all ages, including children. Under the original 1930 Production Code, all films were designed to be suitable for viewers of all ages, even if adults were their primary target audiences.
Below is a substantial excerpt from the original Production Code guidelines followed by Hollywood filmmakers from the mid-1930s until the 1960s.
The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930
I. Theatrical motion pictures, that is, pictures intended for the theatre as distinct from pictures intended for churches, schools, lecture halls, educational movements, social reform movements, etc., are primarily to be regarded as Entertainment.
Mankind has always recognized the importance of entertainment and its value in rebuilding the bodies and souls of human beings.
But it has always recognized that entertainment can be of a character harmful to the human race, and, in consequence, has clearly distinguished between:
Entertainment which tends to improve the race, or, at least, to recreate and rebuild human beings exhausted with the realities of life; and
Entertainment which tends to degrade human beings, or to lower their standards of life and living.
Hence the moral importance of entertainment is something which has been universally recognized. It enters intimately into the lives of men and women and affects them closely; it occupies their minds and affections during leisure hours, and ultimately touches the whole of their lives. A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work.
So correct entertainment raises the whole standard of a nation.
Wrong entertainment lowers the whole living condition and moral ideals of a race.
Note, for example, the healthy reactions to healthful moral sports like baseball, golf; the unhealthy reactions to sports like cockfighting, bullfighting, bear-baiting, etc. Note, too, the effect on a nation of gladiatorial combats, the obscene plays of Roman times, etc.
II. Motion pictures are very important as Art.
Though a new art, possibly a combination art, it has the same object as the other arts, the presentation of human thoughts, emotions and experiences, in terms of an appeal to the soul thru the senses.
Here, as in entertainment:
Art enters intimately into the lives of human beings.
Art can be morally good, lifting men to higher levels. This has been done thru good music, great painting, authentic fiction, poetry, drama.
Art can be morally evil in its effects. This is the case clearly enough with unclean art, indecent books, suggestive drama. The effect on the lives of men and women is obvious.
Note: It has often been argued that art in itself is unmoral, neither good nor bad. This is perhaps true of the thing which is music, painting, poetry, etc. But the thing is the product of some person’s mind, and that mind was either good or bad morally when it produced the thing. And the thing has its effect upon those who come into contact with it. In both these ways, as a product and the cause of definite effects, it has a deep moral significance and an unmistakable moral quality.
Hence: The motion pictures which are the most popular of modern arts for the masses, have their moral quality from the minds which produce them and from their effects on the moral lives and reactions of their audiences. This gives them a most important morality.
1) They reproduce the morality of the men who use the pictures as a medium for the expression of their ideas and ideals;
2) They affect the moral standards of those who thru the screen take in these ideas and ideals.
In the case of the motion pictures, this effect may be particularly emphasized because no art has so quick and so widespread an appeal to the masses. It has become in an incredibly short period, the art of the multitudes.
III. The motion picture has special Moral obligations:
A) Most arts appeal to the mature. This art appeals at once to every class—mature, immature, developed, undeveloped, law-abiding, criminal. Music has its grades for different classes; so has literature and drama. This art of the motion picture, combining as it does the two fundamental appeals of looking at a picture and listening to a story, at once reaches every class of society.
B) Because of the mobility of a film and the ease of picture distribution, and because of the possibility of duplicating positives in large quantities, this art reaches places unpenetrated by other forms of art.
C) Because of these two facts, it is difficult to produce films intended for only certain classes of people. The exhibitor’s theatres are for the masses, for the cultivated and the rude, mature and immature, self-restrained and inflammatory, young and old, law-respecting and criminal. Films, unlike books and music, can with difficulty be confined to certain selected groups.
D) The latitude given to film material cannot, in consequence, be as wide as the latitude given to book material. In addition:
(a) A book describes; a film vividly presents.
(b) A book reaches the mind thru words merely; a film reaches the eyes and ears thru the reproduction of actual events.
(c) The reaction of a reader to a book depends largely on the keenness of the reader; the reaction to a film depends on the vividness of the presentation.
E) This is also true when comparing the film with the newspapers. Newspapers present by description, films by actual presentation. Newspapers are after the fact and present things that have taken place; the film gives the events in the process of enactment and with apparent reality of life.
F) Everything possible in a play is not possible in a film.
(a) Because of the larger audience of the film, and its consequently mixed character. Psychologically, the larger the audience, the lower the moral mass resistance to suggestion.
(b) Because thru light, enlargement of character presentation, scenic emphasis, etc., the screen story is brought closer to the audience than the play.
(c) The enthusiasm for and interest in the film actors and actresses, developed beyond anything of the sort in history, makes the audience largely sympathetic toward the characters they portray and the stories in which they figure. Hence they are more ready to confuse the actor and character, and they are most receptive of the emotions and ideals portrayed and presented by their favorite stars.
G) Small communities, remote from sophistication and from the hardening process which often takes place in the ethical and moral standards of larger cities, are easily and readily reached by any sort of film.
H) The grandeur of mass meetings, large action, spectacular features, etc., affects and arouses more intensely the emotional side of the audience.
In general: The mobility, popularity, accessibility, emotional appeal, vividness, straight-forward presentation of fact in the films makes for intimate contact on a larger audience and greater emotional appeal. Hence the larger moral responsibilities of the motion pictures.
I. No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it. This is done:
(a) When evil is made to appear attractive, and good is made to appear unattractive.
(b) When the sympathy of the audience is thrown on the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil, sin. The same thing is true of a film that would throw sympathy against goodness, honor, innocence, purity, honesty.
Note: Sympathy with a person who sins, is not the same as sympathy with the sin or crime of which he is guilty. We may feel sorry for the plight of the murderer or even understand the circumstances which led him to his crime; we may not feel sympathy with the wrong which he has done.
The presentation of evil is often essential for art, or fiction, or drama.
This in itself is not wrong, provided:
(a) That evil is not presented alluringly. Even if later on the evil is condemned or punished, it must not be allowed to appear so attractive that the emotions are drawn to desire or approve so strongly that later they forget the condemnation and remember only the apparent joy of the sin.
(b) That throughout the presentation, evil and good are never confused and that evil is always recognized clearly as evil.
(c) That in the end the audience feels that evil is wrong and good is right.
II. Law, natural or divine, must not be belittled, ridiculed, nor must a sentiment be created against it.
A) The presentation of crimes against the law, human or divine, is often necessary for the carrying out of the plot. But the presentation must not throw sympathy with the criminal as against the law, nor with the crime as against those who punish it.
B) The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust.
III. As far as possible, life should not be misrepresented, at least not in such a way as to place in the minds of youth false values on life.
Note: This subject is touched just in passing. The attention of the producers is called, however, to the magnificent possibilities of the screen for character development, the building of right ideals, the inculcation in stry-form of right principles. If motion pictures consistently held up high types of character, presented stories that would affect lives for the better, they could become the greatest natural force for the improvement of mankind.
PRINCIPLES OF PLOT
In accordance with the general principles laid down:
1) No plot or theme should definitely side with evil and against good.
2) Comedies and farces should not make fun of good, innocence, morality or justice.
3) No plot should be constructed as to leave the question of right or wrong in doubt or fogged.
4) No plot should by its treatment throw the sympathy of the audience with sin, crime, wrong-doing or evil.
5) No plot should present evil alluringly.
Serious Film Drama
I. As stated in the general principles, sin and evil enter into the story of human beings, and hence in themselves are dramatic material.
II. In the use of this material, it must be distinguished between sin which by its very nature repels, and sin which by its very nature attracts.
(a) In the first class comes murder, most theft, most legal crimes, lying, hypocrisy, cruelty, etc.
(b) In the second class come sex sins, sins and crimes of apparent heroism, such as banditry, daring thefts, leadership in evil, organized crime, revenge, etc.
A) The first class needs little care in handling, as sins and crimes of this class naturally are unattractive. The audience instinctively condemns and is repelled. Hence the one objective must be to avoid the hardening of the audiences, especially of those who are young and impressionable, to the thought and the fact of crime. People can be accustomed even to murder, cruelty, brutality and repellent crimes.
B) The second class needs real care in handling, as the response of human natures to their appeal is obvious. This is treated more fully below.
III. A careful distinction can be made between films intended for general distribution, and films intended for use in theatres restricted to a limited audience. Themes and plots quite appropriate for the latter would be altogether out of place and dangerous in the former.
Note: In general, the practice of using a general theatre and limiting the patronage during the showing of certain films to “adults only” is not completely satisfactory and is only partially effective.
However, maturer minds may easily understand and accept without harm subject matter in plots which does younger people positive harm.
Hence: If there should be created a special type of theatre, catering exclusively to an adult audience, for plays of this character (plays with problem themes, difficult discussions and maturer treatment) it would seem to afford an outlet, which does not now exist, for pictures unsuitable for general distribution but permissible for exhibitions to a restricted audience.
1) The triangle, that is, the love of a third party by one already married, needs careful handling, if marriage, the sanctity of the home, and sex morality are not to be imperiled.
2) Adultery as a subject should be avoided:
(a) It is never a fit subject for comedy. Thru comedy of this sort, ridicule is thrown on the essential relationships of home and family and marriage, and illicit relationships are made to seem permissible, and either delightful or daring.
(b) Sometimes adultery must be counted on as material occurring in serious drama.
In this case:
(1) It should not appear to be justified;
(2) It should not be used to weaken respect for marriage
(3) It should not be presented as attractive or alluring.
3) Seduction and rape are difficult subjects and bad material from the viewpoint of the general audience in the theatre.
(a) They should never be introduced as subject matter unless absolutely essential to the plot.
(b) They should never be treated as comedy.
(c) Where essential to the plot, they must not be more than suggested.
(d) Even the struggles preceding rape should not be shown.
(e) The methods by which seduction, essential tot eh plot, is attained should not be explicit or represented in detail where there is likelihood of arousing wrongful emotions on the part of the audience.
4) Scenes of passion are sometimes necessary for the plot. However:
(a) They should appear only where necessary and not as an added stimulus to the emotions of the audience.
(b) When not essential to the plot, they should not occur.
(c) They must not be explicit in action nor vivid in method, e.g. by handling of the body, by lustful and prolonged kissing, by evidently lustful embraces, by positions which strongly arouse passions.
(d) In general, where essential to the plot, scenes of passion should not be presented in such a way as to arouse or excite the passions of the ordinary spectator.
5) Sexual immorality is sometimes necessary for the plot. It is subject to the following:
General principles—regarding plots dealing with sex, passion, and incidents related to them:
All legislators have recognized clearly that there are in normal human beings emotions which react naturally and spontaneously to the presentation of certain definite manifestations of sex and passion.
(a) The presentation of scenes, episodes, plots, etc., which are deliberately meant to excite these manifestations on the part of the audience is always wrong, is subversive to the interest of society, and a peril to the human race.
(b) Sex and passion exist and consequently must sometimes enter into the stories which deal with human beings.
(1) Pure love, the love of a man for a woman permitted by the law of God and man, is the rightful subject of plots. The passion arising fromt his love is not the subject for plots.
(2) Impure love, the love of man and woman forbidden by human and divine law, must be presented in such a way that:
a) It is clearly known by the audience to be wrong:
b) Its presentation does not excite sexual reactions, mental or physical, in an ordinary audience;
c) It is not treated as a matter for comedy.
Hence: Even within the limits of pure love, certain facts have been universally regarded by lawmakers as outside the limits of safe presentation. These are the manifestations of passion and the sacred intimacies of private life:
(1) Either before marriage in the courtship of decent people;
(2) Or after marriage, as is perfectly clear.
In the case of pure love, the difficulty is not so much about what details are permitted for presentation. This is perfectly clear in most cases. The difficulty concerns itself with the tact, delicacy, and general regard for propriety manifested in their presentation.
But in the case of impure love, the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which ahs been banned by divine law, the following are important:
(1) It must not be the subject of comedy or farce or treated as the material for laughter;
(2) It must not be presented as attractive and beautiful;
(3) It must not be presented in such a way as to arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience;
(4) It must not be made to seem right and permissible;
(5) In general, it must not be detailed in method or manner.
6) The presentation of murder is often necessary for the carrying out of the plot.
(a) Frequent presentation of murder tends to lessen regard for the sacredness of life.
(b) Brutal killings should not be presented in detail.
(c) Killings for revenge should not be justified, i.e., the hero should not take justice into his own hands in such a way as to make his killing seem justified. This does not refer to killings in self-defense.
(d) Dueling should not be presented as right or just.
7) Crimes against the law naturally occur in the course of film stories.
(a) Criminals should not be made heroes, even if they are historical criminals.
(b) Law and justice must not by the treatment they receive from criminals be made to seem wrong or ridiculous.
(c) Methods of committing crime, e.g., burglary, should not be so explicit as to teach the audience how crime can be committed; that is, the film should not serve as a possible school in crime methods for those who seeing the methods might use them.
(d) Crime need not always be punished, as long as the audience is made to know that it is wrong.
DETAILS OF PLOT, EPISODE, AND TREATMENT
Vulgarity may be carefully distinguished from obscenity. Vulgarity is the treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant subjects which decent society considers outlawed from normal conversation.
Vulgarity in the motion pictures is limited in precisely the same way as in decent groups of men and women by the dictates of good taste and civilized usage, and by the effect of shock, scandal, and harm on those coming in contact with this vulgarity.
(1) Oaths should never be used as a comedy element. Where required by the plot, the less offensive oaths may be permitted.
(2) Vulgar expressions come under the same treatment as vulgarity in general. Where women and children are to see the film, vulgar expressions (and oaths) should be cut to the absolute essentials required by the situation.
(3) The name of Jesus Christ should never be used except in reverence.
Obscenity is concerned with immorality, but has the additional connotation of being common, vulgar and coarse.
(1) Obscenity in fact, that is, in spoken word, gesture, episode, plot, is against divine and human law, and hence altogether outside the range of subject matter or treatment.
(2) Obscenity should not be suggested by gesture, manner, etc.
(3) An obscene reference, even if it is expected to be understandable to only the more sophisticated part of the audience, should not be introduced.
(4) Obscene language is treated as all obscenity.
(1) The effect of nudity or semi-nudity upon the normal man or woman, and much more upon the young person, has been honestly recognized by all lawmakers and moralists.
(2) Hence the fact that the nude or semi-nude body may be beautiful does not make its use in films moral. For in addition to its beauty, the effects of the nude or semi-nude body on the normal individual must be taken into consideration.
(3) Nudity or semi-nudity used simply to put a “punch” into a picture comes under the head of immoral actions as treated above. It is immoral in its effect upon the average audience.
(4) Nudity or semi-nudity is sometimes apparently necessary for the plot. Nudity is never permitted. Semi-nudity may be permitted under conditions.
(1) The more intimate parts of the human body are male and female organs and the breasts of a woman.
(a) They should never be uncovered.
(b) They should not be covered with transparent or translucent material.
(c) They should not be clearly and unmistakably outlined by the garment.
(2) The less intimate parts of the body, the legs, arms, shoulders and back, are less certain of causing reactions on the part of the audience.
(a) Exposure necessary for the plot or action is permitted.
(b) Exposure for the sake of exposure or the “punch” is wrong.
(c) Scenes of undressing should be avoided. When necessary for the plot, they should be kept within the limits of decency. When not necessary for the plot, they are to be avoided, as their effect on the ordinary spectator is harmful.
(d) The manner or treatment of exposure should not be suggestive or indecent.
(e) The following is important in connection with dancing costumes:
1. Dancing costumes cut to permit grace or freedom of movement, provided they remain within the limits of decency indicated are permissible.
2. Dancing costumes cut to permit indecent actions or movements or to make possible during the dance indecent exposure, are wrong, especially when permitting:
a) Movements of the breasts;
b) Movements or sexual suggestions of the intimate parts of the body;
c) Suggestion of nudity.
(1) Dancing in general is recognized as an art and a beautiful form of expressing human emotion.
(2) Obscene dances are those:
(a) Which suggest or represent sexual actions, whether performed solo or with two or more;
(b) Which are designed to excite an audience, to arouse passions, or to cause physical excitement.
Hence: Dances of the type known as “Kooch,” or “Can-Can,” since they violate decency in these two ways, are wrong.
Dances with movements of the breasts, excessive body movement while the feet remain stationary, the so-called “belly dances”—these dances are immoral, obscene, and hence altogether wrong.
Certain places are so closely and thoroughly associated with sexual life or with sexual sin that their use must be carefully limited.
(1) Brothels and houses of ill-fame, no matter of what country, are not proper locations for drama. They suggest to the average person at once sex sin, or they excite an unwholesome and morbid curiosity in the minds of youth.
In general: They are dangerous and bad dramatic locations.
(2) Bedrooms. In themselves they are perfectly innocent. Their suggestion may be kept innocent. However, under certain situations they are bad dramatic locations.
(a) Their use in a comedy or farce (on the principle fo the so-called bedroom farce) is wrong, because they suggest sex laxity and obscenity.
(b) In serious drama, their use should, where sex is suggested, be confined to absolute essentials, in accordance with the principles laid down above.
(1) No film or episode in a film should be allowed to throw ridicule on any religious faith honestly maintained.
(2) Ministers of religion in their characters of ministers should not be used in comedy, as villains, or as unpleasant persons.
Note: The reason for this is not that there are not such ministers of religion, but because the attitude toward them tends to be an attitude toward religion in general.
Religion is lowered in the minds of the audience because it lowers their respect for the ministers.
(3) Ceremonies of any definite religion should be supervised by someone thoroughly conversant with that religion.
I. Crimes against the law:
These shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation:
The treatment of crimes against the law must not:
a. Teach methods of crime.
b. Inspire potential criminals with a desire for imitation
c. Make criminals seem heroic and justified.
a. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation.
b. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.
c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified. In lands and ages of less developed civilization and moral principles, revenge may sometimes be presented. This would be the case especially in places where no law exists to cover the crime because of which revenge is committed.
2. Methods of crime shall not be explicitly presented.
a. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method.
b. Arson must be subject to the same safeguards.
c. The use of firearms should be restricted to essentials.
d. Methods of smuggling should not be presented.
3. Illegal drug traffic must never be presented
Because of its evil consequences, the drug traffic should never be presented in any form. The existence of the trade should not be brought to the attention of audiences.
4. The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, should not be shown.
The use of liquor should never be excessively presented even in picturing countries where its use is legal. In scenes from American life, the necessities of plot and proper characterization alone justify its use. And in this case, it should be shown with moderation.
The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationships are the accepted or common thing.
1. Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively. Out of regard for the sanctity of marriage and the home, the triangle, that is, the love of a third party for one already married, needs careful handling. The treatment should not throw sympathy against marriage as an institution.
2. Scenes of passion must be treated with an honest acknowledgement of human nature and its normal reactions. Many scenes cannot be presented without arousing dangerous emotions on the part of the immature, the young or the criminal classes.
a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.
b. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.
c. In general, passion should be so treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.
3. Seduction or rape
a. They should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method.
b. They are never the proper subject for comedy.
4. Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.
5. White slavery shall not be treated.
6. Miscegenation (sex relationship between the white and black races) is forbidden.
7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.
8. Scenes of actual childbirth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented.
9. Children’s sex organs are never to be exposed. …