Censorship in early Hollywood

Part 1: What is a pre-code movie and why should every libertarian watch them?

The term Pre-code itself is a misnomer

The term pre-code typically means movies made and released between March of 1930 and July of 1934, although arguments can be made that anything after 1915 have been subject to some sort of code. In 1915 Mutual Films lost its supreme court case in a unanimous decision against the state of Ohio. Ohio had a board of censors that disallowed certain films to be shown in the state. The supreme court reached a decision that film is not covered by freedom of the press in the first amendment. By the early 20’s many more states had created their own censorship laws and the studios realized that they would either A) have to create movies with many different versions to navigate the now hundreds of laws in 37 states or B) police their own with a private censorship committee. They chose the latter, created the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and appointed William Hays as its president.

Let Adolph Zukor try to stop censorship now

Hollywood had already been a source of scandal throughout the teens. An increase of female hedonism by actresses like Mabel Normand, Clara Bow, Norma Talmadge and Gloria Swanson fueled the opinion that Hollywood was a dangerous place that encouraged immoral behavior. Many in the public were shocked by the illicit affairs, illegal drinking (prohibition was in affect from 1920 through 1933) and “questionable” lifestyles of those working in the industry. Then, starting in late 1921 two major scandals rocked the industry: the death of Virginia Rappe at a wild party thrown by Fatty Arbuckle and a few months later the still unsolved murder of Director William Desmond Taylor. The industry had already been under threat of censorship, had lost its case for first amendment protection and was now weakened enough by scandal that they knew there had to be change. Hays was approached by Hollywood to help them navigate the many different state laws that were enacted after the Supreme Court decision in 1917 and his infamous list of don’ts was a conglomerate of laws by states, a much- needed guide-line to stay legal as much as possible, even though some films were still banned by certain locales. The Hays code saved Hollywood from two things: government censorship and a myriad of lawsuits which would have destroyed the industry.

Thou shalt not

With the advent of talking pictures, and the ever-growing evidence to the public moralists that the first production code wasn’t being followed, Hays met with several catholic heads and was given a list of moral objections, which he then brought to the studio heads in 1929 and gave them 2 voluntary lists often referred to as the Hays Code: “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” suggestions. The code went into effect March 1930, but Hays viewed the movie industry as a business and his position was both an advisor on laws and that of a PR man to help explain controversial movies to the public, only advising to cut the most serious scenes. Hays felt that artistic expression was important and hired people under him who felt the same, resulting in the short era that is now referred to as pre-code.

They are simply a rotten bunch of vile people

Studios continued to make racier and racier films, despite having a production office. Pressure on Hays to actually censor scripts continued to grow, ultimately leading to his right-hand man, Jason Joy to step down, with Joseph Breen to replace him in mid-1932.  Even this did not stop producers from making racy and violent films. The end of Hays was nearing, and the strengthening of the code was brought about by the creation of the Catholic Legion of Decency. They formed in 1933 after tiring of the movie industry turning a deaf ear to outcry against immoral movies and actors, and the lack of action on Hays’s part.

Legion of Decency

Morally unacceptable

The Legion released their own rating system that millions of Americans followed (excuse the pun) religiously. They also had a list of actors and actresses to avoid, naming Norma Scheerer particularly as an actress whose movies were to avoid. Not only did they have a powerful protest block of Catholics, but they also were in talks with FDR’s administration as to whether they should include censorship of Hollywood in with the National Recovery Act (NRA) initiatives.

Within days of final talks with the government, Breen was moved into a position of approving scripts. Of the first six scripts, five ended up with all changes enacted, one did not: Queen Christina (which we will be visiting in the upcoming months), the scenes that were left intact caused the Legion to condemn and call for a boycott: sales were massively down for a movie starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. As Breen steamed about the fact that without power these “dirty pictures” would continue to be made, Hollywood studios could see the writing on the wall: that they either give Breen the ultimate decision over scripts or FDR will create his own censorship department, and decided the code would be followed or else.

Fundamentally dangerous

The 3 ½ years the code was under Hays was remarkable. Women were the stars- the power and driving force behind many of the films. Women writers were prevalent, writing much more complex characters than were allowed in 1935. The male stars were often overshadowed by their female co-stars, sometimes just for eye candy. Even though Jim Crow laws existed, blacks had better roles under the Hays code and interracial relationships were represented, as were homosexuals. Drug addiction, homelessness, sexual deviance, pregnancy and abortion were subjects that appeared in many of these movies. Corruption in politics, government and our justice system were examined – something that wouldn’t be revisited for the most part until after the war. In the coming months we will highlight these issues as well as contrast later movies and learn more about how censorship affected Hollywood.

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