Production Code Administration (Hays Office)

views updated


In the early 1920s notorious sex scandals, as well as racy movie content and advertising, raised strong cries for state and federal regulation of the movies. To forestall official intervention, the motion picture industry committed to self-regulation under a socalled czar: Will Hays, an influential Republican politician and prominent Presbyterian elder, headed a new trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), soon known as the Hays Office.

Self-regulation failed to mute critics, however, who found the continuing preoccupation with sex and crime in the movies a baleful influence on American culture and society, and especially on the nation's youth. Hays periodically found it necessary to reinforce the industry's moral façade. In 1924 he announced a "formula" to ensure that only material of "the right type" would be filmed. In 1927 the Hays Office issued a set of "don'ts" and "be carefuls" to govern filmmaking. In 1930 a production code was promulgated—primarily the work of Jesuit priest Daniel Lord and influential Catholic trade publisher Martin Quigley—that stressed "no picture will be produced which will lower . . . moral standards."

None of these documents functioned adequately, as industry critics recognized, and by 1933 some forty religious, civic, and educational organizations were calling for government regulation of the movie industry. In late 1933 American Catholic bishops, concerned about the moral values depicted in motion pictures, organized the Legion of Decency (joined in its goals by many non-Catholic groups), which undertook to boycott films violating the production code's strictures. This decency campaign, accepted by Hays in preference to government intervention, benefited from the Church's hierarchical structure, as well as the industry's economic slump resulting from the Great Depression, and it quickly put teeth into the code, which could no longer be disregarded.

After mid-1934 all films exhibited in the industry's theatre chains—the vast majority of U.S. motion picture venues—needed Production Code Administration (PCA) approval. By the end of the decade, Hays estimated that 98 percent of films distributed in the United States carried the PCA "seal of approval." Code implementation began with script vetting and continued through production. Code-approved movies respected religion, law enforcement, and the family; avoided miscegenation, nudity, and profanity; and presented "correct standards of life." The co-existence of moral didacticism with box-office necessity meant that "wrong" could be shown provided that before a film's conclusion there were "compensating moral values," such as regeneration, suffering, punishment, or "a lesson learned."

In June 1934 Joseph Breen, a devout 43-year-old Catholic, former Philadelphia newspaperman, and one-time U.S. counselor official, whose church ties had brought him to Hollywood and the MPPDA, became director of the PCA, which after Hays's 1945 retirement became known as the Breen Office. Shrewd and hardworking, Breen remained its head until 1953, except for a 1941 to 1942 industry stint. Throughout his tenure the conservative Breen was concerned with both moral values and political content, a censorship that kept most films bland and noncontroversial. The PCA and the Legion of Decency lost their clout in the early 1950s as a result of economic changes in the industry, shifts in public taste, and anticensorship court rulings.



Bernstein, Matthew, ed. Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era. 1999.

Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. 1994.

Leff, Leonard J., and Jerold L. Simmons. Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s, 2nd edition. 2001.

Martin, Olga J. Hollywood's Movie Commandments: A Handbook for Motion Picture Writers and Reviewers. 1937.

Schumach, Murray. The Face on the Cutting Room Floor: The Story of Movie and Television Censorship. 1964.

Vizzard, Jack. See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor. 1970.

Daniel J. Leab

About this article

Production Code Administration (Hays Office)

Updated About content Print Article