Production Code (Hays Code)
Production Code (Hays Code)
The Hays Code, also called the Production Code, was a self-imposed system of regulation that explicitly and implicitly affected the themes, story lines, and tone of Hollywood films produced between 1930 and the 1960s, particularly with regard to the treatment of sexuality.
In the years leading up to the popularization of sound cinema in about 1930, certain segments of the American public had come to believe that Hollywood films exemplified the decline of American moral values. In 1915 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment did not apply to motion pictures, and city governments began to ban the exhibition of "immoral films." A series of Hollywood scandals involving drugs, bisexuality, and murder occurred in the early 1920s. Throughout the 1920s general social changes were threatening the cultural hegemony of the Protestant middle class with an influx of "alien" modernism and Jewish and Catholic influence (Maltby 2003). After the Wall Street crash of 1929 production companies feared the financial effects of an impending Catholic ban on their films (Leff and Simmons 1990).
Fearing a government crackdown, Hollywood decided to self-regulate by creating the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) to oversee the moral decency of sound pictures. The Catholic Church-influenced code was created in 1930 by MPPDA head Will Hays. Although it was not legally mandatory, MPPDA production companies would be fined $25,000 for releasing a non-Code picture, and MPPDA theaters agreed to ban non-Code films.
The Production Code listed three "General Principles," including "No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." The Production Code also listed a variety of "Particular Applications," many of which applied to sexuality: no nudity, no "sexual perversion" (i.e., homosexuality), no adultery, and no miscegenation. "Scenes of Passion" were to be avoided along with any other treatments that might "stimulate the lower and baser element."
It took four years for the Production Code to be taken seriously by producers. During that brief period, somewhat confusingly referred to as "Pre-Code," Hollywood generated some of the raciest films seen for decades before or after. By 1934, however, the crackdown had been strengthened.
The Production Code had a powerful and wide-reaching effect on nearly all films generated by the Hollywood system over the course of more than thirty years: It affected dialogue, plot, themes, and even the selection of scripts to be produced. On a micro level minutiae such as "seconds per kiss" and "inches between twin beds" had to be recorded and negotiated. In practice the proscriptions were applied with a gender bias, emphasizing restraint of female sexual desire and behavior (LaSalle 2000, Krzywinska 2006).
However, in many cases "unacceptable" issues quietly resurfaced in "coded" form: A time ellipse during a romantic episode might signify actual sex, prostitution was evoked by showing a woman walking alone on the street, and lightly effeminate or butch characters stood in for actively gay ones.
Challenged by new domestic and foreign films with forbidden situations and language as well as by the sexual revolution and the civil and gay rights movements, enforcement of the Production Code began to wane in the mid-1950s. By 1966 it was effectively dead, though it was a direct precursor to the first Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) American ratings system in 1968, a version of which was still in effect in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Krzywinska, Tanya. 2006. Sex and the Cinema. London: Wallflower Press.
LaSalle, Mick. 2000. Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press.
Leff, Leonard J., and Jerold L. Simmons. 1990. The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.
Maltby, Richard. 2003. "More Sinned against Than Sinning: The Fabrications of 'Pre-Code Cinema.'" In Senses of Cinema. Available from http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/29/pre_code_cinema.html.
Jennifer Lyon Bell