Cinema is an artform born of the industrial revolution, a form of entertainment made possible by advancements in chemistry and mass production. This was also a time of social progressivism - a movement in the United States and elsewhere in the late 19th and early 20th century that sought to bring about positive social change through active social organization and government regulation.
Even in film’s infancy, special interest groups were seeking ways to regulate this form of entertainment. In 1897, Maine passed the first censorship law regarding films – over the sensitive subject of Boxing.
Prize fighting was an extraordinarily popular sport but it was technically illegal in all but one state – Nevada.
On March 17th, 1897 “The Fight of the Century” occurred between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons in Carson, Nevada. The contest was captured on film by Enoch J. Rector on over 11,000 feet of widescreen film – becoming longest and most important films ever made at that time,
Even though states had anti-prizefighting laws, there was no law on the books about showing prizefighting films. Just three days after the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight, the Maine Legislature passed a law fining anyone who exhibited boxing films the sum of $500. Illinois, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania followed suit.
But the popularity of boxing was already too strong and these laws were mostly ignored and largely forgotten.
Regulation Gets Local
In 1907, Chicago, the second biggest film market at the time, gave the chief of police the power to issue and deny permits for movie exhibition based on the moral grounds – making it one of the first municipalities to begin exercising censorship over movie content
The following year in New York City, the biggest film market at the time, Mayor George B McClellan issued a decree on Christmas Eve, 1908 that revoked the licenses of all theaters – shutting down over 550 establishments based on Fire Safety and Moral grounds.
Movies were being hit where it hurt – in the box office. Something had to be done. The People’s Institute, one of the few reform groups that didn’t see the movies as “evil” offered up a solution – They brought together ten other reform groups including the Federation of Churches, the Women’s Municipal League, and the Society for the Prevention of Crime to create a new organization called the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship in 1909.
This panel of community groups would review films and recommend cuts for a small fee – New York exhibitors voluntarily agreed to abide by their decisions. Since the New York film market was so big, the board’s influence began to take on a nation wide impact – the name changed to the National Review Board.
For a few years this Board was able to ward off calls for government censorship. But the tide for government intervention was strong with many states enacting their own censorship boards.
And then came landmark decision of Mutual Film Corporation v. Ohio Industrial Commission in 1915. Mutual was a Newsreel company that objected to having to pay fees to various state censorship boards and then waiting weeks or months before their newsreels were approved. They filed on first amendment grounds.
But the Supreme Court didn’t buy it, and declared:
…the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit … not to be regarded… as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.
With that 1915 decision – the movies were not legally considered free speech – thus handing the government the legal reign to implement laws over the content of films. The powder keg of censorship was set, all it needed was a spark and it would come in form of scandal.
Sex, Drugs & Silent Film
The early twenties were rocked by Hollywood celebrity scandals. From Fatty Arbuckle’s unsubstantiated charge of rape and manslaughter, William Desmond Taylor’s murder with homosexual undertones, and Wallace Reid’s drug overdose, the yellow journalism tabloids hungrily fed at what looked to be the bloated corpse of a spoiled Hollywood excess. Pressure was mounting for someone to clean up Hollywood – with over 100 Congressional bills for censorship to protect the common good being submitted in 1921. But censorship from Washington was the last thing Hollywood wanted.
So Hollywood studios came together in 1922 to form an association called The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). In a move that mimicked the actions of Major League Baseball after the 1919 World Series Gambling scandal, The MPPDA reached out to a Washington insider William H. Hays – Postmaster General under Warren Harding and former head of the Republican National Committee.
Paid a handsome sum of $150,000 a year, Hays’ task was really just PR – to relieve the pressure between Hollywood and Washington to lobby for the interests of the studios.
In 1927 Hays formed a committee of studio heads to create a list of “Don’t and Be Carefuls” based on the items commonly rejected by local censorship boards. These included 11 subjects that were to be totally taboo and 25 that had to be handled very delicately.
But this list was short lived as it didn’t’t have any real teeth. The issue of censorship in Hollywood raged on but now fueled by a brand new movie technology – sound.
The Production Code Begins
Sound in motion pictures attracted new audiences, including young children. Sound also ushered in a cycle of grim violent realism that sparked yet another outcry from an increasingly vocal public.
In March 31, 1930, the MPPDA issued a statement of policy called the The Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code). It set up a small jury to review films for content, Understaffed and headed by ineffectual but mostly uninterested board members, the Hays Code was still without teeth and largely mocked by industry insiders.
That changed when the American Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church organized The Legion of Decency and in 1934 with the support of Protestant and Jewish Organizations began calling for boycotts of films deemed unacceptable.
This was the dollar that broke the camel’s back – The Hollywood studios, still reeling from the losses of 1933 due in large part to the delayed effects of the Great Depression, were forced to act.
The Hays Office authorized to set up the Production Code Administration (PCA) with Catholic laymen Joseph I. Breen as head.
The MPPDA agreed to show only films that carried the PCA seal of approval and the studios voluntarily gave the PCA the authority to review and delete morally objectionable material from both the final script and the final cut of the film.
Breen enforced the code zealously. Forbidden were scenes of passion – films had to uphold the sanctity of marriage. Adultery, seduction and rape were never to be more than suggested and only if absolutely necessary to the plot and always punished at the end. Profanity, racial epithets, implications of prostitution, drug addiction, nudity, sexually suggestive dancing and costumes were all verboten.
The code also addressed violence. It was forbidden to go into detail of a crime, display machine guns or illegal weapons or even discuss weapons on screen. Law Enforcement was never to be shown dying at the hands of a criminal and all crime had to be punished in the end.
This rigid Catholic sensibility of good vs evil was a far cry from the loose morals of the anything goes Jazz Age.
So why did the studios agree to such Draconian self censorship? There are several reasons. It kept Washington from exercising even more control over the studios, It quelled fears from religious groups threatening boycotts during economically unstable times. And lastly, and perhaps most cynically, the Production Code was sort of a blue print for screenwriters. Stories could move in only one direction – love ended in marriage, crime ended in punishment – a simple efficient method for the studio system to streamline the story process and mass produce as many movies as possible.
The Production Code Crumbles
By the 1940s, the Production code would see some challengers first from the eccentric Hollywood mogul Howard Hughes.
Hughes discovered the voluptuous Jane Russell and gave her her first role 1941’s The Outlaw - Hughes was in love with Russell’s breasts and who wouldn’t? Well, not the The Breen Office which requested 37 specific reshoots objecting to the emphasis on Jane Russell’s bosom.
Further troubles with State censorship boards forced Hughes to shelve The Outlaw until the film got a limited distribution in 1943. Mired again in battles over censorship Hughes shelved the project for another few years until he finally got a distribution deal in 1946 with a non MPAA signatory United Artist (The MPAA – Motion Picture Association of America – was the name of the MDDPA after Hays retired in 1945). This started a legal firestorm with the MPAA. Despite, or perhaps because of the PR generated by the court battles, United Artist road showed The Outlaw to bountiful profits everywhere it went.
The power of the code began to crack as the studio system fell out of power the 1950s. Once studios were no longer to permitted to own theaters according to the Supreme Court, movie theaters were freer to show whatever they wanted – and sometimes they showed unapproved foreign films.
This led to the 1952 case of Joseph Burstyn v. Wilson. Dubbed the “Miracle Decision”, referring to an Italian Roberto Rossellini short film entitled The Miracle - the Supreme Court reversed its earlier stance ruling that
expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guaranty of the first and Fourteenth Amendments
Though it would take another decade for the production code to completely erode away, the threat of government intervention was now gone.
As the dollar had forced the studios’ hand into the strict binds of the Production code, it was the dollar that would free them.
In 1953 Otto Preminger openly defied the PCA by releasing The Moon is Blue - a romantic comedy which the Breen office objected as having:
…an unacceptably light attitude towards seduction, illicit sex, chastity, and virginity,
The film went on to be a hit without the PCA seal of approval.
Preminger openly defied the PCA again in 1955’s Man with the Golden Arm starring Frank Sinatra playing a heroin addict – yet another hit.
Then Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll released by Warner Bros in 1956 went without the seal approval and was openly condemned by the League of Decency. It also went on to be a success.
By the 1960s it was a free for all with films like the British made Blow Up with nudity become a box office smash. The Cat was out of the bag and the MPAA began looking to scrap the code in favor of a classification system.
The Movie Rating System
In 1968, the MPAA chairman Jack Valenti instituted a voluntary rating system with 4 levels. G for General Audiences, M for Mature Audiences, R for Restricted – no one under 16 (this was later changed to 17) without an accompanying adult and X for adults only.
Confusion over M changed that rating to GP – for general audiences with parental guidance – then to our familiar PG. PG-13 was added in the mid 80s as a mid point between PG and R after some outcry over Steven Spielberg films like Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom, Poltergeist and Gremlins all receiving PG ratings despite the amount of gore and unsettling images. Red Dawn would hold the honor as the first PG-13 film ever released.
The adult only rating of X was never trademarked by the MPAA – filmmakers could self classify their films under the X rating. This became a problem as the video tape pornography market exploded in the 1980s exploiting the X rating with the logic that if one X is hot, then XXX must be really steamy. In September of 1990, the MPAA replaced X with NC-17.
The movie ratings system today is not without controversy. There is much secrecy and arbitrariness surrounding what separates a film from one rating to another. And there exists a silent economic censorship in place as many outlets and retailers refuse to carry NC-17 titles.
But the internet, the brightest or filthiest bastion of free speech is very much changing how films can be distributed and what kind of content is available to people. The goal of the rating system is to inform parents of the content of a film – now more than ever that information is readily available and even more specific than the Ratings system could ever accomplish.
Some may say that films were sexier and scarier under the censorship of the production code – for there’s nothing that can be seen that is as tantalizing and horrifying as what the imagination and anticipation can conjur. There may be some truth in that. But given the choice between freedom and censorship, Freedom is the only sustainable option.