Note: This is a new version of an old article I wrote several years ago for a website that no longer exists, and which I have repurposed somewhat rather than discard entirely.
Check out the above clip: not to spoil it for you, but it won't look like much to an audience accustomed to Judd Apatow comedies or The Jersey Shore. If you click on it you'll see a rather beefy, formally-dressed, middle-aged couple sitting side by side. The man, John C. Rice, smoothes back his mustache, puckers up, and then plants a wet one on his co-star, Mae Irwin. It's all over in a about a minute, but to audiences in 1896, Thomas Edison's The Kiss was hot stuff indeed—hot enough to incur the wrath of those guardians of public morality who were suspicious of what the upstart new medium of cinema might bring. Writing in the Chicago magazine, The Chap Book, publisher Herbert S. Stone fulminated, "Such things call for police interference. Our cities from time to time have spasms of morality, when they arrest people for displaying lithographs of ballet-girls; yet they permit, night after night, a performance that is infinitely more degrading.... The Irwin kiss is no more than a lyric of the stock yard."
Such old-fashioned prudery may seem quaint today, but as the recent defeat of the SOPA and PIPA bills attest, censorship has always been with us, so it might be worth looking at How We Got Here:
The earliest known official instance occurred in 1907, when New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham recommended that all nickelodeons be closed outright as a threat to public morals, a suggestion Mayor George McClellan was to attempt the next year until a coalition of exhibitors was able to obtain an injunction against him.
In 1907, though, movies were still largely a novelty, while in less than two decades they would become big business. The rise of popular media—not just movies, but radio and mass-market glossy magazines—increasingly brought conservative, small-town America into contact with urban sophistication in a manner that had been unprecedented before or since. And small-town America increasingly started to fight back. At first, producers ignored the patchwork of local censorship boards that sprang up around the country, inflicting their own often whimsical proscriptions on their product, cutting scenes of pregnant women in Pennsylvania, or of women smoking or drinking in Kansas; but with the wave of scandals that rocked Hollywood in the twenties, including the murder of director William Desmond Taylor, the death of actor Wallace Reid from a cocaine overdose, and finally the sensational Fatty Arbuckle rape trial in 1921, they could no longer ignore the outcry from the hinterlands accusing them of corrupting the nation's morals. By then the studios were expanding into distribution and needed to convince the Wall Street bankers whose capital they so desperately needed that they were respectable businessmen, and so they reluctantly decided it was time to, if not clean up their act, at least create the impression that they were doing so.
Enter Will Hays. Postmaster General, former Republican National Committee Chairman and a long-standing elder in the Presbyterian church, Hays was the perfect front man for the newly-formed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the forerunner of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which oversees movie ratings to this day. Although often caricatured as a know-nothing prude, Hays was in fact an able politician who managed to ward off many far stricter proposals by state and local authorities (48 between 1922 and 1927 alone) by such measures as convincing the studios to include morals clauses in actors' contracts and asking that producers forswear "unsuitable" subject matter.
Of course, the producers didn't always listen, since they soon realized one very important thing: sex, violence, scandal, and titillation sell tickets, and as participants in a highly competitive industry, they couldn't afford not to give the public what it wanted, and what audiences wanted were racy flapper comedies like It (1927), with Clara Bow, Erich von Stroheim's merciless portraits of decadent aristocrats like Foolish Wives (1922) and The Merry Widow (1925), and Cecil B. De Mille's historical melodramas with their hordes of scantily-clad extras ("studies in diminishing draperies", as his brother and fellow director William C. de Mille once quipped). After all, the Jazz Age was a time for testing limits, and despite Hays' efforts, the twenties continued to roar on screen and off. Even when he appointed former Colonel Jason Joy to review scripts in advance, most producers either made only the most cursory attempts to comply or ignored him all together.
Things started to change in 1930, with the introduction of the Production Code. The Code was the brainchild of Martin Quigley, the publisher of the Motion Picture Herald and a devout Catholic, who felt he could thereby strike a blow for decency and enhance his paper's prestige in one fell swoop. Building on Joy's list of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls", Quigley, working with Chicago archbishop Daniel Lord, came up with a list of specifically prohibited subjects, including profanity, nudity, prostitution, drug use, and miscegenation, and also asked that the Code's signatories more generally forswear any picture likely to "lower the moral standards of those who see it."
At first, the studios treated Quigley's proscriptions pretty much the way they treated Joy's—as suggestions to be ignored when they were inconvenient, since, even if the Hays Office disapproved of something, they could always appeal to the "Hollywood Jury", a panel of three West Coast producers chosen in rotation. Naturally, since any juror might one day find one of their own pictures up for review, there was a pretty strong incentive for them to go easy on any film on which they were asked to pass judgment.
Hollywood's moguls had other incentives to ignore the Code too. The expense of converting their production facilities and theatres to sound, coupled with the financial uncertainty that followed in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, meant that in order to sell tickets Hollywood increasingly fell back on its old standbys—sex, as in the Mae West vehicles I'm No Angel or She Done Him Wrong (both 1933), and violence, most notoriously in the cycle of gangster movies that began with The Public Enemy and Little Caesar in 1931 and Scarface in 1932. Modern viewers, accustomed to the more sanitized pictures that were to prevail when the Code finally took hold, may be surprised at just how frank and modern the films of the early sound period can be. Take, for example, Jack Conway's Red-Headed Woman (1932), in which Jean Harlow plays a gold-digging stenographer who methodically sleeps her way up the corporate ladder. While, in a sop to the Hays office, she's sent packing at the end, she still has the last laugh and is seen at fadeout happily motoring off into the sunset in the arms an elderly French millionaire (while trading heated glances with his handsome young chauffeur—played by a young Charles Boyer—to boot!), something that would be unthinkable a couple of years later when any movie character who committed adultery would almost invariably be punished by death or social ostracism by the final reel.
The clampdown finally came on July 1, 1934, when Hays finally gave the Code some teeth by abolishing the Hollywood Jury and appointing Joseph Breen as Director of the Production Code Administration. This time it worked. After years of seeing Hollywood give only lip service to regulation, middle America had lost its patience, and the moguls suddenly found some big guns being trained on them, including the Catholic church, press baron William Randolph Hearst, and Iowa Senator Smith W. Brookhart, who introduced a bill to have the motion picture industry placed under the direct control of the Federal Trade Commission. Hollywood had no choice but to submit.
During the two decades that Breen served as the Code's chief enforcer, he was to all intents and purposes the most powerful man in Hollywood. A tough-talking former publicist with close ties to the Catholic church (which could be relied upon to throw the weight of its Legion of Decency behind his decisions if need be), he refused to be bullied by the moguls. He vetoed projects, rewrote scripts, and re-cut films and, despite some memorable battles such as those over Howard Hughes' heavy-breathing western The Outlaw (1943)—ostensibly the story of Billy the Kid, but largely sold as an ode to Jane Russell's décolletage—and Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), he almost always got his way (one memorable defeat was over the use of the word "damn" in the famous last line of Gone with the Wind (1939)—Breen refused to allow it, but Hays overruled him, fined producer David O. Selznick $5,000 for violating the Code to save Breen's face, and then had the Code amended so that "hell" and "damn" could be used sparingly in certain dramatically valid circumstances).
Breen's downfall, however, was to come in the unlikely form of The Moon is Blue (1953), a relatively innocuous romantic comedy by Otto Preminger, which nonetheless took an entirely too light (for Breen) approach to what was called at the time "free love", and whose script contained such forbidden words as "virgin", "pregnant", and "seduce", and lines like "You are shallow, cynical, selfish, and immoral, and I like you!" Breen demanded the offending material be cut, but after making a few token changes Preminger, declaring the Code to be "antiquated" and protesting that Breen had approved many far more offensive pictures, dug in his heels and declared that he would release it as is, with or without Code approval. Breen refused to budge, so Preminger made good on his promise with the result that Moon went on to become the fifteenth highest grossing film of that year. It was a major black eye for the Code and Breen finally retired the following year.
Preminger was able to do this because he was an independent producer and because his distributor, United Artists, wasn’t a Code signatory, but as the decade wore on the studios themselves began to rebel. Forced to sell their theatres by the Supreme Court's United States v. Paramount decision in 1948, which ruled that ownership was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, they no longer had a guaranteed outlet for their product. In addition, the new medium of television was breathing down their necks, forcing them to look for new ways to attract audiences. The surest way of doing so was to give them something they couldn't get at home, and while technical innovations like 3D or widescreen formats like Cinemascope might attract viewers through sheer novelty value, in the long run the surest bet was the time-tested solution of more adult subject matter.
After all, foreign films, such as Roberto Rossellini's Open City (1946) and Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948), which already dealt with adult subjects in a much more frank and open manner than most American films of the time, were already showing without Code approval in independent "art" cinemas. The Supreme Court's landmark decision in Burstyn v. Wilson in 1952, which declared New York's ban of Rossellini's The Miracle (1949) on grounds of blasphemy and obscenity was unconstitutional on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds, only further underscored how out of touch the Production Code Administration was. The times were changing, and if the Code was to survive, it would have to change with them.
To be continued