Hard to believe that 75 years ago today (June 13, 1934) the Hollywood studios ushered in the Production Code of America, affording new director Joe Breen (seated at right) the authority to withhold a seal that certified the film was approved for screening in our nations’ movie theaters. Forget the exorbitant fine of $25,000 to a studio if it released a film without the seal (nearly $400,000 today, adjusted for inflation), no theater in America would risk showing a film that the social and religious activists could picket.
Movie censorship had been a hot topic both in and out of Hollywood since movies started being projected for the masses back in the early 1900s. But it wasn’t until the 1915 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that movies were not protected speech under the 1st Amendment that the studios understood that they would have to dance with their detractors if they were to grow their business.
In the wake of sex and murder both on and off the screen, Will Hays became in 1922 the equivalent of a professional sports commissioner for the motion picture industry, which itself was still organizing itself into what would become the five major and three minor studios that would dominate the U.S. movie scene for the next 30 years or so. Paid today’s equivalent of nearly $1.3 million by the studios, Hays’ task was to promote the virtues of Hollywood and the movies while consulting on what was likely to create social and moral outrage. The studios, always concerned only with box office success, continued to push the envelope on the screen (this during the Roaring Twenties, of flappers, gangsters, prohibition). Bad enough for some that sex and violence were the staple of novels and magazines and newspapers. But it was intolerable for many to have it visualized on 40-foot screens, with men and women and children (and social deviants, as was feared) could see this stuff and, Lord knows, anything could happen from there.
Studios paid lip-service to Hays, but audiences wanted to be titillated. What were businessmen to do but give the people what they wanted?
Before June 13, 1934, if a studio wanted to challenge restrictions, it appealed to a 3-man jury of its peers, which could overturn the restrictions. The jury would let things go pretty far to protect the investment and potential profits of one its own. By 1933, the powerful Catholic Legion of Decency formed to put added pressure on a wound they found festering. Joe Breen had served in the “Hays Office” and promoted an expansion of the authority of that office, with him directing the charge. He helped write the tougher regulations that the studios reluctantly, but resignedly, adopted. Now, he was the final arbiter of what was decent. He wanted to be—and was—the big player, the one who would “work” with studios to prevent withholding of the seal, but ultimately, if he didn’t get his way ... the studios had to capitulate. There were challenges, of course, and those make for some fun reading about the social history of the movies.
It wouldn’t be until 1952 before the Supreme Court would rule that censorship of movies was unconstitutional. The breakup of the studios between 1948 and 1952, the coming of racier international films that would play in independent theaters without a PCA seal of approval or fine, the emergence of TV and other social pressures would, by 1966, lead to the demise of the Code and the rise of the current rating system, which itself is fraught with moral and philosophical questions.
Thomas Doherty has written a wonderful book about Joe Breen and the PCA, called Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration.