Hollywood and Hays Code

Hollywood & Hays Code: Rise and Decline of Code

Hays Code, enforced from 1934 to 1968, was Hollywood’s strict set of guidelines for film content. It censored profanity, nudity, and immoral behavior to promote wholesome values. This self-regulation shaped the Golden Age of cinema and ensured films adhered to moral standards set by the Motion Picture Production Code.

Hollywood and Hays Code


In the early 20th century, the burgeoning film industry in the United States found itself at a crossroads. As motion pictures gained popularity, concerns arose about the moral influence they wielded over audiences. This led to the establishment of censorship guidelines aimed at ensuring that films adhered to certain moral standards. One of the most significant developments in this regard was the implementation of the Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, which profoundly impacted Hollywood during its Golden Age. Likewise in this article by Academic Block, we will dive more in detail about Hays Code and how it made its own place in the world of early film making globally before declining in the year 1950.

The Birth of Cinema Censorship

The roots of cinema censorship can be traced back to the early days of film exhibition. As movies began to depict increasingly explicit content, various groups, including religious organizations and concerned citizens, raised objections. They argued that films had the potential to corrupt morals and promote undesirable behavior among viewers, particularly children and adolescents.

In response to these concerns, several cities and states implemented their own censorship regulations, leading to a fragmented and inconsistent system of oversight. However, the lack of uniformity posed challenges for filmmakers and distributors, who found themselves navigating a complex web of regional restrictions.

The Rise of Will H. Hays

To address these issues, the film industry turned to self-regulation, spearheaded by Will H. Hays, a prominent Republican politician and former Postmaster General. In 1922, Hays was appointed as the president of the newly formed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), later renamed the Motion Picture Association (MPA).

Hays’ tenure at the MPPDA marked the beginning of a concerted effort to improve the public image of the film industry and stave off government intervention. Recognizing the need for a standardized set of guidelines, Hays enlisted the help of prominent figures such as Catholic layman Martin J. Quigley and Jesuit priest Father Daniel A. Lord to draft a code of moral standards for motion pictures.

Pre-Code era in Hollywood

The pre-Code era in Hollywood refers to the period between the advent of sound in motion pictures in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) in 1934. During this time, filmmakers enjoyed relative freedom in depicting controversial themes such as sexuality, violence, and social issues. The absence of strict censorship regulations allowed for a more daring and provocative approach to storytelling, leading to the production of films that openly challenged societal norms and conventions. The pre-Code era is characterized by its bold and often controversial content, which reflected the cultural attitudes and anxieties of the time. However, the freewheeling spirit of this period was short-lived, as pressure from religious groups and moral crusaders led to the implementation of the Hays Code, ushering in a new era of censorship and conformity in Hollywood cinema.

The Birth of the Hays Code

In 1930, the MPPDA adopted the first version of the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly referred to as the Hays Code. This code outlined specific guidelines governing the content of films, with a particular emphasis on morality and decency. Among its provisions were restrictions on depictions of violence, sexuality, profanity, and controversial subject matter.

Under the Hays Code, filmmakers were required to submit their scripts to the Production Code Administration (PCA) for approval before production could commence. The PCA, headed by Joseph Breen, served as the enforcement arm of the code, ensuring that films adhered to its guidelines.

Impact on Filmmaking

The implementation of the Hays Code had a profound impact on Hollywood and the broader film industry. Filmmakers were forced to navigate a complex set of restrictions, often resulting in creative compromises and self-censorship. Directors and screenwriters found themselves constrained by the code’s dictates, leading to the proliferation of subtle innuendo and symbolic storytelling techniques to convey controversial themes.

One of the most notable consequences of the Hays Code was the emergence of the “pre-Code” era, spanning the late 1920s to the early 1930s. During this brief period of relative laxity, filmmakers pushed the boundaries of acceptability, producing films that openly challenged societal norms and conventions. These movies often featured themes of sexuality, violence, and moral ambiguity, reflecting the cultural zeitgeist of the time.

However, the freewheeling spirit of the pre-Code era was short-lived, as pressure from religious groups and moral crusaders intensified. In response to mounting criticism, the MPPDA strengthened enforcement of the Hays Code, leading to a gradual decline in the depiction of controversial content on screen.

Challenges and Controversies

Despite efforts to enforce the Hays Code, filmmakers occasionally found ways to subvert its restrictions. Clever dialogue, suggestive imagery, and veiled references allowed directors and writers to convey mature themes while ostensibly adhering to the letter of the code. This cat-and-mouse game between filmmakers and censors gave rise to a rich tradition of subversive storytelling in Hollywood cinema.

However, not all filmmakers were content to comply with the dictates of the Hays Code. Some, such as producer-director Howard Hughes, openly defied censorship efforts, risking fines and censorship to produce films that challenged prevailing moral standards. Hughes’ controversial 1932 film “Scarface,” which depicted the rise and fall of a ruthless gangster, drew condemnation from censors but also garnered critical acclaim for its audacious portrayal of violence and criminality.

The Decline of the Hays Code

By the 1950s, the Hays Code was beginning to show signs of strain as societal attitudes toward censorship began to shift. The rise of television and the decline of the studio system eroded the influence of traditional Hollywood power brokers, while changing cultural mores led to calls for greater freedom of expression in cinema.

In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, effectively overturning decades of censorship precedent by ruling that motion pictures were entitled to First Amendment protection. This decision dealt a significant blow to the authority of the Hays Code, paving the way for a new era of artistic freedom in American cinema.

The Legacy of the Hays Code

Despite its eventual demise, the Hays Code left an indelible mark on Hollywood and the film industry as a whole. For nearly three decades, it served as a potent symbol of the tension between artistic expression and social responsibility, shaping the content of thousands of films and influencing generations of filmmakers.

Moreover, the Hays Code sparked debates about censorship, morality, and the role of government in regulating cultural expression that continue to resonate to this day. Its legacy can be seen in the ongoing efforts to balance the competing interests of free speech and public decency in an increasingly diverse and interconnected media landscape.

Final Words

In conclusion, the Hays Code represents a pivotal chapter in the history of American cinema, reflecting the broader social and cultural forces that shaped the Golden Age of Hollywood. While its influence has waned in the decades since its demise, its impact on the film industry remains palpable, serving as a reminder of the complex interplay between art, commerce, and morality in the world of movie making. Hope you liked this article by Academic Block, please provide your valuable comments to make this article better. Thanks for Reading!

This Article will answer your questions like:

+ What was the Hays Code in the Golden Age of Hollywood? >

The Hays Code, or Motion Picture Production Code, was a set of guidelines enforced in Hollywood from 1934 to the 1960s. It aimed to regulate film content for moral decency, prohibiting explicit depictions of sex, violence, and controversial themes. The code was named after Will H. Hays, who led its implementation to improve the industry's public image and avoid government censorship.

+ What was the golden age of censorship in Hollywood? >

The "golden age of censorship" refers to the era under the Hays Code when Hollywood films were rigorously monitored for adherence to moral standards. From 1934 until the code's decline in the 1960s, filmmakers navigated strict guidelines that shaped storytelling by limiting explicit content and promoting traditional values. This period marked significant debates over artistic freedom versus societal responsibility in cinema.

+ What is the Hays Code and censorship? >

The Hays Code, introduced in 1934, enforced strict censorship in Hollywood. It aimed to sanitize film content by prohibiting explicit depictions of sex, violence, and controversial topics. This regulatory framework, overseen by the Production Code Administration, significantly impacted filmmakers' creative freedoms, leading to debates over artistic expression and societal norms in American cinema.

+ What was the impact of Hays Code on Hollywood? >

The Hays Code profoundly influenced Hollywood by shaping film content to conform to moral standards. It restricted depictions of sexuality, violence, and controversial themes, impacting storytelling techniques and genre development. Filmmakers navigated these constraints with creativity, using subtle innuendos and symbolism. The code's enforcement sparked debates over censorship, artistic freedom, and societal values, leaving a lasting legacy on American cinema during its era.

+ Who implemented the Hays Code and why? >

The Hays Code was implemented by Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), in 1934. It was introduced to regulate film content and avoid government censorship by imposing moral standards on Hollywood productions. Hays aimed to improve the film industry's public image, assuring audiences of wholesome entertainment and protecting against moral corruption, thus promoting self-regulation among studios.

+ What were some key provisions of the Hays Code? >

The Hays Code included strict guidelines for Hollywood films, prohibiting explicit depictions of sex, violence, and profanity. It emphasized moral and religious values, requiring positive representations of authority figures and respect for traditional institutions. The code also restricted portrayals of criminality and controversial subjects, aiming to uphold societal norms and promote wholesome entertainment suitable for all audiences.

+ Why was the Hays Code removed? >

The decline of the Hays Code began in the 1950s and culminated in its formal abandonment in the 1960s. Changing societal attitudes, cultural shifts, and legal challenges led to criticisms of the code as outdated and restrictive. Filmmakers increasingly challenged censorship, advocating for greater artistic freedom and reflecting evolving public values. This period marked a transition towards a ratings system, allowing for more diverse and mature content in American cinema.

+ Who replaced the Hays Code? >

The Hays Code was succeeded by the MPAA film rating system in the late 1960s. The ratings system provided age-based classifications (G, PG, R, etc.) instead of censorship, allowing viewers to make informed choices about film content. This shift marked a departure from strict moral censorship towards a more nuanced approach to regulating film content, balancing artistic expression with audience sensitivities and parental guidance.

+ What was the pre-Code era in Hollywood? >

The pre-Code era in Hollywood refers to the period from the late 1920s to 1934, before the enforcement of the Hays Code. It was characterized by films that pushed the boundaries of acceptability, exploring controversial themes such as sexuality, violence, and social issues with greater freedom. This brief era allowed filmmakers to experiment creatively and reflect the cultural attitudes of the time before the strict censorship of the Hays Code was imposed.

+ Who were some filmmakers who openly defied the Hays Code? >

Several filmmakers openly defied the Hays Code during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Directors like Howard Hughes, known for "Scarface," pushed the limits with explicit violence and crime. Alfred Hitchcock challenged censorship with suggestive content in films like "Psycho." Billy Wilder tackled taboo subjects in "Some Like It Hot." These filmmakers navigated censorship with creativity, influencing the evolution of cinema and sparking debates over artistic freedom.

Controversies related to the Hays Code

Creative Restrictions: Filmmakers often found themselves constrained by the Hays Code’s strict guidelines, which limited their ability to explore certain themes and topics. This led to tensions between filmmakers seeking artistic expression and censors aiming to uphold moral standards, resulting in creative compromises and self-censorship.

Subversive Techniques: Some filmmakers resorted to subtle techniques to circumvent the Hays Code’s restrictions. This included the use of innuendo, symbolism, and metaphor to convey mature themes without explicitly violating the code. While these techniques allowed filmmakers to push the boundaries of acceptability, they also sparked debates about the efficacy of censorship and the limits of artistic freedom.

Selective Enforcement: Critics of the Hays Code often accused censors of applying its guidelines unevenly, allowing certain films to bypass scrutiny while subjecting others to harsher scrutiny. This perceived inconsistency in enforcement raised questions about the fairness and transparency of the censorship process, fueling skepticism about the efficacy of self-regulation in the film industry.

Erosion of Public Trust: Over time, the Hays Code faced increasing criticism from both within and outside the film industry. As societal attitudes toward censorship began to evolve, many questioned the relevance and legitimacy of the code in a changing cultural landscape. This erosion of public trust undermined the authority of the Production Code Administration (PCA) and fueled calls for reform.

Challenges to Authority: Some filmmakers openly defied the Hays Code’s restrictions, risking fines and censorship to produce films that challenged prevailing moral standards. Howard Hughes’ controversial 1932 film “Scarface” is a notable example, as it depicted the rise and fall of a ruthless gangster in defiance of the code’s prohibition on glorifying crime. These challenges to authority underscored the tensions between artistic freedom and censorship during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Changing Social Norms: As societal attitudes toward morality and censorship evolved, the Hays Code faced increasing pressure to adapt to changing social norms. The emergence of new cultural movements, such as the counterculture of the 1960s, challenged traditional notions of propriety and morality, prompting calls for greater freedom of expression in cinema. This cultural shift ultimately contributed to the decline of the Hays Code and the rise of a more permissive era in American filmmaking.

Impact of the Hays Code

Content Restriction: One of the most obvious impacts of the Hays Code was its restriction on the content of films. The code imposed strict guidelines governing what could and could not be depicted on screen, covering everything from sexuality and violence to language and morality. This led to a sanitized and often idealized portrayal of society in many Hollywood films, as filmmakers were forced to adhere to the code’s dictates or risk censorship and financial repercussions.

Creative Constraints: The Hays Code placed significant creative constraints on filmmakers, limiting their ability to explore certain themes and topics. Directors and screenwriters were often forced to resort to subtler storytelling techniques to convey mature themes, leading to the proliferation of innuendo, symbolism, and metaphor in Hollywood cinema. While some filmmakers viewed these constraints as stifling, others embraced them as creative challenges, finding innovative ways to work within the limitations of the code.

Self-Censorship: In addition to the enforcement of the Hays Code by the Production Code Administration (PCA), many filmmakers engaged in self-censorship to avoid running afoul of the code’s guidelines. This preemptive censorship often led to the avoidance of controversial topics and the toning down of potentially offensive content in scripts and productions. Self-censorship became a pervasive feature of Hollywood filmmaking during the Golden Age, shaping the content of films in subtle yet significant ways.

Impact on Genres: The Hays Code had a notable impact on the development and evolution of different film genres. For example, the stringent censorship of sexual content led to the emergence of the “screwball comedy” genre, characterized by witty banter and romantic tension in lieu of overt sexuality. Similarly, the prohibition on explicit violence influenced the way action and crime films were presented, often focusing on stylized and sanitized portrayals of conflict and confrontation.

Legacy and Evolution: While the Hays Code was eventually abandoned in the late 1960s in favor of a ratings system, its legacy continues to resonate in contemporary Hollywood cinema. The tensions between artistic freedom and social responsibility that characterized the Golden Age of Hollywood remain relevant today, as filmmakers grapple with questions of censorship, morality, and cultural representation. The Hays Code era serves as a reminder of the complex interplay between art, commerce, and morality in the world of filmmaking, shaping the evolution of cinema for decades to come.

Key Provisions of the Hays Code

No Nudity or Explicit Sexuality: The code strictly prohibited nudity and overtly sexual content. Depictions of romantic relationships were expected to be portrayed with discretion, and any sexual content was to be implied rather than shown explicitly.

Respect for Religion: Films were required to show respect for religious beliefs and institutions. Blasphemy and sacrilegious content were forbidden, and religious figures were to be portrayed positively.

Morality and Virtue: The Hays Code emphasized the importance of promoting traditional moral values. Characters were expected to demonstrate virtuous behavior, and actions such as adultery, promiscuity, and illegitimate relationships were to be avoided or portrayed in a negative light.

Crime and Justice: Criminal behavior was to be depicted as ultimately punished, either through legal means or through the workings of a moral universe. The glorification of crime or criminals was strictly prohibited.

Respect for Authority: The code encouraged respect for authority figures, including parents, teachers, and law enforcement officers. Disrespectful or rebellious behavior was to be discouraged, particularly among young characters.

Language and Profanity: The use of profanity and offensive language was forbidden. Dialogue was expected to be clean and respectful, with no vulgar or obscene expressions.

Drug Use and Addiction: Depictions of drug use or addiction were heavily restricted. Drug abuse was to be portrayed as harmful and morally wrong, and any references to drugs were to be handled with caution.

Race Relations: The code contained provisions governing the portrayal of race and ethnicity. Stereotypical or derogatory depictions of racial and ethnic minorities were discouraged, although these guidelines were often inconsistently enforced.

Sensationalism and Exploitation: Films were prohibited from exploiting sensational or lurid subject matter for the purpose of titillation or shock value. The code aimed to uphold a standard of decency and dignity in film content.

Political Sensitivity: The Hays Code discouraged the depiction of controversial political topics or ideologies. Filmmakers were advised to avoid content that could be perceived as inflammatory or subversive.

Filmmakers who openly defied Hays Code

Howard Hughes: The eccentric billionaire filmmaker openly flouted censorship regulations with his controversial 1932 film “Scarface.” Directed by Howard Hawks, “Scarface” depicted the rise and fall of a ruthless gangster and was criticized for its graphic violence and glorification of criminality. Despite facing censorship challenges, Hughes fought to release the film in its original form, earning both critical acclaim and public controversy.

Alfred Hitchcock: The legendary director often found creative ways to circumvent the Hays Code’s restrictions, incorporating subtle innuendo and suggestive imagery into his films. For example, in “Psycho” (1960), Hitchcock pushed the boundaries of acceptability with its infamous shower scene, which implied nudity and violence without showing explicit content. Similarly, “Vertigo” (1958) and “Rebecca” (1940) explored themes of obsession and sexuality in ways that challenged prevailing moral standards.

Billy Wilder: Known for his biting wit and sharp social commentary, Billy Wilder frequently clashed with censors over the content of his films. In “Some Like It Hot” (1959), Wilder pushed the boundaries of acceptability with its cross-dressing premise and irreverent humor. Similarly, “The Seven Year Itch” (1955) courted controversy with its portrayal of extramarital temptation and infidelity, challenging the conservative mores of the time.

Elia Kazan: The acclaimed director tackled controversial subject matter in films such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) and “East of Eden” (1955), which explored themes of sexuality, violence, and moral ambiguity. Kazan’s willingness to confront taboo topics earned him both critical acclaim and condemnation from censors and moral crusaders.

Otto Preminger: The maverick filmmaker defied censorship efforts with his provocative films, including “The Moon is Blue” (1953) and “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959). Preminger challenged the Hays Code’s restrictions on sexuality and language, pushing the boundaries of acceptability with his frank and uncompromising portrayals of human relationships.

Academic References on the Hays Code

  1. Doherty, T. (1999). Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, immorality, and insurrection in American cinema, 1930-1934. New York: Columbia University Press.
  2. Leff, L. J. (1986). The decline of the Hays office. Journal of the University Film Association, 38(1), 3-13.
  3. Banned in the USA: British films in the United States and their censorship, 1933-1960. (1998). In A. Aldgate & J. Richards (Eds.), British cinema and society (pp. 82-95). Manchester University Press.
  4. Wagner, R. (2006). Hollywood v. Hard-core: How the struggle over censorship created the modern film industry. New York: NYU Press.
  5. Censorship and Hollywood’s Hispanic image: An analysis of the codes and practices of the production code administration and the Motion Picture Association of America, 1934-1968. (2002). In T. Ruiz (Ed.), From the silver screen to the streets: A compendium of Hispanic-American activism in film history (pp. 53-68). University of Texas Press.
  6. Sklar, R. (1989). Movie-made America: A cultural history of American movies. New York: Vintage Books.
  7. Black, G. (1978). Hollywood censored: Morality codes, Catholics, and the movies. Cambridge University Press.
  8. Doherty, T. (1993). Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: Columbia University Press.
  9. Doherty, T. (1999). Hollywood’s censorship crusade and the code of 1930. Columbia University Press.
  10. LaSalle, M. (2000). Complicated women: Sex and power in pre-Code Hollywood. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
  11. Banned in Kansas: Motion Picture Censorship, 1915-1966. (1968). The Public Historian, 1(4), 84-86.
  12. Smith, S. (2009). The Hays code revisited: Film censorship and the production code, 1930-1968. Palgrave Macmillan.
  13. Dixon, W. (1997). The pre-Code companion: The complete guide to Hollywood’s censorship wars. Los Angeles: Santa Monica Press.
  14. Slide, A. (2001). Nitrate won’t wait: A history of film preservation in the United States. McFarland.
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x