Right from the earliest days of the silent picture era the moving picture moguls were aware that, more than any other commodity, sex sold. And, until the Hays Office reared its censorial head in 1922, they sold plenty of it. After a string of risqué films and several off-screen scandals in the industry, studio heads became increasingly fearful of government intervention in the movie business, intervention that might curb their dictatorial powers. In order to pre-empt such action they initiated the introduction of their own self-governing body, the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC), headed by a Presbyterian elder and former Postmaster General of the United States, Will H. Hays. It was his job to rehabilitate the industry and remold its image, and his appointment came just in time. Legislators in no fewer than 37 states had introduced almost a hundred movie censorship bills in 1921 alone!
William H. Hays
But it was not just their image that concerned the studios. Hundreds, even thousands, of local communities were contemplating passing by-laws that bore with them the potential to prevent movies being shown in their theatres at all. Unless something was done (and done quickly), on-screen nudity, (as well as other issues), and off-screen scandals threatened to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. And it was an egg of gigantic proportions, a veritable license to print money.
Olive Thomas Fatty Arbuckle Virginia Rappe William Desmond Taylor
In 1920 the beautiful 25 year-old Olive Thomas died in agony after mistakenly drinking mercury bichloride she thought was a sleeping draught. Her husband Jack Pickford used the stuff to treat his chronic syphilis. The press, needless to say, latched onto the story with a vengeance. Just a year later comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was shamefully placed on trial, accused of raping and murdering a 26 year-old nymphette named Virginia Rappe. He was completely innocent but the press had a field day. In 1922 director William Desmond Taylor was shot to death in his own home and his sexual history with several actresses created yet another scandal. And there were many more, each one eagerly reported on by a press that hungrily devoured every indelicate morsel, before regurgitating it to its insatiable readership. After all, movie stars were fast becoming America’s substitute for royalty and the public could not get enough information about Hollywood and its denizens. Silent features had always contained a liberal sprinkling of scantily clad young women because nudity sold. Well, female nudity, anyway. The sight of a naked member of the male gender is, even today, treated cautiously in mainstream cinema. As for rampant nude men, well…dream on those of you who fantasize over such things. Even so, religious, social and political critics in the Roaring Twenties demanded change and, with the Hays Office, their wishes were fulfilled. Mr. Hays had every intention of earning the $100,000 a year the studios paid him to police the industry. In today’s money it was the equivalent of well over a million dollars per annum.
The newly formed MPPC was not just concerned with celluloid nudity. Its brief by 1927 was to clean up every aspect of film-making, to remove, avoid or nullify a whole range of issues that it listed under two headings – a ‘Don’t’ list and a ‘Be Careful’ list. It is worth examining these potential ‘danger’ areas and one cannot help but wonder if the studio heads, on being presented with the list, had second thoughts about the wisdom of deciding to regulate themselves.
The ‘Don’ts List
It was resolved that none of the below-mentioned things could appear in pictures presented by members of the Association, irrespective of the manner in which they might be treated:
- Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words ‘God’, ‘Lord’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’ (unless used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), ‘hell’, ‘damn’, ‘Gawd’, and every other profane and vulgar expression, however it may be spelled. (This ruling would be severely challenged in 1939 by Clark Gable’s final line, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!’ in Gone with the Wind. The MPPC reluctantly allowed the line, but only if he emphasized the word ‘give’ and not the word ‘damn’.). Hence: ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!’
- Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette, and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture. (In other words, don’t even talk about nakedness)
- The illegal traffic in drugs.
- Any inference of sex perversion.
- White slavery.
- Miscegenation -sexual relationships between the white and black races.
- Sex hygiene and venereal diseases.
- Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette.
- Children’s sex organs.
- Ridicule of the clergy. (The clergy could not be portrayed as comic figures or villains).
- Willful offence to any nation, race or creed. (That one went out the window at a hundred miles an hour after Pearl Harbor.)
The ‘Be Careful’ List
This all-encompassing list is even more interesting than the ‘Don’t’s’ list. The MPPC ruled that ‘special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized.
- The use of the flag.
- International relations – avoid picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry.
- The use of firearms.
- Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings etc. – having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron. (Evidently, the MPPC feared that mentally challenged patrons might watch a crime on-screen and learn how to emulate it!)
- Brutality and possible gruesomeness.
- Technique of committing murder by whatever method. (Again, it was clearly feared that once a movie-goer knew how to commit murder, he or she would rush out and commit one!)
- Methods of smuggling.
- Third-degree methods.
- Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime.
- Sympathy for criminals. (All criminals had to be punished).
- Attitude towards public characters and institutions. (In other words, don’t rock the boat too severely. Politicians, police officers and judges could occasionally be portrayed as villains, but only if it was stressed that these individuals were exceptions to the rule.)
- Apparent cruelty to children and animals.
- Branding of people or animals.
- The sale of women, or a woman selling her virtue.
- Rape or attempted rape.
- First-night scenes. (This means ‘wedding nights’).
- Man and woman in bed together – (Hence the idiotic depiction of husband and wife occupying single beds on opposite sides of a dressing table in thousands of American movies.)
- Deliberate seduction of girls.
- The institution of marriage.
- Surgical operations.
- The use of drugs.
- Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law enforcing officers. (All authority figures had to be treated with respect).
- Excessive or lustful kissing, especially when one character or the other is a ‘heavy’.
Curiously, the ban on homosexuality, or the utterance of specific swear words like ‘fuck’ and all the other heavier expletives, were never directly mentioned, but were presumed to be taken for granted anyway. Sexual relations outside of marriage could not be portrayed as either beautiful or attractive and could not be presented in a way that might arouse passion or make them seem permissible.
Interestingly, there is no mention of the practice of slavery anywhere in either list. ‘White slavery’, of course, refers to prostitution. Presumably, the term did not include black or oriental prostitutes. Having perused both lists carefully, it is a wonder that any movies of even vague interest were made at all. By the late 1960s enforcement of the Production Code had become impossible and it was abandoned entirely.