The Hays Code was the precursor to today’s film ratings system


The Hays Code is not the long-lost sequel to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” but rather a self-imposed set of moral standards adopted by the American film industry in 1934. Its influence spanned three decades and was named after former Postmaster General Will Hays, who was then the president of the powerful Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America. The Code prohibited profanity, nudity, sexual persuasions, suggestive dance, illegal drug use, graphic or realistic violence, miscegenation, and childbirth. The Code also forbid the sympathetic portrayal of crime, criminals, and evil-doers and required that they be punished or die for their actions within the film.

The Hays Code was created to answer the moral outrage by church groups, politicians, and conservative social organizations to numerous pre-code movies. For its first 25 years it was strictly enforced, but from the start there were actors and directors who pushed the limits by refusing to censor their creative impulses. Gradually, the Code was eroded by television, the influx of foreign films, court challenges, and changing community standards. By the mid-1960s, the limits on profanity, nudity and violence were clearly unenforceable and in 1968 the Code was abandoned for the newly created film ratings system that (with some tweaks) remains in effect today.

Let’s examine a few films that challenged the Hays Code censorship.

Take One

If you’re interested in pre-code movies that lead to the development of the Hays Code, I recommend Norma Shearer’s Oscar-winning performance in “The Divorcee” (1930) and Barbara Stanwyck in “Baby Face” (1933), the latter about a young girl sleeping her way to the top of a business empire. 1930s audiences were stunned by the violence and the stunning performances by James Cagney in “Public Enemy” (1931) and Paul Muni in “Scarface” (1932) that mirrored what was taking place in real time Chicago. And let’s not forget the skimpy loin cloth costumes and immoral living arrangements exhibited by Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan in “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934), with special notice given to the naked swimming sequence.

The most famous early challenge to the Hays Code was by David O. Selznick in keeping the closing line (“Frankly, my dear…”) in “Gone With The Wind” (1939). The censors had to stay on their toes when dealing with sexual innuendo from the likes of Mae West (“She Done Him Wrong” 1933) or Groucho Marx (“A Night at the Opera” 1935). My two personal favorite Code challenging films are Otto Preminger’s 1953 “The Moon is Blue” with William Holden and David Niven. Preminger was always a boundary-breaker and he used “Moon.” based on a highly successful German play, to discuss virginity, pregnancy and childbirth in his film. And Arthur Penn’s ground breaking ultra violent “Bonnie and Clyde” (1969) loosely based on the lives of the controversial outlaw killers.

Take Two

Speaking of Otto Preminger, check out 1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder” for some shockingly frank sexual dialogue that would probably still turn heads today on network television. It’s made all the better by the crackerjack performances of Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, and George C. Scott, in an ensemble cast about a brutal rape and murder trial based on a true story. Widely considered one of the most accurate depictions of a courtroom trial in cinema history, and certainly one of the most rough-hewn.

Sensing a groundswell of opposition, movies in the 1960s began to be released without Code certification including explicit masterpieces like Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” a film told from the perspective of a holocaust survivor operating many years later in the seedy underbelly of New York City. The film makes stunning use of avant-garde editing techniques that broke the conventions of how memory and trauma are represented on screen. Those techniques would be taken to a wider audience just a few years later in “Easy Rider”(1969).

There are few films as scandalous in the American consciousness as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) and potentially with good reason. Edward Albee’s boundary breaking play wasn’t particularly graphic but it struck a nerve with a part of the country that was founded on the rising suburban middle class. Made with just four exceptionally-gifted actors who carry the entire film (Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis), a nightmarish dinner party full of acidic one-liners and shocking revelations. It was two specific words in the film that led to the creation of the current film ratings system, and both of them are surprisingly printable here: “hump” and “screw.” Yet, when contextualized in the film by such acerbic performances, they sound downright filthy. Perhaps the best line goes to Richard Burton, however, as Elizabeth Taylor appears in a semi-revealing top and he fires at her, “Why, Martha! Your Sunday chapel dress!”

This column is written jointly by a baby boomer, Denny Parish, and a millennial, Carson Parish, who also happen to be father and son.

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