Before the Production Code: Trips to Hell for a Nickel

haysopenerWho doesn’t love Pre-Code films? Those early sound films released between 1930, when the Production Code was adopted, and 1934, when it became mandatory, have been treated like a genre unto themselves in recent years. Movie lovers and scholars alike are attracted to the controversial content, casual references to sex and drugs, and independent female characters that populate movies released between 1930 and 1934. The Code was an extensive set of guidelines designed to control controversial, provocative, and ideological content, which was administered by the Production Code Administration (PCA). Will Hays, a homely, straight-laced Midwesterner, was the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the trade organization that included the PCA. The Production Code was dubbed the Hays Code back in the day and Hays himself was called the “censorship czar.”

But, Hays’s participation over the struggle to control screen content preceded the Code and had included the adoption and elimination of other sets of rules and guidelines. Recently, I was brushing up on the history of the Production Code for my class, and I found myself more interested in the decade leading up to its adoption, which was a tumultuous era of threat, debate, and scandal.

HAYS WAS MAN OF THE YEAR

HAYS WAS MAN OF THE YEAR

Under threat of intervention by the federal government, the studios formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, asking Will Hays, who had been part of Warren G. Harding’s administration, to serve as president in 1922. Part of Hays’s duties was to lobby on behalf of the industry in Washington, D.C against legislation that would be detrimental, but right away he was thrown into a public relations drama in which Hollywood, its stars, and its films were being painted as a cause of the nation’s moral decay by watchdog groups and the press.

Hays stepped in at a key moment in the history of Hollywood censorship, but debate over what constituted proper content had been going on since 1893 when Thomas Edison’s company released two versions of a film featuring exotic dancer Fatima. Her gyrating midriff proved too sexual for some, and he released a censored version in which lines were scratched into the film to cover her offending body parts. The chaste kiss at the end of The Kiss, originally titled The May Irwin-John C. Rice Kiss, created a furor, prompting one outraged journalist to note, “Such things demand police interference.” In 1907, the manager of a theater in New York was arrested for allowing children to see The Great Thaw Trial, a film version of the scandalous murder case in which millionaire Harry K. Thaw murdered architect Stanford White over showgirl Evelyn Nesbit.  Social reformers and religious spokespersons were after the “flickers” from the beginning because they were corruptors of children. My favorite quote is from Rev. Wilbur Crafts, who claimed that movies were “schools of vice and crime . . . offering trips to hell for a nickel.”

'FATIMA' IN THE CENSORED AND UNCENSORED VERSIONS.

‘FATIMA’ IN THE CENSORED AND UNCENSORED VERSIONS.

GLORIA SWANSON WAS AFRAID OF MAKING THE 'DOOM BOOK.'

GLORIA SWANSON WAS AFRAID OF BEING LISTED IN THE  ‘DOOM BOOK.’

During his first year as head of the MPPDA, Hays suggested that the studios institute strong morals clauses in the contracts of stars to avoid scandals like the Fatty Arbuckle debacle. He also advised publicists not to publicize the lavish lifestyles of movie stars, and he created Central Casting to protect extras from lascivious producers.  He created the “Doom Book,” which was a list of actors deemed unfit  to star in the movies because of their involvement in drugs, illicit sex, or other peculiarities. Supposedly, there were 117 actors and actresses on the list. According to Gloria Swanson, fear of inclusion in the Doom Book persuaded her to settle a messy divorce with husband Herbert Somborn and obtain a secret abortion.

The first set of guidelines that Hays advocated is akin to a gentlemen’s agreement between his office and the studios, meaning he thought most studios and producers would comply without coercion. There were 13 topics that he felt should be avoided on screen, including depicting sex “in an improper manner,” white slavery, making vice too attractive, nudity, prolonged passion, undue emphasis on the criminal underworld, making gambling and drunkenness attractive, providing instruction on how to commit crimes (a temptation for the “weak”), ridiculing public officials, offending religious beliefs, depicting too much violence, vulgar postures and gestures, and salacious intertitles.

Why did Hays think studios and producers would comply? Because he knew that state and local censorship boards had no qualms about cutting films to the point of mutilation if deemed offensive. By the time Hays hit Hollywood, six states had strict censorship boards in place. That meant that any film distributed in those states had to be approved by their censorship boards. If something was considered offensive for residents of those states, the scene or shot was cut out, or the title card was rewritten, without consulting the studio or producer. Not only did the studios have no say in the cutting of their films, there was also a charge per foot to have their films screened by these boards. The first state censorship board was created in 1911 in Pennsylvania, followed closely by Ohio, then Kansas. Within a few years, Maryland, New York, and Virginia created censorship boards. These six states controlled 30% of theaters, so they made an impact on public perception of certain movies.  In addition, 100 cities and towns across the country had more localized censorship boards.  And, the situation was getting worse, at least from Hollywood’s point of view. By 1921, over 100 bills in 37 other states were being proposed to introduce censorship in new towns or cities.

GRETA GARBO SMOKES IN 'A WOMAN AFFAIR,' A SCENE THAT WOULD BE CUT IN KANSAS.

GRETA GARBO SMOKES IN ‘A WOMAN OF AFFAIRS,’ A SCENE THAT WOULD BE CUT IN KANSAS.

Usually, the members of the boards got their positions as political favors, so no one had any training in filmmaking. They simply screened films based on flimsy criteria, then cut out scenes that didn’t meet their standards, with no concern about the impact of those cuts on the rest of the film. Some films were mutilated beyond understanding. Variety reported that five or six scenes were removed from Harry Langdon’s The Chaser, ruining its “continuity.” The shots or scenes were supposed to be spliced back into the film, but there was no guarantee that the censors would put back what they took out.  Rivalries and jealousies between state boards exacerbated the situation:  Pennsylvania came after New York in the distribution rotation, but if the former discovered that the latter had snipped out something, the Pennsylvania censors would cut additional scenes just because they could.

PENNSYLVANIA MUTILATED 'KINDLING.'

PENNSYLVANIA CUT ALL REFERENCES TO PREGNANCY IN  ‘KINDLING.’

The criteria for judging unsuitable material varied from state to state.  In Kansas, women could not be shown smoking, and scenes with excessive drinking were frowned upon, because Kansas was a dry state long before Prohibition. However, neither smoking nor drinking were problems in Ohio. In Pennsylvania, women could not be shown pregnant, nor could the story revolve around a pregnancy. In the 1915 film Kindling, the heroine steals from her employers in order to move herself and her unborn child to a better climate. When her employers find out the truth, they forgive her and pay for her move. The Pennsylvania board cut all references to her pregnancy, rendering the story senseless. Their defense: “The movies are patronized by thousands of children who believe that babies are brought by the stork, and it would be criminal to undeceive them.” Apparently, the Pennsylvania board was among the worst. In a version of Camille called Arme Violetta, the board changed the story from that of a tubercular courtesan torn between a young lover and an older sugar daddy to a poor dancer who struggles to financially support her ailing husband. They did this by cutting the love scenes between her and any older suitors and rewriting the intertitles. When she seeks money from a suitor for her services, the intertitle “I am here, ill and body and soul. Take me away, anywhere” was rewritten to “I am here, ill and body and soul. You offered to help me. Are you good friend enough to take me, unselfishly, where I can learn to dance so that I can earn money.” Needless to say, the story made no sense by the time the board was through.

THIS COMEDY ABOUT A PHILANDERING HUSBAND CALLED 'THE CHASER' RESULTED IN SEVERE CUTS.

THIS COMEDY ABOUT A PHILANDERING HUSBAND CALLED ‘THE CHASER’ RESULTED IN SEVERE CUTS.

In Maryland, the censorship board was headed by a druggist, so all scenes with poisoning were eliminated. With its history of corruption, New York was sensitive on the subject, so stories of bribery and corrupt politics were carefully scrutinized.  The strongest of local censors was the board in Chicago, which was run by the police department. Two policemen supervised a board of women known erroneously as “the police widows.” The widows were on the lookout for immoral conduct—like most boards did—but they also banned or cut racially insulting material. Chicago was also sensitive to crime films, but not for the expected reasons. In the case of The Racket (1928), the Chicago mob tried to block production, sending death threats to key players. When it was released anyway, they used their political influence to have the film banned in Chicago, Dallas, and Portland, while New York and Pennsylvania cut it severely.

JOHN GILBERT'S PROTAGONIST MADE BOOTLEGGING TOO ATTRACTIVE IN 'TWELVE MILES OUT.'

JOHN GILBERT’S PROTAGONIST MADE BOOTLEGGING TOO ATTRACTIVE IN ‘TWELVE MILES OUT.’

Not surprisingly, the gentlemen’s agreement approach with the studios did not work, no matter the threat from local censors. In 1924, Hays instituted The Formula, which requested the studios to send synopses of their upcoming films to his office. His staff would judge the storylines based on how they would fare with the various local censors.  For example, when MGM submitted the bootlegging action adventure called Twelve Miles Out, Hays’s staff suggested that it was not good to glorify a bootlegger who was flaunting Prohibition. States like Kansas would not accept it, so the studios changed the ending to make sure the bootlegger died.  Later, MGM decided to produce The Green Hat, a film based on a notorious novel. In the novel, Iris March’s husband commits suicide on their wedding night because he has syphilis; her brother drinks himself to death because he is hot for Iris’s husband; and Iris bears an illegitimate child. Because it was to be a vehicle for Greta Garbo, Hays knew it would attract a lot of viewers, and he knew it would not get through intact in Pennsylvania and New York, which was an extremely important market.  The Hays Office suggested that the title and the characters’ names be changed, so The Green Hat became A Woman of Affairs. They also recommended the studio delete any reference to venereal disease, homosexuality, and illegitimate children.

THE MOB GOT 'THE RACKET' BANNED IN CHICAGO.

THE MOB GOT ‘THE RACKET’ BANNED IN CHICAGO.

The Formula was effective for about a year before the studios stopped submitting their synopses. In 1927, Hays’s right-hand man, Jason Joy, wrote a list of 37 rules for studios and producers that elaborated on the list of 13 items used previously. Dubbed the Purity Code or the Don’ts and Be Carefuls, the list features 11 Don’ts, which were topics never to be depicted onscreen, and 26 instances in which special care must be exercised in the way the topics were used.

I found the list on the front page of a 1928 issue of Variety. Here is the list, using the exact wording in the Variety article.

The eleven Don’ts were:

1 Pointed profanity by either title or lip which includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus Christ,” unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies, also other profane or vulgar expressions no matter what manner applied.

2 Any licentious or suggestive nudity—in fact or silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.

SUGGESTIVE COSTUMES THAT HINTED AT PARTIAL NUDITY WERE ONE OF THE "BE CAREFULS" ON THE PURITY CODE LIST.

SUGGESTIVE COSTUMES THAT HINTED AT PARTIAL NUDITY WERE ONE OF THE “DON’Ts” ON THE PURITY CODE LIST.

3 The illegal traffic in drugs.

4 Any inference of sex perversion.

5 White slavery.

6 Miscegenation.

7 Sex hygiene and venereal diseases.

8 Scenes of actual childbirth—in fact or in silhouette.

9 Children’s sex organs.

10 Ridicule of the clergy.

11 Willful offense to any nation, race or creed.

The 26 Be Carefuls were:

1 Use of the flag.

2 International relations (to avoid picturising [sic] in an unfavorable light another countries’ religion, history, institutions, prominent people, citizenry).

3 Religion or religious ceremonies.

4 Arson.

5 Use of fire arms.

6 Theft, robbery, safe cracking, and dynamiting trains, mines, buildings, etc. (the idea to handling of this point being that the producer must have in mind the effect which the too-detailed description of this may have upon the moron).

7 Brutality and possible gruesomeness.

8 Technique of committing murder by whatever method.

THE JOKES ABOUT DRUGS IN FILMS LIKE 'THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH' WERE FROWNED UPON BY THE PURITY CODE.

JOKES ABOUT DRUGS IN FILMS LIKE ‘THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH’ WERE FROWNED UPON BY THE PURITY CODE.

9 Methods of smuggling.

10 Third degree methods.

11 Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime.

12 Sympathy for criminals.

13 Attitude toward public characters and institutions.

14 Sedition.

15 Apparent cruelty to children and animals.

16 Branding of people or animals.

17 Sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue.

18 Rape or attempted rape.

9 First night scenes.

PROSTITUTION WAS A 'BE CAREFUL' TOPIC.

PROSTITUTION WAS A ‘BE CAREFUL’ TOPIC.

20 Man and woman in bed together.

21 Deliberate seduction of girls.

22 The institution of marriage.

23 Surgical operations.

24 Use of drugs.

25 Titles or scenes that have to do with law enforcement or law enforcing officers.

26 Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a heavy.

After these were released, Hays sent copies to every newspaper in the nation, claiming Hollywood had cleaned house. But, the studios did not follow through on pledges and promises to follow the list. So, in 1930, when publisher Martin J. Quiqley and Father Daniel Lord came to Hays with the lengthy and well-organized Motion Picture Production Code, the censorship czar agreed that its guidelines were exactly what the industry needed to not only control screen content but also to get the state and local censors off the backs of Hollywood. Yet, in retrospect, Hays’s reasons for trying to get the industry onboard with organized self-censorship are reduced to mere moralizing, prompting screenwriter Gene Fowler to quip, “Will Hays is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in clean postures.”

24 Responses Before the Production Code: Trips to Hell for a Nickel
Posted By DBenson : April 1, 2013 2:14 pm

“Deliberate seduction of girls”?

Accidental seduction was okay?

Posted By DBenson : April 1, 2013 2:14 pm

“Deliberate seduction of girls”?

Accidental seduction was okay?

Posted By Susan Doll : April 1, 2013 3:41 pm

DBenson: I know. That’s why I did not paraphrase, but used the exact wording for the Purity Code. Some of the phrasing is a riot.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 1, 2013 3:41 pm

DBenson: I know. That’s why I did not paraphrase, but used the exact wording for the Purity Code. Some of the phrasing is a riot.

Posted By jbryant : April 1, 2013 3:47 pm

Cool history lesson. I thought I knew the basics of this, but definitely learned some new stuff.

Had trouble parsing this though: “In the novel, Iris March’s husband commits suicide on their wedding night because he has syphilis; his brother drinks himself to death because he is hot for Iris’s husband…”

If I’m reading that correctly, it sounds like the brother who drinks himself to death is hot for his own brother. Pronoun trouble maybe?

Posted By jbryant : April 1, 2013 3:47 pm

Cool history lesson. I thought I knew the basics of this, but definitely learned some new stuff.

Had trouble parsing this though: “In the novel, Iris March’s husband commits suicide on their wedding night because he has syphilis; his brother drinks himself to death because he is hot for Iris’s husband…”

If I’m reading that correctly, it sounds like the brother who drinks himself to death is hot for his own brother. Pronoun trouble maybe?

Posted By Susan Doll : April 1, 2013 4:07 pm

Jbrant: You are exactly right. It is Iris’s brother who is hot for her husband. I corrected the error. Thanks for noticing.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 1, 2013 4:07 pm

Jbrant: You are exactly right. It is Iris’s brother who is hot for her husband. I corrected the error. Thanks for noticing.

Posted By Laurie : April 1, 2013 8:46 pm

Great article! I didn’t realize there were state censorship boards hacking up films. The Purity Code was fascinating. My favorite bit: “the producer must have in mind the effect which the too-detailed description of this may have upon the moron.” Lots of respect for the audience :-)

Posted By Laurie : April 1, 2013 8:46 pm

Great article! I didn’t realize there were state censorship boards hacking up films. The Purity Code was fascinating. My favorite bit: “the producer must have in mind the effect which the too-detailed description of this may have upon the moron.” Lots of respect for the audience :-)

Posted By DevlinCarnate : April 1, 2013 11:35 pm

hmmm… i didn’t realize white slavery was such a problem in the 20′s and 30′s ,… i guess regular slavery was OK then ?

Posted By DevlinCarnate : April 1, 2013 11:35 pm

hmmm… i didn’t realize white slavery was such a problem in the 20′s and 30′s ,… i guess regular slavery was OK then ?

Posted By Stacia : April 2, 2013 2:49 am

I knew The Racket was banned in Chicago but had no idea it was also banned in Dallas and Portland! That’s a frightening concept.

It’s a lot of fun going through the old film censorship records at the Kansas State Historical Society (they are online though harder to find since the Society updated their page). The Sennett short “His Nature Dance,” for example, was mandated to have all “nature dances” removed by Kansas. I suspect the film must have been 23 seconds long after censorship.

While writing an article on this topic for another website (it hasn’t gone live so I can’t link to it in shameless self promotion… yet) I discovered Jason Joy was often sent to state censorship boards to smooth ruffled feathers when a saucy film was released. Scarface was particularly upsetting, apparently.

Posted By Stacia : April 2, 2013 2:49 am

I knew The Racket was banned in Chicago but had no idea it was also banned in Dallas and Portland! That’s a frightening concept.

It’s a lot of fun going through the old film censorship records at the Kansas State Historical Society (they are online though harder to find since the Society updated their page). The Sennett short “His Nature Dance,” for example, was mandated to have all “nature dances” removed by Kansas. I suspect the film must have been 23 seconds long after censorship.

While writing an article on this topic for another website (it hasn’t gone live so I can’t link to it in shameless self promotion… yet) I discovered Jason Joy was often sent to state censorship boards to smooth ruffled feathers when a saucy film was released. Scarface was particularly upsetting, apparently.

Posted By swac44 : April 2, 2013 9:39 am

I’ve got a few hardcover books on the dangers of the white slave trade, it was a hot news topic in the 1920s, and there are a number of films about it. Kind of like today’s child abduction fear mongering, the kind of stories that local news outlets love to hype up. “IS THERE A CHILD KILLER ON *YOUR* BLOCK?”

Weird to think that Hays was something of a public celebrity, I’ve seen him show up in caricature in a couple of cartoons, including Felix Goes to Hollywood and Mickey’s Gala Premiere.

Where I live we still have the Amusement Regulations Board, which used to be headed by a certain Rev. Trivett. They would never delete footage from anything (unlike the Ontario Censor Board, which actually would make trims in films, as late as the release of George Romero’s Day of the Dead and Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead), but instead simply ban a film outright, which would cause some local consternation when it was a title like The Tin Drum or Last Tango in Paris (which were eventually allowed to be shown, on grounds of artistic merit, as I recall). They also banned John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, for reasons of “animal cruelty” (the scene with the chicken, I’m guessing) although they couldn’t have been too thrilled about the incest either.

It’s been ages since there’s been any kind of controversy surrounding the board, the last thing I remember is when some local religious leaders wanted Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ banned for reasons of blasphemy, but to the board’s credit they said no, since that wasn’t part of their mandate, Rev. Trivett notwithstanding.

Posted By swac44 : April 2, 2013 9:39 am

I’ve got a few hardcover books on the dangers of the white slave trade, it was a hot news topic in the 1920s, and there are a number of films about it. Kind of like today’s child abduction fear mongering, the kind of stories that local news outlets love to hype up. “IS THERE A CHILD KILLER ON *YOUR* BLOCK?”

Weird to think that Hays was something of a public celebrity, I’ve seen him show up in caricature in a couple of cartoons, including Felix Goes to Hollywood and Mickey’s Gala Premiere.

Where I live we still have the Amusement Regulations Board, which used to be headed by a certain Rev. Trivett. They would never delete footage from anything (unlike the Ontario Censor Board, which actually would make trims in films, as late as the release of George Romero’s Day of the Dead and Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead), but instead simply ban a film outright, which would cause some local consternation when it was a title like The Tin Drum or Last Tango in Paris (which were eventually allowed to be shown, on grounds of artistic merit, as I recall). They also banned John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, for reasons of “animal cruelty” (the scene with the chicken, I’m guessing) although they couldn’t have been too thrilled about the incest either.

It’s been ages since there’s been any kind of controversy surrounding the board, the last thing I remember is when some local religious leaders wanted Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ banned for reasons of blasphemy, but to the board’s credit they said no, since that wasn’t part of their mandate, Rev. Trivett notwithstanding.

Posted By lisaem : April 2, 2013 9:43 am

At least animal cruelty was a no-no…and children’s sex organs — ick!!! Great article, Suzi!

Posted By lisaem : April 2, 2013 9:43 am

At least animal cruelty was a no-no…and children’s sex organs — ick!!! Great article, Suzi!

Posted By Will Hays: Your Tour Guide to Hell? « Durnmoose Movie Musings : April 2, 2013 3:25 pm

[...] as the “Hays Code” and eventually led the way to the ratings system we have today. Before the Production Code: Trips to Hell for a Nickel focuses on the years 1930 to 1934 and includes the full list of items that made up what was called [...]

Posted By Will Hays: Your Tour Guide to Hell? « Durnmoose Movie Musings : April 2, 2013 3:25 pm

[...] as the “Hays Code” and eventually led the way to the ratings system we have today. Before the Production Code: Trips to Hell for a Nickel focuses on the years 1930 to 1934 and includes the full list of items that made up what was called [...]

Posted By robbushblog : April 4, 2013 12:51 pm

I wonder what the federal government would have restricted. I much prefer that the industry police itself, but some of those items were too much.

Posted By robbushblog : April 4, 2013 12:51 pm

I wonder what the federal government would have restricted. I much prefer that the industry police itself, but some of those items were too much.

Posted By robbushblog : April 4, 2013 1:14 pm

Right after reading your post, I read the latest online AFI Magazine. It included this: http://americanfilm.afi.com/issue/2013/4/conservatory

Posted By robbushblog : April 4, 2013 1:14 pm

Right after reading your post, I read the latest online AFI Magazine. It included this: http://americanfilm.afi.com/issue/2013/4/conservatory

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