Motion Picture Production Code

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The Motion Picture Production Code, more commonly named after its most staunch proponent, William Hays, was a comprehensive--and, for most of its life, binding--set of limits on the content of motion pictures in the United States of America.

Contents

Pre-Code

Since shortly after motion pictures first became popular in the United States, public and church officials expressed great concern about the moral tone of motion-picture content. Nor was this concern entirely misplaced. In sharp contrast to the traditional stage, motion pictures are acted out away from the immediate presence of their viewers. This salient fact caused many motion-picture producers to act without the restraint that stage producers and directors had to observe, and therefore many motion-picture projects presented salacious spectacles of which even the Roman Emperor Nero would be proud.

In response, many State legislatures began passing laws regulating the kinds of motion pictures that could be shown within their jurisdictions. In 1915 the Mutual Film Corporation sued to prevent enforcement, by the Industrial Commission of Ohio, of such a law within Ohio. Eventually the Supreme Court of the United States held[1] that motion pictures did not enjoy the protection against "abridgment of the freedom of speech" mentioned in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The 1920's saw the drug-related deaths--and, in two memorable cases, the murders--of a number of film actors and directors. This, in addition to the content of many projects, caused the public to regard Hollywood with a jaundiced eye.

Hollywood responded by forming the Motion Picture Production and Distribution Association and pledging to write a code governing film content. The producers did this to avoid having the content of their projects come under federal law. The first president of the MPPDA was William Hays.

Hays tried for eight years to enforce a rough moral guideline on film content, but the producers paid him little heed. But with the invention of talking pictures in 1927, the situation became more urgent, and the producers finally agreed to write a formal code. This the MPPDA did in 1930. They did not enforce this code until the middle of 1934, when Joseph I. Breen was named to head the new Production Code Administration. With this appointment, and a new rule requiring all films to obtain a rating from the Production Code Administration (PCA), enforcement was definite and consistent.[2]

Workings of the Code

The PCA's system was simple: a film either passed, or it didn't, and if it failed to gain PCA approval, then it would not be released. Perhaps because the Code was so comprehensive, and the PCA's enforcement of it so consistent, State and local censorship boards gradually stood down. The federal Customs department banned any foreign films that would not be up to this Code, but Congress never debated any measure for federal government censorship of motion pictures.

Provisions of the Code

The full text of the Code can be viewed here,[3] here,[4] and here.[5] The best summary of the Code was contained in its three General Principles:

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Applications

The particular applications were mostly in accord with these principles. The following particulars are noteworthy:

  • Murders were never to be shown in detail. The operative concerns were twofold: that no person murder another by imitating a murder he saw done on film, and that viewers not be subject to a sick-making spectacle.
  • Similarly, methods of crime were never to be shown in enough detail as to inspire imitation or, worse yet, to give instruction in crime.
  • Crime must never "pay." This led, in a number of instances involving adaptations of plots from stage to film, to the requirement that the film end in a manner substantially different from the play. For example, in The Bad Seed (1956), the child murderess was shown making a foolhardy search, during a thunderstorm, to retrieve a medal that she had stolen from her victim, after her mother had dropped it into the water where the victim had died. The child goes out onto an old and rickety pier, spots the medal, and attempts to retrieve it with a fishing net, only to die of a lightning strike.[6] That scene was not in the original stage script. (Furthermore, the director shot the lightning strike at a wide angle, so that in effect, nature—or God—struck the fatal blow at a distance.)
  • Intimate interactions not necessary to the plot were not to be shown on camera—and no actor or actress was to appear on camera without a minimum amount of clothing.
  • Profane or obscene language was never to be spoken.
  • Vulgar, disgusting subjects had to be handled in a manner not likely to nauseate the audience.
  • Respect for the dead, and for the act of dying, generally meant that dead bodies were not shown, and gruesome deaths were never acted out on camera.
  • Intoxicating liquor was not to be drunk unless such drinking was necessary to the plot. Actually, prohibition was no longer in force by the time the code came into effect, and so this provision was more honored in the breach than otherwise. Nevertheless, the PCA never passed a project that celebrated alcohol intoxication. More typical were projects that illustrated the dire personal, family, or professional consequences of habitual alcohol abuse.
  • Producers were not to hold any religion up to ridicule, or to cast disrespect on "the just rights, history, and feelings of any nation." One repeated practical application of this rule was that the face of Christ was never shown in close-up, but only at a wide angle, if at all. Films like The Robe (1953)[7] and Ben-Hur (1959)[8] best illustrate this principle.

Decline of the Code

The introduction of television created a new problem for motion-picture exhibitors, in that viewers could now stay at home to watch the sort of spectacle that, heretofore, they had to go out to a public venue to see. So producers experimented with a variety of techniques to distinguish themselves from television, by doing things that television could not do. For example, they changed the aspect ratio of their films from the traditional 4:3 to 16:9, 2:1, or even 2.25:1. But they also agitated for the right to include more salacious content in their films.

In 1954, Joseph Breen retired as head of the PCA. Then an antitrust ruling severely weakened the PCA's power of enforcement.[9] Opinions differ as to the particular motion-picture production or productions that might have further weakened the code to make it unenforceable. Perhaps the strongest candidate is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)[10], which had multiple elements that the Code forbade: adultery, bank embezzlement, a flight from the law, voyeurism, and ultimately two murders, the first of which was the most gruesome murder staged to date on film.

In 1968, the now-renamed Motion Picture Association of America abandoned the Code completely in favor of their present ratings system.

Supreme Court Decisions

The U.S. Supreme Court began in May 1967 to invalidate numerous local laws and decisions that had been limiting pornographic materials. In just 13 months, from May 1967 to June 1968, the Warren Court rendered 27 decisions in favor of more pornography.[11]

These decisions unleashed a flood of pornography into the marketplace and largely prevented local governments from stopping it. Hollywood got the message. In 1965 the Best Picture was The Sound of Music, a family film enjoyed by millions to this day. In 1969 the Best Picture was Midnight Cowboy, a depressing pornographic film that had an X rating and has long since been forgotten.

Judge Robert Bork wrote, "The suffocating vulgarity of popular culture is in large measure the work of the [Supreme] Court" because "it defeated [our] attempts ... to ... minimize vulgarity."[12]

References

  1. Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (1915), retrieved April 6, 2007, from FindLaw.com
  2. Doherty, Thomas, The Code Before 'Da Vinci', The Washington Post, Saturday, May 20, 2006, page A23; quoted in Brandeis News and retrieved from its on-line archive on April 6, 2007
  3. Motion Picture Production Code at ArtsReformation.com
  4. Motion Picture Production Code at the University of North Dakota
  5. Motion Picture Production Code hosted by David P. Hayes
  6. The Bad Seed (1956) at the Internet Movie Database
  7. The Robe (1953) at the Internet Movie Database
  8. Ben-Hur (1959) at the Internet Movie Database
  9. Howard Hawks' Scarface and the Hollywood Production Code from the Culture Shock series of retrospectives by the Public Broadcasting Service (on-line program note retrieved on April 6, 2007)
  10. Psycho (1960) at the Internet Movie Database
  11. Per Curiam unsigned decisions in favor of pornography:
    1. Redmond v. United States, 384 U.S. 264 (1966)
    2. Potomac News Co. v. United States, 389 U.S. 47 (1967)
    3. Conner v. Hammond, 389 U.S. 48 (1967)
    4. Central Magazine Sales, Ltd. v. United States, 389 U.S. 50 (1967)
    5. Chance v. California, 389 U.S. 89 (1967)
    6. Keney v. New York, 388 U.S. 440 (1967)
    7. Friedman v. New York, 388 U.S. 441 (1967)
    8. Ratner v. California, 388 U.S. 442 (1967)
    9. Cobert v. New York, 388 U.S. 443 (1967)
    10. Sheperd v. New York, 388 U.S. 444 (1967)
    11. Avansino v. New York, 388 U.S. 446 (1967)
    12. Aday v. United States, 388 U.S. 447 (1967)
    13. Corinth Publications, Inc. v. Wesberry, 388 U.S. 448 (1967)
    14. Rosenbloom v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 450 (1967)
    15. A Quantity of Copies of Books v. Kansas, 388 U.S. 452 (1967)
    16. Schackman v. California, 388 U.S. 454 (1967)
    17. Books, Inc. v. United States, 388 U.S. 449 (1967)
    18. Mazes v. Ohio, 388 U.S. 453 (1967)
    19-21. Redrup v. New York, 386 U.S. 767 (1967) (three cases)
    22. Felton v. Pensacola, 390 U.S. 340 (1968)
    23. Rabeck v. New York, 391 U.S. 462 (1968)
    24. I. M. Amusement Corp. v. Ohio, 389 U.S. 573 (1968)
    25. Robert Arthur Management Corp. v. Tennessee, 389 U.S. 578 (1968)
    26. Lee Art Theatre, Inc. v. Virginia, 392 U.S. 636 (1968)
    27. Henry v. Louisiana, 392 U.S. 655 (1968)
    28. Teitel Film Corp. v. Cusack, 390 U.S. 139 (1968)
    29. Carlos v. New York, 396 U.S. 119 (1969)
    30. Von Cleef v. New Jersey, 395 U.S. 814 (1969)
    31. Bloss v. Dykema, 398 U.S. 278 (1970)
    32. Cain v. Kentucky, 397 U.S. 319 (1970)
    33. Walker v. Ohio, 398 U.S. 434 (1970)
    34. Hoyt v. Minnesota, 399 U.S. 524 (1970)
    Signed decision:
    Interstate Circuit, Inc. v. Dallas, 390 U.S. 676 (1968) (two cases)
  12. Robert Bork, Coercing Virtue: The Worldwide Rule of Judges, AEI Press p. 64 (2003)
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