Born in Sullivan, Indiana, Will Hays began his public career as a lawyer and Republican politician in the first decade of the twentieth century. He achieved fame, however, in the rapidly expanding film industry of the 1920s and 1930s for his role in developing and enforcing the industry’s strict self-censorship code.
The popularity of moving pictures in the early years of the century was unsettling to many concerned over the impact of the cinema on public morals, and by 1920 a number of states and municipalities had established film censorship boards. In order to clean up the industry’s image, as well as to head off potential federal censorship, in 1922 film executives organized the Movie Producers Production and Distribution Association (MPPDA) and asked Will Hays to head the new organization. Hays came very well connected, having been very active in party politics. He had been national chair of the Republican Party and had been elevated to postmaster general by Warren G. Harding in 1921.
When he accepted his new position, Hays promised that Hollywood could police itself. To that end, the Hays Office, as it would come to be identified, developed voluntary guidelines for film content that came to be honored more in the breach than in compliance. In 1927 an official set of ‘‘don’ts and be carefuls’’ were issued by the Office to specifically guide producers. The advent of the ‘‘talkies,’’ however, both increased the popularity of the movies and made editing film more expensive. In addition, as the nation entered the Great Depression, producers, anxious to buck up failing revenues, turned soon to the increasing use of sex and violence to attract audiences.
Women’s and religious groups, especially the Catholic Church, became more and more disturbed over film content, and the threat of expanded government censorship loomed. Movie financiers pressured the MPPDA to tighten compliance with the guidelines. Thus in 1930, the Hays Office issued a much stricter production code, which had actually been drawn up by a Catholic cleric. The Code of 1930 went far beyond regulating just sex and violence by also promoting an idealized view of life that embraced strict moral values and conservative ideals. Producers were cautioned, for example, never to encourage sympathy with criminals, and were instructed to portray ‘‘correct’’ standards of life. Audiences were to be protected from explicit scenes of crimes, violence, and sex. The institution of marriage was to be celebrated; profanity, nudity, or suggestive dancing were undesirable; and the character of the clergy must never be maligned. To ensure that producers complied with these standards, the Code required the submission of all scripts to the MPPDA for review.
Between 1930 and 1934, the Hays Office labored to enforce the Code, rejecting nearly 20 percent of the scripts it reviewed. Since the Code contained no enforcement provisions, however, criticism mounted that the Office still catered too much to the public’s taste. When the Catholic Church established the Legion of Decency in 1934, promising to boycott inappropriate films, Hays finally had the club he needed to ensure compliance with the Code. He installed his colleague Joe Breen in Hollywood in an office called the Production Code Administration, which adopted the authority to award a seal of approval for those films that adhered to the Code. Tasked with maintaining the ‘‘well-being of the industry,’’ Breen’s operation finally reined in the film producers, guaranteeing that what America saw on the screen would reflect an idealized view of American life, avoiding, where possible, political and social issues.
The Code would come to govern film tone, if not content, into the 1960s. Post–World War II social changes significantly altered public tastes and the willingness of both audience and producers to accept Code limitations. Hays resigned from the MPPDA in 1945, forced out by studio chiefs who wanted greater latitude in what they produced. The Supreme Court would further emasculate the rationale for the Code when it declared in Burstyn v. Wilson (1952) that motion pictures were protected by the provisions of the First Amendment. Nevertheless, Will Hays played the essential role in what American audiences saw on the silver screen for more than twenty-five years.
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Movie Ratings and Censorship