On this day in 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code was put into effect, setting guidelines for the depiction of sex, violence, crime, and religion in American movies. Also known as the Hays Code after Hollywood censor Will Hays, it was originally a list of 36 “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls,” and as such it was pretty ineffectual and tough to enforce until 1934, at which time films needed to pass review and receive a certificate of approval to be released. The Hays Code was used until 1968, when it was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America rating system that we use today.
Hays, a former Postmaster General, was hired at the sum of $100,000 a year to polish Hollywood’s image, which had gotten rather tarnished in the 1920s by risqué content and off-screen shenanigans. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that the First Amendment right to free speech did not extend to movies, and the film industry adopted the code hoping to avoid further government interference.
Based on a document created in 1929 by a lay Catholic and Jesuit priest, the document was decidedly moralistic in tone and actively set out to promote traditional values. Crime must be punished and criminals must not be presented as sympathetic characters; pre- or extra-marital sex must never be portrayed in a positive, enticing, or titillating light; authority figures must be portrayed with respect; the church and the clergy must not be laughable or villainous. Showing drug use and interracial romance were likewise outlawed. In 1934, the newly created Production Code Administration strictly enforced the code and gave itself the power to change scenes and whole scripts. As a result, Rick and Ilsa’s Paris affair and Inspector Renault’s sexual extortions in Casablanca were only hinted at. The film’s original ending, in which Ilsa doesn’t get on the plane but lives in sin with Rick, was also scrapped, and we saw instead Rick’s unselfish renunciation of his true love.
In the 1950s, the code was increasingly subverted by more racy foreign films, which weren’t bound by the Code, and the lure of television, which offered competition for the moviegoing audience. Some studios began releasing films without the PCA’s approval and found that they could still make a buck. Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) was one such picture, and it was a box office hit with its gambling, bootleg gin, cross-dressing heroes, and Marilyn Monroe’s tales of topless pillow fights.
The Code’s death knell could clearly be heard, even over the movie’s hot jazz soundtrack.
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