Sunday, 15 March 2015

A Reflection on the Motion Picture Production Code

The Motion Picture Production Code, now commonly known as the "Hays Code", was first created in response to a public outcry regarding the “controversial” material of films made during the Silent Era. During this time, when there were no rules in play, many filmmakers experimented with different ideas, sometimes touching on sexual or violent themes. In the late twenties the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, led by William Hays, was hired to create a list of regulations. He started with a vague list suggesting what filmmakers should and should not do in their movies. When this list went ignored by filmmakers, the studios retaliated with the Production Code, enforced by an associate of Hayes, Joseph Breen, beginning in 1934 and continuing through the following two decades before finally a series of legal cases in the 1950's led to its dissolution and eventual lifting in the 1960's.

The Production Code was a strictly enforced series of rules that prohibited several topics and contained restrictions about others. For instance, the Code lists several regulations about how crime pictures were to be made. Movies dealing with illegal activity were required to minimize the use of firearms to those essential to the plot and crimes could not be shown in detail. It also says that criminals cannot be treated in a sympathetic light, that any depiction of drug trafficking is forbidden, and that alcohol cannot be shown unless it is important to story or characterization. While the Production Code is more lenient towards depictions of violence provided that the films avoid romanticizing crime, depicting certain types of criminal activity, and showing it in detail, it prohibits any sexual themes. Hays’ justification for this decision is his claim that “Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing”. In other words, sex could not in any way be depicted visually or verbally.

In addition to prohibiting any explicit depictions of sexual intercourse, Hays also prohibits showing adultery (unless it is essential to the plot, and even then cannot be explicit or justified), “scenes of passion”, “sexual perversion”, interracial relationships, children’s sexual organs, and childbirth. Filmmakers were generally barred from depicting any form of sexual activity. The few that did manage to get under the censors, such as James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein or Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, were unable to address their sexual themes directly. The former incorporated homoerotic undertones through the interactions of the characters, particularly in the intimate relationship between the two scientists. The latter, centered on a pedophilic relationship, refrains from showing any sexual activity between Hubert Humbert and the titular Lolita.

Ironically, many of the “controversial” movies the Production Code was made in response to seem tame by today’s standards, especially with regards to sex and violence. A major component of the public outcry was the violence of crime films made before the Production Code. Gangster films like Howard Hawks' Scarface, depict criminal activity and in some ways glorify it (though they often came with a "crime doesn't pay" message, usually by ending with the gangster's death), but compared to the work of modern directors like Quentin Tarantino, these films seem surprisingly tame.

Really? This is what people were upset about?

Films like The Divorcee imply sexual activity to occur, but refrain from showing it. It is mostly suggested through innuendos in the conversations between the characters. The story concerns both a husband and wife committing adultery against each other, but all sex between them happens off-screen. While this was controversial for 1930, many more recent films, such as those of David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick, are far more explicit.

One restriction I find especially curious is the Production Code’s reference to “sexual perversion”. Precisely what Hays intended by this remark is unclear, as he fails to define or provide examples of what he considers to be “sexual perversion”. It appears that this particular category comprises anything other than a “traditional” heterosexual marriage, likely including homosexuality. While the Code does not specifically name homosexuality as something that should not be depicted, it was responsible for preventing any images of same-sex relationships from being shown on screen during the Studio Era.

Because of the Code, the production of A Streetcar Named Desire encountered difficulties when the filmmakers were pressured to change a scene in which Vivien Leigh reveals that her husband (who is never seen) was homosexual. The original play was already vague about his sexuality, but the film required what little references were present in the script to be taken out. Prior to the Code, there were very few films that did attempt to positively address the issues of homosexuality outside of a few exceptions such as Géza von Radványi’s Mädchen in Uniform (which featured a sympathetic lesbian protagonist). Though it is a very recent development, more filmmakers are making efforts to depict sympathetic gay couples.

Contemporary movies such as Mulholland Drive, Brokeback Mountain, and Blue is the Warmest Colour all attempt to present homosexual love stories with complex leading characters. Several of these films have also been made and released through mainstream Hollywood, and even Blue is the Warmest Colour (made in France) managed to gain international attention. Both Mulholland Drive and Brokeback Mountain were nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards (the latter actually winning), while Blue is the Warmest Colour was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes.

While the Production Code was at its height during the 1930’s, the 1940’s saw the beginning of its decline. With America’s entry into World War II, the code was relaxed to allow the production of movies addressing the conflict. The intended result was the introduction of the combat film, but the relaxing of the Code also had the unexpected side effect of allowing directors to explore areas they could not previously. In particular, this relaxation of the Production Code, combined with a need to conserve resources and influence from the German Expressionist movement, resulted in a technique that would later become known as film noir. Movies that fit the style of film noir would explore more controversial themes, including more violent narratives and sexual undertones. In the 1960’s, the American government began to conduct a series of inquiries about the Code, eventually forcing it to be officially lifted.

The introduction of the Production Code may have in fact had the reverse effect of its intended purpose. Before it was published, movies explored sexual themes but rarely did it in an explicit way. With restrictions preventing even the use of innuendos and implied sex, Hays forced directors into the position of trying to find ways around his rules. This led to films attempting to find creative ways to show sex or related subjects that would go under the censors, such as disguising a sexual relationship as the humorous bantering and eventual marriage between a man and a woman (which is how the screwball comedy was first developed) or incorporating homoerotic undertones that would not have been noticed at the time (as in The Bride of Frankenstein). By examining the output of films made since the production code, I can see that many of them are far more explicit in their images of sex than the “controversial” films of the 1920’s.

There is definitely no homoerotic subtext in this scene.


  1. After the huge scandal involving Fatty Arbuckle (poor guy) and the death of Wallace Reid, they decided to bring in censorship to appease the Daughters of the American Revolution. They held quite a bit of power and were also a forerunner for bringing in prohibition. They were still pretty lax but went full force after Mae West flicked her finger to the production code. It brought so many constraints that it still makes me shake my head. I never understood why everyone had separate beds when my parents had one. Considering that Gays could be placed in jail at that time is another reason for their rigid backward way of thinking. One could never speak of any other form of sexual interplay except the religious, for procreation, way. I loved how many of the directors found ways to insinuate things in their movies and Breen and Hays never caught on. The musical scene with Carmen Miranda in the tutti frutti hat and the girls had strawberries and bananas was a "hidden" message that the uptight folks didn't get. Love the Bride of Frankenstein and glad you discuss it here. Great write up

  2. This is such an awesome and detailed piece. I've always been interested in the Production Code because I've often wondered how these films would have played differently had they not had such censorship. Looking at Hitchcock's films in particular, I wonder how differently he would have shot them had he not had tied hands.

    Great think piece.

    1. That's actually a good question, and a funny one considering that the answer is basically that there wouldn't be that much of a difference. As I bring up in the article, the "controversial" pre-code films really didn't have that much to them as far as sex or violence was concerned, and the same can be said for a lot of the films that came immediately after. Hitchcock probably would have only been SLIGHTLY more explicit in how he approached those subjects. The "strict censorship" was also only at its worst between 1934 and 1940. 1941 saw a relaxation of the Code to make way for projects directly addressing the war, but also opened up an avenue for filmmakers to cover more controversial themes (this was a major factor in the beginning of film noir). By the 1950's (when Hitchcock was at his height) there was still some restrictions (the subject of homosexuality was still off-limits, even if the only gay character is never seen and died before the story even began), but as far as heterosexual sex and violence was concerned, they were more a series of guidelines and quite a few of films of the era (i.e. a lot of later film noir) contained material that was in violation of the Production Code. Nonetheless it was still pretty tame by today's standards.

  3. Wow, what an insightful post here John! It's always interesting to read about the Hayes code, though as far as censorship is concerned seems that the pendulum has swung very far in the other direction.

    I haven't seen A Streetcar Named Desire but it seems that such a change would really affect the integrity of the story.

    1. Actually, that's a curious one when you consider how the homosexual elements were used in the original play. Those elements only appeared in a single scene, in which Blanche explains to her friend Mitch that her husband turned out to be gay and subsequently committed suicide, and Blanche went on to have to "prove" her "womanliness" by having lots of sex with men only to then be condemned as a "whore', even by Mitch (who immediately breaks off their friendship after hearing this). Technically it's a crucial part of the story in that this is the reason why Blanche is so messed up in the head, but she doesn't explicitly say her husband was gay, it's mostly implied through innuendos. None of this is even seen, it's only described in passing.

      The movie had to take this already vague speech that sort of hinted at Blanche's husband being gay and distort it beyond recognition to meet the standards of the Production Code. That's one good example, but there were several other moments that demonstrate just how restricting Hollywood was at the time. For instance, the filmmakers had a lot of trouble figuring out how to handle the rape scene featured in the play (which is only inferred in the movie), and even then it also required them to change the ending. The original play ends with Blanche being committed while her sister's abusive husband Stanley gets away with all the crap he's put everyone through over the course of the story, but the censors couldn't allow that kind of ending, especially with the implied rape he committed. The movie ends instead with Stanley getting something of a (rather weak and contrived) comeuppance.