Remembering Hollywood's Hays Code, 40 Years On For more than three decades, the code applied rigid moral scrutiny to films, banning everything from interracial dating to "lustful kissing." It died officially in 1968 — but in practice, it was always taking hits.
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Remembering Hollywood's Hays Code, 40 Years On

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Remembering Hollywood's Hays Code, 40 Years On

Remembering Hollywood's Hays Code, 40 Years On

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

When people talk about the more innocent Hollywood of years gone by, they're referring to an era when the movie industry policed itself. For decades, all of the major film studios were governed by a production code. It required that their movies be wholesome, moral, and encouraged what was called correct thinking.

But 40 years ago, in 1968, those rules went out the window. Our movie critic, Bob Mondello, looks back at what the Production Code was designed to do, and why Hollywood decided it was no longer worth doing.

BOB MONDELLO: It's easy to understand why average folks would have been upset with Hollywood in 1922. Even by the loose standards of the Prohibition-ignoring roaring '20s, the town was a moral quagmire - silent-film comic Fatty Arbuckle, charged with manslaughter for the death of an actress; a bisexual director found murdered; movie stars dying of drug overdoses. Small wonder the nation's religious leaders were forming local censorship boards and chopping up movies every which way to suit their communities.

And when Hollywood studios banded together under former Postmaster General Will Hays, who came up with a list of don'ts and be-carefuls, small wonder no one believed them. There were no penalties, no laws, no enforcement.

(Soundbite of movie "I'm No Angel")

Ms. GERTRUDE HOWARD (Actress): I don't see how any man could help loving you.

Ms. MAE WEST (Actress): I don't give them any help, they do it themselves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOWARD: (Unintelligible) do keep me busy keeping track of your gentlemen friends.

Ms. WEST: Oh, I wanna make it easy for you, Beulah. I'm thinking about putting in a filing system.

MONDELLO: Mae West's casual slatternliness in "I'm No Angel," along with Barbara Stanwyck's promiscuousness in "Baby Face," and the release of Cecil B. DeMille's racy biblical epic "Sign of the Cross," so outraged moralists in the early 1930s that calls for government censorship became overwhelming - calls that Will Hays had helped to make overwhelming behind the scenes, and that he used to force filmmakers to toe his line and obey his new Production Code.

Postmaster General WILL HAYS (Founder, Hays Code): The code sets up high standards of performance for motion-picture producers. It states the considerations which good taste and community value make necessary in this universal form of entertainment.

MONDELLO: Among those considerations - that no picture should ever lower the moral standards of those who see it, and that the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin. There was a much-expanded list of don'ts and be-carefuls - it's on the NPR Web site -with bans on nudity, suggestive dancing and lustful kissing. The mocking of religion and the depiction of illegal drug use were prohibited, as were interracial romance, revenge plots, and the showing of a crime method clearly enough that it might be imitated.

Of course, you couldn't really do most of Shakespeare under those strictures. But you could hang a blanket across a motel room in "It Happened One Night" and let Clark Gable embarrass Claudette Colbert into sleeping on the other side of that blanket.

(Soundbite of movie "It Happened One Night)

Mr. CLARK GABLE (Actor): Perhaps you're interested in how a man undresses. I have a method all my own. If you noticed, the coat came first, then the tie, then the shirt. Now, according to Hoyle, after that, the pants should be next. Here's where I'm different. I go for the shoes next. First the right, then the left. After that, it's every man for himself.

MONDELLO: Colbert fled and propriety was upheld. She got an Oscar for fleeing, in fact. The Production Code was voluntary for film companies, who figured it was a nifty way to avoid government censorship. But it was mandatory for filmmakers if they wanted their films to play in American theaters, and filmmakers didn't much care who was doing the censoring if their scripts were getting watered down.

Howard Hughes threw a well-publicized fit when his western "The Outlaw" was kept out of theaters because the film's advertising focused attention on Jane Russell's cleavage.

Even cartoon characters had to toe the line. Betty Boop stopped being a flapper and started wearing a longer skirt.

(Soundbite of "Betty Boop")

Unidentified Man: (As Character) There'll be no more boop-oop-a-doop on you.

BETTY BOOP: You can say my voice is awful, or my songs are too risqué. Oh, but don't take my boop-oop-a-doop away.

MONDELLO: Now, the thing about community standards is that they change, and codes either don't change or they change slowly. And after World War II, with competition from TV on the family front, and from foreign films with nudity on the racy front, movie companies were less inclined to rein in filmmakers who couldn't wait for the rules to catch up.

The Catholic Legion of Decency notwithstanding, films about banned topics like drug addiction often made for intriguing, well-received movies. When Otto Preminger made "The Man With the Golden Arm," featuring Frank Sinatra as an addict, he didn't get a seal of approval, but he did get good reviews and enough theaters to make money.

(Soundbite of movie "The Man With the Golden Arm")

Ms. KIM NOVAK (Actress): (As Molly) You're on it again, Frankie. Why? Why?

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Actor): (As Frankie Machine) Listen, Molly. Listen.

Ms. NOVAK: Why?

Mr. SINATRA: Molly.

MONDELLO: When Sinatra received an Oscar nomination in 1955 from the same Motion Picture Association that had refused to give the film he was in its seal of approval, it was clear that something was amiss. And attempts to make the code flexible just made it meaningless.

By 1959, the man charged with enforcing the rules conceded that if a moral conflict provided, quote, "the proper frame of reference," end quote, a code-approved film could deal with pretty much any topic but homosexuality.

Famous last words. What came out that year? "Some Like It Hot," with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag, fending off male suitors. The film's plot was a veritable catalog of once-forbidden topics — gambling and racketeering to get the plot going, a booze-swilling Marilyn Monroe to keep it going. And when she climbs into a train berth with Jack Lemmon's Daphne, there's no longer a hanging blanket to separate them.

(Soundbite of "Some Like It Hot")

Ms. MARILYN MONROE (Actress): When I was a little girl on cold nights like this, I used to crawl into bed with my sister. We'd cuddle up under the covers and pretend we were lost in a dark cave and we're trying to find our way out.

Mr. JACK LEMMON (Actor): (As Jerry/Daphne) Interesting.

(Soundbite of snort)

MONDELLO: With that snort, the code was dead, whether Hollywood admitted it or not. And judging from attendance, it was not much missed. A year after "Some like It Hot" was released, the head of the Motion Picture Association began suggesting that some sort of classification system might work better than a censorship system that no one was paying attention to. And in 1968, his organization finally shifted from restricting filmmakers to alerting audiences, using the film-ratings system we know today.

And how's that working out? Well, it took all of one year for an X-rated movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture, "Midnight Cowboy," which violated more don'ts and be-carefuls than it observed. And it took just two years after that for "Midnight Cowboy" to be re-rated from X to R without a single frame being altered. Community standards had changed, as they invariably do. I'm Bob Mondello.

BLOCK: That "Outlaw" poster that Bob Mondello mentioned featuring Jane Russell, you can see that and more from pre-Hays Code Hollywood at our Web site,

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