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Behind the American movie classics of the mid-20th century was a strict regime of censors who regulated what filmmakers could show. Writer Dave Gerow explains the rules and how directors worked around them.
Text by: Dave Gerow
Country USA

ave you ever seen an old Hollywood movie? Casablanca, maybe? Or Gone With the Wind or Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Citizen Kane? What do they have in common? Well, they were all made between 1930 and 1968, and that means they were all subject to the Hollywood Production Code. Every Hollywood film for 38 years was examined by a board of censors, who judged the moral standards of movies. That’s why you’ll never hear James Dean swear, or see Montgomery Clift kiss a woman for longer than three and a half seconds – the Production Code forbade it.

Film censorship became a possibility in America in 1915, when the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of speech didn’t extend to movies. States were setting up their own censorship boards, and Hollywood studios faced huge losses if their films were banned. Pre-Code films were hardly gratuitous by today’s standards, but many presented sex and violence more candidly than some Americans were comfortable with. The 1920s brought a series of Hollywood sex scandals – the most famous being the wrongful conviction of comedian Fatty Arbuckle for rape and murder – and Hollywood’s reputation among conservative Americans was taking a beating.

At that time, virtually all American cinema was being produced by eight major studios. Those studios appointed Will Hays, a prominent Republican, to head the new censorship authority which would placate conservative organizations and render state censorship boards unnecessary. Hays was presented by the media as the man who was going to clean up the movies. According to Paul Salmon, film professor at the University of Guelph, “The Production Code was, at least on one level, a brilliant tactical move by Hollywood studio moguls to go on the offensive to deal with the growing cries for censorship on the part of various groups, like the Catholic Legion of Decency and others.”

The Production Code was a list of specific rules enforced by the Hays Office. Movies could contain no profanity or nudity. Criminals always had to be punished. Adultery couldn’t look appealing. No graphic violence. Politicians and religious figures couldn’t be depicted as corrupt or buffoonish. Races couldn’t mix; black actors generally played servants until the 1960s. Sex was particularly taboo: the Code warned that “excessive and lustful kissing [and] lustful embraces…are not to be shown”, and that “sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden”. Even depictions of childbirth, “in fact or in silhouette”, were off limits. Above all, sex was never to be presented in such a way that it would “stimulate the lower and baser element”.

Some movies were ruined. Fritz Lang, who made innovative, challenging films in Germany before fleeing to America in the 1930s, directed a 1944 film noir thriller called The Woman in the Window. It was meant to end with its protagonist’s suicide, but because suicide was forbidden under the Production Code, a final scene was tacked on in which Edward G. Robinson wakes up and realizes the entire plot has been a dream. The Hays Office was unconcerned with artistic integrity.

Some filmmakers pushed the boundaries of the Production Code. The most famous of these cheeky rebels was Alfred Hitchcock. In North by Northwest, Hitchcock uses the image of a train entering a tunnel to suggest sex; with Psycho, he became the first director to show a toilet on screen. Films like Vertigo, Rope and Strangers on a Train are packed with innuendo and subdued erotic imagery.

By the 1960s, American society was undergoing some radical changes. The Democrats were in the White House, Martin Luther King was on TV, and Bob Dylan was on the radio explaining that the times were changing. The influence of religious lobbies was in decline, and controversial but successful directors like Sidney Lumet and Otto Preminger had paved the way for the film that would serve the Production Code its final blow. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was released in 1966; it was as profane as it was brilliant. Adapted from a play by Edward Albee, Virginia Woolf contained blasphemous language as well as overtly sexual dialogue. The film was released with a special warning that it was intended for “mature audiences”. That special rating evolved into the rating system used in America to this day. The Production Code was dead. Suddenly, all things were possible in Hollywood.

But the Production Code left a permanent mark on American cinema. Says Salmon, “Even though around 50 years have elapsed since the dissolving of the Code, Hollywood still churns out films in a very similar mold in terms of their emotional manipulation, their focus on character conflicts, their tendency to have endings that wrap up the narratives, etc. Hollywood found a formula with mass appeal and has largely stuck with it.” It seems that even though Hollywood’s censorship regulations have changed since the Production Code era, America’s tastes have not.

The MPAA Rating System

General (G): All ages admitted.

Parental Guidance (PG): Parents are cautioned that these films contain mild violence or brief nudity.
PG-13: Children under 13 years old are not to be admitted unaccompanied by an adult.
Restricted (R): Children under 17 can only enter the theatre with an accompanying adult. NC-17: No one under 17 is admitted to the theatre. Until 1990, the NC-17 rating didn’t exist, and films like A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris were rated “X”. The first X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar was Midnight Cowboy (1969).


Censorship in the cinema .

In the mid-20th century American movies were regulated by a group of censors. Hollywood’s most famous movies, like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Citizen Kane followed the Hollywood Production Code. This Code told what Hollywood films could and could not do. For example, actors could not swear or share long kisses.

The Code was a list of specific rules. Movies could not contain profanity or nudity. Criminals always had to be punished. Adultery couldn’t look appealing and there could be no graphic violence, among others.

With the strict enforcement of the Code, some movies were ruined. But not all filmmakers followed the Code exactly. Some of them used innuendo to imply things they were not supposed to show, for example when Hitchcock used the image of a train entering a tunnel to suggest sex.

By the 1960s, American society started to change and become less strict. Religious groups did not have as much influence as before and the Code started to lose its power. But the damage was done; today many movies still follow a similar formula to that established by the Code.



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Censorship in the cinema



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Hollywood Code


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