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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Film Censorship: Hays and Breen

What would Will Hays think if he was alive today and saw the nudity in films along with the dreaded “F” word used so frequently? Since he was brought in by the MPAA to “tone down” the action on the screen it was assumed he was a hardnosed guy. Actually, he was pretty mild mannered having worked in the Harding administration as the Postmaster General before Hollywood called in 1922.

Hays took the job and set some informal guidelines for the studios to follow. By 1927, he formalized the rules and, although he meant well, they were largely ignored. The studios liked the 48 year old ex-Postmaster because he kept the government off their backs, but 1927 was the Jazz Age so who wanted rules?

With sound taking over movies in 1930, it became apparent that stronger censorship was needed. On March 31, 1930, the Production Code (Hays Code) was adopted and as had been the case with the original Hays Code, was ignored. By 1934 the Catholic Legion of Decency was established with the goal of strictly enforcing the code. Also, the Production Code Administration was established in July, 1934 as a response to the lewd movie fare of the early 1930s. A tough character named Joseph Breen was named as its director and was very literal in his enforcement.

Will Hays: Mild mannered censor from Indiana

The era of 1930-1934 was known as the “pre-code era” because, even though a code existed, it was not followed. Take a look at films from the pre-code times and compare them to 1934 and afterwards when Breen took over. There were no more shots of a scantily dressed Fay Wray or thinly veiled nipples as in “Gold Diggers of 1933”.

A couple of Breen’s encounters were “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934) where he deleted a nude underwater scene involving a stand-in for Maureen O’Sullivan. Later, Breen battled with Howard Hughes in 1941 over whether there was too much use of Jane Russell’s breasts for promos of “The Outlaw”. The discussions went on so long that the film wasn’t released until 1943.

Joseph Breen of the Catholic Legion of Decency

Some of the rules enforced by the Production Code seem tame by today’s standards. Of course, nudity and profanity were not allowed and screen kisses had to be close mouthed and limited to six seconds. When two people embraced, one of them had to have his or her foot on the floor. Words like “broad”, “pregnant”, and “hold your hat” were not permitted. Hold your hat?) Also, seduction could not be used as a form of comedy.
This mentality lasted well into the 1960s.

Because of changes in attitudes, an influx of foreign films which clearly violated the Hays Code, and various social movements, the Code was disbanded in 1967 and replaced by the MPAA’s own rating system. Hays died in 1954 at age 74. He never got to see his Code replaced.

1930-1934 was an interesting period and besides being known as the “pre-code era” is sometimes called the era of “sound and sexuality”.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think "Hold your hat" means something like "Don't get too excited" and the implication is that you should keep your hat (which in those days everyone had with them) on your lap when you were sitting down, to hide your excitation. Thus, it's sexual.

Jim McAllister said...

That's makes sense. Thanks!