more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

The Whys and Wherefores of Hollywood’s Production Code

NOTE: I know, I know, still no film challenge.  But for those of you who are a little hazy on the Production Code, I present this very long and pedantic essay that I wrote a while ago.  I’m even going to include pictures, because I’m just that nice. 


Long before the institution of the ratings system in 1968, American films adhered to a Production Code aimed to ensure that each movie to come out of Hollywood adhered to a high moral standard.  It forbade bad language, sympathetic portrayals of criminals, non-marital sex, slights on religion, and a world of other sins.  In a word, the Code, first written in 1930 and strictly enforced from July 1934 through the 1960s, was censorship.  And yet the censorship was not imposed by the American government.  The government never even seriously threatened to impose censorship – so why did Hollywood opt to censor itself?  Many factors led to the creation and institution of this “remarkably durable document,” as Jerold Simmons calls it (76), spanning politics, religion, commerce, and art.

When motion picture cameras and projectors were first invented in the late nineteenth century, the world was intrigued.  Here was a technological innovation that, for the first time in human history, could capture real life in real time.  Other art forms have evolved slowly over the centuries, but cinema seemed to mutate instantly from a scientific experiment into a sophisticated medium of storytelling – one with mass appeal.  It metamorphosed from a curiosity into a full-fledged obsession, and it dominated the public’s consciousness.  As a unique blend of art, commerce, and technology, it has always been a constant source of fascination and consternation.  Everyone from the wealthy to the dirt-poor flocked to see light and shadow flickering on a screen.  Stephen Vaughn expresses it most succinctly: “As a democratic art form accessible to the masses, motion pictures quickly generated both enthusiasm and alarm.  Their attraction seemed irresistible” (40).  Early films like The Kiss (1896) and The Great Train Robbery (1903) instigated such equal parts of enthusiasm and alarm: while some were enthralled by the sight of two people kissing greedily, or by a cowboy firing his gun directly at the camera, others were scandalised and deeply upset.  For all the myriad reactions to all the myriad early films, however, boredom was never among them.  Cinema was indeed irresistible.

The years leading up to World War I saw American film production centre itself in Hollywood, California – a perennially sunny paradise that quickly grew from a sleepy farmers’ community into the Garden of Earthly Delights.  As Thomas Doherty explains, focusing “on film culture and studio commerce – looking at the means of art and the means of production, the ‘show’ and the ‘business’ of moviemaking – remains the best way of understanding the hybrid medium” (4).  Studios began to form, all with their own actors, directors, and styles.  Lavishly decorated movie palaces sprung up in major cities across the United States, filled with rows of plush seats.  Actors became stars – not mere performers of fiction onscreen, but the subjects of intense fascination in “real” and reel life.  During the post-War period, Hollywood became as notorious for its wild parties as for its wildly risqué films.  It was the beginning of the Jazz Age, and Hollywood liked it hot.  In Doherty’s words, “Though other media were more sexually explicit and politically incendiary, the domain of American cinema was panoramic and resonant, accessible to all, resisted by few” (319).

By 1922 – barely thirty years old – the film industry’s Roaring Twenties had led to an uproar in America.  Controversial movies shocked as many viewers as they thrilled.  As Stephen Vaughn explains, “As early as 1907, the city of Chicago established a board to control movies, and by 1922 seven states had similar censorship bodies” (42).  Rumours and scandals about the stars, too, further inflamed the general sense that Hollywood was a den of iniquity.  Mabel Normand, an early screen comedienne, was widely reported to be a drunk and a drug user.  Charlie Chaplin married a 16-year-old in 1918, and separated from her a year later.  Mary Pickford divorced her husband to marry Douglas Fairbanks, with whom she’d semi-secretly been having an affair.  Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was presumed guilty, in the press and the court of public opinion, of rape and manslaughter in 1921.  In short, Hollywood had an image problem on its hands, and so the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was formed.  With a salary of $100,000 per year, Will H. Hays was appointed president.  He was, studio heads hoped, conservative enough to quell moralists’ objections to movies and the industry.  Indeed, compared with Hollywood executives and filmmakers – who were predominantly from the East Coast, or Europe, or Jewish, or some blend of the three – he was reassuringly all-American: Indiana-born and bred, Republican, Presbyterian, and seemingly beyond reproach.  He had managed Warren G. Harding’s presidential campaign in 1920, and was appointed Postmaster General after Harding won.  In his role as president of the MPPDA, he was, in essence, a publicist: the MPPDA was “established to convince a skeptical public that the industry was serious about self-regulation […and it was] also a public relations agency whose goal was to put the best face possible on Hollywood” (Vaughn 43).  As a clean-shaven, kindly spokesman, Hays’s was just that smiling face: the first line of defence against vociferous protests.


In Thomas Doherty’s words, “Especially after World War I, when Hollywood began spinning out whole film cycles devoted to the sins of wild youth, dancing daughters, straying wives, and dark seducers, the moral guardians tried their damnedest to break up the parade of wastrels marching in the vanguard of the Jazz Age assault on Victorian values” (6).  After five years of hearing the moral guardians’ complaints, Hays wrote a list of instructions for the making of morally acceptable films.  1927’s “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” was a kind of Ten (thirty-six, to be exact) Commandments for Hollywood: no foul language, no crime going unpunished, no nudity, no drinking.  No fun, as far as Hollywood was concerned.  Hays was genuinely concerned with “the effect which a too-detailed description of these [acts] may have upon the moron,” as he put it.  Filmmakers, however, opted to make the movies they wanted to make; morons could fend for themselves.  The late 1920s continued to showcase flappers, criminals, and wild nights with gleeful abandon.


1927 was a watershed year for film for another, far more revolutionary reason: sound.  Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer – in which Al Jolson promised, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” The movie was a huge success, and at its typically breakneck speed, Hollywood adapted to give the people what they wanted: talking pictures.  In Stephen Vaughn’s words, “sound enhanced the illusion of reality in film, making it even more attractive to audiences” (42).  Silent films, with their frenzied pantomimes and intertitles, were out.  Newspaper men, novelists, assorted members of the Algonquin Club, and other East Coast wordsmiths were all flown over to write snappy dialogue for the new all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing spectacles.

The advent of sound came at a tremendous cost to studios, not only in employing new talent.  They had to re-appoint their theatres to be able to play sound pictures.  It was no mean feat; for Warner Brothers and Fox, “equipping each movie theater with the new sound technology usually ranged from $7,000 to $15,000; and some estimates for the total conversion expense to the industry, which also included upgrading studios, ran as high as $500,000,000” (Vaughn 47).  Those numbers have not been adjusted for inflation: $7,000-$15,000 per theatre, and $500,000,000 grand total, were staggering amounts of money in the late 1920s.  Movie moguls were eager to make the change, but they had to rely even more heavily on New York banks for financing.  Hays wrote to Calvin Coolidge “that banks had assumed a critical position in studio affairs by financing productions and the purchase of new theaters.  In return, the bankers demanded security for their investments” (Vaughn 57).

Studio executives were perfectly willing to repay those investments and reap a profit for themselves, but the bottom fell out.  In October 1929, the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression swept across America shortly thereafter.  Due to the exorbitant costs of switching to sound, the film industry was acutely aware of the danger into which the Depression had thrown it.  The transition had been swift and expensive.  Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount, Universal, and all the other major studios were under pressure to return investments from their New York bankers, even without the Depression.  With the Depression factored in, the situation became grave.  The sudden onset of poverty across the land, combined with continued distaste for Hollywood extravagance in more conservative segments of the population, was a perfect storm.  Studios looked to the MPPDA, its public relations bureau, to ensure that attendance continued to remain at least at pre-Depression levels in movie theatres across the country.  It was in this economic, social, and artistic maelstrom that the Motion Picture Production Code was born and adopted.

Intended “to roll back the profligacy of the 1920s and set a reformed America again on the path of righteousness in the new, harsher decade” (Doherty 6), the Code was written by Father Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit priest from Missouri, and Martin Quigley – also Catholic, and the editor of the Motion Picture Herald.  Where Hays’s “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” were general instructions, the Code was a more comprehensive, more precise, far more ideologically influenced list of Commandments.   It “operated on two levels,” in Giulietta Muscio’s words: “on one level suppressing or repressing certain themes and situations; on the other, encouraging the adoption of ‘good taste,’ within a system of self-censorship that also had didactic functions” (108).  At its heart was the central tenet that, as a medium with an unparalleled reach into the minds and psyches of the general public, film should advocate the forces of Good rather than Evil at all times.  The Code’s introduction expresses its intentions:

Motion picture producers recognize the high trust and confidence which have been placed in them by the people of the world and which have made motion pictures a universal form of entertainment.

They recognize their responsibility to the public because of this trust and because entertainment and art are important influences in the life of a nation.

Hence, though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda, they know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.

Its general principles were encapsulated in three main points:

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

According to the Code, the cornerstones of a happy, meaningful life should always be the church, the family, and the government.  More than moral, the Code was “[deeply] Catholic in tone and outlook,” and was founded on the premise that “motion pictures demanded responsible handling from those who traffic in them and careful monitoring from those who shepherd the flock” (Doherty 7).  Hays, for his part, was delighted when he read the Code: it expressed exactly what he thought the movies should be.

In February 1930, several studio executives met with Lord and Quigley; by the end of the next month, the MPPDA officially adopted the Code.  However, this did not mean that filmmakers paid it much mind.  Indeed, from 1930 to the middle of 1934, few did.  In Doherty’s words, “the regulatory and oversight process was a rigged game: members of the MPPDA could appeal unfavorable decisions by Code administrators to the next level of executive authority, namely themselves.  By gentleman’s agreement, material that violated both the letter and spirit of the Code was granted a transit visa for theatrical release” (8).  Furthermore, the MPPDA seldom exerted much real force.  Jane Greene illustrates this in her discussion of The Smiling Lieutenant (1931).  First, a brief explanation of the plot: a lieutenant, Niki, is flirting with his girlfriend, Franzi, in public.  He intends to flash her a big, guess-what-I’m-thinking-about grin – but frumpy Princess Anna sees him and thinks the smile is for her.  Niki wants Franzi, and rejects Princess Anna.  However, Franzi realises that Princess Anna truly loves Niki.  On Franzi’s advice, Princess Anna “jazzes up her lingerie,” and everyone lives happily, sexily ever after.   Greene describes the MPPDA’s approach to the film:

Suggestive dialogue was handled in a similar fashion, as when Niki, who has been forced to marry dowdy Princess Anna, refuses to consummate the marriage.  In the script, Niki storms out of the bridal suite, proclaiming, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.  You can push a lieutenant into a wedding – but you can’t make him drink.” [Lamar] Trotti asked that the film-makers remove the second sentence but approved the first line, noting, “This is still risqué but the repetition of it with respect to marriage, etc. was what made it offensive, because it was pounding the fact [sic] that he hadn’t consummated his marriage.” This and other changes to the script were, as Trotti explained to Will Hays, “not eliminations – not ‘take this out’ – but constructive suggestions as to treatment which permits the basic idea by proper handling.” (58)

Since filmmakers could appeal – among themselves – the MPPDA’s attempts to make them adhere to the Code, and since the MPPDA tended to offer gentle suggestions rather than harsh commands, the early 1930s were a time of reckless abandon.


The one-two punch of sound and the Depression led to perhaps the most wildly surreal period in cinematic history.  America’s sense of itself had turned topsy-turvy, and this was reflected – or, perhaps, refracted – onscreen.  Thomas Doherty explains the mood quite clearly:

Whereas the challenges of the Second World War affirmed and reinvigorated American values, the ordeal of the Great Depression cruelly denied them.  The myths of rugged individualism, upward mobility, material progress, frontier opportunities, and American exceptionalism, canons of the national faith since John Winthrop envisioned his gleaming City on a Hill in Puritan New England, wilted before a wasted landscape of breadlines and Hoovervilles, forgotten men and fallen women. (16)

Movies produced between 1930 and 1934, in direct violation of the Code, often showcased every possible sin.  With the world as dire as it was during the earliest, worst years of the Depression, what was there to lose?  In films like Baby Face (1933), “predatory trollops went horizontal for upward mobility” (Doherty 54).  Busby Berkeley spectaculars like Footlight Parade (1933) included opium dens (as well as Ruby Keeler in yellowface, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt – all in the same number).  Sparkling Ernst Lubitsch comedies like Trouble in Paradise (1932) portrayed theft as a victimless crime, perpetrated by sophisticated and attractive crooks – who happened to find a successful heist the strongest aphrodisiac.  Dramas like The Divorcee (1930) starred Norma Shearer as a woman who learns of her husband’s infidelity, and leaves him for her former lover, nights out on the town, and great sex.  Horror films like Freaks (1932) were complex examinations of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man – particularly when that fellow man is featured in a circus sideshow.  In short, it was a wild ride – and the increasingly vocal moral guardians of the United States were furious.


As previously mentioned, individual states had formed their own censorship boards for many years.  Different states had different taboos, and this meant that a given film could be edited and censored in forty-eight entirely different ways within the U.S. alone.  During the silent era, this was a somewhat of a nuisance, but not too burdensome.  Sound changed everything.  In the early days of sound, there were two systems battling for dominance: Vitaphone, which involved playing a record in sync with the film; and Movietone, which included the soundtrack in the actual material of the film.  Since the sound-on-film method was a superior guarantor of synchronicity, it became the standard.  However, as Ruth Vasey explains, “the flexibility of the silent medium allowed aspects of meaning and nuance to be adjusted for specific audiences during distribution, or even at the point of exhibition. […] The difficulty that faced the industry when sound was introduced was that the flexibility of the medium was significantly reduced” (10). This inflexibility stemmed in part from the new marriage of sound and image, but also from the fact that “synchronous sound made cuts on the film very impractical and costly” (Muscio 110).  As a hypothetical example: if Oregon’s state censorship board cut out fifteen minutes’ worth of film from She Done Him Wrong (1933), that meant throwing away hundreds of dollars.  On a large scale – different states, different cuts, different films – the figures would have been shocking.  Because studios had banks insisting on returns for their investments, it was a very bad time for Hollywood to lose so much money in such a way.

At this point, it may seem reasonable to ask why such censorship was permitted in America – the land of the Constitution and the right to free speech.  While individuals and other media institutions were protected by the First Amendment, it was not so for Hollywood.  The Supreme Court had determined in 1915, in the case Mutual Film Corporation vs. Industrial Commission of Ohio, that movies were not part of the press.  In his decision, Justice Joseph McKenna wrote, “The exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit like other spectacles, and not to be regarded as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion within the meaning of freedom of speech and publication guaranteed by the Constitution of Ohio” (236).  Not only could state censorship boards re-splice films that they deemed inappropriate, the door was open for the federal government to do the same.  The fact of state censorship boards was expensive and annoying; the prospect of governmental control was frightening.  Stephen Vaughn outlines some of the MPPDA’s concerns in the late 1920s and early 1930s:

[…The] MPPDA’s general counsel, Charles C. Pettijohn […] estimated that most of the forty-three state legislatures meeting in 1930 would consider film censorship bills.  At the national level, the Brookhart bill, proposed by Sen. Smith Brookhart of Iowa in February 1928, threatened to outlaw block booking. Although the Brookhart bill never passed, producers could not rest easy; President Herbert Hoover and the Justice Department, alarmed by the growing power of the large studios, contemplated antitrust action against the movie industry. (45)

The threat of antitrust action did eventually come to fruition.  The federal government had been increasingly concerned, throughout the 1920s, that Hollywood studios controlled too much of everything: they made the movies, they distributed the movies, and they exhibited the movies.  Their structure was quite rigidly vertical, and ensured that smaller exhibitors, distributors, and producers didn’t stand a chance.  It was not until 1938 that the government filed suit, and not until 1948 that the case was officially decided – in the government’s favour.  The rumblings had started in the 1920s, however, and grew louder in the 1930s.  Increasingly, they included the menace of federal censorship.  As expressed in a Variety headline from 1932 – “Congress Has 11 Legislative Film Bills Including Usual Nut Stuff” (Doherty 324) – industry insiders took moralistic senators’ proposed legislation with a grain of salt.  Yet the tide had turned decisively toward government intervention in all aspects of American life: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal put millions back to work through government-funded projects, but it meant that Washington’s power and influence was greater than it had ever been at any other point in American history.  Giulietta Muscio cites studies “comparing the New Deal with German nazism [sic] and Italian fascism […which] emphasized that the three nations, facing similar deep socioeconomic crises, developed similar internal strategies of social organization” (9).  For Hollywood between 1930 and 1934, these government pressures created immense tension.  There was more bad news to come.

Not all film protesters were religious, but religious film protesters were among the most eloquent and best organised.  Father Lord and Martin Quigley had submitted the Code for Hollywood’s betterment, and Hollywood seemed to have laughed it off.  In 1933, three years after the Code was supposed to have been in place, Catholics mobilised.  The Catholic Legion of Decency was formed.  On joining the Legion, members pledged the following:

I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and un-wholesome moving pictures.  I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country, and to religion.

I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land.

I shall do all that I can to arouse public opinion against the portrayal of vice as a normal condition of affairs, and against depicting criminals of any class as heroes and heroines, presenting their filthy philosophy of life as something acceptable to decent men and women.

I unite with all who condemn the display of suggestive advertisements on billboards at theater entrances and the favorable notices given to immoral motion pictures.

Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.  I promise further to secure as many members as possible for the Legion of Decency.

I make this protest in a spirit of self-respect and with the conviction that the American public does not demand filthy pictures, but clean entertainment and educational features. (Doherty 321)

This may have been more “nut stuff,” but this nut stuff was aimed directly at studios’ bank accounts.  The Legion threatened to boycott all movies – not just the ones featuring “sex mania.”  The stakes were high for Catholics, too: Cardinal Denis Dougherty told his Philadelphia parish that his decree to forego the movies altogether was “not merely a counsel, but a positive command binding all in conscience under pain of sin” (Doherty 321).

Other religious groups organised against Hollywood, too.  Jewish groups were extremely concerned by anti-Semitism, the flames of which were fanned by the widespread perception that Jews were in charge of the film industry.  Joseph Breen, who will be a subject of more discussion presently, wrote privately, “They are simply a rotten bunch of vile people with no respect for anything beyond the making of money. . . . Here we have Paganism rampant and in its most virulent form. . . . These Jews seem to think of nothing but money making and sexual indulgence. . . . They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth” (Vaughn 62-63).  Eager to stamp out any such thoughts in the American psyche, Jewish activist groups were only too happy to unite with Christians against Hollywood.  Studio executives – as well as their bankers – took these threats and actions very seriously.  By June 1934, the Legion of Decency’s membership was 2,000,000.  Box office profits were “hemorrhaging in the Catholic strongholds in the big cities” (Doherty 59), and the possibility of Roosevelt introducing “an alphabet agency especially for Hollywood” (Doherty 59) meant that the vertically structured film industry was perilously close to the tipping point.

Hollywood acted.  The MPPDA added an amendment to the Code, creating the Production Code Administration (PCA).  Beginning on 1 July 1934, all films from all studios needed to receive the PCA’s seal of approval if they were to be exhibited.  Gregory Black explains that, in order to ensure the PCA’s “enforcement powers, the agreement forced every studio to submit scripts to the PCA before production. […No] production would begin without script approval and […] no film would be distributed without a PCA seal of approval. The MPPDA was given power to levy a $25,000 fine against any violator” (125).  Considering its multitudinous financial concerns, Hollywood was not especially keen to incur additional costs – even if they were, in some sense, self-imposed.


The PCA’s head was Joseph Breen, previously mentioned.  He had been in the MPPDA for years, frustrated by its apparent impotency.  A devout Catholic (as well as a vicious anti-Semite), he accepted his new role as enforcer with considerable relish.  In a 1934 newsreel, he explained the Production Code as it would be applied from that point forward:

Its broad general purpose is to insure screen entertainment which will be reasonably acceptable to our patrons everywhere – entertainment which is definitely free from offense.  Now, of course, this does not mean that we are to impose upon you any unreasonable restrictions in the development of the art which is the motion picture.  This does not mean that motion pictures are not to deal with live and vital subjects, stories based upon drama which is vigorous and stimulating as well as entertaining.  Neither does it mean that we are to make pictures only for children. …But it does mean quite definitely that the vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is out!  There is no room on the screen at any time for pictures which offend against common decency – and these the industry will not allow. (Doherty 328)

As Ruth Vasey correctly notes, “Even within the domestic American market there was no typical audience” (4) – but this did not prevent the enforcement of the Code and its assumptions of “common decency.” Under Joseph Breen, “the Code, so long a paper tiger, acquired teeth” (Doherty 9).  Breen was dogged in his execution of the Code.  He wrote “a new definition of ‘moral compensating values’ for the movies […].  Every film […] must now contain ‘sufficient good’ to compensate for any evil that might be depicted” (Black 23).  He was no provider of gentle suggestions: he read scripts, and considered both the letter and the spirit of what was on the page.  From 1930 to 1934, films had easily gotten away with implying what they could not show onscreen: non-marital sex, nudity, abortion, and crime paying off.  After Breen ascended to head the PCA, there was a new Hollywood order.  In Thomas Doherty’s terms, the PCA “policed the diegesis”:

Adhering to the catechism’s injunction that sin resided in three places (“thought, word, and deed”), the genius of Hollywood’s system of censorship lay in the sophisticated critical scrutiny accorded not only what was seen, said and meant onscreen but what was apprehended from offscreen as well.  True dream police, the Code censors extended their surveillance beyond the visible world and into the space of the spectator’s mind. (11)

As one example of many, Paramount wanted to re-release The Smiling Lieutenant in 1936.  When the studio requested the PCA’s seal of approval, the PCA responded thus: “There is so much in this picture that is in violation of the Production Code as now administrated that we suggest you consider the withdrawal of your application for a Code Certificate of Approval” (Greene 58-59).  If a film dared suggest that love and marriage were anything but deadly serious, and the bedrocks of social and religious life, it would not receive Joseph Breen’s blessing.  The Smiling Lieutenant and other light-hearted romps through amorality were things of the past.  Stars like Mae West were somewhat de-clawed in the post-Code era; in I’m No Angel (1933), she purred, “When I’m good, I’m very good – but when I’m bad, I’m better.”  In Klondike Annie (1936), she sang, “I’m an Occidental woman in an Oriental mood.”  Surely it suggests something, but that something could very easily be a desire for Kung Pao chicken.

Annex - West, Mae (Go West Young Man)_01

Jane Greene explains that “this puritanical atmosphere gave birth to a new cycle of romantic comedy, the screwball comedy; the antagonistic nature of the romantic relationship and emphasis on physical humor is generally seen as a result of the suppression of explicit sexuality under the PCA” (56).  In addition to the privileging of screwball humour, the PCA “preferred stories that treated domestic problems seriously, particularly if they included a lesson about the sanctity and beauty of marriage.  Moreover […it reinforced] conservative ideologies; if a character (male or female) entertains any progressive ideas, these are ultimately dismissed as frivolous and empty” (Greene 65-66).

In Complicated Women, a book published in 2001 by Mick LaSalle, and then produced as a television documentary in 2003, this outright dismissal of progressive ideas as it applied to women is examined in depth.  From 1930 to 1934, women in movies were often powerful and independent.  Greta Garbo’s Queen Christina (1933) featured her in drag, calling herself a “bachelor,” enjoying a deeply romantic and erotic relationship with a Spaniard, and abdicating the throne to sail away from Sweden – alone.  Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933) starred Kay Francis as a doctor who saves a choking child’s life by using one of her hairpins to dislodge the food caught in the throat; after the child is safe, she smirks as she wonders how a man would have fared in such a situation.  In Female (1933), Ruth Chatterton plays the president of a large, successful automobile factory – and she sleeps with her male workers as she pleases.  After the enforcement of the Code, however, such autonomy for women was gone.  As LaSalle says in the documentary, “All the women in Hollywood got their virginity back, and if they lost it again, they were in big trouble.” It was more than a question of suppressed sexuality for women.  After July 1934, they had to be subservient little women – or else.  Ann Harding was a popular and highly praised actress during the early 1930s.  She often played intelligent, ambitious, determined women.  In 1935, after the PCA was in power, she starred in The Flame Within as a dedicated psychiatrist.  She saves a suicidal woman from jumping off a ledge and cures a man of his alcoholism.  A medical doctor falls in love with her, and insists that she must give up her practice to be with him.  In a screeching reversal of everything the more progressive viewer might have hoped for, she agrees to give up her practice and be his devoted little wife.  As LaSalle says in the documentary, Harding plays the final scene as the pinnacle of “soul death” – even though it is intended to be a happy ending.  For years, women in Hollywood films were particularly subject to the Code’s insistence on family.  They were supposed to want marriage above all – personal pride, career advancement, happiness, or anything else.  Had the Code not been as stringently enforced as it was, had it not insisted so stubbornly on family as the ultimate source of meaning and fulfillment, who can say what might have happened for women’s rights in America?

Regardless of what might have been, what actually happened was Hollywood’s Golden Age, in earnest.  While the concept of “classical Hollywood cinema” often extends vaguely as far back as the 1920s, it was after mid-1934 that the Golden Age truly began.  Thomas Doherty explains the decades after July 1934:

For the next thirty years, cinematic space was a patrolled landscape with secure perimeters and well-defined borders. […] Hollywood’s in-house policy of self-censorship set the boundaries for what could be seen, heard, even implied on screen.  Not until the mid-1950s did cracks appear in the structure and not until 1968, when the motion picture industry adopted its alphabet ratings system, did the Code edifice finally come crumbling down.

Hollywood’s vaunted “golden age” began with the Code and ended with its demise. (1)

The discussion of the Code up to this point has made it sound like a very narrow-minded document indeed, but the post-Code period bore many indisputable cinematic treasures: all but one Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film; Garbo laughing in Ninotchka (1939); the trio of Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant gems; pointed critiques of government and society in The Grapes of Wrath (1940); Orson Welles’s game-changing Citizen Kane (1941); the universally adored Casablanca (1942); Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the cartoon mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945); every Alfred Hitchcock movie, from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) through Marnie (1964).  The landscape was not quite so grim as one might expect from the Code’s contents and its ruthless administration.

It is clear why Hollywood voluntarily accepted self-censorship.  Given the combination of mounting pressure from religious leaders, threats of boycotts, censorship boards in individual states, ominous murmurs from Washington to enact censorship on a federal level, and the crucial financial concerns imposed on the industry by the switch to sound – followed immediately by the Great Depression – Hollywood needed to find a way to keep as many people happy as possible.  Ruth Vasey cites the banks as the greatest cause of pressure: “To the New York executives, unimpeded distribution was a necessary condition for profit maximization, while West Coast producers were inclined to think that any attempt to ‘pasteurize’ their products was inimical to the creative side of the industry” (5).  Studio executives, however, were much more willing to make their talent unhappy than they were willing to make their creditors.  Ann Harding could telegraph soul death all she wanted; as long as people came to the movies in droves, studios cared not a jot.

And people did come to the movies in droves after the Code was enforced.  By the end of 1934, there had been an “astonishing financial rebound of the motion picture industry […] the beginning of a rising arc of prosperity that Hollywood enjoyed until television ended the sweet ride in the late 1940s” (Doherty 336).  Was it due to the PCA, green-lighting only films that would be guaranteed to appeal to the widest possible audience – grandparents, grandchildren, and everyone in between?  Was it due to the passing of the worst years of the Depression?  Perhaps they both played a role in Hollywood’s resurgent box office numbers.  On top of the improved attendance, studios were finally saving money again.  Doherty explains that “the Code saved Hollywood huge sums on the editing and distribution of prints.  Postproduction alterations demanded by the myriad of state and local censorship boards – groups with varying, shifting, and conflicting standards – cost plenty in money, hassle, and good will.” (334-335).  It was far easier to compromise, and to let filmmakers figure out new ways to make interesting films.  Giulietta Muscio depicts it almost as a game:

As one of Hays’s lines synthesizes: “When you show a woman crossing her legs in a film, you don’t have to show how far up she can cross them and still be acceptable to the law, but rather how little she manages to lift them and still be ‘interesting’.” This was the challenge: to play with the limits, constructing a metaphoric system that allowed film production the stimulating ingredients Hollywood had always used, but dosed more rigorously, according to precise recipes and with the availability of conventional substitutes. (113)

While the PCA under Joseph Breen forced Hollywood movies to adhere to a strict moral code, Hollywood had no choice other than regulating itself.  Martin Quigley sniffed in 1956,

Nothing seems to bother the critics more than the Code’s assent to the thesis that freedom of whatever kind in a good society is necessarily subject to certain limitations and restrictions; that freedom of expression is by no means an exception to this rule; and, most certainly, not in the case of motion pictures, which cater to persons of all ages and social groups. (632)

Without the ratings system, studios were obliged to make universally appealing – even populist – movies if they wished to remain financially solvent.  This, perhaps, is the secret to Hollywood’s Golden Age: thematically, they may be rather rigidly moralistic; but in all other aspects, they have mass appeal.  They didn’t challenge viewers the way some films of the 1930-1934 era did.  They were eager to be liked, eager to earn the public’s dollar.  For all the ideological issues with the Production Code itself, who can find fault in several decades’ worth of irresistible cinema?


Works Cited

Black, Gregory.  The Catholic Crusade against the Movies, 1940-1975.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

—. “Hollywood Censored: The Production Code Administration and the Hollywood Film Industry, 1930-1940.” Film History (1989): 167-189.

Complicated Women. Dir. Hugh Munro Neely.  Turner Classic Movies, 2003.

Doherty, Thomas. “A Code is Born.” Reason (2008): 54-60.

—.  Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Greene, Jane M. “Hollywood’s Production Code and Thirties Romantic Comedy.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television (2010): 55-73.

Hays, Will H. “Don’ts and Be Carefuls.” First published in 1927.  Retrieved from

LaSalle, Mick.  Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

Lord, Daniel A. and Quigley, Martin. “A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures.” First published in March, 1930.  Retrieved from

McKenna, Joseph. “Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Comm’n of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230.” First published in 1915.  Retrieved from

Muscio, Giulietta.  Hollywood’s New Deal.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

Quigley, Martin. “The Motion-Picture Production Code.” America (1956): 630-632.

Simmons, Jerold. “The production code and the profanity amendment of 1954.” Journal of Popular Film & Television (1997): 76-82.

Vasey, Ruth.  The World According to Hollywood, 1918-1939.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Vaughn, Stephen. “Morality and Entertainment: The Origins of the Motion Picture Production Code.” Journal of American History (1990): 39-65.


Baby Face. Dir. Alfred E. Green.  Warner Bros., 1933.

Divorcee, The. Dir. Robert Z. Leonard.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1930.

Female. Dir. Michael Curtiz.  Warner Bros., 1933.

Flame Within, The. Dir. Edmund Goulding.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1935.

Footlight Parade. Dir. Lloyd Bacon.  Warner Bros., 1933.

Freaks. Dir. Tod Browning.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932.

I’m No Angel. Dir. Wesley Ruggles.  Paramount Pictures, 1933.

Klondike Annie. Dir. Raoul Walsh.  Paramount Pictures, 1936.

Mary Stevens, M.D. Dir. Lloyd Bacon.  Warner Bros., 1933.

Queen Christina. Dir. Rouben Mamoulian.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1933.

Smiling Lieutenant, The. Dir. Ernst Lubitsch.  Paramount Pictures, 1931.

Trouble in Paradise. Dir. Ernst Lubitsch.  Paramount Pictures, 1932.


2 comments on “The Whys and Wherefores of Hollywood’s Production Code

  1. Pingback: 250 Film Challenge: Rain (Pre-Code 12/50) | more stars than in the heavens

  2. Pingback: The Ur-Rom Com and the Walls of Jericho | more stars than in the heavens

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