Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Code of Codes

While trying to stop exploring TV Tropes (seriously, that site is addictive; click that link at your own peril) I was surprised to learn about an enforced morality system on films called the Hays Code. Okay, maybe not that surprised.

In summary, the code was a moral standard that films were encouraged to follow. And by encouraged, I mean told to or else they wouldn’t get the almighty Hays seal of approval and be blacklisted from movie theatres all over the country. You know. Kind of like the MPAA does today.

Too. Many. Eff Words!

Anyway, in a great bit of 1930s logic, it was believed the best alternative to government censorship was censorship by the film makers themselves. Granted, movies were still stumbling through pre-adolescence, but the fact that the United States Supreme Court ruled that movies were non-protected speechis shocking. But back then, movies were considered to be pure entertainment for profit, and entertainment was not considered worthy of free speech.

Kind of horrifying, isn’t it? Look at these rules which American studios willingly enforced:

General Principles

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.

Ouch. And these don’t get into details, where nothing “suggestive” of sex could be shown, you couldn’t even say S.O.B. and white slavery was never permitted on screen. I don’t know why they qualified that but yes I do because they also said no sex relationships between black people and white people. Yeah. Racism. Also, no evil clergy, no indecent dancing, no childbirth, and nothing remotely positive about something illegal.

Can you imagine trying to write a good movie following these laws? I’m not saying that everything has to be grim and glum, especially for grim and glum’s sake, but sometimes that’s what life is. Yet these rules were upheld for over two decades, until the Supreme Court finally updated their decision in 1952. Although the Code stayed in affect for another sixteen years, American studios finally started breaking the rules, no doubt because European studios didn’t have to follow the rules and were kicking their butts with realistic, relatable films.

I for one am glad it’s gone.


  1. And yet, many good movies were made during that time. (I'm a bit of an old movie buff.) The code was limiting, yes. And I don't agree with it. But sometimes amazing things can be created in the confines of such a system.

  2. Agreed with Liz, though I'm no old film buff. It's amazing what can be done within such constraints. Still, it's good that we're in a much freer place with movie-making nowadays!

  3. And yet the MPAA today remains just as much of a pain in the butt...

    Bully, which kids should see, gets rated R for some language.

    Hunger Games, by contrast, which features kids killing each other, manages to get a PG rating....


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