The Hays Code: Hollywood's Golden Age's Hard Rules, Explained

By | March 28, 2020

If you pull up most American movies from the 1930s and '40s, you'll find that they're sweet to the point of cavity-inducing, with a hardened spine of morality that seems to be made of steel. That's because the films of the day were policed by a production code that required films to be "wholesome" and "moral" to keep the innocence of the American viewing public intact. The Motion Picture Production Code, known as the "Hays Code" after Will Hays but decided upon by a collective of studio heads, shaped filmmaking more than anything else between the 1930s and 1960s. 

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Getting Middle America Off Their Backs

The talkies of the 20th century weren't exactly bubbling over with sex and violence—at least, not the kind that would faze you or I—but the moral naysayers across America took umbrage at the sight of a bared midriff or a gangster getting cracked over the melon with a handle of scotch. In the 1920s, state censorship boards started cutting movies how they saw fit, so if one state was anti-smoking, they trimmed every scene with a cigarette. The same film played in another state in all its smoky glory. This style of censorship not only changed the narrative and tone of a film, it greatly affected the profits of Hollywood studios.

Rather than ask the federal government to create a national censorship board—a decision that would basically hand over editorial control to Washington—Tinsel Town executives came up with their own code. This list of 36 self-imposed "don'ts and be carefuls” was enforced by Hollywood while former Postmaster General Will Hays oversaw the PR for the self-censorship gamble.

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The Hays Code

When the Code was announced, Hays declared it a high set of standards that producers needed to uphold. He said that if films wanted to be considered a "universal form of entertainment," they needed to go forward with "good taste and community value." The copy on the code stated that "no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin." A few of the specific rules laid out in the Code were that:

Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation.
Arson must be subject to the same safeguards.
Methods of smuggling should not be presented.
Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures are not to be shown.
Miscegenation (sex relationship between the white and black races) is forbidden.
On top of those very important rules, there were rules and restrictions on:
  • Nudity
  • Suggestive dancing
  • Discussions of sexual perversity
  • Nudity
  • Superfluous use of liquor
  • Ridicule of religion
  • Scenes of passion