During the '30s: From books to film

The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 laid out in detail the general principles of moviemakers and the standards by which they should operate. The new code was considered “an outgrowth of severe criticism by prominent churchmen, who charge that the moral character of audiences is being undermined by the sort of action they see on the screen” (NYT 4/1/1930). Studio heads verbally agreed to adhere when it was established, but movies of the time reflect a loose interpretation of the Code. This lax approach worried Will Hays, president of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of American, who eventually hired Joseph I Breen to lead the crusade to clean up Hollywood in the mid-1930s by heading the Production Code Administration.

Known widely as the Hays Office, the PCA began in July 1934 to initiate methodical regulation of the content of motion pictures. Just by glancing over The Film Daily's annual Ten Best list it is easy to see that the Code had not been enforced prior to Breen: “The Divorcee,” “Hell's Angels,” “Bad Girl,” “A Bill of Divorcement,” “Scarface,” and “She Done Him Wrong” all grace the list. Moved by grumblings from Americans concerned with the “gunplay of James Cagney and … wordplay of Mae West,” the PCA moved to reverse contemporary thought that “the Hays moral code is not even a joke any more; it's just a memory” (Doherty 8). The code lays out three basic principles:

1. Every effort shall be made to reflect in drama and entertainment the better standards of life.
2. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed.
3. Sympathy shall not be created for the violation of the law.

For a full-text version of the code, click here.