A New Gangster: Censorship and the Hayes Office

Before 1934, the Hays Office's Production Code of 1930 acted as checks on the graphic nature of gangster movies. The Production Code of 1930 was issued partly in response to the growing popularity of violent gangster films. Its first provisions dealt with the depiction of criminal activities, banning explicit violence and "imitable" depictions of crimes such as theft or arson.

The Production Code was applied within the industry, and without any external checks - and with the public's desire for violent gang action - a blind eye was turned to many violations of the code. In order to soften criticism, studios would alter otherwise violent gangster movies with obvious "Crime Does Not Pay" messages. Prologues were added as well as scenes featuring disgusted and angry citizens and policemen. Of course, the gangster hero was always delivered into the hands of justice at the end of the film, either through death or through arrest. Yet the industry often ignored the recommendations of censorship boards - and the sacrifice of the gangster on the altar of the law was not enough for censorship advocates. "Glamorous emphasis on gangsters…can wholly alter the effect of a theoretically moral theme of crime and punishment," argued one Christian crusader. (commonweal)

By 1934, outrage against the perceived vulgarity of gangster movies had reached a boiling point. The ultra-violent (for the time) Scarface had been pulled from release, and two years ago Senator Wildman Brookhart of Iowa had introduced a resolution towards tighter censorship of film. Gangster films were widely blamed for encouraging "copycat" crimes. A 1933 article in The Literary Digest compared the effects of film violence on children as comparable to "shell shock such as solider received in war." (lit digest p. 16)

In April 1934, the Catholic Legion of Decency started a campaign against "vile" motion pictures. Protestors swore a pledge to "do all that I can to arouse public opinion against...depicting criminals of any class as heroes and heroines..." (born to lost, 220) Lists of condemned films were compiled, theaters were picketed, and school children marched carrying anti-smut banners. Protestant and Jewish leaders joined Catholics in their crusade against violence on film. The popular press joined in as well, with William Randolph Hearst editorializing that "when an American husband takes his family to the theater he ought to be certain that he is not taking them to a house of ill-fame." (The Nation)

In the face of such protest, producers agreed not to release or distribute a picture that had not earned a certificate of approval. Certificates were to be awarded by a tougher Hays office according to the standards of the Production Code of 1930. Catholic activist Joseph Breen would head the Hays Office. Producers who snuck an unapproved film into theaters would be slapped with a $25,000 fine. The industry avoided government intervention - but although moviemakers still attempted to evade the Production Code whenever possible, they were more careful about offending the censors.

Movie lovers and the intelligentsia proved a minority opposition to the censorship crusade. Some movie-goers felt robbed of their full experience after watching cut-up and bowdlerized films. One New Yorker wondered "why couldn't we see that great picture Scarface as it was produced?" (born to lose, 221) Another protestor condemned the censors in the words of Scarface's police chief: "the censors have a racket and they are making suckers out of all of us…we the theater goers are ten times more stupid for tolerating them." The New Republic mocked the Production Code by publishing bits of it under sarcastic subtitles: the instruction "Even the struggles preceding rape should not be shown" was annotated with a sarcastic and italicized "Even?" (new republic)

Why did Hollywood give in? It was time: the era of the bootlegger king was over. By 1932, the year of the controversial Scarface's release, Prohibition was almost dead, and President Hoover was giving way to Franklin Roosevelt, who promised economic healing. Without Prohibition, the liquor racket was a thing of the past. The thought of economic recovery also tempted Americans away from the extreme individualism of the crime king.

The gangster genre still flourished, though. One way to make an old story new was to make the hero a G-man instead of a gangster. This permitted just as much (if not more) violence than in the old-style gangster films, but since the hero was on the side of right the censors enthusiastically approved. The G-man story also permitted a happy ending instead of the heretofore required tragic death or imprisonment.

Another way to get around censorship requirements while producing a movie was to appeal to elements that normally would be expected to be adversely affected by gangster movies. Young boys were a main target, since they were the group that wished to emulate criminal activities the most. The most famous example of this softer, more moral gangster film is Angels with Dirty Faces, the story of a hoodlum, a priest, and a bunch of "Dead End" kids.