A Century of Film Censorship
In 1927, “The Jazz Singer” hit theatres across the United States. The film was a sensation because it was the first to have both synchronized sound and audible dialogue. This success marked the beginning of the end for silent cinema, as well as the advent of the “talkie.” Every studio that had the funding to do so began transitioning to “sound-on-film” productions. Because “talkies” could be enjoyed even by those who could not read, film became an even more popular and accessible medium than before.
But this new medium made many Americans anxious. Already considered a lowbrow form of entertainment, film offered a level of sensory stimulation and immersion unmatched by previous media. Many people were concerned by its tendency to bring men and women, as well as people of different classes and races, together in close-quartered darkness. In addition to eroding old social divisions, filmmakers were getting bolder in what they brought to the screen, exploring taboo subjects like sexuality and organized crime—often finding that risqué content sold more tickets.
State and municipal governments responded by establishing their own censorship bodies, which varied widely in standards and structure. They also created quite a headache for many film studios. Censorship was called for at the local level and strictly enforced according to William Little, a professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. “The Hays Office, which was representing the studios, took it upon itself to try to mediate between the studios and these local operations,” Little said. “And to regularize things so the studios didn’t have this incredible difficulty getting their films to screens every time they made a movie.”
Meanwhile, film industry executives feared government regulation would be even more restrictive than the current system. “The rise of the Code aligned with the New Deal,” said Dr. Raymond Haberski, professor of history at Indiana University at Indianapolis. “As FDR came into office and tried to wrangle the economy by setting up new federal programs, it was not a crazy assumption to think new regulations might soon be imposed on the motion picture industry as well.”
Thus, the Motion Picture Production Code was borne. The code was not created out of a sense of moral obligation within the film industry, but out of a desire for increased efficiency, fear of profits lost to boycotts, and fear of federal oversight. According to Little, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) “was a kind of Fordist body in that it was trying to streamline and be efficient, but it didn’t work—there were just too many cooks involved.”
The code carefully limited depictions of sex and violence, as well as drinking, gambling, adultery, and any signs of political dissent or negative representations of religious institutions. Yet, even these strict rules were preferable to and sometimes more progressive than the restrictions enforced by local censors, who were known to makes cuts as arbitrary as eliminating scenes showing dancing. Memphis-based censor Lloyd Binford became infamous for eliminating any representations of white and black people in friendly interactions.
Though the new regulations were elaborate, their main objective was to control the larger themes and lessons within films. It was crucial that good prevail over evil, that gamblers, adulterers, and assorted troublemakers faced consequences for their actions while fidelity, patriotism and the like were rewarded. And judging by the uptick in box office sales in 1934, it did not seem that people minded seeing a sense of morality at the movies.
“They created a single production code that was extremely strict in order to create free movement of their product in the marketplace,” notes Dr. Jon Lewis, a professor of Film Studies at Oregon State University. “In my view it has nothing to do with good citizenship or actually believing any of the things they were enforcing. It’s just good business—you can’t make an expensive product and then not be able to show it everywhere.” However, local censorship boards continued to have some sway throughout the life of the code. As Haberski notes, “you could produce a movie in Hollywood, and potentially half a dozen versions of it would exist when it was released.”
In spite of all these obstacles, the period associated with the most rigorous censorship—the 1930s through 1950s—overlaps almost perfectly with what is considered the Golden Age of Hollywood. The code must not have stopped studios from producing quality films, as many of these works, including “Citizen Kane,” “Gone With the Wind,” and “Casablanca,” would be remembered as the pinnacle of classic cinema.
For better or for worse, filmmakers received substantial feedback from the MPPDA throughout the production process to try to prevent films from being recut by various censors. Producers, directors and screenwriters were told exactly what aspects of their films needed to be changed to receive MPPDA approval. This level of feedback is one of the key distinctions between the production code and the ratings system used today, which replaced the Production Code in 1968.
The fall of the code began in the 1950s when filmgoers wanted to be able to choose what they could see on the big screens. “Filmmakers went out of their way to make films in the 1950s without the Production Code seal—just to see what would happen,” said Haberski. “Of course, people flocked to [these films] and thought, ‘Here we have a more mature film, obviously.’”
As increasing numbers of filmmakers and filmgoers began to shirk the nearly 30-year-old Code, public debates about the limits of censorship ensued, and legal challenges to the Production Code went all the way to the Supreme Court. Now rebranded the MPAA, the film industry’s self-censorship body hired Jack Valenti to take the reigns. Valenti’s professed objectives were (1) to label films with warnings for parents and (2) to “free the screen” from what he considered a far too restrictive system.
Valenti met both of his goals. The ratings system allows mature content to be categorized rather than eliminated. By shifting away from the binary of “approved” or “not approved” and giving up on guaranteeing “moral stories,” the ratings system allows for the exploration of a wider variety of subjects and viewpoints through film. It also permits a fluidity and flexibility that the Code did not offer. “One of the defining aspects of the ratings system is that it is not fixed and is not a code,” said Lewis. “It’s a matter of public relations. Hollywood and the film industry want to appear socially responsible but they also want to protect their bottom line, so they created this system based on parental guidance.”
Yet, the abandonment of precise guidelines brought ambiguity. As outlined in the documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated,” numerous members of the film industry consider the MPAA secretive and their guidelines arbitrary. Some have criticized its priorities, claiming it imposes few limits on violence while zealously restricting sexual content. Filmmakers, producers and even a few A-list actors have leveled accusations of prejudice against the ratings board, arguing, for example, that it rates depictions of female sexual pleasure as more explicit than those of male pleasure.
The obscure requirements of today’s system can be challenging for filmmakers, particularly independent ones who sometimes find they don’t have the resources or connections to appeal an MPAA rating. “The Code was a written document, and what exists now is a board of anonymous parents… We don’t even know who the raters are, we don’t necessarily know what criteria they’re given to try to determine what films should be given what rating,” said Lewis. In fact, members of the ratings board are kept entirely confidential to protect them from public influence. “Quite honestly, it is not like the old production code administration, which was a body—you knew who they were, you could deal with them.”
Although the ratings system does not “ban” films, studios tend to view an NC-17 rating as a film’s death sentence. The rating closes off many advertising opportunities and exhibition by major theater chains AMC and Regal. For this reason, big studios with filmmakers under contract require the cuts necessary to receive an R-rating.
Ultimately, the Production Code and the ratings system are two phases of the same system that has influenced the meanings and messages of American films for nearly 100 years. While the Code was much more restrictive, it was also more transparent. The system that has replaced it provides a more sophisticated treatment of adult-oriented content. Although it can be shadowy and inconsistent, it was designed to evolve over time and will continue to do so.
That is, unless online streaming platforms make movie theaters irrelevant. For that, only time will tell.
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist