1929 - 1932:  Creating the Production Code

In the second half of 1929 the MPPDA was the subject of heavy criticism for reasons only tangentially connected to movie content. Its relationship with the federal government had been strained by a wave of mergers and theatre-buying among the major companies and by their "steady policy of aggrandizement, discrimination and exclusion" in dealing with independent exhibitors. At the same time, the stability of the public relations edifice Hays had constructed during the previous seven years disintegrated in the wake of the association's failure to establish a cooperative relationship with the Protestant churches similar to that they enjoyed with organized Catholicism. In the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, the movie industry provided a highly conspicuous target for critics of the business culture of the 1920s, and the campaign against Hays and the "meretricious" business practices of the "shrewd Hebrews" who ran the major companies by the Protestant religious press gave independent exhibitors the chance to combine their attack on the majors' trade practices with a complaint about their morals. Confronted with local criticism about the moral standards of the movies they showed, small exhibitors often defended themselves by arguing that the majors' insistence on block booking forced exhibitors to show "sex-smut" regardless of their own or their community's preferences. They insisted that the only way to secure decency on Main Street was through extensive Federal regulation of the industry.

Under attack from several directions, Hays recognized that the regulation of film content represented the one area of industry activity where the Association might be able to demonstrate its usefulness to both the public and its members, and initiated the revision of the 1927 code in September 1929. A committee of producers chaired by Irving Thalberg produced a draft code in November. A quite separate document emanated from Chicago, where C.C. Pettijohn was working to repeal the city's censorship ordinance. His campaign led to the involvement of Martin Quigley, a prominent Chicago Catholic and trade paper publisher, in the Code's rewriting. Quigley proposed a much more elaborated Code enunciating the moral principles underlying screen entertainment, and recruited a prominent Jesuit, Father Daniel Lord, to draft it.

Joy spent January 1930 attempting to compromise the two drafts and their differing ambitions, and a meeting of the producers' association discussed the texts at length in February. After that meeting, a producers committee wrote a "condensed" version, and Lord and Hays rewrote Lord's draft as a separate document entitled "Reasons Underlying the Code." The text of the Code itself provided a list of prohibitions rather than the moral arguments of Lord's draft. Its "Particular Applications" elaborated the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," and added clauses on liquor, adultery, vulgarity and obscenity. With the consent of both parties, Catholic involvement in the Code remained secret. So did its implementation procedure, the Resolution for Uniform Interpretation, which did not make submission of scripts to the SRC compulsory, and placed responsibility for making changes in finished films with the companies concerned. It also appointed a "Jury" composed of the heads of production of each of the member companies as final arbiters of whether a film conformed "to the spirit and the letter of the Code." Hays's caution in publicly committing the Association to the Code's enforcement had as much to do with his recognition of the practical problems to be solved in the Code's application as it did with a scepticism about producers' intentions.

Although a growing chorus of voices denounced the moral evils of the movies, it would be wrong to conclude that movies became more salacious or vicious between 1930 and 1934. With occasional exceptions, the reverse is the case. Certainly the commonly-made assertion that the Code was not applied during this period, or was applied only ineffectually, is quite without foundation, and to describe the movies of these years as a 'pre-Code' cinema is completely inaccurate. The early 1930s was, however, a period of moral conservatism in American culture and elsewhere, and both the SRC and state censors applied increasingly strict standards. The industry's most vociferous critics judged the movies on their advertising far more frequently than on their content, and a small number of visible infringements were sufficient to fuel the flames of their righteousness. The Association's Advertising Code, passed in June 1930, relied entirely on the voluntary cooperation of publicity departments, and was much less effectively applied than the Production Code.

Joy's approach to the improvement of content was gradualist. He thought the "small, narrow, picauyunish fault-finding" of censor boards inhibited his attempts to negotiate strategies of representation that permitted producers "to paint the unconventional, the unlawful, the immoral side of life in order to bring out in immediate contrast the happiness and benefits derived from wholesome, clean and law-abiding conduct." He recognized that if the Code was to remain effective, it had to allow the studios to develop a system of representational conventions "from which conclusions might be drawn by the sophisticated mind, but which would mean nothing to the unsophisticated and inexperienced." Particularly in the early years of its operation, much of the work of the Production Code lay in the creation and maintenance of this system of conventions. Like other Hollywood conventions, the Code was one of several substitutes for detailed audience research. Having chosen not to differentiate its product through a ratings system, the industry had to construct movies for an undifferentiated audience. Once the limits of explicit "sophistication" had been established, the production industry had to find ways of appealing to both "innocent" and "sophisticated" sensibilities in the same object without transgressing the boundaries of public acceptability. This involved devising systems and codes of representation in which "innocence" was inscribed into the text while "sophisticated" viewers were able "read into" movies whatever meanings they pleased to find, so long as producers could use the Production Code to deny that they had put them there.

Censors, however, continued to identify some disturbing developments in movie content: a cycle of "kept woman" films, including Illicit, The Easiest Way and Back Street, for instance. In early 1931, the SRC completely misjudged reactions to Universal's Dracula, which was widely condemned. Its commercial success exemplified the Association's and the industry's dilemma as the effects of the Depression began to be felt at the box office. Some of the material most likely to produce immediate high returns in first-run theatres, and thus maintain company liquidity, also provoked reform groups to claim the Code was being ignored. Beginning in late 1930, the brief cycle of gangster films beginning with The Doorway to Hell and Little Caesar, inspired by press coverage of Al Capone revived charges that the movies were encouraging young audiences to view the gangster protagonist as a "hero-villain" and proved a public relations calamity for the Association. In September 1931, Code procedures were considerably tightened, submission of scripts was made compulsory, and further production of gangster films was prohibited. The movie most immediately affected was Howard Hughes' Scarface, which was reconstructed on four occasions before it passed both the MPPDA and New York's censorship in May 1932.

The prohibition of gang films raised a problem elsewhere. Forced by their financial position to seek immediate returns on their investment in production studios chose material that remained only just within the letter of the Code. Joy hoped that a "new drive on sex films would partially, if not entirely, eliminate" kept woman stories and discourage the further production of chain-gang and horror films. But the problem was more elusive, since it seemed that every time the Association responded to one kind of complaint, it was replaced by another. As soon as Joy was provided with the means to ensure the overall morality of a movie's narrative, reformers argued that the stories Hollywood told were not the primary source of its influence. The cinema's power to corrupt was now assumed to lie in the seductive pleasure of its spectacle, exemplified in the screen careers of Jean Harlow and the actress Father Lord described as "the unspeakable Constance Bennett." Faced with Red-Headed Woman, a comedy which depicted Harlow's progression up the social ladder by a series of affairs, Joy feared that other studios would try "to figure out ways of topping this particular picture" in competition for the sensational element of the urban trade. The most drastic change of studio policy came when Emanuel Cohen replaced B.P. Schulberg as Paramount's head of production. Cohen's decision to abandon the studio's previously conservative production policy resulted in its producing A Farewell To Arms, purchasing William Faulkner's novel Sanctuary, and signing a contract with Mae West. The success of She Done Him Wrong with all audiences only increased alarm among reform elements that West, notorious after her arrests for indecency in New York in 1928, was now considered fit material for the screen.