Will Hays and the MPPDA in the 1920s

Will H. Hays had been Chairman of the Republican Party National Committee in 1920, and had organized Warren Harding's successful Presidential campaign. In 1921 he was Postmaster General in Harding's Cabinet, and industry leaders chose him for the job partly because he was the most respectable Protestant politician industry leaders could buy, but also because of his political connections and organizational skills. He presented the MPPDA as an innovative trade association at the forefront of corporate development, largely responsible for the industry's maturation into respectability, standardizing trade practices and stabilizing relationships between distributors and exhibitors through Film Boards of Trade, arbitration and the Standard Exhibition Contract. The Association's stated object, to establish "the highest possible moral and artistic standards of motion picture production" was in one sense simply an extension of this practice, but it also implicitly accepted that "pure" entertainment and amusement that was not harmful to its consumer was a commodity comparable to the pure meat guaranteed by the Food and Drug Administration. Resisting the spread of state censorship and regulating movie content was only one aspect of the MPPDA's overall task of internally reorganizing the industry's affairs. The disputes between distributors and exhibitors during the process of vertical integration had been exploited by reform groups and had also undermined the confidence of Wall Street in the competence of industry management. Much of what the MPPDA did in the 1920s in negotiating a standard form of contract to govern the 500,000 contractual agreements signed between distributors and exhibitors every year, and in establishing a system of arbitration for settling trade disputes arising from these contracts, for example, was aimed at securing the confidence of finance capital for the industry's continued expansion.

Hays also persuaded industry leaders that they needed a much more effective public relations operation to reorient the industry's public image. He argued that the industry could not "ignore the classes that write, talk, and legislate." The movies had not merely to provide a satisfactory level of entertainment for their diverse audiences, but also to offend as small a proportion of the country's cultural and legislative leadership as possible. His public relations policy, implemented in large part by his assistant Col. Jason Joy, affiliated the MPPDA with nationally federated civic and religious organizations, women's clubs and parent-teacher associations, aiming to make "this important portion of public opinion a friendly rather than a hostile critic of pictures," and contain the legislative threat posed by their political lobbying power. The MPPDA's activities in the production and promotion of educational and medical films, its contributions to Americanization campaigns and its provision of movies for schools, charities and other institutions were all part of this public relations campaign to demonstrate the industry's respectability and social utility. They were not, in practical terms, as important as the MPPDA's role in maintaining internal industrial harmony, or its constant work on legal and legislative issues. The association's central concern was that legislation or court action might impose a strict application of the anti-trust laws on the industry, and force the major companies to divorce production, distribution and exhibition from each other. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the industry was also subject to a constant barrage of hostile local and state legislation, proposed by politicians who saw Hollywood's fabled riches as a potential source of local revenue. Through its General Counsel, Charles C. Pettijohn, the MPPDA maintained an extensive network of political alliances at a municipal and state level to prevent the passage of such legislation, as well as conducting the industry's dealings with the federal government and its foreign policy in negotiations over treaties and quotas with other countries.

The late 1920's represented the pinnacle of the MPPDAs achievement.

Although the MPPDA succeeded in preventing the spread of state censorship after its establishment, more than 60% of domestic exhibition was affected by what Hays always referred to as "political censorship" by either state or municipal authorities, together with virtually the entire foreign market, and the association failed to abolish any of the existing boards or to have sound films recognised as 'speech' protected by the First Amendment. The MPPDA's mechanisms for self-regulation therefore comprised an additional, rather than a replacement, structure for the control of content. To establish self-regulation as a form of industrial self-determination, the industry had to demonstrate that, as Hays put it, "the quality of our pictures is such that no reasonable person can claim any need of censorship." In part he achieved this by conceding that there was no dispute over the need to regulate entertainment or over the standards by which it should be regulated, only over who possessed the appropriate authority to police the ideological apparatus of representation.

In 1924, the MPPDA established a mechanism for vetting source material, known as "the Formula," in order "to exercise every possible care that only books or plays which are of the right type are used for screen presentation." In 1927, the Association published a code to govern production, administered by Col. Joy as Director of its Studio Relations Committee (SRC) in Hollywood. The "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," as this code was familiarly known, was compiled by a committee chaired by Irving Thalberg, and synthesized the restrictions and eliminations applied by state and foreign censors. Films were modified after production but before release in order to assuage the concerns of civic, religious, or manufacturing interests, but until 1930, the SRC's function was only advisory.

The technological complexities of sound production necessitated a more exact arrangement. Unlike silent film, talkies could not be altered by local censors, regional distributors or individual exhibitors without destroying synchronization. Producers began to demand something firmer than advice from the SRC, but at the same time they wanted to establish a more permissive code for sound, since with dialogue characters could, they argued, "delicately" discuss subjects the silent picture was forced to shun. The studios' heads of production sought to evade authorial responsibility for the moral standards of their output. Arguing that the civic groups demanding reform exaggerated the effect movies had on their audiences, Thalberg insisted that 'the motion picture is literally bound to the mental and moral level of its vast audience.' But in claiming that they reflected rather than created public taste, the producers surrendered the terms in which the cultural function of movies was being debated by the press, religious and civic groups, and legislators. Their desire to "bring Broadway to Main Street" provoked the hostility of an increasingly insecure Protestant provincial middle-class seeking to defend its cultural hegemony from the incursions of a modernist, metropolitan culture that the provincials regarded as "alien." Combining opposition to monopoly with a barely concealed anti-Semitism, provincial Protestantism regarded movies as a threat to the ability of small communities to exercise control over the cultural influences they tolerated.