Mr Will H. Hays

Mr Will H. Hays
November 5, 1879
March 7, 1954


Will HaysWilliam Harrison Hays was born in Sullivan, Indiana in 1879. After graduating from Wabash College in 1901, he studied law and was admitted to the Indiana bar. He had a natural gift for politics, which enabled him to rise rapidly through the Indiana Republican Party, and then to become Chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1918. During the Republican Party’s deadlocked convention in 1920 Hays briefly emerged as a possible candidate for the Presidency, and he then managed Warren Harding’s landslide election victory.

As Postmaster General in Harding’s cabinet, he oversaw a major reorganization of the Post office, but he left in March 1922 to become President of the newly-formed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., although he probably intended to return to politics after a few years.  The financial scandals that discredited the Harding administration ended his chances of gaining high elective office, but he remained an influential figure in the Republican party throughout the 1920s and 1930s.  

Variety gave Hays the grandiloquent title of "Czar of all the Rushes," and the press often compared him to Judge Keneshaw Mountain Landis, appointed baseball "czar" in 1920 after the Chicago White Sox scandal.  But the comparison was a trivial one.  Hays was selected 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.  An associate of Secretary of Commerce and later President Herbert Hoover, Hays shared Hoover’s vision of the “associative state,” and on occasion claimed authorship of the 1920s Republican homily that “what America needs is less government in business and more business in government.” Pursuing these ideas in his role in the motion picture industry, Hays 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 and a variety of devices to maintain self-regulation in production.  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 - amusement that was not harmful to its consumer - was a commodity comparable to the pure meat guaranteed by the Food and Drug Administration.  He also played a central role in the industry’s public relations, and in its negotiations with state, federal and foreign governments.

A nationally known figure and an elder in the Presbyterian Church, Hays was an amiable and tactful man possessed of much of the politician's traditional shrewdness. His political influence secured the industry's favourable treatment by the Coolidge administration, permitting the smooth expansion of the 1920s.  Although the Association was attacked by Protestant religious groups who viewed its manipulation of public opinion as symptomatic of the crimes of the 1920s "business civilization," Hays' gift for the resonant platitude and his adept political organization piloted the industry through the legislative uncertainties of the early Depression.  But he often found himself negotiating between the immediate economic interests of the major companies who were his employers and what he perceived to be the longer term interests of the industry as a whole.  This was never more clearly the case than during the early 1930s, when the MPPDA sought to persuade the production industry of the need to accept stricter regulation of content to alleviate the anxieties of public interest groups and prevent the passage of hostile legislation.  One of Hays' most effective demonstrations of his political skills was his stage-managing and manipulating of the crisis in pubic relations created by the activities of the Legion of Decency in 1934.

It was rumoured that Hays would be replaced with a Democrat after Roosevelt's election in 1932, but he continued to steer the industry successfully through several New Deal proposals to regulate its business.  He could not, however, persuade his employers to make the adjustments to their trade practices that would have avoided the Department of Justice's 1938 antitrust suit, which eventually broke up the vertically integrated structure of the industry. Although the MPPDA was initially implicated in the suit, Hays helped to engineer the 1940 consent decree that postponed resolution of the case until 1948.  He also ensured that the federal government recognized Hollywood as an "essential industry" during World War II.  Dissension among the MPPDA companies resulted in his resignation, two weeks after the end of the war. He was succeeded by Eric A.Johnston, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, who changed the MPPDA's name to the Motion Picture Association of America.  Hays died in 1954.

Will Hays was not an unconventional man.  A small man with large ears, a Presbyterian Church elder who neither smoked nor drank, to many he seemed a Babbitt in Babylon on a "Charlie Chaplin salary," an easy figure to caricature.  But he had a gift for compromise, a faith in the principle of arbitration and an enthusiasm for communicating; he was rumored to have the largest telephone bill in the United States.  He was an impeccable, congenial but unimaginative American conservative, a confident patriot, a Christian whose faith was never troubled, a friendly, gregarious gentle man who belonged to thirty clubs in a dozen cities. His "deepest personal convictions," he averred, were "faith in God, in folks, in the nation, and in the Republican party."  Paradoxically, his profoundly conventional public persona has almost effaced him from most histories as other more flamboyant figures, including Production Code Administration Director Joseph Breen, have been accorded greater prominence.  But Hays did more than any other individual to preserve Hollywood for oligopoly capital, and his comment on his role in bringing the Production Code into being might summarize his career achievement of maintaining the industry's status quo: "I give Providence the glory, but I did the engineering."

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