Hollywood History: Self-Censorship Began 100 Years Ago

How Hollywood’s Self-Censorship Battles Shaped the Current MPA

Pressures from social reformers during an “era of scandal” led the industry to self-regulate by creating the organization in 1922, paving the way for the 1934 Production Code that influenced film contents, trying to pacify anti-Hollywood activists for nearly three decades.


Long before the controversial NC-17 rating, the Motion Picture Association gave films like Baby Doll (1956) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) “adults only” and Midnight Cowboy (1969) X-rating as a way to placate concerned parents and religious and conservative groups.

Now, debate lights up headlines and social media conversations. But, historically speaking, industry moguls have often erred on the side of not ruffling feathers, home or abroad, in order to court consumers, manifest in the birth of the MPA 100 years ago.

On the Big Screen

Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association

The lobbying group, which is marking its centennial in 2022, was born as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) in 1922.

When “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford divorced from her husband, Owen Moore, in 1920, it rankled millions of Catholic fans due to her wholesome image.

As a result, gossip let loose about her lover, swashbuckling star Douglas Fairbanks, moral crusaders found new firepower to question Hollywood standards. Things got worse when Pickford was accused of breaking up Fairbanks’s marriage. While Pickford and Fairbanks managed to ultimately become America’s Royal Couple, the precedent for questioning Hollywood’s morals began.

Fatty Arbuckle

Hollywood had another battle with social reformers after silent comedian Fatty Arbuckle’s scandalous San Francisco party that allegedly resulted in the death of actress Virginia Rappe. As trials commenced, talks of censorship began to swirl, something the industry was staunchly against.

Censorship “is as rotten as human slavery and it has less friends,” wrote Moving Picture World editor-in-chief Arthur James in October 1921.

Will Hays, newly appointed president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America, and Helene Chadwick at Goldwyn Studios in 1922. EVERETT

Will Hays

Hollywood’s response was to self-regulate by creating the MPPDA in 1922. Pressures from social reformers led the industry to hire Will Hays, President Harding’s Postmaster General, hoping to win the trust of the increasingly weary public.

Lewis Selznick referred to these turbulent times as “era of scandal.” Selznick cited the new baseball commissioner as offering a template for Hollywood to maintain confidence. In his memoir, Hays wrote, “while I am not a reformer, I hope that I have always been public-spirited.” Hays offered bridge between Hollywood and the public. Opposed to outright censorship, Hays opted for democratic process: “self-regulation educates and strengthens those who practice it.” Hays accepted the industry’s offer on January 14, 1922.

When Hays took office, Arbuckle’s second trial was about to begin. The nation followed the story closely, and while the comedian would eventually be acquitted (with apology from the jury), Hays banned Arbuckle from the industry. That action showed industry skeptics that Hays was serious about keeping the industry clean.
Adolph Zukor, head of Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount), shelved Arbuckle’s future projects and took $500,000 loss. The industry increased its distance from problematic publicity.

By the end of 1922, Hays offered Arbuckle comeback tour, but it was too late. The court of public opinion ruled. Theater owners were worried that the 1-80 on Arbuckle would lose public trust that had been gained since Hays’s appointment. The Motion Picture Theater Owners of America issued a statement: “No act of any official can make up the public mind on this matter.”

Hays offered thirteen-point agreement that included eliminating from American movies overt sexuality, prostitution, depiction of vice, passionate love scenes, any ridicule of government or religion, and any salacious advertising.

But the 1920s provided no shortage of scandalous material for Hays to moderate. Wallace Reid’s drug addiction became a difficult, but manageable public relations story.

However, when stars like Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, and Clara Bow put their sexuality on screen, it erupted a series of social outcries.

Others decried the Hollywood arrival of Elinor Glyn, author of the sex novel Three Weeks (1907) and future inventor of Clara Bow’s It (1927).

For U.S. consumers, movies had become a Babylonian product. By the end of the decade, moviemakers were not adhering to any self-censorship. An emphasized list of “don’ts and be carefuls” was added in 1927. Even publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was lobbying for film censorship.

A formal Production Code in 1930 emphasized three principals: Movies should be regarded as entertainment, are important as an art form, and have moral obligations.

Risky Contents
The years 1930-1934 are lauded as the last “Pre-Code” years, when filmmakers had heyday with stories that violated the Production Code. The “fallen woman” films (The Divorcee), gangster pictures (Scarface), sex-filled musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933), sex comedies (She Done Him Wrong), Depression pictures (Wild Boys for the Road) ruled the day.

During the “Pre-Code” years, new forces tried to push back on what they saw as Hollywood’s free-for-all approach to lascivious content.

Payne Fund Studies

The Payne Fund Studies began to link the rise of juvenile delinquency with Hollywood movies. Each study was published while a summarizing volume was published as Henry James Forman’s Our Movie-Made Children (1933). Forman’s book became best-seller, alerting studio moguls that the public was being lost again.

The Great Depression was hitting the studios. Even those that were in better shape at the end of the 1920s felt the effects by the Depression’s nadir in 1933.

The Catholic Legion of Decency was up in arms over the dangers of films and even had Legion Pledge with congregations spouted from the pews. “I make this protest in spirit of self-respect, and with conviction that the American public does not demand filthy pictures, but clean entertainment.”

The social and political winds blew hard against the movie industry. It was time again to make big move, as the previous decade had not offered consistent response to social reformers.

Jospeh Breen

The answer to the public concern was Joseph Breen, an Irish Catholic who worked as journalist before jobs at the US Foreign Service and the 28th International Eucharistic Congress.

It was at the Eucharistic Congress in Chicago during summer of 1926 that showcased the power of the Catholic Church in the US. Catholics moved from margins to mainstream, and by 1933 were a social and political force. The Legion of Decency also kept its own ratings system, condemning films that were out of line with its own standards.

A Hollywood Reporter headline from January 1934.

Will aHays hired Breen as the Code’s enforcer, a role he served from 1934 until 1954 (which brief stint running RKO in 1941). Less of gentleman’s agreement and more arduous negotiation, the Production Code impacted film content and satisfied many anti-Hollywood activists for nearly two decades. Movies had to adhere to the industry standards, as no film would be released without Production Code Administration seal.

By the end of 1934, newspapers celebrated Hollywood’s new direction. The Motion Picture Herald printed praise from the press who “reflect audience appreciation of higher-class product,” showing that the new strictures resulted in increased audience attendance.

The first years of the Motion Picture Association set the standard for industry response to contemporary mores. Hiring a political insider was the move in 1922, and by the early 1930s, the industry needed to respond to growing church boycotts. Breen allowed the industry to create product that “met churchmen half-way.”

Source: Hollywood Reporter