50 Years Ago Today: Hollywood's Production Code Fell

Hollywood's Motion Picture Production Code was adopted by the studios in 1930 to counter the expensive and delaying influence of the then-preponderant state censorship boards. Prior to the creation of the code, and even for a while afterward, local boards would ban films because of this or that offense, and the release would be disrupted while the producers negotiated and made cuts.

Here is the resolution, approved by the heads of studios, that spells out the "don'ts" and the "be carefuls."

Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:

  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion;
  5. White slavery;
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children's sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
  1. The use of the flag;
  2. International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
  3. Arson;
  4. The use of firearms;
  5. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
  6. Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
  7. Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
  8. Methods of smuggling;
  9. Third-degree methods;
  10. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
  11. Sympathy for criminals;
  12. Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
  13. Sedition;
  14. Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
  15. Branding of people or animals;
  16. The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
  17. Rape or attempted rape;
  18. First-night scenes;
  19. Man and woman in bed together;
  20. Deliberate seduction of girls;
  21. The institution of marriage;
  22. Surgical operations;
  23. The use of drugs;
  24. Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
  25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a "heavy".
The Production Code was initially pretty ineffectual, due to a too-heavy workload, but in 1934, generally considered the beginning of the Production Code era, a new agency was created, with staff and real teeth, the Production Code Administration, run with great attention to detail by Catholic zealot Joseph Breen.

For many years the iron grip of censorship and enforced conformity prevailed but by the time television became a pervasive force in American's lives, the film industry fighting for every scrap of advantage it could gain. At the same time, European art films like Ingmar Bergman's SUMMER WITH MONIKA (1953) were breaking attendance records in small art theaters and even drive ins, displaying new flesh and new attitudes toward lifestyles that had previously been taboo on screen.

In 1952, the United States Supreme Court guaranteed First Amendment protection to films and the momentum for the abolition of the code grew. Enforcement grew somewhat more lax as the administrators of the code felt the heat, which rose to wilting temperatures with 1959's SOME LIKE IT HOT. The PCA denied the film a Code certificate, but United Artists released it anyway. As you must know by now, the movie was a smash hit, and the Code reeled.

The '60s presented many more challenges to the declining code and finally Jack Valenti, incoming president of the Motion Picture Association Of America, was charged with reviewing Mike Nichols' brilliant adaptation of Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. Knowing that the film's impact would be lost if the language was neutered, he merely insisted on the removal of the word "screw." Other instances of shocking dialogue were untouched, though the film received an advisory label due to its language and themes. In this manner it was released on this date in 1966.

Valenti's improvised advisory tag was to prefigure the movie ratings system, which was the eventual successor of the Production Code.