The Hays Code Brings Censorship To Motion Pictures

The Hays Code brought sweeping changes to the motion picture industry beginning in 1930. This article offers a brief summation of just what it was that the code sought to regulate. It is by no means a total legal definition of the code, but a simplified explanation to help fans of motion picture history to better understand its intent.

The Hays Code is a result of a collaborative effort between The Association of Motion Picture Producers, Inc. and The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. It recognizes and acknowledges the universal power of motion pictures, not just as a form of entertainment, but also as a tool that can greatly influence the way people behave and perceive what they see on film.

The Hays Code as a Censorship and Ratings Guideline

This was the first attempt at providing a standard of censorship guidelines in the United States for motion picture producers to follow. Hence, most American films produced between 1930 and 1966 were structured in accordance with these guidelines. In addition, around this same time period, a ratings system was also introduced to evaluate every film prior to it being shown to the public.

These new production standards and guidelines represented a conscious effort by movie producers and filmmakers alike to take responsibility for their work. This new responsibility became more evident with the transition of silent films into sound films. With this changeover, dialogue as well as actions were subjected to scrutiny. Although understood as not being directly responsible for people’s behavior, there was a belief of a need to abide by an acceptable standard of wholesome entertainment presentation.

The Hays Code aspires to cover all aspects of motion picture entertainment. The general principles of the Code aim to protect the moral standards of its audience. The Code is sympathetic to the audience’s moral standards, in order to subject the drama and entertainment presented intrinsic to the film. 

Basic Premises of The Hays Code

The Code addresses the following applications, with emphasis on subject matter and presentation:

1.   Crimes against the law
2.   Sex
3.   Vulgarity
4.   Obscenity
5.   Profanity
6.   Costume
7.   Dances
8.   Religion
9.   Locations
10. National Feelings
11. Titles
12. Repellent subjects


Film as entertainment

Entertainment has always been a part of society. However, just like any other social factor, it is capable of doing either harm or good. Since art, which includes films, are theorized to imitate actual realities, it was believed necessary that human beings should not be degraded in the process of film creation.

This is where the universal idea of moral importance resonates. The belief that films have the capability to affect the lives of those who view them, thereby influencing their personal views and ideals in life and even their opinion of themselves.

Films as an art work two ways then:

1. The film reproduces the actual beliefs and ideals of society.
2. Films can influence and affect the moral standards of the person who views them.

This fact is made even more pronounced by the accessibility of films which are easily available to a great number of people, of all ages and races.

Films’ Moral Obligation

Therefore, the code emphasizes moral obligations that films must observe and practice. It is important that art appeal to most people, regardless of class and ideals. The availability and broad appeal of film makes it easier to permeate different levels of society. These same factors also allow film to penetrate areas where other art forms may fail to reach.

Consequently, films should be developed in such a way that they are not meant only for a specific audience. However, these films can neither be too confined nor too broad; they must precisely meet halfway.

Distribution of films is also mandated by the Code, stating the difference between films for general viewing and those intended for a limited audience. An example would be an “Adults Only” classification of some films. While the classification exists, The Hays Code considered it quite ineffective in limiting the access to such films, especially to the young.

The film ratings battle continues today and the definition of what is or is not acceptable is constantly changing. There are those who feel they are Constitutionally protected in presenting anything they choose and those who believe there should be some limit as to what can be shown. While we do not need the strict control of another Hays Code, most people would agree that there should be some sort of compromise and commonsense decency to film production and distribution.

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