Michael Brooke* writes at BFI screenonline:
“First published in March 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code (popularly known as the Hays Code after its creator Will H.Hays) was the first attempt at introducing film censorship in the US through laying down a series of guidelines to film producers.
The Code was founded according to the concept: “if motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind” – the clear implication being that films were signally failing to achieve these lofty aims.
The Code was based on three general principles:
– No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
– Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
– Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
These were developed in a series of rules grouped under the self-explanatory headings Crimes Against The Law, Sex, Vulgarity, Obscenity, Profanity, Costume, Dances (i.e. suggestive movements), Religion, Locations (i.e. the bedroom), National Feelings, Titles and “Repellent Subjects” (extremely graphic violence).
Although these guidelines were technically voluntary, in practice the major Hollywood studios used the Hays Code guidelines as a convenient means of staving off pressure groups (the British Board of Film Censors’ recommendations had been adopted by British film producers and distributors for similar reasons).
As a result, the Hays Code (and similar strictures laid down by the hugely influential Catholic Legion of Decency) directly influenced the content of almost every American film made between 1930 and 1966, when the Motion Picture Association of America introduced a ratings system along the lines of the BBFC’s classification certificates.”
*MB spent nearly a decade at the BFI (2002-11), where he helped create BFI Screenonline and BFI InView, produced the BFI’s internationally acclaimed DVD compilations of short films by the Quay Brothers and Jan Švankmajer and co-produced the Blu-ray edition of Švankmajer’s Alice. He has written numerous booklet essays for BFI DVD Publishing, Second Run and Arrow Academy, and chapters for the books Polish Cinema Now! (2010), Shadows of Progress (2010), 39 Steps to the Genius of Hitchcock (2012) and Trzynasty miesiąc. Kino Braci Quay (2010).
“This is a guest post for Silent London by noted silent cinema musicians Neil Brand and Philip Carli. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
There are more of these X-rated moments than you might think and people will have plenty of their own choices according to taste, shockability and squeamishness. By definition, all silent cinema is pre-Code and Will Hays was brought into the Hollywood fold as censor in the 1920s not just because of Hollywood’s own scandals, but because filmmakers were pursuing stronger, more adult storylines and nobody seemed to be taking the lead on what was acceptable. So, by way of giving the lie to the idea that silent cinema is somehow cinema in adolescence, here’s a list of some memorable times when the boundaries were pushed, in descending chronological order…”