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How faith and morality once played a central role in Hollywood

Posted October 14

Anyone who's well-acquainted with the contemporary Hollywood landscape knows that sex, violence and edgy content are often cause for concern among parents and entertainment critics.

With the current industry dynamic in mind — one in which faith and morality are certainly not the main themes flowing from Tinseltown — some might be surprised to learn of the prominent role that religion and ethics once played in Hollywood.

In fact, for more than 30 years, the movie industry lived under a self-imposed "Production Code," a set of limits and points of guidance on obscenity, sexual content, violence and other themes that intended to tame objectionable content in feature films.

The main premise of the Production Code, which went into effect in 1930 and lasted through 1968, was to make sure that Hollywood touted and instilled positive moral standards in American society.

How the code came about

Considering what oft-times appears to be a no-holds-barred moral framework governing contemporary Hollywood, one might wonder what led studio executives in Tinseltown's early years to so willingly self-govern.

After all, the Production Code wasn't a legal requirement, rather it was a voluntary effort crafted by studio executives who wanted to appease the faithful by keeping content contained and the nation's moral and ethical framework intact.

Among the guiding principles behind the code was the notion that a film should not "lower the moral standards of those who see it." Today, of course, this is a foreign concept, at least when it comes to Hollywood's inclinations.

In truth, there are likely a plethora of reasons for the code's emergence, but, among them is the fact that some bad behavior in Hollywood's early days — both on-screen and off — led to public outrage.

And that outrage sparked a sweeping industry response.

Mirroring what's often observed in the entertainment world today, there was a series of Hollywood scandals, drug overdoses and other examples of poor behavior that left the masses disenchanted, according to NPR.

Celebrities were dying of drug overdoses, Fatty Arbuckle — a famed comedian — was charged with manslaughter, and content was getting increasingly more edgy, just to name a few examples of the moral conundrum at hand.

It didn't take long for those antics to take a toll, with local and state governments creating censorship boards to try to protect the public from what was seen at the time as questionable behavior and content.

Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, told the Deseret News that local and state governments ended up regulating film content from around 1915 until 1952.

"Movies (had) no First Amendment rights, which means state censorship boards, city censorship boards, a sheriff who didn't like the film, could basically go in and shut down the movie," he said.

The Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio Supreme Court case in 1915 was the catalyst for this dynamic, with the high court finding that films weren't considered free speech and could, thus, be vetted by government officials before being shown to the public.

The case surrounded a law passed in Ohio that granted authority to a state censorship board — a regulation that the Supreme Court upheld, leading other states and localities to launch similar content restrictions.

"In seven states and nearly one hundred municipalities, censor boards banned or ordered deletions to films deemed to be immoral, sacrilegious, or otherwise objectionable," read a piece published in the Rutgers Law Review.

Doherty said the Mutual Film Corp. ruling finding that films weren't protected by the First Amendment "sounds counterintuitive to us today," but that movies at the time were deemed "business, pure and simple."

A number of states, including New York, had powerful boards, with cities like Nashville, Atlanta, Chicago and Memphis also relying upon these boards for the vetting of feature films.

In New York State, for instance, the censorship board reviewed every film outside of the education, science and current events realms, screening to see if it was "obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, sacrilegious or of such character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or to incite crime," according to New York state archives.

Film distributors would pay a license fee and give the board a copy of the film as well as a document featuring all of its written dialogue.

The board then reserved the right to eliminate scenes — or entirely reject a movie from being licensed to run in the state; officials would reject six to eight titles each year, with 10 percent of films having some portion of content removed.

It wasn't until 1952 that the Supreme Court changed its mind, ruling in the Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson case that movies are also to be treated as free speech.

Hollywood soon became concerned over the prospect of even more government interference in the entertainment industry. So, industry insiders crafted the Production Code, which was also known as the "Hays Code" — named after politician Will H. Hays — to stem calls for increased government censorship.

Hays served as postmaster general under President Warren G. Harding before becoming a fixture in Hollywood, with the Production Code that came to bear his name remaining in effect for nearly four decades.

"The whole purpose of the Production Code was to lessen the power of state boards, which it was pretty successful in doing," Doherty said.

While voluntary on the surface, abiding by the Production Code was essentially necessary if filmmakers wanted their movies to be shown inside theaters.

After all, threat of censorship boards and the potential that Catholic leaders, in particular, would instruct parishioners not to go and see certain movies sparked fears. Compliance meant box office revenue, so many fell in line.

But Ted Baehr, founder of Movie Guide — a Christian organization that monitors Hollywood content, also told the Deseret News that some studio heads saw other benefits to the code outside of the financial realm, feeling that it "protected them against unfair competition … from a race to the bottom (and) that the code built the industry into being a more effective and successful tool."

He said that the studio heads "who were often not Christians … were people who wanted to do movies and entertainment that was as broad an audience as possible."

How clergy came to be involved

While Hays was the main person who helped create and enforce the code, he wasn't the only instrumental force behind its implementation and enforcement.

It all started when the studios decided to bring Hays in to help clean up the entertainment industry's image; he became president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which later came to be what's known today as the Motion Picture Association of America, according to Doherty.

It was under Hays that the Production Code was created, though the set of rules and regulations was written by Martin Quigley, a Roman Catholic layman who edited the Motion Picture Herald, as well as the Rev. Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest.

While the code — which espoused many traditional values — was voluntarily adopted by Hollywood in 1930, many studios reportedly ignored it until 1934. The period of time between 1930 when the code was drafted and its more fervent adoption in 1934 is often called the "pre-code period."

It is said that many filmmakers flagrantly defied the code during those four years, leading to a renewed sense and quest in 1934 to cement its power and prestige.

"When the New Deal in Washington insinuated the probability of federal censorship, and a reformist educational group called the Motion Picture Research Council published a series of reports linking bad behavior to bad movies, the studios found themselves fighting a three-front war against church, state, and social science," Doherty wrote.

That's when Hollywood agreed to change the way the code was enforced with the creation of the Production Code Administration, a private, industry-created body that would answer to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America's board of directors.

Another Catholic layman — Joseph Breen — was hired to head the Production Code Administration from 1934-1954. Breen, according to Doherty, was a cultural crusader who helped shape the content that came out of Hollywood at the time.

And the faith connection in Hollywood's early days doesn't end there. Behind the scenes, there were at least two religious groups working to help restore morality in film: the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency and the Protestant Film Office. These groups held sway from 1933-1966, according to Baehr.

The Legion of Decency, which was founded by U.S. Catholic bishops around 1934, was a "political action group" and a "pressure group," according to Doherty.

"Unlike today, when the Catholic Church could tell its parishioners to do something and they'll ignore it, back in the ’30s they actually abided by it, so the Catholics can really keep people out of the seats of theaters if they condemn a movie, or if they say a movie will jeopardize your soul," he said. "It really puts a lot of pressure on the moguls, and in 1934, they created the Production Code Administration."

The Legion of Decency also reviewed scripts before movies made their way to the public and offered up ratings lists that were based on various classes.

Movies that fell under "class A" were deemed unobjectionable, while "class B" films were objectionable and "class C" movies were condemned by the organization.

How Hollywood dramatically changed

Baehr explained that these groups "worked behind the scenes to make sure that the movie industry represented the concerns of the vast majority of the public." These reviews certainly mattered, as a negative finding could mean that millions of Catholics across the country would be prohibited from watching a specific film.

And since studios owned many theaters, it wasn't all that difficult to force them to abide by the code. As Doherty explained, "the Production Code worked really well for the studio system." By contract, theaters aligned with the studios could only show films that were "Production Code approved." If theaters defied that order, then studios could withhold future Production Code films.

"It's very much part of this studio system racket, and in the end, the code becomes one way that the studios maintain their power over not just the theaters they own, but the affiliate theaters, as well," he said.

But in the late 1960s — just a few decades after these religious bodies decided to partner with Hollywood, the Protestant Film Office shut down due to a lack of funding, with the Legion of Decency going on to continue its work through its successor the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting. Still, its influence began to wane.

Baehr said that decreased pressure from these private religious groups opened up the movie industry to more objectionable content. The gatekeepers were either no longer present — or were seen as profoundly weakened.

With tides changing and with filmmakers starting to ignore content bans espoused in the code, the Motion Picture Association of America, under the leadership of Jack Valenti, replaced the Hays Code with a film rating system in 1968.

The shift moved from restricting films to alerting the public about the contents of each movie; we still rely upon this rating system today. It's a transformation that Baehr lamented.

"Culture is downstream from the mass media of entertainment (and the change) created a culture which … got new scripts of behavior," Baehr said. "The new scripts of behavior was, 'Let's all go out and have sex out of wedlock, take drugs and enjoy ourselves.'"

Just one year after the Production Code was abandoned, the film "Midnight Cowboy," which was X-rated, won the Oscar for "Best Picture." It was later re-rated to "R," showing what NPR called changing "community standards."

Clearly, Hollywood was changing, with that evolution into more risque content forging on throughout the following decades.

Social conservatives, among others, are known for complaining about the state of Hollywood films, with the decades following the abandonment of the Production Code including a great deal of content that critics have found objectionable.

Still, people like Baehr see a positive move in the right direction these days, at least when it comes to theatrical releases, as Bible and Christian-themed films have experienced a resurgence in recent years.

From "God's Not Dead" to "Miracles From Heaven," faith films have made a splash of late, with more on the horizon.

"You're talking about an incredible sea change," Baehr said of faith-based hits, adding that he's hopeful that the trend will continue.

Read more about the state of morals in Hollywood here.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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