The Motion Picture Production Code and an Industry within an Industry: A Case Study

This paper was originally written for the “Media Industries” course within the Film and Media Studies graduate program at Arizona State University, completed April 26, 2021.

The Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC) was a set of regulations for the content of American films, and was nominally in effect from 1930 to 1934 and from the late 1950s through the ’60s. In the intervening years, what was also known as the Hays Code (after regulatory instigator Will H. Hays) demonstrably shaped the topics Hollywood films could cover, preventing explicit examples of sex, racism, violence, and more. Although the MPPC was associated with Hays, who was the president of the Code’s administrative body, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), it was most strongly enforced from 1934 to 1954 by Joseph Breen, Hays’ deputy. After this time, the MPPC was nominally enforced until it was finally done away with in 1968 in favor of the current ratings system paradigm of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). The Code has been the subject of much analysis and research into the sociological impact of industry self-censorship, which is what the MPPC was; the American film industry created and acquiesced to its own regulatory body to avoid governmental interference. But this case study will investigate, especially in regards to the critical years from 1934 to 1954, the industrial context of Breen’s office and the employment of censor-script-readers and other administrative positions to act on top of the already existing Hollywood studio structure.

To guide the research for this case study, a few research questions were formulated. These were questions that reflected the philosophy and interest in the MPPC as an industrial influencer, not just as a factor in American films’ content and form. With preliminary understanding of how the regulatory process worked, which involved script readers examining stories and dialogue before or during production (echoing the “prior constraint” of government censorship), I first simply wanted to know “How many people did Breen’s office employ during its peak years of influence?” This led to the broader question of “How did the MPPC create an industry within an industry?” because the Hollywood studios themselves employed script readers to find the best stories to produce into full motion pictures. This question is not meant to imply that Breen’s office was a force equal to or greater than Hollywood; although its influence became mighty, it was involved in one aspect of pre-production, and was not producing anything like the studios.

Although this case study is concerned primarily with industrial concerns, not content and form, those concerns are not made in a sociological vacuum. Another question that arose during early research was “What circumstances led to the MPPC’s rigorous enforcement, and why did earlier efforts fail to leave the same impact that Breen was able to leave?” Attempts to self-regulate the American film industry had been made since the early 1920s, without the pervasiveness that would dominate it for decades. But it is not as if the films of the 1920s and early ’30s were entirely sexual, violent, and totally critical of social norms. While the so-called “Pre-Code” era of early sound films, from 1929 to 1934, has been singled out for its risque handling of to-be-taboo topics, the movies still operated within the relatively conservative confines of American life.

It could be argued that the MPPC’s success in shaping the content of American films was not entirely unwanted by the Hollywood studios. Even before the MPPC asserted its control over content, the profit-driven studios were adversely affected by movies that would offend a massive part of the population. A final question that comes to mind, then, is “How did the Hollywood studios, in a way, welcome the MPPC’s seal of approval as a means to bolster financial success, or at least a means to prevent financial failure on moral grounds?” All of these considerations shaped the research for this case study, although some are answered in greater depth than others.

The media industries studies approach for this case study is largely informed by Havens and Lotz’s key definitions. The media texts of the Hollywood films are the ultimate product of the American film industry, and the mandate of the MPPC is the means by which they were impacted. But the conditions created by the MPPC, which necessitated new structures injected into the studios’ existing ones, shaped new day-to-day practices, such as the employment of censor-script-readers and workflows that brought screenplays from writers to producers to Breen’s office. The concept of the “helicopter view,” as opposed to a “jet plane view,” was an influence on this approach. The helicopter view is less broad, and looks more closely at “industry operations, a focus on agency within industry operations, a Gramscian theory of power that does not lead to complete domination, and a view of society and culture grounded in structuration and articulation” (Havens et. al 246). Although the MPPC “dominated” the content of American films for at least 20 years, it is also important to see it as a function of the agency of the Hollywood industry at large, and also to acknowledge the subversive labor of screenwriters and directors within it.

Before examining the industrial mechanisms that emerged to support the MPPC’s mandate, it is important to examine the sociological circumstances that led to its concerted enforcement. In the early 1920s, Hollywood turned to Hays after a series of scandals with the intent of rehabilitating the industry’s image and avoiding state censorship. By 1927, Hays had worked with the major studios to formulate “‘Don’ts’ and ‘Be Carefuls,’” which involved 11 of the former and 25 of the latter. In 1930, the MPPC was fully drafted in its new form. Variety, in its February 19, 1930 issue, published the full new Code; however, it wasn’t front page priority (9). Even by 1934, just before the MPPC would be more rigorously enforced, Louis Nizer for The Film Daily approached the Code with a simple, plain speak interpretation of its language (8). In spite of this underwhelming response to the impact of the new MPPC, an amendment in 1934 required all films to receive a seal of approval before release, marking the beginning of the new Code era.

Although Hays was Presbyterian, the MPPC was written by a Catholic priest, and Breen, the ultimate enforcer, belonged to that faith; indeed, the Catholic church’s Legion of Decency insisted that Breen be appointed as the head of the Production Code Administration (PCA), the arm within the MPPDA that finally implemented the MPPC in 1934 (Black 167). The Catholic church and other assorted religious groups were intent on moralizing the content of American films, but “Breen was [also] determined to eliminate controversial subjects from the screen to maximize the worldwide appeal of Hollywood films” (Black 168). Before Breen came in, supported by the Catholic church, Hays’ efforts to regulate American films’ content were minimal. “As a public relations agent, he was an unqualified success; as a censor or regulator of movie content during the 1920s, he was a failure” (Black 169). After years of ineffectual regulation, reform groups, mostly Protestant ones, favored federal involvement once again. The Hollywood studios had to turn to more radical self-government to avoid the state’s.

The Catholic church is seen as the main reason for the Code’s installation. But before 1930, it had actually worked against Protestant efforts to pass censorship laws. Eventually, a group of Catholic priests and laypeople felt differently, and Father Daniel Lord emerged from them to draft the MPPC (Black 171). All of these developments are of note because America is not seen as primarily a Catholic nation. But one of the key questions (“What circumstances led to the MPPC’s rigorous enforcement, and why did earlier efforts fail to leave the same impact that Breen was able to leave?”) can be answered with a general controversy brewing among religious groups, which was only able to make considerable change with the intervention of the Catholic church.

Next, we can address “How did the Hollywood studios, in a way, welcome the MPPC’s seal of approval as a means to bolster financial success, or at least a means to prevent financial failure on moral grounds?” The studios welcomed the seal of approval to bolster financial success because “the financial structure of the industry was always fragile” (Black 173). So perhaps more importantly, the seal made clear how to avoid financial failure on moral grounds. W.R. Wilkerson, editor and publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, wrote in the January 5, 1935 issue that censorship should happen at the script stage, if it has to happen at all (1). His reason? “Once time and money have been expended in production, it is fatal to have that production sliced to ribbons by censors’ shears, causing a destruction of thousands of dollars, money that could and would have been saved if the slicing had been done from the script” (Wilkerson 1). Hollywood insiders were taking the Code in stride by suggesting practical ways to incorporate it.

Continuing the thread of Catholic influence illustrates Hollywood’s narrow view of the margin of error at the box office. While, as mentioned, America is not seen as a Catholic nation, they made up “around twenty percent of the population…with that population being heavily concentrated in America’s largest cities” (Black 173). And if Catholics decided to not see a movie, that could result in major financial stress. And it wasn’t just about impacting ticket sales; Catholic pressure on bankers, who provided the loans that Hollywood operated on, could bankrupt the studios.

Mixed up in much of the conversation about censorship and self-regulation was the point and philosophy behind filmmaking. As for-profit businesses, the Hollywood studios certainly saw their success in the “entertainment film,” which indeed made up the vast majority of American film production (and still does). Martin Quigley, a key force behind and co-author of the MPPC years earlier, wrote in 1947 about the “Importance of the Entertainment Film.” While he takes a moral stance on its effect, the way he describes its popular status clearly reveals it as an economic force. “The American theatrical motion picture has won and is holding a position of great popularity, and consequently of great influence, with a vast public here and abroad. It has achieved an export status…” (Quigley 68, emphasis added). There is language behind every moralizing stance on American film that implies a large audience to be lost and fewer places for movies to be shown. These were huge, and perhaps the only, considerations for Hollywood studios in the 1930s through the ’50s, until it was found that profits could be found once again in riskier productions, reflecting the changing social environment of the country.

In attempting to answer a more specific research question, that is, “How many people did Breen’s office employ during its peak years of influence?”, this case study was to reveal at least partly the mechanism by which the MPPC was able to practically exert its influence on Hollywood. However, even general numbers seem incredibly hard to track down. The scope of the PCA’s operation can be revealed, however, by the fact that the Code was applied to about 20,000 films, which required “Breen and his staff [to] negotiate each film with the studio that offered it” (Black 187).

Although the specifics of employment numbers at the PCA during its reigning years are not easily summarized, there are extant descriptions of the way it and Breen worked. An example concerning Universal and its horror movies of 1931 demonstrates the script review process before and during the PCA’s and its back-and-forth with major Hollywood studios. “Even without the support of a strict Code enforcement policy, the SRC [Studio Relations Committee, the predecessor to the PCA] actively worked with Hollywood studios to avoid censorship and public-relations problems and to develop film releases that would be acceptable for worldwide consumption” (Edwards 25). SRC staff produced “final script synopses,” with both matter-of-fact plot descriptions and potentially outstanding issues with the story and themes. In the case of Universal’s Dracula (Browning, 1931), the six-page script review included analysis of “anxiety-inducing moments,” “exoticism,” and “sensationalism,” but ultimately found little to criticize; Dracula went into production with little fuss (Edwards 27).

The SRC found more problems with Universal releases to follow, such as Frankenstein (Whale, 1931), but generally, the studio was able to power through them. But just a few years later, under the rule of PCA, Universal had to retool Dracula for a 1938 re-release. “The PCA applied a more restrictive standard of acceptable content and greater authority to enforce its opinions” (Edwards 34). While Kyle Edwards cites Universal’s horror re-releases under the PCA as examples of subversion in “Morals, Markets, and ‘Horror Pictures:’ The Rise of Universal Pictures and the Hollywood Production Code,” the amount of increased work and review for even a previously released film illustrates the way Breen’s office operated.

Indeed, the way the SRC and PCA operated are summarized succinctly by Francis G. Couvares in “So This Is Censorship: Race, Sex, and Censorship in Movies of the 1920s and 1930s.” Before the PCA, the SRC “relied mostly on persuasion to convince the studios to avoid antagonizing Hollywood’s critics” (Couvares 592). “Breen [and the PCA]…banned scores of former releases that had offended critics, denied Code seals to unacceptable new productions, and cut scenes and edited scripts for unfinished productions” (Couvares 594). These actions by Breen’s office “often took the form of blunt ultimata” (Couvares 594). This implies a sense of domination by one segment of the American film industry, a para-industry that was literally setting the tone for Hollywood films and what the public could see. But if Hollywood acquiesced, it was certainly in part because it would be adversely affected by government censorship, but also because it was “[enslaved] to the demands and desires of the public” (Jurca 6). And a decent amount of paying customers would not see the kinds of films Hollywood was making in the Pre-Code era.

A conclusion to this case study can be reached by way of the informing research questions: “How did the MPPC create an industry within an industry?” It was my goal to answer that with the variety of examples and analysis cited above. As evidenced by trade reports, new workflows installed into the existing Hollywood structures, and the social environment into which the MPPC was birthed, the American film industry took on the burden of a self-regulatory body that worked in synchronicity and above the already existing processes within the studios.

But if this case study reveals anything about the scholarship around the MPPC, it is the need for a clearer media industries studies approach. The Hays Code has long been the subject of the “censorship” of content and its impact on the content of films from the Golden Age of Cinema. In trade press especially, which used to focus more clearly on economic concerns of the Code in its time, the MPPC is evaluated for its impact on, or reduction of, discourse about important social issues of the day. These are admittedly important factors to consider, as demonstrated by Rebecca Sun’s article for the Hollywood Reporter, “From the Hays Code to ‘Loving’: Hollywood’s History With Interracial Romance” (2016), and Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece for The Washington Post, “Hollywood can’t move toward equality until it confronts its ugly racial history” (2015).

Among the many search engine results to be found in regards to the Hays Code’s impact are articles, popular and scholarly, like these. But answers to questions like “How many people did Breen’s office employ during its peak years of influence?” are not readily available. Further lines of inquiry lie in the specifics of the PCA’s management, with one example for such an inquiry being the tracing of a film’s production in the era and how the Code influenced it at each step. This media industries approach is not separate from or superior to the formal approach found in much of the scholarship about the MPPC, but actually complements it, reflecting the greater social conditions that bring art to reflect life, or perhaps more accurately, that bring art to fail at reflecting life.

Works Cited

Black, Gregory D. “Hollywood Censored: The Production Code Administration and the Hollywood Film Industry, 1930–1940.” Film History, vol. 3, no. 3, 1989, pp. 167–189.

Couvares, Francis G. “So This Is Censorship: Race, Sex, and Censorship in Movies of the 1920s and 1930s.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 45, no. 3, 2011, pp. 581–597.

Edwards, Kyle. “Morals, Markets, and ‘Horror Pictures:’ The Rise of Universal Pictures and the Hollywood Production Code.” Film History, vol. 42, no. 2, 2012, pp. 22–37.

Havens, Timothy and Amanda D. Lotz. “Key Concepts in Media Industry Studies.” Understanding Media Industries. Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 1–25.

Havens, Timothy, et. al. “Critical Media Industry Studies: A Research Approach.” Communication, Culture and Critique, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 234–253.

Jurca, Catherine. “What the Public Wanted: Hollywood, 1937–1942.” Cinema Journal, vol. 47, no. 2, 2008, pp. 3–25.

Niver, Louis. “Analysis of Motion Picture Code.” The Film Daily, 4 Jan. 1934, p.8.

“Picture ‘Don’ts’ for ‘30.” Variety, 19 Feb. 1930, p. 9.

Quigley, Martin. “Importance of the Entertainment Film.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 254, 1947, pp. 65–69.

Rosenberg, Alyssa. “Hollywood can’t move toward equality until it confronts its ugly racial history.” The Washington Post, 26 March 2015.

Sun, Rebecca. “From the Hays Code to ‘Loving’: Hollywood’s History With Interracial Romance.” The Hollywood Reporter, 22 May 2016.

Wilkerson, W.R. “Tradeviews.” The Hollywood Reporter, 5 Jan. 1935, p. 1

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