Hollywood in the 1920s was haunted by a number of scandals, like the murder of director William Desmond Taylor and alleged fatal sexual assault by movie star “Fatty” Arbuckle, which brought widespread condemnation from religious, civic, and political organizations. Political pressure was increasing, with legislators in 37 states introducing almost one hundred movie censorship bills in 1921. Faced with the prospect of having to comply with hundreds of local decency laws in order to show their movies, the studios chose self-regulation by way of a single church official.
The movie studios enlisted Presbyterian elder Will H. Hays to rehabilitate Hollywood’s image. Hays, Postmaster General under Warren G. Harding and former head of the Republican National Committee, was paid a lavish sum equivalent to $1.4 million in today’s money inflation. He served for 25 years as president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), where he “defended the industry from attacks, recited soothing nostrums, and negotiated treaties to cease hostilities.” The move mimicked the decision Major League Baseball had made in hiring judge Kenesaw Landis as League Commissioner the previous year to quell questions about the integrity of baseball in the wake of the 1919 World Series gambling scandal. That was the one you might have seen dramatized in the 1988 movie Eight Men Out.
The Supreme Court had already decided unanimously in 1915 in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that free speech did not extend to motion pictures. The movies, the Court ruled, were a business like any other, and therefore states should be allowed, as Geltzer puts it, to “regulate, license, and censor motion pictures as an exercise of police power to protect the social welfare of a community.” New York became the first state to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s decision by instituting a censorship board in 1921, with other states following soon thereafter. Moviemakers were looking at the possibility that many states and cities would adopt their own codes of censorship, requiring a multiplicity of versions of movies made for national distribution. Self-censorship seemed a preferable outcome. In 1924, Hays introduced a set of recommendations dubbed “The Formula”, which the studios were advised to heed, and instructed filmmakers to notify his office about the plots of movie *before they were made. In 1927, Hays suggested to studio executives that they form a committee to discuss film censorship, which heads of MGM, Fox and Paramount did. They collaborated on a list called the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls”, eleven subjects to avoid and twenty-six to be handle very carefully, was based on things that were challenged by local censor boards. The list was approved by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC); however, there was no way to enforce its tenets.
Here are *most of the “Don’ts” and “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: Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus”, “Christ” (unless in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell”, “damn”, “Gawd”, and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled; Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture; The illegal traffic in drugs; Any inference of sex perversion; *White slavery; Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races); Sex hygiene and venereal diseases (because who would ever need to know about that?); Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette; Children’s sex organs (that one’s sensible, at least).
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: The use of the flag; Arson; The use of firearms; 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); Brutality and possible gruesomeness; Technique of committing murder by whatever method; Methods of smuggling; Third-degree (meaning violent interrogation) methods; Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime; Sedition; Apparent cruelty to children and animals; Branding of people or animals; The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue; Rape or attempted rape; wedding night scenes; Man and woman in bed together; Deliberate seduction of girls; Surgical operations; The use of drugs; Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.” (Heavy in this case seems to mean a criminal.)
This was the precursor of the 1930 Motion Picture Code, which was suggested to the studio heads by a Catholic layman and a Jesuit priest. The recently-formed Studio Relations Committee was responsible for supervising film production and advising the studios when changes were required, though local censor boards still held considerably authority. The code was divided into two parts. The first was a set of “general principles” which prohibited a picture from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it”, called for depictions of the “correct standards of life”, and forbade a picture to show any sort of ridicule towards a law or “creating sympathy for its violation”. The second part was a set of “particular applications”, which was an exacting list of items that could not be depicted. Some restrictions, such as the ban on homosexuality or on the use of specific curse words, were never directly mentioned, but were assumed to be understood. The code sought not only to determine what could be portrayed on screen, but also to promote “traditional values.” Sexual relations outside marriage were forbidden to be portrayed as attractive or beautiful so as not to arouse passion or make them seem permissible. All criminal action had to be punished, and neither the crime nor the criminal could elicit sympathy from the audience. Authority figures had to be treated with respect, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. The entire document was written with Catholic undertones; a recurring theme was “that throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong, and good is right”. The Code also contained an addendum commonly referred to as the Advertising Code, which regulated advertising copy and imagery.
Initially, Hays’s regulators had little power of enforcement., which likely led Catholic groups to form the Legion of Decency, in 1933, which crusaded against Hollywood as a moral threat to the nation. The Legion was formed ostensibly to put pressure on the Industry moguls to follow the Production Code, but would hold more sway in the 30’s and 40’s than the MPAA or local censors. Through protests and boycotts, the Legion would essentially force the industry to comply, since these events shut down theaters completely, stopping all ticket revue. Some Hollywood studios chose to comply rather than face bankruptcy. The Legion’s purpose, in practice, became the classification and reviews of motion pictures by a panel of priests and laymen, selected by the Bishops. A Legion classification of “B” meant that a film is morally objectionable. A “C” rating gave a film the feared condemned status and protests by Catholic groups. Joseph Breen, who took over for Hays in 1934, actually worked closely with the Legion of Decency and the United States Bishops Conference. During Breen’s tenure, 25,000 films went through his censorship. Pope Pius XI eventually made Breen a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory. There influence didn’t begin to wane until 1953, with the controversy over the charming comedy The Moon Is Blue, the first movie to use the words virgin, pregnant, and seduce. Appellate judges were overturning more and more local bans on movies and even within the Legion, they could not agree that the film needed to be condemned, though it was anyway. In 1954, Breen came head to head with Howard Hughes, who put his film The French Line, a 3D movie starring the curvaceous Jane Russel, into theaters without the Legion’s rating. The Legion pushed back by sending a letter to every church to be read out loud on that following Sunday condemning the film for its salaciousness and forbidding attendance under pain of mortal sin. Hughes adjusted and cut the film according to the censorship restrictions of the areas where he wanted it released. He actually cut more than what Breen requested. With the edited version, the crowds thinned and he lost bookings in many locations. Remember, this was twenty years before movies were released across the entire country at once. The Legion would lose most of its power by the 1960’s, when changing social mores made it clear that they could no longer agree on what was moral entertainment and that they were no better at making that judgement than any other segment of the population.
About the time Breen came to power, the Federal Communications Commission was created to police radio and later television. Regulating communications had been important to ensure the military, emergency responders, police, and entertainment companies all wanted to be able to get their signals out without interference. The Radio Act of 1912 helped to establish a commission that would designate which airwaves would be for public use and which airwaves would be reserved for the various commercial users who needed them. In 1926, the Federal Radio Commission was established to help handle the growing complexities of the country’s radio needs. In 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act, which replaced the Federal Radio Commission with the Federal Communications Commission. The Communications Act also put telephone communications under the FCC’s control, which was a major change from the previous regulating structure that was in place. The FCC was further tasked with breaking up some of the communications monopolies that had developed by 1934.
Beyond managing the technical aspects of communication, the FCC was officially imbued with the authority to restrict content it deemed indecent by the Supreme Court decision in FCC v. Pacifica in 1978. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority, explaining why broadcast media do not receive the same level of First Amendment protection as print media:
“First, the broadcast media have established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans … not only in public, but also in the privacy of the home, where the individual’s right to be left alone plainly outweighs the First Amendment rights of an intruder. Because the broadcast audience is constantly tuning in and out, prior warnings cannot completely protect the listener or viewer from unexpected program content. To say that one may avoid further offense by turning off the radio when he hears indecent language is like saying that the remedy for an assault is to run away after the first blow. One may hang up on an indecent phone call, but that option does not give the caller a constitutional immunity or avoid a harm that has already taken place. […] Other forms of offensive expression may be withheld from the young without restricting the expression at its source.” It is worth noting that the Court’s majority in Pacifica is a narrow 5-4, and that many legal scholars still believe that the FCC’s purported authority to regulate indecent broadcast content actually violates the First Amendment.
Although the case deals with a modern-day wise man George Carlin’s 7 Dirty Words You Can’t Say On the Radio routine, the Court’s ruling provides a rationale for later television broadcast censorship. Here are some of my favorite moments in the corseting of the boob tube. In 1942, Tweety Bird debuted in “A Tale of Two Kitties.” Animator Bob Clampett originally draws him without feathers, but the Hays Office found the plucked bird to be a little too naked for their tastes, so Clampett covers Tweety’s titillating flesh with yellow plumage. Clampett doesn’t let this pass quietly, though. In the episode, a cat yells to his partner, “Give me the bird!” To which the other cat responds, “If the Hays Office would only let me, I’d give him the bird, all right!”
1952 makes comedy legend Lucille Ball’s actual pregnancy, which was incorporated into I Love Lucy, with one minor omission – the actual word “pregnant” wasn’t allowed on air. Instead, the show uses phrases like ‘with child” and “expecting.” The earliest use of ‘pregnant’ on air that I can find is a 1962 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, where it’s used in reference to a cat. Bonus fact: baby Ricky was only 12 hours old the first time he appeared on the show.
Elvis’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956 was seen by 60 million people or about 80 percent of households with TV. His hips, however, aren’t so lucky. After his cover of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” — complete with trademark gyrations — the camera switches to a close-up of his face as not to over-stimulate the American public. By the time he appears on the show for the third time (in January 1957), he’s only shown from the waist up.
On 1959’s dramatic anthology series “Playhouse 90,” an episode titled “Judgment at Nuremberg” has all references to gas chambers eliminated from its re-enactment of the Nazi trials. This is done at the behest of the show’s sponsor, the American Gas Association.
The humble belly button was cause for vexation in the mid-sixties. Mary Ann from “Gilligan’s Island,” Jeannie from “I Dream of Jeannie,” and “Gidget” are all barred from baring their navels. Actress Mariette Hartley received the same treatment in a 1966 episode of “Star Trek,” but Gene Roddenberry got his revenge in 1973 when he cast Hartley in the pilot of “Genesis II” and gave her *two belly buttons. Bonus fact: in addition to having TV’s first interracial kiss, Star Trek was also the first show to use ‘hell’ as a swear word.
Naughty navels weren’t half as much bother for censors as the ever-necessary but mysteriously non-existent toilet. The Brady Bunch had six kids sharing a bathroom with no toilet. The pilot episode of “Leave It To Beaver” was almost pulled in 1957 because of its plot, wherein the boys mail-order a baby alligator and are forced to hide it in the tank of the family’s toilet. CBS finally decides the show can air, but only if all shots that included the toilet seat were removed, leaving only the top of the tank, making it the first toilet shown on TV, if only in part. The first instance of a toilet in action came in a 1971 episode of “All in the Family,” but again, partially. The toilet is heard, but not seen, to flush. Talking about toilets was also taboo. Jack Parr left his job as host of The Tonight Show when a joke he made about the WC was cut by censors. That’s not my phrasing, though I do use it, it was his. He didn’t even say ‘water closet,’ which must be polite (it’s British) and they still said it was obscene.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. I’ll leave you with a few examples of surprising moments of not-censorship. The mini-series Roots was allowed to run unedited, including its full-frontal nudity in 1977, owing to the severity of the subject matter in this story of American slavery. The same pass was given to the 1997 airing of Schindler’s List. The s-word was allowed on network television without fine in a 1999 episode of Chicago Hope, in the casual phrase ‘it happens.’ Has anyone else noticed that seems to be Mel Brooks’ favorite swear word? The f-word has even gone over the airwaves without punishment, such as when U2 frontman Bono used it as a happy adjective during an awards ceremony, though the FCC did issue a stern warning. Hey, what’s the difference between Bono and God? God doesn’t walk around all day acting like he’s Bono.