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.