A Brief History of Hollywood Censorship and the Ratings System

Cen­sor­ship, as most seri­ous film­go­ers know, shaped the sen­si­bil­i­ty of all the pic­tures we know from the “Gold­en Age” of Hol­ly­wood. It did so in the form of 1930’s “Motion Pic­ture Pro­duc­tion Code (also known as the Hays Code),” which “set up a small jury to review films for con­tent,” at first “still with­out teeth and large­ly mocked by indus­try insid­ers.” But that changed in a big way when “the Amer­i­can Bish­ops of the Roman Catholic Church orga­nized The Legion of Decen­cy and, in 1934, with the sup­port of Protes­tant and Jew­ish Orga­ni­za­tions, began call­ing for boy­cotts of films deemed unac­cept­able. [ … ] The Hol­ly­wood stu­dios, still reel­ing from the loss­es of 1933 due in large part to the delayed effects of the Great Depres­sion, were forced to act.” That sum­ma­ry comes from “The His­to­ry of Hol­ly­wood Cen­sor­ship and the Rat­ings Sys­tem,” a brief but in-depth les­son pro­duced by Film­mak­er IQ. Its video ver­sion appears at the top. Below, you can watch 1941’s The Out­law, the bust size of whose star Jane Rus­sell had the cen­sors demand­ing “37 spe­cif­ic reshoots.”

The com­plete sto­ry of cen­sor­ship and rat­ings in Hol­ly­wood involves such ele­ments of Amer­i­can his­to­ry and cul­ture as not just the Great Depres­sion and the Roman Catholic Church, but the 1919 World Series Gam­bling scan­dal, the Chicago’s Women’s Munic­i­pal League, mighty sys­tems of pro­duc­tion, the sport of box­ing, Howard Hugh­es, and of course, the almighty dol­lar. Even­tu­al­ly, film­mak­ers began to sim­ply defy the Hays Code; you can watch Otto Pre­minger’s famous exam­ple of just that, the 1953 com­e­dy The Moon is Blue (pos­sessed, cen­sors said, of “an unac­cept­ably light atti­tude towards seduc­tion, illic­it sex, chasti­ty, and vir­gin­i­ty”). In 1968, the weak­ened Code’s replace­ment arrived: the Motion Pic­ture Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca’s Rat­ings sys­tem and its still-famil­iar G, PG, R, and X (PG-13 was intro­duced in 1984; NC-17 replaced X in 1990). Quaint as these mea­sures may now seem, the les­son tells us that con­tro­ver­sy has remained. “Some may say that films were sex­i­er and scari­er under the cen­sor­ship of the pro­duc­tion code – for noth­ing that can be seen is as tan­ta­liz­ing and hor­ri­fy­ing as what the imag­i­na­tion and antic­i­pa­tion can con­jure. But giv­en the choice between free­dom and cen­sor­ship, free­dom is the only sus­tain­able option.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ear­ly Hol­ly­wood Cen­sored

Did Hol­ly­wood Movies Stu­dios “Col­lab­o­rate” with Hitler Dur­ing WW II? His­to­ri­an Makes the Case

Frank Zap­pa Debates Cen­sor­ship on CNN’s Cross­fire (1986)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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  • Hanoch says:

    “But giv­en the choice between free­dom and cen­sor­ship, free­dom is the only sus­tain­able option.”

    I don’t see that free­dom and cen­sor­ship are nec­es­sar­i­ly mutu­al­ly exclu­sive ideas. Don’t all social inter­ac­tions involve at least some degree of cen­sor­ship, imposed at the indi­vid­ual or social lev­el?

  • Scout says:

    Free­dom is avail­able to activ­i­ties that are not crim­i­nal. The crim­i­nals of film, TV, and all media use the cov­er of ‘free­dom’ to direct the gullible to accept ide­olo­gies that ben­e­fit the inter­na­tion­al rulers.

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