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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