“Thou Shalt Not”: A 1940 Photo Satirically Mocks Every Vice & Sin Censored by the Hays Movie Censorship Code

The his­to­ry of Hol­ly­wood film before 1968 breaks down into two eras: “pre-Code” and “post-Code.” The “Code” in ques­tion is the Motion Pic­ture Pro­duc­tion Code, bet­ter known as the “Hays Code,” a ref­er­ence to Motion Pic­ture Pro­duc­ers and Dis­trib­u­tors of Amer­i­ca pres­i­dent Will H. Hays. The orga­ni­za­tion we now know as the MPAA hired Hays in 1922, task­ing the Pres­by­ter­ian dea­con and for­mer chair­man of the Repub­li­can Nation­al Com­mit­tee and Post­mas­ter Gen­er­al with “clean­ing up” ear­ly Hol­ly­wood’s sin­ful image. Eight years into Hays’ pres­i­den­cy came the Code, a pre-emp­tive act of self-cen­sor­ship meant to dic­tate the moral­ly accept­able — and more impor­tant­ly, the moral­ly unac­cept­able — con­tent in Amer­i­can film.

“The code sets up high stan­dards of per­for­mance for motion-pic­ture pro­duc­ers,” NPR’s Bob Mon­del­lo quotes Hays as say­ing at the Code’s 1930 debut. “It states the con­sid­er­a­tions which good taste and com­mu­ni­ty val­ue make nec­es­sary in this uni­ver­sal form of enter­tain­ment.” No pic­ture, for exam­ple, should “low­er the moral stan­dards of those who see it,” and “the sym­pa­thy of the audi­ence shall nev­er be thrown to the side of crime, wrong­do­ing, evil or sin.” There was also “an updat­ed, much-expand­ed list of ‘don’ts’ and ‘be care­fuls,’ with bans on nudi­ty, sug­ges­tive danc­ing and lust­ful kiss­ing. The mock­ing of reli­gion and the depic­tion of ille­gal drug use were pro­hib­it­ed, as were inter­ra­cial romance, revenge plots and the show­ing of a crime method clear­ly enough that it might be imi­tat­ed.”

Seri­ous enforce­ment of the Code com­menced in 1934, and it did­n’t take long there­after for Hol­ly­wood film­mak­ers to start flout­ing it. “Amer­i­can film pro­duc­ers are inured by now to the Hays Office which reg­u­lates movie morals,” says a Life arti­cle from 1946. Indeed, “know­ing that things banned by the code will help sell tick­ets,” those pro­duc­ers “have been sub­tly get­ting around the code for years.” In oth­er words, they “observe its let­ter and vio­late its spir­it as much as pos­si­ble.” Atop the arti­cle appears an enor­mous pho­to­graph, tak­en by Para­mount pho­tog­ra­ph­er A. L. “Whitey” Schafer, that “shows, in one fell swoop, many things pro­duc­ers must not do,” or rather must not depict: the defeat of the law, the inside of the thigh, nar­cotics, drink­ing, an “exposed bosom,” a tom­my gun, and so on.

For 1941’s inau­gur­al Hol­ly­wood Stu­dios’ Still Show, “Schafer decid­ed to cre­ate a nov­el­ty shot to satir­i­cal­ly slap at the Pro­duc­tion Code, the cen­sor­ship stan­dards of the Motion Pic­ture Pro­duc­ers and Dis­trib­u­tors Assn,” writes Hol­ly­wood his­to­ri­an Mary Mal­lo­ry. “His satir­i­cal image, enti­tled, “Thou Shalt Not,” dis­played the top 10 faux-pas dis­al­lowed by indus­try cen­sors, who approved every pho­to­graph­ic image shot by stu­dios before they could be dis­trib­uted.” When “out­raged orga­niz­ers pulled the image from the com­pe­ti­tion” and threat­ened Schae­fer with a fine, he explained that “all the judges were hoard­ing the 18 prints sub­mit­ted for the show.” Few of us today would feel so tit­il­lat­ed, let alone moral­ly cor­rupt­ed, by Schafer­’s image, but as film­mak­er Ais­linn Clarke recent­ly demon­strat­ed on Twit­ter, it may offer more pure enter­tain­ment val­ue than ever.

(via @AislinnClarke)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Brief His­to­ry of Hol­ly­wood Cen­sor­ship and the Rat­ings Sys­tem

The 5 Essen­tial Rules of Film Noir

The Essen­tial Ele­ments of Film Noir Explained in One Grand Info­graph­ic

When Stan­ley Kubrick Banned His Own Film, A Clock­work Orange: It Was the “Most Effec­tive Cen­sor­ship of a Film in British His­to­ry”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.