Specific restrictions were spelled out as "Particular Applications" of these principles:
In the early 1920s, three major scandals had rocked Hollywood: the manslaughter trials of comedy star Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle who was charged with being responsible for the death of actress Virginia Rappe at a wild party in San Francisco during Labor Day weekend of 1921; the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in February 1922 and the revelations regarding his bisexuality; and the drug-related death of popular actor Wallace Reid in January 1923.
Other allegedly drug-related deaths of stars Olive Thomas, Barbara La Marr, Jeanne Eagels, and Alma Rubens resulted in persistent calls for censorship and "cleaning up" of Hollywood all through the '20s. These stories were sensationalized in the press and grabbed headlines across the country. They appeared to confirm a widespread perception that many Americans had of Hollywood — that it was "Sin City".
Public outcry over perceived immorality in Hollywood and the movies, as well as the growing number of city and state censorship boards, led to the creation in 1922 of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (which became the Motion Picture Association of America in 1945), an industry trade and lobby organization. The association was headed by Will H. Hays, a well-connected Republican lawyer who had previously been United States Postmaster General and the 1920 campaign manager for President Warren G. Harding. Hays immediately banned Fatty Arbuckle from the movies and instituted a morality clause to apply to anyone working in films. He also derailed attempts to institute federal censorship over the movies.
In 1927 Hays compiled a list of subjects, culled from his experience with the various U.S. censorship boards, which he felt Hollywood studios would be wise to avoid. He called this list "the formula" but it was popularly known as the "don'ts and be carefuls" list around town. In 1930 Hays created the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) to implement his censorship code, but the SRC lacked any real enforcement capability.
The advent of talking pictures in 1927 signaled the need for further enforcement. Martin J. Quigley, the publisher of a Chicago-based motion picture trade newspaper, began lobbying for a more extensive code that not only listed material that was inappropriate for the movies, but also contained a moral system that the movies could help to promote--specifically a system based on Catholic theology. He recruited Father Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest and instructor at the Catholic St. Louis University, to write such a code and on March 31, 1930 the board of directors of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association adopted it formally. It has become known to posterity as the Hays Code.
However, Depression economics and changing social mores resulted in the studios producing racier fare that the Code, lacking an aggressive enforcement body, was unable to redress. This era of Hollywood filmmaking is therefore known as the "pre-Code era."
In response to such movies as Warner Brothers' Baby Face (starring Barbara Stanwyck) and Paramount Pictures' I'm No Angel (starring and written by Mae West), Quigley and Joseph I. Breen, Will Hays's Los Angeles–based assistant, conspired to use the Catholic Church to exert pressure on the Hollywood studios. They helped spearhead the creation of the Catholic Legion of Decency as well as boycotts and blacklists of the movies throughout the country.
An amendment to the Code, adopted on June 13 1934, established the Production Code Administration (PCA), and required all films released on or after July 1 to obtain a certificate of approval before being released. For more than thirty years following, virtually all motion pictures produced in the United States adhered to the code. The Production Code was not created or enforced by federal, state, or city government. In fact, the Hollywood studios adopted the code in large part in the hopes of avoiding government censorship, preferring self-regulation to government regulation.
The enforcement of the Production Code led to the dissolution of many local censorship boards. Meanwhile, the U.S. Customs Department prohibited the importation of the Czech film Ecstasy (1933), starring an actress soon to be known as Hedy Lamarr, an action which was upheld on appeal.
In 1934, Joseph I. Breen (1888-1965) was appointed head of the new Production Code Administration (PCA). Under Breen's leadership of the PCA, which lasted until his retirement in 1954, enforcement of the Production Code became rigid and notorious. Breen's power to change scripts and scenes angered many writers, directors, and Hollywood moguls.
The first major instance of censorship under the Production Code involved the 1934 film Tarzan and His Mate, in which brief nude scenes involving a body double for actress Maureen O'Sullivan were edited out of the master negative of the film. Another famous case of enforcement involved the 1943 western The Outlaw, produced by Howard Hughes. The Outlaw was denied a certificate of approval and kept out of theaters for years because the film's advertising focused particular attention on Jane Russell's breasts. Hughes eventually persuaded Breen that the breasts did not violate the code and the film could be shown.
Some films produced outside the mainstream studio system during this time did flout the conventions of the code, such as Child Bride (1938), which featured a nude scene involving 12-year-old actress Shirley Mills. Even cartoon sex symbol Betty Boop had to change from being a flapper, and began to wear an old-fashioned housewife skirt.
Hollywood worked within the confines of the Production Code until the late 1950s, by which time the "Golden Age of Hollywood" had ended, and the movies were faced with very serious competitive threats. The first threat came from a new technology, television, which did not require Americans to leave their house to watch moving pictures. Hollywood needed to offer the public something it could not get on television, which itself was under an even more restrictive censorship code.
In addition to the threat of television, there was also increasing competition from foreign films, like Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), the Swedish film Hon dansade en sommar (English title: One Summer of Happiness) (1951), and Ingmar Bergman's Sommar med Monika (Summer with Monika) (1953). For De Sica's film, there was a censorship controversy when the MPAA demanded a scene where the lead characters talk to the prostitutes of a brothel be removed, regardless of the fact that there is no sexual or provocative activity. The Swedish films were the first to include nude love scenes, and made an international sensation.
Vertical integration in the movie industry had been found to violate anti-trust laws, and studios had been forced to give up ownership of theatres by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948). The studios had no way to keep foreign films out, and foreign films weren't bound by the Production Code. The anti-trust rulings also helped pave the way for independent art houses that would show films created by people such as Andy Warhol and others working outside the studio system.
Finally, a boycott from the Legion of Decency no longer guaranteed a commercial failure, and thus the Code prohibitions began to vanish when Hollywood producers ignored the Code and were still able to earn profits.
The MPAA revised the code in 1951, not to make it more flexible, but to make it more rigid. The 1951 revisions spelled out more words and subjects that were prohibited, and no doubt increased the opposition of movie-makers to the code.
In 1952, in the case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overruled its 1915 decision and held that motion pictures were entitled to First Amendment protection, so that the New York Board of Regents could not ban Roberto Rossellini's The Miracle. This became known as the "Miracle Decision" due to its connection to Rossellini's film. That in turn reduced the threat of government regulation that justified the production code, and the PCA's powers over the Hollywood industry were greatly reduced.
At the forefront of challenges to the code was director Otto Preminger, whose films violated the code repeatedly in the 1950s. His 1953 film The Moon is Blue, about a young woman who tries to play two suitors off against each other by claiming that she plans to keep her virginity until marriage, was the first film to use the words "virgin", "seduce" and "mistress", and it was released without a certificate of approval. He later made The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which portrayed the prohibited subject of drug abuse, and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) which dealt with rape. Preminger's films were direct assaults on the authority of the Production Code and, since they were successful, hastened its abandonment.
Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) were also released without a certificate of approval due to their themes and became box office hits, and as a result further weakened the authority of the code.
When Jack Valenti became President of the MPAA in 1966, he was immediately faced with a problem regarding language in the film version of Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Valenti negotiated a compromise: The word "screw" was removed, but other language, including the phrase "hump the hostess," remained. The film received Production Code approval despite having language that was clearly prohibited.
The film Blowup (1967) presented a different problem. After the film was denied Production Code approval, MGM released it anyway, the first instance of an MPAA member company distributing a film that didn't have an approval certificate. There was little the MPAA could do about it.
Enforcement had become impossible, and the Production Code was abandoned entirely. The MPAA began working on a rating system, under which there would be virtually no restriction on what could be in a film. The MPAA film rating system went into effect on November 1, 1968 with four ratings: G, M, R, and X. In 1969, the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) directed by Vilgot Sjöman, was initially banned in the U.S. for its frank depiction of sexuality; however this was overturned by the Supreme Court.
The M rating was changed to GP in 1970 and to the current PG in 1972. In 1984, in response to public complaints regarding the severity of horror elements in PG-rated titles such as Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the PG-13 rating was created as a middle tier between PG and R. In 1990, the X rating was replaced by NC-17, in part because the X rating was not trademarked by the MPAA whereas porno bookstores and theatres were using their own trademark X and XXX symbols to market their products.