What Goes Around...
extensively about the so-called "decency squads" taking aim at popular
culture over the past decade or so (think lesbian-free episodes of PBS's "Postcards From Buster" and a televised
"Saving Private Ryan" stripped of its graphic opening scenes).
Perhaps it's just the American Way. Such concerns were abundant in 1921, when Hollywood
scrambled to police itself in the wake of mounting public hostility toward its increasingly risque products. Scandals surrounding
Arbuckle, Wallace Reid and murdered film director William Desmond Taylor only made things worse.
So what did
Hollywood do? It panicked. To avoid being subjected to government censorship, it formed a new organization aimed at policing
itself. But the effort would mean more than just turning out "clean" fare; it would also mean tolerating only "clean"
reputations on the part of its artists.
It's a little-known fact that in 1921, literally hundreds of artists,
including Roscoe Arbuckle, were blacklisted due to their "scandalous" reputations. Arbuckle had to adopt a pseudonym
just to get work.
These blacklists were a direct antecedent to the McCarthy blacklists that steamrolled Hollywood
in the 1950s.
Call Me Fatty
The Hays Code
Will Hays: America's Morality Czar
"Morality became a divisive issue during the 1920s in the United States.
One focal point of the cultural debate was Hollywood and its movies. Known for promiscuity,
and alcohol, Hollywood developed an image as a hotbed of immoral behavior. In
the early 1920s the town was rocked by a series of scandals which brought widespread condemnation from civic, religious
and political organizations. In 1921, one of America's most popular movie stars, comic Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle,
was accused of raping a young actress, Virginia Rappe. After she died of internal injuries, he was indicted for manslaughter.
Arbuckle was eventually acquitted, but the public outcry about Hollywood's lack of morals became deafening.
Women's clubs, church organizations, youth movements, and various reform groups demonstrated across the country, calling
for censorship of Hollywood films. By 1922 the federal government and 36 states were considering enacting laws against the
industry. Banks began to rescind movie companies' credit lines. The media fed the frenzy by blowing minor scandals out
of proportion, with the encouragement of many European business interests. The European movie industry, decimated by the
war, was eager to rebuild itself and break Hollywood's near-monopoly on feature films. Besides these attacks, the American
film industry was concerned about declining attendance at movies and competition from radio. Nervous about the growing backlash
toward the industry and fearing censorship, the movie industry decided to regulate itself.
sought the right man to help them fend off censorship. The choice came down to three: Herbert Hoover, Hiram Johnson and
Will Hays. Hays had met many of the movie industry leaders while campaigning for President Warren G. Harding. His political
background, skill in public relations, legal and religious authority, and his connections with well-placed people made him
the top choice. Hays was a shrewd judge of political opinion, a successful executive and, most importantly, a master communicator
to mass audiences.
On December 8, 1921, movie moguls Lewis J. Selznick and Saul Rogers approached Hays. On January
14, 1922, less than a year after becoming Postmaster General, Hays became head of the newly formed Motion Picture Producers
and Directors Association (MPPDA), at a salary of $100,000 a year. Hays insisted that his job be defined as "spokesman"
for the industry, yet he was granted veto power over decisions by the MPPDA's board of directors.
Picture Producers and Directors Association soon became known as the "Hays Office." Hays kept his office and staff
in New York, removed from the Hollywood atmosphere, yet near the headquarters of movie production companies. As spokesman
for the industry, Hays used his powers of persuasion to mollify the public. Within three months of taking office, Hays established
relationships with major banks, which resumed giving loans to the film industry.
Hays met with dozens of influential
critics of the industry, from the Boy Scouts of America to the National Council of Catholic Women. Hays persuaded these
and other organizations to drop their calls for censorship and instead join an industry public relations committee to advise
the movie companies. A representative of the committee was assigned to the Hays Office and paid a salary. Some of the organizations
eventually dropped out of the committee, calling it a smokescreen for the industry.
Will Hays was a passionate
and persuasive speaker. When he was overtaken by emotion, his voice would rise and he would wave his hands, pounding on
his desk for emphasis. He had a strong memory for faces, situations and circumstances and a passion for minute detail. Hays
possessed a quick political mind; he was able to take multiple bits of information, categorize them and make an evaluation
within moments. He garnered the respect of the leaders of the industry he was hired to save as well as the conservative
leaders who were trying to establish strict moral codes governing Hollywood.
Hays directed much of his attention
to improving the public image of Hollywood movies. Hays got publicists to eliminate references to movie star luxuries that
common people associated with immorality, such as expensive cars and champagne baths. Some prominent actors known as partygoers
soon disappeared from movies altogether, women with questionable reputations were dropped from the lists of extras, and
certain romantic relationships between stars were publicized as marriages. "Morals clauses" soon began to appear
in actors' contracts, giving studios the power to terminate contracts if actors were involved in scandals. President
Calvin Coolidge felt the Hays Office efforts were so effective that he scuttled efforts for federal regulation of Hollywood
On November 27, 1930, Will Hays married his second wife, Jessie Herron Stutsman. By then Hays had authored
the Production Code, a detailed description of what was morally acceptable on the screen. The code listed every subject
that was forbidden in movies. It prohibited profanity, "lustful embracing," and "illegal drug traffic."
It allowed no negative representation of the United States government. Producers were required to summarize their screenplays
for approval from the Hays Office. If a movie did not meet the Hays Production Code, it was not released. Rather than face
censorship, the movie industry accepted the code, which remained in effect for three decades until it was supplanted in
1966 by a voluntary ratings system.
As the Great Depression took hold in the United States in the 1930s, attendance
at films began to decline. The American public looked to the movie industry to provide escape from daily troubles, and films
became more overtly sexual. Movie stars such as Mae West pushed the Production Code as far as possible, prompting a renewed
backlash against Hollywood immorality. In the mid-1930s, the Legion of Decency was formed by a group of Catholics bent on
reforming films. The Legion pledged to review all movies and recommend which were acceptable for viewing by good Catholics.
This pressure forced the MPPDA to reaffirm the Production Code and announce it would levy a $24,000 fine against any production
company that did not meet it. The "Purity Seal" of the Hays Office was created, and a movie was required to have
this stamp of approval before it could be distributed through MPPDA-affiliated theatres.
Hays also put into
effect an Advertising Code. First presented in 1930, it became binding in 1935. It forbade distributors and producers from
using objectionable material in publicity campaigns for films, with fines of $1,000 to $5,000 for violations.
In the late 1930s, the United States government tried to sue the movie industry for alleged violation of anti-trust laws,
but failed. Hays remained unaffected, having risen to become the industry's virtual czar. He was given a new five-year
contract in 1941. Although he continued to face minor uprisings by various conservative groups, Hays successfully oversaw
the activities of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America until 1945, when he retired as its president.
He remained as an advisor to the MPPDA until 1950. During that time he used his influence to work against the spread of
Communism in America, laying the groundwork for the Hollywood blacklisting of the 1950s."
SOURCE: "Will Hays." Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Vol. 21. Gale Group, 2001.
Other Hollywood Scandals of the Early 1920s
The Murder of Director William Desmond Taylor
The Death of Wallace Reid
Mabel Normand's Unhappy Ending
Statement by Will Hays Concerning the 1921
Cancellation of Arbuckle Films:
After consultation at length with Mr. Nicholas Schenck, representing Mr. Joseph Schenck, the producers and Mr. Adolph Zukor
and Mr. Jesse Lasky, of the Famous-Players-Lasky Corporation,the distributors, I will state that at my request they have cancelled
all showings and all bookings of the Arbuckle films. They do this that the whole matter may have the consideration that its
importance warrants, and the action is taken notwithstanding the fact that they had nearly ten thousand contracts in force
for the Arbuckle pictures.
Will H. Hays
SOURCE: Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Margaret Herrick Library, Zukor Collection, "Correspondence"