Motion Picture Code Essay, Research Paper
The economic downturns of the Great Depression contributed to the county?s fascination
with gangster genres. As Americans lost their jobs or saw their farms foreclosed on by
the once admired establishment or banking system; with public endorsement gangsters
descended in spirit from America?s frontier outlaws such as the James Gang, and led by
desperadoes like Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and Machine Gun Kelly–rose up
to assault the system. Because of Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II,
gangsters became the modern gunslingers and outlaws. The gangster saga replaced the
Western as the American myth. It told the story of modern America.
Young Americans enjoyed watching gangster films during the 1930s. Before
President Roosevelt?s New Deal, gangsters were without doubt the American cinema?s
most striking heroes. The film industry?s love affair with members of criminal gangs was
only natural, they were colorful, violent, and charismatic men and women whose
law-breaking activities were followed by millions of law abiding Americans. But when
brought to the screen, gangster films more than any other Hollywood genre created
problems not only for the usual censorship lobbies but also for judges, lawyers, teachers,
policemen, mayors, newspapers, and local councilors. Many respectable citizens believed
that gangster films based on the lives and activities of Prohibition-era criminals, led to an
increase in juvenile delinquency and accused Hollywood of delivering impressionable
youth into a career of crime. The harmful effects of fast-moving and exciting gangster
films on young cinema patrons thus became a prominent concern of those eager to
control and censor this pervasive new mass medium.
After a series of sex scandals rocked the American film industry, in 1922
Hollywood?s Jewish moguls hired a midwestern Presbyterian gentleman and influential
Republican William Harrison Hays, former Postmaster General in President
Warren Harding?s cabinet, as their front man to clean up the image of the movies. The
industry?s self-monitoring Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America Inc.
(MPPDA) or Hays office in Los Angeles tried a variety of ways to regulate films before
adopting a formal code. Written in 1930 by two mid-western Catholics, a Jesuit professor
of drama in St. Louis and a lay publisher of trade magazines; the new Motion Picture
Code stipulated partly in reaction to the increasing popularity of gangster films, that
movies stress proper behavior, respect for government, and Christian values. The Hays
Code was made mandatory in 1934, and began with an attack on what was seen as a
general tone of lawlessness and on depicting specific criminal methods in recent gangster
movies. Criminal acts were ?never to be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy
with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.?
Murder must be presented in a manner that ?will not inspire imitation? and ?revenge in
modern times shall not be justified.? Methods of crime such as theft, robbery, arson,
safecraking, smuggling, and dynamiting of trains should not be explicitly presented. If
these strictures were not met, a film project would no longer receive the code?s seal of
MPPDA approval (Springhall 137-138).
Organized protest against gangster movies reached its height with the publicity
surrounding director Howard Hawks? Scarface (1932); in which the versatile Paul Muni
overacted as Tony Camonte, another disguised Al Capone figure. This violent and fast
paced film produced by millionaire Howard Hughes and scripted by former Chicago
newspaperman Ben Hecht, reached the screen a year after Public Enemy but was actually
made at the same time. The delay of Scarface occurred because in an effort to appease
the movie censors. A subtitle ?Shame of the Nation? was added to Scarface, along with a
scene in which civic reformers preached (?You can end it. Fight!?) directly to the
camera (McCarty 68). In another new scene, the city?s chief of detectives denounces the
glorification of gangsters, echoing the very cries of the censors who ordered the changes.
A different ending was also filmed using a double in which Camonte is brought to trial
and sentenced to be hanged by the state, rather than being shot down by the police on the
sidewalk outside his hideout (McCarty 68). New York and Chicago censorship boards
rejected Scarface outright until Warner Brothers agreed to make these changes but Jason
Joy, who enforce the Hays Code, still had to convince them to show it cut. Each state in
America had its own board of censors, so the original ending could still be seen in some
theaters when the film was finally released in the spring of 1932 (McCarty 69).
Hay?s damage-limitation exercise did little to silence criticism of crime or
gangster movies and there was evidence of growing state and municipal censorship; also
while reformers wanted to go further and persuade the federal government to institute a
national motion picture censorship office. Rising concern about the harmful effects of
cinema on youthful American minds had in 1928 led anti-Hollywood campaigner the
Rev. William H. Short and his Motion Picture Research Council to commission a series
of studies financed from the Payne Study and Experiment Fund, an organization based in
Cleveland and headed by Professor W.W. Charters, who was the director of educational
research at the Ohio State University. The Payne Fund Studies took four years to
complete and was published from 1933 thru 1934. The reports showed that 30 percent of
the American cinema audience was made up of children and adolescents (Jarvis 131).
One early volume of the Payne Studies offered self-reporting by juveniles in which they
blamed gangster films for aspects of their delinquent social behavior; but the report went
no further than arguing that movies only indirectly encouraged criminal activities by
stimulating fantasies and day-dreaming. Another volume concluded that the influence of
movies on children was strong but was ?specific for a given child and a given movie?
(Jarvis 132). But the Payne Fund?s research was distorted to support the kind of
statements about the effects of movies on young audiences that moral reformers had been
making for years (Jarvis 135).
As more Hollywood gangster movies were released–nine in 1930, 26 in 1931,and
28 in 1932, film cuts relating to violation of the law imposed by state and municipal
censorship boards also increased. Half of the censorship material ordered by the Chicago
censorship board in 1930-31 pertained to glorifying the gangster and showing disrespect
for law enforcement. In New York, state censors slashed over 2,200 crime scenes during
1930-32 (Springhall 141). But gangster films were too far popular for film studios to pay
much attention to the Hays Code. Evidently, the 1930 Production Code was not being
enforced and was not legally enforceable. So in 1934, the Committee of Catholic Bishops
formed the Legion of Decency. The Legion claimed it was dismayed by the movie
industry?s sex and crime films of the early 1930s, and at a time of falling box-office
receipts, had organized a campaign to boycott ?vile and unwholesome? motion pictures.
Catholics were asked to sign a pledge in regard to gangster films, swearing to ?do all that
I can to arouse public opinion against the portrayal of vice as a normal condition of
affairs and against depicting criminals of any class as heroes and heroines, presenting
their filthy philosophy of life as something acceptable to decent men and women?
(Springhall 144). A boycott campaign, utilizing other like-minded groups was launched
thorough the media. Lists of condemned films were circulated and some movie theaters
Film producers broke rank in the middle of 1934, even before the anti-crime film
propaganda picked up full steam. They agreed not to release or distribute a film that did
not have an MPPDA certificate of approval which were to be issued according to the
1930 Code and administered by a Hays Office promising to be more earnest about
censorship. This agreement among the film industry was a step forward to take
self-regulation seriously. A $25,000 penalty was to be charged for producing,
distributing, or exhibiting a picture without the certificate of approval, but there is no
record of it ever having been imposed. In order to force Hays and Hollywood to censor
movies more vigorously, the Legion had also engineered the appointment of Joseph
Breen, a hard-line Catholic as head of the Production Code Administration. In the future,
gangster films would have to be made with more care for the censors? point of view.
Nonetheless, Hollywood managed to avoid federal government regulation and even after
1934 continued to also evade the Code.
As the decade continued on, Hollywood studios discovered that the best way to
exploit the crime genre?s immense popularity and to satisfy the censors at the same time
was to turn the gangster character into a law enforcement officer. The time was right for
the reappearance of the gangster icon as a federal government man drafted into the war
on crime, which was one of the worst effects of the Depression. By the mid-thirties,
Warner Brothers started to offer idealized portraits of policemen and Federal Bureau of
Investigation agents, rather than gangsters or criminals. This was portrayed in patriotic
films like William Keighley?s G-Men (1935) and Special Agent (1935), starring James
Cagney and George Brent. The transformation of the movie gangster star into a
policeman or FBI agent was in part a response to criticism from censorship lobbies like
the Legion of Decency. Warner Brothers was also making a contribution to propaganda
for a strong New Deal administration by launching this new cycle of films. For example,
G-Men used the resources of a popular film form and one of it?s star names to advocate
the arming of the FBI because ?federal power depends ultimately on firepower?
(McCarty 97). Breen, Hays, and the Legion of Decency virtually controlled the content of
all Hollywood films. The Hays Code itself remained in force until 1967 when it was
replaced by a system of certificated categories of the Motion Picture Association of
Today, gangster genre remains very much alive because of the barrios, ghettos,
and boardrooms of America?s cities to the drug strongholds of Miami, New York, and
Los Angeles. The genre continues and the audiences? love affair with mob movies will
continue on. The themes, characters, landscapes, and mythologies of the gangster movie
has proven resilient enough to be updated, reshaped, and expanded upon to continue
connecting with teenagers, and young adults for whom movies these days are made.
Jarvis, Arthur R., Jr. ?The Payne Fund Reports: A Discussion of their Content, Public
Reaction, and Affect on the Motion Picture Industry, 1930-1940.? Journal of
Popular Culture 19.3 (1991): 127-140
McCarty, John. Hollywood Gangland: The Movies? Love Affair with the Mob. New
York: St. Martin?s Press, 1993.
Springhall, John. ?Censoring Hollywood: Youth, Moral Panic and Crime/Gangster
Movies of the 1930s? Journal of Popular Culture 32.3 (1998): 135-154