Ah, the Good Old Days…
Nostalgia is always narrow in focus, and sometimes flat out false, but our feelings for the past are concocted by our subjective memories and then reinforced by entertainment. How can anyone watch episodes of Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and Ozzie & Harriet and not wish for this bygone era?
That’s not an accident, and no amount of wishing can return someone to a world that never even existed. That world of obedient children, endless home-cooked meals, hard work and unimpeachable honesty never existed in the first place; it’s is simply a product of selective memory, reinforced by the Motion Picture Association of America, then headed by Will H. Hays, a Hoosier from Sullivan, Indiana.
America’s illusion of the silver screen had been shattered in the mid-1920s by the arrest and trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a world famous comedian and silent movie star who had been accused of the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe, a young starlet. Although Arbuckle was ultimately acquitted of the crime, his career and the reputation of Hollywood were irreparably damaged.
Hays was brought in to fix that.
Formerly the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Hays had just weathered a clandestine kickback scheme later known as the Teapot Dome Scandal. After testifying, Hays decided it would be a good time to get out of D.C. and headed to the West Coast, where film executives offered him a position as president of the MPAA, an organization newly created to restore the power and profitability of motion pictures.
Will Hays decided to follow the example set by Major League Baseball after the 1919 “Black Sox” Scandal: instill an atmosphere of pristine ethics and values. The MLB had emerged from the scandal stronger than ever, and he believed the same could be done for the production companies of Hollywood…saving the millions of dollars already invested.
Informally known as the “Hays Code”, the Motion Picture Production Code censored movies from 1930 to 1968, decades that many call “The Good Old Days” in America history. The Hays Code set out numerous restrictions to film content and enforced those restrictions by developing close relationships with distributors across the country. This informal but effective leverage created a culture of voluntary self-censorship: Hays didn’t say you HAD to follow his code, but if you don’t, he could guarantee no one would see it.
The strategy worked. With the help of the Catholic Church, the Hays Code became the law of Hollywoodland by 1934. Such was the power of this list that when television became a viable source of media in the 1950s, its adherence to the Hays Code became automatic; this was exactly the kind of self-censorship Will Hays had hoped for, and proof that he had not just altered American movies but American culture as well.
Not all directors and producers supported the Code, but enough did, and a new era of American motion pictures emerged. The Hays Code was a laundry list of subjects, depictions and plot lines deemed inappropriate for audience, which revolved around three principals: crime or civil disobedience must not be rewarded; characters should live by “correct standards”; and natural or man-made laws cannot be mocked.