Censoring Movies – a briefing

BREAKING: Today in 1943 American movie studio executives agree to allow the Office of War Information to censor movies.

During the Second World War, all forms of entertainment were subjected to the same scrutiny as was the news of the day.  Over the years, however, the movies have probably been the most worrisome of all entertainment forms of media to those concerned about the messages presented to audiences.  It is arguable whether any other medium has been subject to the scrutiny and forced restraint as have the movies.  This is due to their extraordinary power and popularity, which have convinced many of their special capacity for harm and influence.  The power of visual forms of communication, especially during a time before television and daily exposure to such forms in individual homes, cannot be discounted. 

From its inception, the censorship of movies, has been conducted by a combination of government, industry (self) and private censorship.  Following is an example, description and brief history of each.

The Office of War Information (OWI)

The Office of War Information was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 as a buffer for all news related to the war.  Aside from its focus on the news, OWI also had an arm dedicated to motion pictures.

As its primary duty in the motion picture industry, the OWI “ encouraged” the studio O-W-Iheads to follow the government’s directive related to communicating the war.  The OWI’s influence over the motion picture industry was extraordinary.  Almost immediately after the OWI was formed, a liaison for the organization sent a memo to the studio heads listing a set of criteria that should be considered when contemplating making any film.  These initial “suggestions” were regularly changed and the OWI had almost constant communication with film industry personnel regarding the materials being produced.

As it turns out, the OWI had little to worry about when it came to policing the motion picture industry and their product.  The industry, as did most of the news agencies and journalists, did a great job of policing themselves – not only as pertained to communicating the message on the war, but also in ensuring that they adhered to other guidelines on what was deemed “proper” for audiences to be exposed to.

The Production Code

Public concern and criticism as well as government threats for censorship over the content in movies started in the 1920’s .  But it wasn’t until 1930 that an official set of prod codestandards were drafted due to the increase concern once the movies started talking.  The addition of sound to movies meant audiences could be subjected to stronger immorality.

The new set of rules, known as the Production Code, or Hays Code (named after the head of the Motion Picture Association of America at that time, Will Hays), were not strictly enforced in 1930.  Instead, they were seen as a set of guidelines or an advisory document for filmmakers of the time to keep in mind.  That would change in 1934 with the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency.

The Legion of Decency

Out of exasperation with the American film industry, Catholic Bishops formed the Legion of Decency in 1934.  The Legion would review and rate films according to very strict guidelines.  They would give films negative ratings based on a film’s moral tone, its message or based on a specific scene, word or costume in the film.  Following the directive of their religious leaders, the American public took pledges against “bad” babyfacead (1)movies.  Not only did they pledge to not go see any movie that had content with questionable morality, but also to never go into theaters that showed questionable films. 

When these pledges threatened to keep audiences from seeing their films by encouraging a boycott, the studio heads quickly found a way to enforce the Production Code.  The Production Code Administration was established as the governing body.  This group would review and rate films and interpret the code.
The regulatory practices of these offices were strictly enforced for years.  During the war years, these regulations had the full support of the major studios so few films were made or distributed without adhering to the standards set by these agencies.  It is also worth noting that all the restrictions that were enforced during these years on the movie industry had a major impact on the quality of the films being produced.  The restrictions actually resulted in more creative ways for writers to develop their screenplays, which lead to a superior product in many instances.  This is one of the reasons why many of the films produced during this time are considered classics and are among the films many consider the best ever made.  In my opinion, anyway.
This was a brief and only a brief.

9 thoughts

  1. A fascinating brief at that 🙂
    Thanks for this Aurora, it’s the best description of all of this I’ve read. I agree about the “superior product” too, though I never thought about it that way before. It really is part of why there is such great storytelling in these movies…and why they make such a huge impression. Brilliant, my friend.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. This is such an interesting topic and so much can be said. I just note the superficial but how the restrictions affected individual movies and personalities is endlessly fascinating. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


  2. Wow! Super intetesting. I had no idea. Glad to know that there was actually regulatory agencies that helped keep war such a sterile concept to the majority of the world by censoring what we watched. I often wondered! and Yes, true to its nature, mankind exceeds its possibilities and produces amazing story tellers.

    1. Hey!!! Censorship and propaganda hugely affected all mediums of communications during the war. And how regulatory organizations affected film, in particular, is so interesting. And you’re right, the collective “we” finds a way – especially those with the talent so prevalent during the golden age.


  3. Aurora, I completely agree with you when you said the restrictions made for better movies. Sometimes alluding to certain subjects is more powerful (or amusing) than showing them in full detail.

    Terrific post. Thanks for all this great info. 🙂

  4. Good points. While I don’t agree with censoring films, I do agree that during the code years directors had to get more creative with how they conveyed the things that were banned under the code. Creativity in filmmaking is a very good thing. Sometimes what was hinted at was more powerful than if they had shown it in full.

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