Fighting Censorship Before ‘The Code’

As soon as pictures started to move people became concerned about their content.  While early films featured potentially objectionable themes such as crime, drunkenness and sex, they were no more excessive than what had been featured in burlesque houses. What was unique and even revolutionary about the movies was their enormous power to influence.

In the early days of motion picture exhibition there were nickelodeons and there were moveable theaters.  The latter were of particular concern for being dens of iniquities as well as health hazards where communicable diseases could easily spread and where fires were likely.  All of this fed into the hands of moralists made up of parents groups, educators and religious and civic organizations.  The outcry for decency was first heard in big cities like New York and Chicago, but it quickly spread across the land.  Censorship was the answer to all of the concerns.  The cries for government intervention were heard loud and clear from the beginning of cinema through the enforcement of the Production Code and beyond.  What follows is a timeline of sorts, a recounting of some of the events and the constant tension that lead to July 1934 when religion finally had enough and forced the rules to change.

A new century

The 1900s opened with morality pressed against a strong desire for change.  The public exhibition of acts thought immoral was severely punished and when images of those acts were made available in penny arcades for loose change questions started arising.  What was proper for audiences to see?  While debates were taking place to answer that question about the new medium of the movies strict lines were also drawn and cries for censorship soon followed.  Leading the charge were religious individuals and groups with newspapers in certain cities adding fuel to the flickering fire.  It didn’t take long before concerted, organized efforts for censorship of the movies began to take shape.  (Why Be Good?)


Chicago became one of the first cities to censor movies when Nickelodeons were rapidly growing and social reformers had ever rising concerns about adults and children alike being irreparably morally damaged by the content of the movies.  In 1907 an ordinance was put in place that decreed that all movies within Chicago had to be approved by the police who would then give a permit to “acceptable” movies and turn back the others, which would either have to be edited to conformity or disappear. (Chicago History Museum)

New York

New York was the capital of the young motion picture industry.  When actions were taken to thwart the advancement of the movies an action was taken in response in New York.  On Christmas Eve in 1908 Mayor George McClellan responded to the growing outcry of reformers against the movies by closing all of the theaters, which was an extreme action by most people’s standards.  Several movie honchos like Marcus Loew reached out to The People’s Institute, a progressive organization with pull.  The result was the formation of the National Board of Censorship in 1909, the industry’s first attempt to stop government intervention in its tracks.  The Board of Censorship’s members represented such groups as the Women’s Municipal League, the Public Education Association, the Federation of Churches, and the League for Political Education, as well as representatives of the Association of Motion Picture Exhibitors of New York State.

The National Board of Censorship would review films, recommend cuts or the suppression of entire subjects. New York exhibitors agreed to abide by its decisions, and since they represented so large a percentage of the domestic market, the Board’s influence was soon being felt by producers nationwide. Within a few months, the Board became a national organization, operating out of offices in New York, with a bureaucracy funded by per-reel charges for each subject reviewed.  (NYPL)



The next few years brought more outrage from reformers and pushback on behalf of leaders who believed movies had a right to exhibition.  Crusaders against the motion picture industry were becoming more organized, however, and began to take their concerns to city halls, state legislatures and Congress.  Censorship legislation had passed in Pennsylvania, Kansas and Ohio.  As a result of the onslaught of censorship bills The Mutual Film Corporation brought a lawsuit to prevent Ohio and Kansas from censoring moving pictures.  Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio went all the way to the Supreme Court who dealt a mighty blow to the movie industry with its decision on February 15, 1915.  In short the Court dismissed the notion that freedom of speech applied to motion pictures thereby establishing the constitutionality of state censorship. (FindLaw)

After the 1915 Supreme Court decision local censor groups sprang up across the country and began to cut up anything moral guardians deemed inappropriate.  A group in Pennsylvania, for example, objected to scenes in which a woman sewed baby clothes on the grounds that it would defeat children’s belief in the stork.

In 1916 the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures changed its name to the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures (National Board of Review).  While the name change may mean little today the removal of the word “censorship” was key.  Not only did the word carry negativity with it, but as it turns out the Board didn’t act as a censorship body.  In fact they rejected the idea to a great degree relying instead on the studios to censor themselves.

Also created by the studios in New York that year was The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI).  While The National Board of Review stated that scrutinizing the movies was its main objective, The National Association lobbied for the industry and against censorship.  NAMPI’s strategy was not to call for acceptance of progressive ideas as presented in the movies, but rather to change opinion by educating the public.  Thanks to the organization’s President, William Brady – a Catholic Irishman – its membership increased steadily over the course of WWI and presented an image of a united front.  Brady was well liked by government officials and was able to offer the power of movies as a propaganda tool, which went far in some circles to quiet the calls for reformation.  (Reel Patriotism: The Movies and World War I)

NAMPI also tried to prevent New York from becoming the first state with its own censorship board in 1921, but failed.  The New York State Legislature passed a bill that year establishing an independent commission to review and license films. Organizations that opposed government censorship and representatives of the film industry objected to the bill. D. W. Griffith and William Fox were among the Hollywood luminaries who spoke against the bill at hearings in Albany. Despite these protests, however, NY Governor Nathan L. Miller signed the bill into law as “the only way to remedy what everyone concedes has grown to be a very great evil.”  (NY State Archives)  The corruption of morals was the most frequently used reason the NY Commission rejected a film.  Two examples of rejected movies based on the corruption of morals were Famous Players Lasky’s Miss Lulu Bett (1921) and First National’s Hail the Woman (1921).

Bad publicity

Nothing fueled the outcry for reformation like negative headlines.  Adolph Zukor whose Famous Players Lasky was the biggest and most profitable studio had the most to lose and as such he was central to the censorship wars that ensued between moralists and the industry.  Zukor believed that a scandal at any studio could potentially harm all of them.  (Tinseltown) The topic of censorship permeated the papers as it was and cries for government intervention grew louder and louder.  Feeding the frenzy were headlines of movie people whose life path had led to tragedy and Hollywood, which had become the center of film production by this point was to blame.  The frequent stories of prostitution and drug abuse all proved that actors were indeed players of the devil as the ultra-religious affirmed.  When news of death in Hollywood surfaced, two successive deaths in September 1920 specifically, things came to a boil.  First was the death of Robert “Bobby” Harron best known for his work with D. W. Griffith who shot himself with an illegal gun.  Although most in the industry stated the shooting was an accident the stories that circulated pointed to suicide.  Just days after the news broke about Harron headlines spotlighted the death of Olive Thomas.  Thomas died in Paris after taking mercury bichloride pills prescribed to her husband, Jack Pickford, for syphilis.  While Olive’s death was ruled accidental the newspaper stories that followed were about drug addiction, drinking and wild orgies.  Olive Thomas’ death turned into one of the first major Hollywood scandals.

Olive Thomas

The ratification of the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol – Prohibition – was also viewed as a huge win for reformers.  If they could get liquor out of American lives then certainly they could get the movies out of theaters.  The increased calls for censorship and several other factors resulted in decreased theater attendance in 1920 as compared to the previous year and with the stories making the headlines things could get much worse.  The studios responded to decreased sales by putting more violence and sex in the movies in hopes that audiences would respond.  In addition The National Board of Review and The National Association were proving ineffective.  In other words everything was feeding the outcry for change.  Adolph Zukor was particularly concerned about the future – and profits.   He thought that what the industry needed was a person, a face to act as spokesman, to promote its sense of family and high morals.  That person was successful director employed by Famous Players Lasky, William Desmond Taylor.  Zukor admired Taylor as much for his talent as a director as he did for his being reserved and articulate.  At the mogul’s request William Desmond Taylor set out to do interviews and give speeches following the Olive Thomas headlines and the myriad of other negative stories that appeared in daily papers.  (Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood)

Newspaper coverage of “movie orgies” in 1921 were commonplace
Newspaper coverage of “movie orgies” in 1921 were commonplace

A message of Hollywood as a unified community was delivered in a collective eulogy led by William Desmond Taylor on September 26, 1920 at Brunton Studios in Los Angeles.  Everyone who worked in the film industry was in attendance to memorialize the dead in the close-knit community with superstars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks sitting front and center.  The beloved stars had caused their own scandalous headlines with the extramarital affair that preceded their marriage.  William Desmond Taylor had earned the trust of every single person in attendance whose livelihood depended on the success of the movie industry.  When Taylor stood to eulogize Harron, Thomas, stuntmen pilots Ormer Locklear and Milton Elliott and starlet Clarine Seymour who had died earlier that year those in attendance nodded and sobbed as if they’d lost family members.  At the end of Taylor’s oration the crowd stood and cheered.  Taylor spoke about lost youth and lost dreams.  The press was represented and for the most part was moved by the deeply felt loss.  But the community in mourning hoped that little old ladies across the country who objected to their work would listen too. (Tinseltown)

Ban nakedness!

From trade and newspaper reports in the months following William Desmond Taylor’s community eulogy it’s hard to say whether he’d changed any minds and hearts as spokesperson for the movie industry.   The loudest of the religious groups continued to yell and editorials recommending government censorship intervention were published daily.  Once again Adolph Zukor with his partner Jesse Lasky made a move in hopes of quieting the critics.  Zukor requested a meeting with the heads of the five families – er…I mean all of the other studio heads during which Lasky would read off his newly written production code consisting of 14 points they should all adhere to.  Adolph Zukor presided over the group that met in February 1921, which included William Fox, Sam Goldwyn, D. W. Griffith, Carl Laemmle, Lewis Selznick, Marcus Loew and Joseph Schenck.  Despite their distrust of each other the men in the room agreed that unless they did something definitive the government would no doubt move in and take control of their product.  So they agreed to ban nakedness as Lasky’s 14 points dictated.

Famous Players 14 Points

As impressive as Jesse Lasky’s 14 demands may have seemed to those sitting at the table on that February day they were even more so on the public relations front.  For the time being in any case.  Despite all of the attempts by the studios to show how serious they were about releasing a product that was “decent,” actual self-censorship was a sham.  It was a marketing ploy designed to ward off detractors.  In face, Adolph Zukor who was in many ways the leader of the movement on behalf of the studios did not ascribe to the notion of movies as free speech.  Zukor was not liberal-minded, he was anti-union and in many ways his views contrasted with those of the National Board of Review. Records from New York’s archives show that Zukor and Lasky had changed their minds about opposing the myriad of censorship bills in New York between 1914 and 1916.  They weren’t the ones who questioned whether a Federal regulatory commission was better than censorship by state and local governments.  Both leaders of Famous Players Lasky changed their minds when box office receipts were affected though.  Adolph Zukor opposed censorship because it was bad for business. (Journal of the Gilded Age, October 2004)  And in that regard Lasky’s production code was a triumph.  If only for a short period of time.  When Lasky’s code was presented to heads of religious and morality groups in March 1921 things quieted down.  Proof of that was the release of DeMille’s The Affairs of Anatol, which pushed the envelop on the “affairs” front quite far.  Not only did no one balk about its content, but not a single frame was cut out.  And it was a huge hit.

The victory of The Affairs of Anatol if you want to call it that didn’t last long.  Federal Trade Commission investigations loomed over Famous Players Lasky and on September 10, 1921 – exactly one year from the day Olive Thomas’ death had splashed across headlines – one of Zukor’s biggest stars was embroiled in a scandal of humongous proportions.

In the summer of 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was on top of the world.  Famous Players Lasky had paid him an unprecedented $3 million over three years to star in 18 movies, and he’d just signed another million-dollar contract with the studio. Arbuckle’s latest movie, Crazy to Marry, was playing in theaters across the country to sold-out crowds.  To celebrate Arbuckle’s good fortune his friend Fred Fischbach planned a Labor Day weekend at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.  I imagine most people know the details of the Arbuckle case so for the purpose of expediency suffice it to say that within a week’s time Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was sitting in Cell No. 12 on “felony row” at the San Francisco Hall of Justice, held without bail in the slaying of a 25-year-old actress named Virginia Rappe. His movie, Crazy to Marry was quickly pulled from theaters, and the entire country was now made privy to what the reformers had been saying all along – the off-screen lives of Hollywood actors were sordid on the best of days.


If moralists were outraged by the stories surrounding the death of Olive Thomas they were incensed with the stories surrounding the Roscoe Arbuckle case, but they fed the fire and used it to their advantage.  With the Arbuckle case public opinion leaned toward morality.  Almost instantly Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle went from beloved comedian to being booed whenever his image appeared on screen.  He became Public Enemy #1 and en masse the public yelled for his firing.  Motion pictures and those connected with them were under attack on an entirely new level.   Reformers couldn’t be happier and one the movement’s leaders announced, “Let Adolph Zukor try to stop censorship now.”  (Tinseltown)  Afraid of what might happen in theaters the studio heads were still determined to do everything in their power to thwart government censorship.  Once again they put together an organization with goals of self-regulation in hopes of changing public opinion and The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was born.  The major difference this time around was that studio leaders decided to hire an outsider to oversee the MPPDA and they had just the man they wanted in mind.

William Harrison Hays rose rapidly through the Indiana Republican Party after being admitted to the Indiana bar with a law degree becoming Chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1918.  Hays became Postmaster General under President Warren Harding and aspired to a career in politics until the Hollywood studio heads came calling.  Hays resigned his cabinet position on January 14, 1922, took a vacation and became the president of the MPPDA in March.  (MPPDA)

Hays was a smart and convenient choice by the Hollywood studios.  Not only could he be easily bought away from his career aspirations, but his political connections would prove useful.  Perhaps more importantly Will Hays was a practicing Protestant and the loudest voices in the reformation movement shared his beliefs.

As President of the MPPDA Will Hays played several roles including ensuring the Association’s objective, to establish “the highest possible moral and artistic standards of motion picture production” were met.  He also negotiated with state, federal and foreign governments and played a central role in the industry’s public relations. (MPPDA).  Hays generated publicity about a reformed, civically responsible Hollywood.  The MPPDA is often referred to as the Hays Office referencing its first president.

February 2, 1922

While Will Hays enjoyed a long vacation in the sun before commencing his role as MPPDA president Hollywood was rocked by yet another major scandal when the body of William Desmond Taylor was discovered by his valet.


Desmond Taylor had been shot to death in his bungalow in Los Angeles.  The murder was never solved.  After his death the man admired by so many proved not to be immune from tabloid journalism.  Stories of a dark and mysterious past surfaced as did questions about Taylor’s questionable lifestyle.  But the death of William Desmond Taylor happened in the midst of the Roscoe Arbuckle trials, which were still the main topic of entertainment.

April 12, 1922

The sensationalism surrounding the Arbuckle case was unprecedented and everyone including the Hollywood moguls ran for cover distancing themselves from the actor in hopes he’d be viewed as a single, notorious exception. Newspapers couldn’t have asked for a better story and audiences ate up whatever was served.  The Hearst papers were particularly fiendish spreading made-up tales of depravity connected to Roscoe Arbuckle.  William Randolph Hearst would later say, “The Fatty Arbuckle scandal sold more papers than the sinking of the Lusitania.”

After two trials resulting in hung juries Roscoe Arbuckle was acquitted of manslaughter on April 12, 1922 by a jury that deliberated for only five minutes and released an unprecedented statement about the great injustice done to the actor.  But the jury’s statement fell on deaf ears and Arbuckle’s acquittal didn’t matter at all.  His career was ruined as was his life.  Further, the stories about the rampant depravity in Hollywood stained the entire industry. One week after the acquittal Will Hays banned Roscoe Arbuckle from appearing on screen. Hays would change his mind eight months later, but the damage was done.  Roscoe Arbuckle changed his name to William B. Goodrich (Will B. Good) and worked behind the scenes, directing films for friends who remained loyal to him and barely earning a living in the only business he knew.  A little more than ten years later, on June 29, 1933, he had a heart attack and died in his hotel room. He was 46.

Roscoe Arbuckle

Roscoe Arbuckle’s perceived impropriety also led to the use of morals clauses in talent contracts from then on.  Mention of these still appear in the news when scandal breaks in connection to a Hollywood star.  Although obviously standards and view on morality have changed quite a bit since 1922.

The remainder of the 1920s followed suit as far as tensions between moralists and industry players.  The powers that be in the motion picture industry had seemingly done everything in their power to self-regulate and deliver a product that would not corrupt the morals of the people.  In truth little self-censorship took place in Hollywood.  Newspapers continued to spotlight censorship, Will Hays continued to wheel and deal and moralists continued to push against debauched material.  As the Great Depression set in the motion picture studios upped the ante in order to fill seats.  That included throwing in as much sex and violence as they could muster. Sound added another way to insult puritans who yelled tripe at every turn.  Censorship struggles during this time are best illustrated with the tug-of-war associated with Howard Hawks’ Scarface: The Shame of a Nationwhich was edited to smithereens by local censor boards due to its graphic violence.  Seeing the increased cesspool that were the movies and noticing the MPPDA was doing nothing to stop it state and city censorship boards started taking matters into their own hands.  And then the Catholic Legion of Decency stepped in.

In 1934 a group of Catholic Bishops founded the Catholic Legion of Decency set on a mission to clean up the movies.  One of their first tasks was to set up a three-tiered ratings system that all good church goers must adhere to.  The ratings: An “A” movie was deemed “morally objectionable; a “B” movie was deemed “morally objectionable in part”; a “C” movie was “condemned.”  Soon the papers were reporting boycotts on films because the flocks were minding the bishops.  The threat of financial losses forced the MPPDA to act in a definitive manner.  This time words weren’t enough.

In 1930 a new code often referred to as The Production Code, The Hays Code or just The Code had been written.  The movie industry accepted it in name only for the most part as it was largely ignored in practice, which prompted even more outcry from reformers.  The movies made between 1930 and 1934 are referred to as “pre-code” even though the Production Code was theoretically in effect.  As mentioned above filmmakers actually turned up the volume on sex and violence during this time and the characters depicted in these movies were particularly immoral.  Due partly in response to movies like Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face (1933) from Warner Bros. and Lowell Sherman’s She Done Him Wrong (1933) from Paramount both of which caused outrage.  (Note how those feature particularly strong women types.)  In any case The Production Code Administration (PCA) was established in order to enforce the code written in 1930.   Joseph Breen, a strict Roman Catholic and a former journalist who’d worked with Will Hays since 1931 was given the task of enforcing the Hays Code and as of July 1934 every movie produced or exhibited in the United States had to receive a seal of approval from the office of Joseph Breen.  Here’s a newsreel wherein Breen explains the difficult work of the PCS.  Once pictures were reviewed they would either receive the stamp of approval or were denied it in which case the studio heads would deny exhibition.


There you have a loose rundown of the story of censorship in the movies in the United States up to 1934.  I must mention that this account in no way includes all of the players and/or laws that affected censorship in the first several decades of movies.  I do hope, however, that it illustrates the fact that the fight for censorship did not start or end in 1934, but rather that either side of that landmark year presented challenges that make for a rich and controversial history.  For the sake of completing the timeline I should mention what I view as the three key happenings following The Production Code being put into effect that affected movie censorship.  The first of those is the Supreme Court decision in 1952, which overturned the 1915 decision by concluding that censors were not allowed by the First Amendment to prevent exhibition of motion pictures.  The second is the censorship that resulted during the McCarthy era, which focused away from sexual and criminal behavior and toward ideology.  And of course the final “happening” was the Hays Code being abolished once and for all in 1968, which was replaced by the lettered ratings system that later went through its own changes in letters and values.


This post is a contribution to The Classic Movie History Project, which I am honored to co-cost with Fritzi of Movies Silently and Ruth of Silver Screenings.  Today is the first day of the event hosted by Movies Silently with topics covered to include The Studios and The Publicity Department.  Be sure to stay tuned through August 10th as The Classic Movie History Project continues.  For the complete roster take a look at the announcement post here.



23 thoughts

  1. A detailed and well-researched piece. In fairness to Mayor McClellon, there really was a legitimate concern about fire safety in early Nickelodeons, as several deadly nitrate fires had demonstrated, and that was the primary reason behind the mass revocation of licenses, according to the article you linked to. It’s not irrelevant to censorship, though, because the meeting where he made the pronouncement had been called to discuss mandatory closure of Nickoledeons on weekends, which has nothing to do with fire safety, and everything to do with protecting children from harmful moral influences.

    1. Interesting stuff, isn’t it. Yes, fire safety was a definite issue. In one of the articles I read only Edison film was approved by fire marshalls. I have to apologize because my mind is a jumble at the moment.
      Thanks as always for stopping in.

  2. Really well done. I’ll be using this as a reference source for certain. Great job as always.

  3. “(Note how those feature particularly strong women types.)”

    That point was not lost. It seems that the baseline about censorship is that they want to “protect” delicate womanhood or they “blame” women’s existence for all the evils. But, you’ve gotta have a pretty face in the movie. The whole thing is messed up.

    1. Oh yeah. I’m not sure that the “fight” for censorship would have driven moralists if the fear of women “rebelling” weren’t central to the struggle. That deserves several posts of its own.

  4. Wow, Aurora! Thanks for putting together this timeline, and sharing all this research with us. A previous commenter said they would be using this essay as a reference, and I will be, too!

    Thanks for linking to the Joseph Breen news reel at his Important Board Meeting with Important Men. I realized, when watching the news reel, that I’ve read much about Breen but have never watched any actual footage of him. I think Edward Arnold could have played Breen in a biopic, no? 😉

    Thanks so much for all your hard work and giving us readers a Go-To Place for an early production code timeline! 🙂
    P.S. And thanks for being a terrific co-host!

    1. Edward Arnold as Breen is brilliant! Thanks to YOU for bring tops in the classics blogging world! This was fun to do although a challenge figuring out what to include. The original version was 3x longer. Fascinating journey.

  5. “Zukor requested a meeting with the heads of the five families – er…I mean all of the other studio heads…” — That was nicely done. Excellent survey of the history of movie censorship. Oscar Micheaux’s movies are a nice example of films not protected by the Production Code seal. Bits got snipped out in all sorts of cities. There isn’t much left of some.

    1. So sad to hear that kind of thing even though I know it was rampant. Was hoping at least a few people got the five families connection. 🙂

  6. What a fantastic and well-researched piece! It certainly is a rich history that is fascinating in many ways. It’s an important part of Hollywood’s history as well.

  7. Wonderful post, Aurora, although it made me mad. Moralism and censorship make me mad because I’m a liberal, and I can’t avoid to think about the great movies that could have been done without censorship (because pre-Codes are among my favorites of all time) and how many careers could have flourished in a different way.
    It was a very informative post (especially the stork part :P) Thanks for co-hosting this wonderful event!

  8. Dear Aurora,
    This is a very well-researched and informative article. I appreciate that you merely stated the facts and did not attack the PCA or the moralist movement which led to its founding.

    My name is Rebekah Brannan, and I’m one of the founders of the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. I would very much like to have you participate in my upcoming blogathon! This year, on September 23-25, I am hosting The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon. The blogathon will be dedicated to all adaptations, spin-offs, prequels, and sequels of the immortal tale The Phantom of the Opera! As devoted Phans, my sister, Tiffany and I could not let the 110th anniversary of the beginning of the original novel’s serialization in the newspaper Le Gaulois pass without some form of commemoration. I invite you to celebrate this event by joining The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon.

    You can read the announcement here:

    I hope you will join us for this three-day celebration of all things phantasmic, and that you will advertise it on your blog using one of my dramatic banners!

    Thank you very much for your time!


    Rebekah Brannan

    1. Thank you for you your comments, Rebekah. I looked over the details for your blogathon and would love to participate. My time is a mess these days, however. I will try to do something and let you know.

      1. Dear Aurora,

        Thank you so much for responding! I can’t tell you how much your participation means to me. I sympathize with your schedule completely, and if you can’t submit something in the end, I understand. However, I greatly appreciate your desire to contribute!

        Would you like me to put you on the roster now, as To Be Announced, or would you rather I wait until you’re sure you can participate? Please let me know, and I will act accordingly.

        Thanks again, and have a wonderful day!


        Rebekah Brannan

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