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Classic Hollywood and American Film Censorship

Sheri Chinen Biesen

While the term censorship is often used to describe provocative ratings battles over movies, contemporary filmmaking and reception of American cinema is quite different than Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of classic cinema in which censorship thrived. In fact, today’s American films are not censored in the way they were during the classical studio system of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, where films faced a codified system of film censorship, a system that unraveled by the 1960s after the demise of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code. At the height of Hollywood screen censorship from the mid-1930s to World War II, there was a complex labyrinth of censorial regulation and screen constraints that films were subject to. Hollywood’s official “Hays Office” Production Code Administration (PCA) enforced moral “Code” censorship, and films also faced different U.S. state and local censorship boards. Religious organizations such as the National Catholic Legion of Decency scrutinized, rated, and threatened to resist and boycott “condemned” films. During the Second World War, Washington’s federal government regulated wartime films via its Office of War Information (OWI), Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), and Office of Censorship to further war-related propaganda aims. International censorship agencies in different nations also screened and restricted films exported overseas.
The content of American films has been controversial since the early days of motion pictures. As discussed in Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen, concerned with the moral influence of movies on youth and propriety of motion pictures, local censorship boards regulated films in cities and municipalities across America in the silent era. New York City passed film censorship laws in 1906 and 1913, the Chicago Board of Censors in 1907, followed by other cities and states such as Pennsylvania in 1911, Kansas and Ohio in 1913, and Maryland in 1916. These cities and states created state-censorship laws and film review boards that decided which films were decent enough to be shown and withheld permits for films that were deemed inappropriate. Director Allan Dwan remembered film censorship “from the beginning” during the silent era. “And then organizations were formed. We couldn’t open a picture anywhere without passing four or five groups of censors. We’d have the town police first and then individual groups. They’d all be in our hair. And every little teeny thing was censorable...It was like a Sunday-school business in those days. But I think it stimulated us into inventing something that would get by and be decent. We made cleaner pictures, but maybe better pictures. I don’t know anything sexier than the stuff [Rudolph] Valentino used to do and yet it was done with a suggestiveness that wasn’t dirty.” By 1912, Congress even passed the Sims Act, which banned boxing films as interstate commerce, the first time the U.S. government enforced federal censorship laws affecting distribution of motion pictures.
Mutual Film Corporation, a Detroit company that leased films to Midwestern states, sought to overturn Ohio’s state censorship policies, claiming the system violated free speech, First Amendment, and other freedom guarantees in Ohio’s constitution. However, the Supreme Court rejected this claim and supported Ohio’s state censorship board in Mutual Film Corporation vs. Industrial Commission of Ohio, ruling that films were capable of “evil” in attractiveness and manner of exhibition. The 1915 Mutual vs. Ohio decision declared that motion pictures were a business, pure and simple, conducted for profit, and not an art form nor a medium deserving free speech. Therefore, films were not eligible for constitutional protection, in essence creating an ideal legal climate for screen censorship by denying motion pictures the First Amendment free speech protection given the press. (The Mutual vs. Ohio ruling was overturned in the 1950s.)[1] The landmark Supreme Court decision found censorship to be constitutional and reinforced claims of motion picture critics and censors and opened the door for American film censorship, even federal screen censorship. This decision not only created a favorable legal climate for film censorship, emboldening state and local censor boards, but also precipitated a growing fear of government intrusion in the motion picture industry and led to a necessary response to criticism by studios and filmmakers. By 1921, thirty-six states were considering film censorship legislation and many believed federal censorship was inevitable. Concerned about possible government regulation of films—and seeking to avoid public outrage, boycotts, bad publicity, and state, regional and federal censorship—in 1922 the film industry formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) trade organization and hired Will Hays as MPPDA president to improve the image of Hollywood.
In the classical studio system, American films also faced a gender-racial-sexuality censorial bias in Hollywood and its representational constraints. In response to concerns about possible government censorship of the film industry, Hollywood established The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, which outlined moral obligations for filmmakers and detailed twelve categories of censorable “repellent subjects” to be avoided, restricting depictions of onscreen sex, violence, crime, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, and other subjects. Interracial relations and homosexuality were banned outright. The majority of Hollywood film censors were men, regulating screen images to determine how women, sexuality, and people of color were cinematically portrayed, which further marginalized oppressed minorities. Production Code censors insisted films should improve rather than degrade viewers’ lives and filmmakers should promote “good” and discourage “evil” in motion pictures.
Many films conveyed coded meaning to suggest what could not be shown onscreen. Others were more overt. “Screw the Hays Office! Make it as realistic and grisly as possible,” producer Howard Hughes challenged the Code with violent Al Capone gangster picture Scarface (1932) and salacious sex western The Outlaw (1943). Film historian Thomas Doherty describes Hollywood’s Production Code as “no mere list of Thou-Shalt-Nots but a homily that sought to yoke Catholic doctrine to Hollywood formula” where “the guilty are punished, the virtuous rewarded, the authority of church and state is legitimate and the bonds of matrimony are sacred.”
The Production Code functioned as a cinematic “moral blueprint” adopted by the film industry in 1930. Yet, there was no enforcement mechanism to compel Hollywood filmmakers to adhere to the Code and a litany of suggestive sexy violent pre-Code films proliferated in the early 1930s. Thus, the Code was not fully enforced by Hollywood until mid-1934, when American screen censors restricted film content in response to myriad pressures, as civic and religious groups such as the National Catholic Legion of Decency denounced the movie industry and threatened to boycott “immoral” films by 1934, a prospect many studios, hard-hit by the Great Depression, could ill afford. As a result, Hollywood studios established the Production Code Administration (PCA) or “Hays Office” as an industry self-censoring body in July 1934 and hired Joseph Breen as chief censor to enforce the Production Code and run the PCA. Production Code censors examined all materials (e.g., scripts), decided whether a film was acceptable to the Production Code, and evaluated the finished film. A PCA seal of approval was issued to films that passed, or necessary changes were specified in order to comply with the Code.
Code censorship was enforced by the film industry in a system of self-regulation whereby the “Big Five” major Hollywood studios (MGM, Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, Warner Bros. and RKO, which were vertically-integrated and owned production, distribution and exhibition) agreed not to screen films without a PCA seal of approval in their first-run theaters and imposed a $25,000 fine on studios or filmmakers if a film was released without a PCA seal. Thus, the industry engaged in self-censorship, since major studios owned 77 percent of lucrative first-run motion picture theaters in urban areas across America. The “Little Three” major-minor studios (Columbia, Universal, and United Artists) made deals with the Big Five to obey the Code and release their films in major theaters.
Thus, Hollywood film censors significantly influenced screen content as they enforced the Production Code by mid-1934. Breen required all Hollywood films to have “Compensating Moral Values” and would negotiate with filmmakers and studios over film content as long as “evil” acts were punished and faced retribution to repudiate “bad” criminal deeds. Compensating Moral Values ensured criminals were brought to justice and apprehended onscreen, then killed or sent to prison for their crimes, as in gangster pictures and film noir crime movies. After Breen’s retirement in 1954, Code enforcement eventually became more lax and declined in the 1960s.
Writer James M. Cain, whose hard-boiled crime fiction stories of adulterous sex and murder, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, were banned in Hollywood for a decade from the mid-1930s, complained: “I think the whole system of Hays censorship, with its effort to establish a list of rules on how to be decent is nonsensical...A studio can obey every one and be salacious—violate them and be decent.” Film star Marlene Dietrich also criticized the Production Code: “Censorship is idiotic and inconsistent. Hollywood pictures today are not helped by it. The Hays Office cuts out legs but keeps in innuendos that are far worse.”
Independent producer David O. Selznick outlined the challenges filmmakers faced when taking on censorable subject matter, even in adapting acclaimed literary properties and having to submit screen material for PCA approval and adhere to the constraints of the Production Code and the National Catholic Legion of Decency. In trying to adapt Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, the “problem was that of meeting censorship questions,” Selznick explained in September 1935, “complicated by the fact that we undertook the production of the story at a time when the Legion of Decency’s outcry was the loudest—that period when producers who attempted worthy pictures began to suffer for the sins of those who had stooped to a tasteless commercialism.” He added: “It was further complicated by the new code that was drawn up by the producers, which had a blanket prohibition against stories dealing with adultery.”
Selznick took issue with PCA censors’ interference when he produced an Alfred Hitchcock-directed film adaptation of Daphne de Maurier’s 1938 roman noir Gothic novel Rebecca. “Here is a story that has appealed to Americans by the hundreds of thousands and even millions—that was one of the three or four most popular books of the last five years and that a family publication like the Ladies’ Home Journal saw fit to reprint without fear it was anything immoral...we need at least something like the freedom that newspapers and magazines and book publishers and the legitimate stage have, when we need this freedom desperately, to have the industry itself strangle us is something that would be tolerated only by this shortsighted industry.” Censors turned the novel’s wife murder into an accident, yet lesbian longing permeated the noir atmosphere of Selznick and Hitchcock’s Gothic film version of Rebecca.
By the 1930s, after World War I, Prohibition, the Jazz Age, and onset of the Great Depression, Hollywood censors tried to crack down on unsavory film content and heralded a new era, moving from “rawness to romance.” Seeking to avoid depictions of what they called an “orgy of sadism,” they proclaimed a sweeping moratorium on violent gangster, crime and horror films. Hays insisted, “The greatest of all censors—the American public” was tired of “‘hard-boiled’ realism.” He maintained America was done with its “post-war preoccupation” with “morbidity,” “crime,” and “orgy of self-revelation” in literature and drama as a “new younger generation, now rising from the jazz age...promises to support clean high-purposed entertainment. The motion picture screen in recent months has done much to debunk the American gangster in films dealing with current crime conditions.” Hays asserted: “Nothing could prove more forcibly the success of self-regulation in the motion picture industry than the manner in which such subjects have been invariably handled. The insistent message flashed upon the screen has been: ‘You can’t get away with it.”’ He argued, “the deadly weapon of ridicule has been trained upon the gangster and his kind...that removed from the bandit and the gunman every shred of false heroism that might influence young people.” Hays contended there were too many crime films and “the American public is growing tired not only of gangster rule, but of gangster themes” on screen, in literature, and on stage.
By the end of the decade, however, despite bans on gangsters, horror, and grisly “hard-boiled” novels, censors grew alarmed at the increasing number of crime films and a rising array of “crime-horror” pictures. Indeed, the “horrific” criminal nature of these films was not of the typical Al Capone, Frankenstein (1931), or Dracula (1931) variety. They were a different sort altogether. By 1939, censors recognized a menacing propagation of screen criminality, and added a new picture to their long list of “crime-horror” films: Selznick and Hitchcock’s cinema version of du Maurier’s Gothic novel Rebecca. Hitchcock began working with Selznick in Hollywood after directing (and producing) an impressive series of crime, espionage, and Gothic thrillers in Great Britain, including a film adaptation of du Maurier’s Gothic novel Jamaica Inn in 1939. In Hollywood, Hitchcock reveled in depicting psychological subjects and insanity onscreen in Gothic films such as Rebecca since screen images of insanity were banned in Britain.
While the PCA previously discouraged and seemed to avoid including political content in Hollywood films, developments during World War II and government propaganda aims ultimately contradicted PCA policy in a complex regulatory labyrinth where various censorship agencies such as Washington’s Office of War Information, its Bureau of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, the government’s Office of Censorship, Army and Navy branches of the U.S. military, Hollywood studios, and the film industry’s self-regulation from the Production Code Administration had different, competing, and contradictory censorship agendas.
The federal government’s OWI Bureau of Motion Pictures regulated Hollywood industry motion pictures and cinematic screen content in 1942 though 1943. However, Washington’s Office of Censorship sanctioned violent propaganda in films to aid the war effort in 1944, which directly conflicted with the industry’s Production Code censorship that previously shunned screen violence and avoided political propaganda. The federal Office of Censorship banned cinematic depictions of gangsters in Hollywood films as “un-American” screen material that could be used as Nazi propaganda and censored their illegal, unpatriotic incarnation in motion pictures during wartime. However, in response to censorship, a darker, more ambiguous
strain of crime films arose in Hollywood.
As censors scrambled to deal with the resurgence of deviant hoodlums and cinematic mayhem churned out like hotcakes by the 1940s, the cinematic crime trend would eventually proliferate with brooding films noir with censorable atmospheric milieu such as Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), Rebecca (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Suspicion (1941), This Gun For Hire (1942), Gaslight (1940, UK; 1944, U.S.), Jane Eyre (1943, UK; 1944, U.S.), Phantom Lady (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and would-be- termed Hollywood’s “Red meat crime and romance” cycle in 1944, soon to be called “film noir” in 1946, as The Big Sleep (1946), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Gilda (1946) were released and dark crime films were screened for French critics overseas. Film noir pushed the envelope of PCA censorship, revealing how censorship forced filmmakers to find interesting ways around the Code and encouraged cinematic artistry. Film noir has long been recognized for its psychological depictions visually revealing cinematic incarnations of a disturbing “nightmare” underworld onscreen. Nightmarish psychological imagery was iconic of film noir and Gothic novels such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn and Rebecca. Influential filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles thrived on cinematically portraying subjective prisms of psychological anguish onscreen in noir thrillers.
After the war, Code enforcement eventually eased over time, especially later in the 1940s and 1950s, with the influx of international films such as Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and The Miracle (1948, 1950 in the United States), and after U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the postwar period and Breen’s retirement in 1954. The domestic influx of European films and the reopening of international markets after the war, and the need for Hollywood to appeal to sophisticated viewers in foreign lands overseas, opened a debate about censorial limits on films in the United States and challenged PCA censorial constraints more than ever for American films. As foreign cinema markets reopened after the World War II, imported international art cinema pushed the envelope and transcended filmic boundaries of screen censorship. Hollywood censorship encountered challenges from foreign films as seen in the gritty, unvarnished portrayals of Italian neorealist cinema such as Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945, Roma Città Aperta), Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), Rossellini’s The Miracle and Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950). Growing out of graphic images in World War II and the Korean War combat newsreels, there was a proliferation of images of violence and brutality that led to a desensitization to and curiosity about graphic images onscreen, as in noir crime films and war-related documentaries. Publication of the Kinsey Reports on sexual behavior regarding male sexuality in 1948 and female sexuality in 1953 and Playboy magazine with its debut issue featuring a cover image and centerfold of a nude Hollywood film star Marilyn Monroe in 1953, contributed to a greater latitude, awareness, and curiosity about sexuality in post-war American culture. These post-war cultural and social developments made Hollywood’s 1930 Production Code and its rigid censorial strictures seem antiquated and out-of-touch, both in the United States and overseas, as was evident by the content of international films of this period. UNESCO’s first International Conference of Artists in Venice, Italy in 1952 and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called for freedom from film censorship and by 1955 there were calls to eliminate the PCA, as Hollywood resisted various pressure groups. Federal regulation against the film industry in the 1948 Paramount antitrust decision effectively dismantled the vertically-integrated classical Hollywood studio system (which unraveled and collapsed) that had enforced industry self-censorship. The 1952 The Miracle Supreme Court decision (Joseph Burstyn, Inc. vs. Wilson) undermined the legal basis for film censorship in the United States by granting motion pictures free speech and freedom of expression protections under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Miracle decision was a major milestone for laying the legal groundwork to eventually overturn film censorship in the United States. By granting Hollywood motion pictures First Amendment free speech protections in 1952, The Miracle decision reversed the earlier 1915 Mutual vs. Ohio decision. The Miracle decision was the first time the court had ruled that “motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas,” which was the foundation of cinematic free speech in America. The decision ultimately rejected the legal basis of federal censorship and U.S. government regulation, and thus significantly weakened and undercut PCA enforcement in a film industry now empowered by free speech protection.[2]
By 1955, racy film noir Kiss Me Deadly opened with a woman running barefoot in a trench coat (with nothing underneath) on a dark road panting arduously with heavy breathing suggesting sexual exertion—before she is brutally killed. Publicity taglines clamored, “I Don’t Care What You Do To Me...Just Do It Fast!” The next year, Giant featured interracial marriage and spoke out against racial prejudice—in the wake of civil rights dissention, bus boycotts and the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision—as the Code was liberalized under Breen’s more lenient successor Geoffrey Shurlock in 1956. A decade later, gangster outlaws Bonnie and Clyde (1967) were gunned down in a violent hail of bullets.
The floodgates had duly opened. Hollywood would abandon the Code (and establish a rating system) in 1968.


Dr. Sheri Chinen Biesen is Professor of Film History at Rowan University and author of Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen (2018), Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (2005), and Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films (2014). She received her Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, M.A. and B.A. at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television and has taught at USC, University of California, University of Texas, and in England. She has contributed to the BBC documentary The Rules of Film Noir, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Hollywood on Location, Film and History, Film Noir: The Directors, Literature/Film Quarterly, Turner Classic Movies’ Public Enemies in the Warner Bros. Gangster Collection, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, Gangster Film Reader, Film Noir Reader 4, The Historian, Television and Television History, The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century, Popular Culture Review, served as Secretary of the Literature/Film Association, Founding Chair of the ‘Stars & Screen’ Film & Media History Conference, serves on the editorial board of Film Criticism, and edited The Velvet Light Trap.


[1]For further reading, see Sheri Chinen Biesen, Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen (2018).

[2]See Biesen, Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen, 2018. “Independent distributor Joseph Burstyn opened L’Amore or The Ways of Love, an anthology film of which The Miracle was a part, in New York City in November 1950, after which it won the New York Film Critics Best Foreign Language Film Award in December. However, on December 23, 1950 the New York Department of Licensing Board ordered theatres to halt showings of the film, despite the film’s distribution/exhibition contract being binding. The Miracle starred iconic Italian ‘maestro’ (and co-writer) Federico Fellini and neorealist actress Anna Magnani (star of Open City), as a disturbed woman who is impregnated (by him) and yet believes she’s the Virgin Mary, which did not play very well with Catholic audiences, censors or religious groups. The Legion of Decency condemned the film as a mockery of religious truth and an insult to religious faith and The Miracle was seen as another neorealism affront. Yet, many criticized the Licensing commission.”


Further Reading:

Matthew Bernstein, ed., Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era (1999).
Sheri Chinen Beisen, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (2005).
Sheri Chinen Beisen, Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen (2018).
Gregory D Black, Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics and the Movies (1994).
Susan Courtney, Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation: Spectacular Narratives of Gender and Race (2004).
Francis Couvares, “The Good Censor: Race, sex, and censorship in the early cinema,” Yale Journal of Criticism, 7 (No. 2, 1994), 233.
Francis Courvares ed., Movie Censorship and American Culture, (2006).
Thomas Doherty, “The Code Before “Da Vinci.”’ Washington Post, May 20, 2006.
Thomas Doherty, Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (2009).
Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (2013).
Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934 (1999).
Thomas Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture and World War II (1993)
Lea Jacobs, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942 (1991).
Homay King, Lost in Translation (2010).
Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (1987).
Annette Kuhn Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality (1988).
Leonard Leff and Jerold Simmons, The Dame In The Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s (2001).
Jon Lewis, Hollywood v. Hard-Core (2000).
Richard Maltby, Harmless Entertainment: Hollywood and the Ideology of Consensus (1983).
Raymond Moley, The Hays Office (1945).
Chon Noreiga, ‘“Something’s Missing Here!”: Homosexuality and Film Reviews during the Production Code Era, 1934-1962,” Cinema Journal, 30 (No. 1, 1990), 20-41.
Charlene Regester, “Black Screen/White Censors,” in Francis Couvares, ed., Movie Censorship and American Culture (2006), 159-186.
Ellen Scott, Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era (2015).
Shelley Stamp, “Moral Coercion, or the Board of Censorship Ponders the Vice Question,” in Matthew Bernstein, ed., Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era (1999), 41-58.
Patricia White, Uninvited (1999).

Films for Viewing:

Act of Violence (1949)
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
The Bicycle Thief (1948)
The Big Combo (1955)
Blonde Venus (1932)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
The Cheat (1915)
Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
Crossfire (1947)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Forever Amber (1947)
From Here To Eternity (1953)
Giant (1956)
The Graduate (1967)
The Exorcist (1973)
The Interview (2014)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Man With the Golden Arm (1955)
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
The Miracle (1948, 1950 in US)
The Moon is Blue (1953)
North by Northwest (1959)
The Outlaw (1943)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Psycho (1960)
Public Enemy (1931)
Rebecca (1940)
Red Headed Woman (1932)
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
Scarface (1932)
Scarlet Street (1945)
She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)