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Long before Netflix’s Blonde landed a controversial NC-17 rating, the Motion Picture Association gave films like Baby Doll (1956) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) “adults only” designations as a way to placate concerned parents and reformers.
Now, when news surfaces of Hollywood allegedly kowtowing to everything from domestic social crusaders to foreign governments, debate lights up headlines and social media conversations. But, historically speaking, industry moguls have most often erred on the side of not ruffling feathers, home or abroad, in order to court consumers — as evidenced in the birth of the MPA 100 years ago.
The lobbying group, which is marking its centennial in 2022, was born as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association in 1922. MPPDA counsel C.C. Pettijohn once told a 1929 Public Relations Conference that the film industry was first understood as a three-legged stool that included production, distribution, and exhibition. Pettijohn argued that the MPPDA allowed the public to work as the fourth leg that could make or break the industry.
One moment that led to its creation: When “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford obtained a divorce from her husband, Owen Moore, in 1920 it rankled millions of Catholic fans sold on her wholesome image. When the gossip rags let loose about her man waiting in the wings, swashbuckling screen star Douglas Fairbanks, moral crusaders found new firepower to question the living standards in Hollywood. Things got worse when Pickford was accused of breaking up Fairbanks’s marriage. While Pickford and Fairbanks still managed to become America’s Royal Couple, the precedent for questioning Hollywood’s morals was set.
Hollywood had another battle with social reformers in the wake of silent comedian Fatty Arbuckle’s scandalous San Francisco soiree that allegedly resulted in the death of actress Virginia Rappe. As trials commenced, discussions of censorship began to swirl, something the industry was staunchly against. Censorship “is as rotten as human slavery and it has less friends,” opined Moving Picture World editor-in-chief Arthur James in October 1921.
Hollywood’s response was to self-regulate by creating the MPPDA in 1922. Pressures from social reformers led the industry to hire Will Hays, President Harding’s Postmaster General, to come to the industry in hopes of winning the confidence of an increasingly weary public. Lewis Selznick referred to these turbulent times as an “era of scandal.” Selznick cited the new baseball commissioner as offering a template for Hollywood to maintain audience confidence. In his memoir, Hays wrote that “while I am not a reformer, I hope that I have always been public-spirited.” Hays offered a bridge between Hollywood and the public. Opposed to outright censorship, Hays opted for a democratic process, because “self-regulation educates and strengthens those who practice it.”
Hays accepted the industry’s offer on January 14, 1922. When Hays took office, Arbuckle’s second trial was just about to begin. The nation was following the story closely, and while the comedian would eventually be acquitted (complete with an apology from the jury), Hays banned Arbuckle from the industry. The move showed industry skeptics that Hays was serious about keeping the industry clean. Adolph Zukor, head of Famous Players-Lasky (soon to be Paramount), shelved Arbuckle’s future projects and took a $500,000 loss. The industry distanced itself from problematic publicity, just as they have many times over the last century.
By the end of the 1922, Hays offered Arbuckle a comeback tour. It was too late. The court of public opinion had settled its case. Theater owners were worried that the one-eighty on Arbuckle would lose any public trust gained since Hays’s appointment. The Motion Picture Theater Owners of America issued a statement, arguing that “no act of any official can make up the public mind on this matter.”
Hays offered a thirteen-point agreement that included eliminating from films overt sexuality, prostitution, cavalier depiction of vice, passionate love scenes, any ridicule of government or religion, and any salacious advertising. But the 1920s provided no shortage of scandalous material for Hays to moderate. Wallace Reid’s newsworthy drug addiction became a difficult, but manageable, public relations story. However, when stars like Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, and Clara Bow put their sexuality on screen in front of patrons the world over, it would erupt another series of social outcries. Others decried the Hollywood arrival of Elinor Glyn, author of the so-called sex novel Three Weeks (1907) and future inventor of Clara Bow’s It (1927).
For some U.S. consumers, movies had become nothing more than a Babylonian product. By the end of the decade, it was clear that moviemakers were not adhering to any self-censorship. An emphasized list of “don’ts and be carefuls” was added in 1927. Even publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was lobbying for film censorship. A formal Production Code was added in 1930. Three general principals were emphasized: Movies should be regarded as entertainment, are important as an art form, and have moral obligations.
However, none of these added provisions along with the lengthy corresponding rulebook were followed any better than Hays’s original thirteen points. The years 1930-1934 are lauded by fans as the last “Pre-Code” years when filmmakers had a heyday with stories that violated every facet of the Production Code. So-called “fallen woman” films (The Divorcee), gangster pictures (Scarface), sex-filled musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933), sex comedies (She Done Him Wrong), Depression pictures (Wild Boys for the Road) and everything in between ruled the day.
During the “Pre-Code” years, new forces arose to push back on Hollywood’s free-for-all approach to lascivious content. The Payne Fund Studies began to (unsuccessfully) link the rise of juvenile delinquency with Hollywood movies. Each study was published while a summarizing and propagandizing volume was published as Henry James Forman’s Our Movie-Made Children (1933). Forman’s book became a best-seller, alerting studio moguls that the public was on the verge of being lost again. The Great Depression was hitting the studios. Even those that were in better shape at the end of the 1920s were feeling the effects by the Depression’s nadir in 1933. Nobody in Hollywood was in a place to risk ticket sales.
At the same time, the Catholic Legion of Decency was up in arms over the dangers of films and even had a Legion Pledge that congregations spouted from the pews. “I make this protest in a spirit of self-respect,” concluded the pledge, “and with the conviction that the American public does not demand filthy pictures, but clean entertainment.” The social and political winds were blowing hard against the movie industry. It was time again to make a big move, as the previous decade had not offered a consistent response to social reformers.
The answer to the public concern was Joseph Breen, an Irish Catholic who worked as a journalist before landing jobs at the US Foreign Service and the 28th International Eucharistic Congress. It was at the Eucharistic Congress in Chicago during summer of 1926 that showcased the power of the Catholic Church in the United States. Catholics moved from the margins to the mainstream, and by 1933 were a sizable social and political force. The Legion of Decency also kept its own ratings system, never afraid to condemn a film it felt out of line with its own standards. This was the crowd Hollywood needed to appease.
Hays hired Breen to be the Code’s enforcer, a role in which he served from 1934 until 1954 (which a brief stint running RKO in 1941). Less of a gentleman’s agreement and more a process of arduous negotiation, the Production Code impacted film content and satisfied many anti-Hollywood activists for nearly two decades. Movies would now have to adhere to the industry standards, as no film would be released without a Production Code Administration seal.
By the end of 1934, newspapers around the country celebrated Hollywood’s new direction. The Motion Picture Herald printed praise from the press who “reflect audience appreciation of higher-class product,” showing that the new strictures resulted in increased audience attendance.
The first years of the Motion Picture Association (as the MPPDA) set the standard for industry responses to contemporary mores. Hiring a political insider was the move in 1922, and by the early 1930s the industry needed to respond to growing church boycotts. Breen allowed the industry to create a product that “met churchmen half-way.” The social and political winds driven by the public, that global fourth stool-leg highlighted by Will Hays, will always be a major focus of Hollywood’s operation.
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