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The Hays Code

The moral code that governed mid-20th century American film-making

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First published in March 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code (popularly known as the Hays Code after its creator Will H.Hays) was the first attempt at introducing film censorship in the US through laying down a series of guidelines to film producers.

The Code was founded according to the concept: "if motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind" - the clear implication being that films were signally failing to achieve these lofty aims.

The Code was based on three general principles:

- No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
- Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
- Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

These were developed in a series of rules grouped under the self-explanatory headings Crimes Against The Law, Sex, Vulgarity, Obscenity, Profanity, Costume, Dances (i.e. suggestive movements), Religion, Locations (i.e. the bedroom), National Feelings, Titles and "Repellent Subjects" (extremely graphic violence).

Although these guidelines were technically voluntary, in practice the major Hollywood studios used the Hays Code guidelines as a convenient means of staving off pressure groups (the British Board of Film Censors' recommendations had been adopted by British film producers and distributors for similar reasons).

As a result, the Hays Code (and similar strictures laid down by the hugely influential Catholic Legion of Decency) directly influenced the content of almost every American film made between 1930 and 1966, when the Motion Picture Association of America introduced a ratings system along the lines of the BBFC's classification certificates.

Michael Brooke

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