The Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was a uniform standard of decency imposed by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association upon the major Hollywood studios. Beginning on March 31, 1930, the Production Code was used to set a standard that all major motion pictures shown in the United States would adhere to for over twenty years.
The Production Code was not enforced by the United States government; in fact, the actions of the major Hollywood studios to censor their films over the years have largely been to prevent censorship by the federal government. Before the introduction of the Production Code, motion pictures were seen by many authority figures as immoral, promoting vice and glorifying violence. A number of racy and violent Hollywood films over the years had outraged conservative groups (the most famous of these "banned" films was Ecstasy starring Hedy Lamarr), and a number of metropolitan areas had adopted their own censorship boards. One problem with these local boards was that the definition of acceptable community standards differed from place to place, making it hard for movies to be screened in many areas without being subjected to cuts and editing.
In the early 1920s three major scandals rocked Hollywood: the Fatty Arbuckle murder trial, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, and the drug-related death of actor Wallace Reid. The public outcry over these lurid, headline-grabbing stories led to the creation in 1922 of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (which would later become the Motion Picture Association of America. Intended as a political unit to oppose government censorship, the board was originally headed by Will Hays (who had previously been the campaign manager for President Warren G. Harding). Hays pledged to impose a set of moral standards on Hollywood. While his name is often seen as synonymous with "censorship" by some film historians, Hays was actually seen as a mild-mannered individual who was easily persuaded and manipulated.
Hays spent eight years attempting to enforce a moral authority over Hollywood films, but it was during the Great Depression that the Hays Office gained a large influence over Hollywood. Public outcry over immorality in motion pictures reached its peak (even as moviegoing audiences reached the highest attendance numbers in the nation's history), and Hays appointed Joseph Breen as head of the Production Code Administration, and sent him to Hollywood to bring the studio moguls under control.
Under Breen's leadership, enforcement of the Production Code became rigid and notorious. Breen's conservative views pervaded the enforcement of the Code, and set the standards that angered the Hollywood moguls. The first major instance of censorship under the Production Code involved the 1934 film Tarzan and his Mate, in which brief nude scenes involving actress Maureen O'Sullivan (actually, a body double was used) were edited out of the master print of the film. The Production Code enforced its authority, leading to the dissolution of most local censorship boards across the country.
The Production Code spelled out specific restrictions on language and behavior, particularly sex and crime -- though Hollywood developed ways to get around some of these restrictions and keep audiences coming back to the theaters. It prohibited nudity, suggestive dances, and the ridicule of religion. It forbade the depiction of illegal drug use, venereal disease, childbirth, and profanity. The language section banned dozens of "offensive" words and phrases, leading to the shocked outcry from many moviegoers when the film Gone with the Wind included the word "damn." Criminal activity could not be depicted on film in a way that led viewers to sympathize with criminals. Murder scenes had to filmed in a way that would discourage imitations in real life, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail. The sanctity of marriage and the home had to be upheld. Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.
Hollywood worked within the confines of the Production Code until the collapse of the studio system in the 1950s. The authority of the Hays Office to enforce the Code weakened considerably with the end of vertical integration, and filmmakers became more daring and more risque in their portrayals of reality on film. Movies began to openly defy the Production Code in the 1950s, beginning with Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief\ and Otto Preminger's The Moon is Blue and The Man with the Golden Arm. The Code was all but abandoned by the 1960s, and the sexual and violent content of movies became more explicit throughout the decade. This led to the adoption of the modern MPAA film rating system.