The History of Censorship in Filmmaking


by Jessica Pahutski – Staff Editor

Everyone has seen movie previews and commercials that end with “rated G/PG/PG-13/R” or “this film is not yet rated”. Whether an indie darling or summer blockbuster, every movie has a different set of warnings attached to it. However, only one rating existed for cinema made between 1934 and 1968: Accepted by censor office.
As with every new form of entertainment, calls to cut down on film content are as old as the medium itself. Maine passed a law about content in 1897 following the release of a recorded boxing match. Hardly anyone paid attention to said law even at the time and it remained unenforced. Chicago became the first city to have its own censor board in 1907. In 1915, the Supreme Court decided that film was a business and not an art. This would be used to justify future actions.
Several celebrity scandals rocked the industry in the early 1920’s. Murder trials, mysterious deaths and drug overdoses caused an uproar among conservatives and rural communities. After all, if those on screen have such unacceptable standards of living, how will those watching them act? Former Postmaster General William Hays came forward with a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” for filmmakers to follow. However, this list seemed more like a suggestion than an order to conform.
By 1933, the combination of outrage from the National Legion of Decency and threats of government intervention led to the creation of a more forceful set of rules effective July 1st, 1934. The Motion Picture Production Code (also called the Hays Code) forbid things like sympathetic portrayal of criminals and drug use to prevent films “that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Some of these were a product of their time, such as when Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong was considered for a lead role in the 1937 adaptation of “The Good Earth”. Due to a ban on interracial relationships, the Hays Office rejected her because her would-be co-star was white.
Many modern-day classics like The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and Snow White went under these rules. Wartime productions, except those intended for troops overseas or claimed to be educational, could not show risqué behavior or excessive violence. With the rise of television in the early 50’s, the industry struggled to find an audience, not helped by the emergence of imported entertainment. The NLD and the New York state censor board decried part of an Italian film entitled “The Miracle” as sacrilegious. This eventually led to a lawsuit heard by the Supreme Court: Joseph Burstyn v. Wilson, also known as the “Miracle Decision”, which ended with overturning a previous ruling (1915). Preventing film distribution/viewing was also said to be in violation of the First Amendment. It was the first huge blow to the Code, but not the last.
As the 50’s moved into the 60’s, more and more directors challenged restrictions set up a generation before with increasing success. Subjects believed to be sinful in 1934 were considered acceptable in society by 1964. While not as powerful as it once was, the Code limped on. After 1965’s Freedman v. Maryland Supreme Court ruling ended its ability to ban films, then-President of the Motion Picture Association of America Jack Valenti officially pulled the plug in 1968. His replacement system of G, GP (later changed to PG; PG-13 added in 1984), R, and X (X was replaced with NC-17 in the ‘80s) is still used today.

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