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Notorious (1946) trailer

Original trailer for Notorious (1946, Alfred Hitchcock)


The “Miracle” Case and After

While much occurred to the art form known as motion pictures between 1915 and 1952 and many developments were made in the regulation of film content during that time, very little changed legally for films from the Mutual case in 1915 to the “Miracle” case in 1952 (Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495). Several cases of film censorship were challenged in the courts, but all of them were denied injunctions based in great part to the precedent set in Mutual v. Ohio. Examples of films banned in the years following the Mutual decision are Birth Control heard in Message Photo-Play v. Bell, 166 N.Y.S. 338 (Sup. Ct. 1917); The Sex Lure in Ivan Film v. Bell, 167 N.Y.S. 123 (Sup. Ct. 1917); The Spirit of ’76 in United States v. Motion Picture Film The Spirit of’76, 252 F. 946 (S.D. Cal. 1917); The Road to Ruin in Brooks v. City of Birmingham, 32 F. 2d 274 (N.D. Ala. 1929); Ecstasy in Eureka Productions v. Byrne, 300 N.Y.S. 218 (Sup. Ct. 1937); and The Outlaw in Hughes Tool v. Fielding, 80 N.E. 2d 540 (N.Y. App. 1948). In each instance the courts upheld the rejection or revocation of a license for the showing of the film, citing the Mutual case as precedent (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982).  Before 1925 First Amendment rights were not applied to state laws. After the 1925 Gitlow decision, however, it was held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee to due process under the law for all states extended the right of the federal Constitution to state law (see Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652); Pennekamp v. Florida, 328 U.S. 331 (1946); see also Pember, 1999; Zelezny, 2001). But even with this change, motion pictures were still not granted Constitutional protection based on the Mutual decision. That finally changed in 1952 when the Supreme Court heard Burstyn v. Wilson, better known as the “Miracle” case.

The Italian film Il Miracolo (“The Miracle”), written by Frederico Fellini and directed by Roberto Rossellini, was introduced in the United States in 1949 (Cook, D. A., 1990). “The Miracle” was granted a license by the New York state licensing board on March 2, 1949. It was not shown until late 1950, when it was granted a license to be shown with two French films, A Day in the Country and Jofroi (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982; Draper, 1999). The film tells the story of a “demented peasant woman who is seduced by a bearded stranger whom she thinks is Saint Joseph. The woman becomes pregnant, and after being tormented by the people of her village, she is forced to flee into the hills, where she delivers her child in an isolated church as the film ends” (Jowett, 1996, p. 262). The movie opened at the Paris Theater in Manhattan on December 12, 1950, when some film critics and the Catholic Legion of Decency quickly criticized the film as sacrilegious and blasphemous (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982; Randall, 1968).

Twelve days after it opened, Edward T. McCaffrey, the licensing commissioner for the state, told the owners of the Paris Theater that if he did not immediately stop showing the movie then his license would be revoked (Jowett, 1996; Randall, 1968). McCaffrey said he found the film “officially and personally blasphemous” (Randall, 1968, p. 28).  The Paris Theater complied the next day, but the film’s distributor, Joseph Burstyn, went to court challenging the authority of the licensing commissioner to revoke licenses (Burstyn v. McCaffrey, 101 N.Y.S.2d 892 (Sup. Ct. 1951). The New York Supreme Court agreed that the city license commissioner had no power over movie censorship, and the film was showing again one week later (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982). Up to 1,000 members of the Catholic War Veterans picketed outside the Pairs Theater in the weeks following the decision (Randall, 1968). Francis Cardinal Spellman of the Archdiocese of New York publicly denounced the film, calling for Catholics to avoid the film and theaters showing it. Just a few days later, the New York State Board of Regents, which was the governing board over the film licensing board of the state, convened to review the film and the Motion Picture Division’s original decision to grant the film a license. They determined that the film’s license should be revoked on the grounds that it was “sacrilegious” and censorable according to New York licensing laws (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982; Randall, 1968). Burstyn again challenged the Regents decision in court, but the decision was upheld in the New York Supreme Court, Burstyn v. Wilson, 104 N.Y.S.2d 740, as well as in the New York Appeals Court by a 5–2 decision, 101 N.E. 2d 665 (N.Y. App. 1951).

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in February of 1952. Burstyn received little support from the motion picture industry, which was busy trying to influence the outcome of another case involving a Hollywood produced movie, Pinky (Gelling v. Texas, 343 U.S. 960 (1952); see also Jowett, 1996). On May 26, 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the state appeals court decision and lifted the ban on “The Miracle” (343 U.S. 495). Most significantly the opinion stated there were compelling reasons for motion pictures to enjoy constitutional protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Writing the opinion for the Court, Justice Tom C. Clark said,

It cannot be doubted that motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas. They may affect public attitudes and behavior in a variety of ways, ranging from direct espousal of a political or social doctrine to the subtle shaping of thought which characterizes all artistic expression. (343 U.S. at 501)

The “Miracle” ruling had established a basis for the First Amendment protection of motion pictures. The Court ruled that the New York statute prohibiting “sacrilegious” content was unconstitutionally vague, but the motion picture industry would have to wait to be completely free of laws restricting the content of movies (Randall, 1968). A series of cases following Burstyn v. Wilson (Gelling v. Texas, 343 U.S. 960; Commercial Pictures v. Board of Regents, Superior Films v. Department of Education of Ohio, 346 U.S. 587 (1954); Holmby Productions v. Vaughn, 350 U.S. 870 (1955) ruled other vague standards, such as “immoral,” “harmful,” and “indecent” to be unconstitutional (Draper, 1999). But all of these cases were decided with per curiam decisions, so it was not until 1957 with Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, that the constitutional line was drawn at obscenity (Randall, 1968; Draper, 1999). Though Roth did not concern a motion picture, the establishment of an obscenity standard set the standard for all motion picture censorship statutes to be measured against. Finally, in Kingsley International Pictures Corp. v. Regents of University of N. Y., 360 U.S. 684 (1957), the principles from Burstyn v. Wilson met the practical definition of unprotected speech in Roth. In Kingsley the Court ruled that a licensing standard that barred the depiction of “sexual immorality” was in essence “a bar to the discussion of ideas” (Randall, 1968, p. 33).

During the time between the “Miracle” and Kingsley decisions state film licensing statutes began to fall to constitutional challenges in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Kansas (Randall, 1968). Two subsequent cases in the sixties, Times Film Corp. v. Chicago, 365 U.S. 43 (1961) and Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51 (1965), rendered most licensing statutes powerless, marking the end to over fifty years of prior censorship through motion picture licensing (Draper, 1999; Liston, 1973). While the courts were redefining protected speech and establishing First Amendment rights for motion pictures, the motion picture Production Code struggled to stay current and pertinent. In 1956 the Production Code was revised to lift restrictions against the portrayal of narcotics, prostitution, and interracial marriage. In 1961 it was further amended to allow cautious depictions of homosexuality (Liston, 1973). In November 1968 the MPAA eliminated the Production Code and introduced a new labeling system in its place. In announcing the new system, MPAA president Jack Valenti said:

There are many audiences and if we seek out the lowest common audience denominator, we will find ourselves making movies that would be . . . inane. We cannot allow children to set the boundaries for motion picture creativity, any more than we would allow children to organize our moral apparatus or our national priorities. But we can be concerned about children. (Liston, 1973, p. 53)

The motion picture ratings system has been in place for over thirty years, and no true form of content regulation, either self-regulation or government regulation, exists for motion pictures. On occasion a film is challenged in court as being obscene or as inciting to violence, but as a whole the film industry must only struggle with the rating their films might receive and what impact the rating may have on their box office success. Though the ratings system has received criticism, this self-regulatory ratings system has proven itself and has served as a pattern for the music industry’s advisory label, some comic book companies’ content labeling systems, and the parental guidelines for television.

Between “Mutual” and “Miracle”

In the early twenties a series of events lead to the motion picture industry’s first attempt at self-regulation. As movie revenues declined and the star system in Hollywood emerged, motion picture producers began to offer more sensational fare at the cinema and a series of scandals rocked the industry (Anger, 1975; Blanchard, 1992; Miller, F., 1994). A new legislative wave hit the industry, as nearly 100 censorship bills were introduced in 37 states in 1921 alone. In late 1921 legislation to create a federal censorship commission was reintroduced in Congress (Blanchard, 1992). The motion picture industry responded to the pressure in 1921 by creating the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI), which would later become the MPPDA, and issuing a list of thirteen controversial topics that movie producers should avoid in their films (see Appendix A). This attempt at self-regulation would not be a tremendous success, and additional attempts to regulate motion pictures on the federal level would come in the following years (Blanchard, 1992; Inglis, 1947; Jowett, 1999; Randall, 1968).

Very little changed legally regarding motion pictures in the decades following the Mutual decision—on the contrary, the pressure put to bear on the motion picture industry increased dramatically in the years to follow the Mutual decision—the legal position towards obscenity and censorship changed drastically in that time, due primarily to two key decisions. In 1931 the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931), that a Minnesota nuisance statute that resulted in the prior restraint of a newspaper was unconstitutional. In this case the Minnesota statute stated that “(a) an obscene, lewd and lascivious newspaper, magazine, or other periodical, or (b) a malicious, scandalous and defamatory newspaper, magazine or other periodical, is guilty of a nuisance, and all persons guilty of such a nuisance may be enjoined” (Mason’s Minnesota Statutes, 1927, 10123-1 to 10123-3, cited in Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. at 701). The Court had newfound power over state law as a result of the Gitlow v. New York decision, 268 U.S. 652 (1925), which ruled that the “due process” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment granted federal constitutional guarantees to state laws as well as federal laws.

Using this power, in a narrow 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court found the Minnesota statute unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and free press (Pember, 1999). In the majority opinion Chief Justice Hughes wrote that while this statute, unusual in its blatant disregard for the freedom of the press, was unconstitutional, certain qualifications should be made concerning the constitutional position of prior restraint. Hughes first argued that the restrictions on prior restraint are not unlimited. Hughes mentions wartime restrictions, restrictions on obscenity and protections against incitements to acts of violence as examples when prior restraint might be permissible and constitutional (283 U.S. at 716). Hughes also qualified the decision by stating that the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and free press are not limited to protection against prior restraint only, but argued that other forms of punishment after publication could as easily violate the First Amendment protections the Constitution provides (283 U.S. at 717).

Another milestone in First Amendment law occurred in 1934 when a Federal Appeals Court found James Joyce’s Ulysses not to be obscene using a standard that varied greatly from the Hicklin Rule (United States v. One Book Entitled “Ulysses”, 5 F. Supp. 182 (S.D. N.Y. 1933), aff’d, 72 F.2d 705 (2d Cir. 1934). The book by Joyce had been found to be obscene by customs officials according to the Tariff Act of 1930, 19 U.S.C.A. § 1305 (a). When challenged in court, the District Court judge found that the work, when taken as a whole, had such literary merit that it could not be legally obscene (5 F. Supp. at 183, 184). Straying from the concepts in the Hicklin Rule, the majority opinion stated: “We think that Ulysses is a book of originality and sincerity of treatment and that it has not the effect of promoting lust. Accordingly it does not fall within the statute, even though it justly may offend many” (72 F.2d at 708, 709). The opinion cited United States v. Kennerley, 209 F. 119 (S.D.N.Y. 1913), which objected to the Hicklin Rule’s “test which protected the ‘salacious’ few,” while upholding the rule as established in the Rosen case (see Rosen v. United States, 161 U.S. 29; see also United States v. One Book Entitled “Ulysses”, 72 F.2d at 711). While the decision marked a decisive turn from the previous legal views on obscenity, the concepts in the Ulysses case would be met with opposition for several years. This opposition can be seen in the harsh dissent from Judge L. Hand Manton, who argued:

If we disregard the protection of the morals of the susceptible, are we to consider merely the benefits and pleasures derived from letters by those who pose as the more highly developed and intelligent? To do so would show an utter disregard for the standards of decency of the community as a whole and an utter disregard for the effect of a book upon the average less sophisticated member of society, not to mention the adolescent . . .. The statute is designed to protect society at large, of that there can be no dispute; notwithstanding the deprivation of benefits to a few, a work must be condemned if it has a depraving influence. (72 F.2d at 711)

This concept would prevail in the legal system for many years with regards to the censorship of motion pictures, television, and comic books, despite the changes these cases made in the approach to the press and works of literature. The application of the First Amendment to state law in 1925 and the prohibition of prior restraint in 1931 should have invalidated all of the state film censorship boards, but the Mutual decision remained intact until 1952 (Gibson, 1986). The Mutual case would have far reaching influence on not only motion pictures, but on other forms of mass media for several decades.

On March 29, 1948, the Supreme Court decision in Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507, stated that the censorship of violent material was unconstitutional (Nyberg, 1998). The case dealt with a  60 year-old New York law that prohibited the distribution of periodicals “principally made up of criminal news, police reports or accounts of criminal deeds or pictures or stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime” (333 U.S. 507). The majority opinion criticized the vagueness of the statute and ruled the New York law unconstitutional as an abridgement of free speech. The fallout from this ruling was significant. The strong language in the Winters decision would foreshadow the later “Miracle” and Gelling decisions:

We do not accede to [the] suggestion that the constitutional protection for a free press applies only to the exposition of ideas. The line between informing and entertaining is too illusive for the protection of that basic right. Everyone is familiar with instances of propaganda through fiction. What is one man’s amusement, teaches another’s doctrine. Though we can see nothing of any possible value to society in these magazines, they are as much entitled to the protection of free speech as the best of literature. (333 U.S. at 510)

As a result of the Winters ruling, twenty other state laws using the New York statute as a template were found to be unconstitutional (333 U.S. at 522, 523). Additionally, four other state laws were questioned, though not expressly ruled unconstitutional by the ruling (333 U.S. at 523). While this ruling was positive for publishers of magazines and comic books, the Supreme Court left open the possibility for future censorship of violent material in their opinion (Nyberg, 1998). The majority opinion concluded with these words:

To say that a state may not punish by such a vague statute carries no implication that it may not punish circulation of objectionable printed matter, assuming that it is not protected by the principles of the First Amendment, by the use of apt words to describe the prohibited publications . . . Neither the states nor Congress are prevented by the requirement of specificity from carrying out their duty of eliminating evils to which, in their judgment, such publications give rise. (333 U.S. at 520)

State legislators also took comfort in the strong dissent by three of the justices. Justices Frankfurter, Jackson, and Burton made clear their willingness to support any statute protecting from the influence of violent material that encourages criminal behavior, so long as the it is properly worded (see 333 U.S. at 527, 528; see also Nyberg, 1998). As a result, this ruling would prove to be little aid to those depicting the details of crime, as the pressure would continue to mount in the coming years. It would be almost twenty years before many of the new crime statutes would be found unconstitutional (Saunders, 1994). Nevertheless, this Winters decision set the stage for the United States’ unique position of seeing violence, but not sexual activity, as Constitutionally protected.

Mutual v. Ohio

Birth of a Nation, produced and directed by D. W. Griffith, was released nationwide in 1914. The film, a racist depiction of the Civil War and the following Reconstruction era, is arguably the most widely censored film ever made (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982). Based on Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman and The Leopards Spots, the film depicts blacks as lazy, power-hungry, and sex-crazed animals and promotes the Ku Klux Klan as the last hope for our nation. In 1915 Birth of a Nation had been banned in Minneapolis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, Denver, St. Louis, and the state of Ohio. In Minneapolis Mayor W. G. Nye told a theater owner that if he showed the film, he would revoke the theater’s license (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982). The theater owner went to court to prevent the censorship, but was refused, and the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the decision (Bainbridge v. City of Minneapolis, 154 N.W. 964 (Minn. 1915). The Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh decisions were all enjoined, however (154 N.W. at 966 (Minn. 1915). Birth of a Nation and other films were barred in the state of Ohio. The Mutual Film Corporation of Detroit leased films to exhibitors in Ohio and other states, and in 1915 Mutual Film took the state of Ohio to court to enjoin their prior-censorship law (Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 215 F. 138 (N.D. Ohio 1914), aff’d, 236 U.S. 230 (1915); see Randall, 1968). Mutual made three arguments to the court:

  1. The statute in question imposes an unlawful burden on interstate commerce.
  2. It violates the freedom of speech and publication guaranteed by section 11, article 1 of the constitution of the State of Ohio.
  3. It attempts to delegate legislative power to censors and to other boards to determine whether the statute offends in the particulars designated. (236 U.S. at 239)

The District Court of Northern Ohio dismissed each of the arguments and denied the request for an injunction (215 F. at 149). Mutual appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled unanimously against Mutual, affirming the lower court decision (236 U.S. at 247). The significance of the case, however, lies in the decisiveness and finality of the opinion of the Court written by Justice Joseph McKenna (Blanchard, 1992; Randall, 1968).

McKenna completely rejected Mutual’s First Amendment claims. The lower court had simply based their decision on the precedent that state laws cannot be found unconstitutional under the federal Constitution (215 F. at 141). This concept would not be rejected for another ten years (see Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925).  McKenna went a step further, rejecting Mutual’s claim that motion pictures deserve First Amendment protection, stating:

Are moving pictures within the principle, as it is contended they are? They, indeed, may be mediums of thought, but so are many things. So is the theatre, the circus, and all other shows and spectacles, and their performances may be thus brought by the like reasoning under the same immunity from repression or supervision as the public press, made the same agencies of civil liberty. (236 U.S. at 243)

McKenna refused to consider motion pictures as a tool for communication, similar to speech or the press. He further explained:

It cannot be put out of view that the exhibition of moving pictures is a business pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit, like other spectacles, not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion. They are mere representations of events, of ideas and sentiments published and known, vivid, useful and entertaining no doubt, but, as we have said, capable of evil, having power for it, the greater because of their attractiveness and manner of exhibition. (236 U.S. at 244)

D. W. Griffith vehemently opposed the Court’s refusal to extend free speech protection to movies. In a tract written in 1915, Griffith contended that movies should have identical protection to the printed press, calling movies, “the pictoral press” (Blanchard, 1992, p. 765). Griffith argued, “It is said the motion picture tells its story more vividly than any other art. In other words, we are to be blamed for efficiency, for completeness. Is this justice? Is this common sense? We do not think so” (Blanchard, 1992, pp. 765, 766).

According to Richard S. Randall in his book, Censorship of the Movies, three lines of reasoning are apparent in McKenna’s efforts to separate motion pictures from other Constitutionally protected media (1968). First, motion pictures were “primarily entertainment rather than vehicles for ideas” (Randall, 1968, p. 19). Though this has been highly criticized and became the focus of its eventual reversal in Burstyn v, Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, this argument reflected the popular thinking of the time when movies were still primarily spectacles displayed in nickelodeons (Jowett, 1996; Randall, 1968). This thinking would change over time, as films came to be seen more as an artistic vehicle for serious messages and less as a novelty (Cook, D. A., 1990). Second, McKenna distinguished movies as “business, pure and simple.” Though this was likely the weakest of his reasons, since newspapers and book publishers too operate as a business to make a profit, it became “the most widely cited of his attempted distinctions in the case” (Randall, 1968, p. 20). Third, McKenna argued that motion pictures were capable of great evil if not controlled. The unique influence of visual images has been the focus of thousands of studies throughout the century and is still the focus of much debate; however, this can be considered the Court’s strongest reason. Randall argues “the entire decision might have rested on this point alone, and would have been stronger if it had” (1968, p. 20). McKenna’s statements reflect a legal understanding that is rooted in the Hicklin Rule and the Comstock Act. McKenna considered material to be obscene or immoral if it had the ability to affect the most susceptible person. It is from this perspective that McKenna argued for the compelling government interest to protect “public morals and welfare” (236 U.S. at 242).

The Mutual decision set the framework for permissible prior restraint of motion pictures and of other mass media to follow. Licensing was determined to be permissible as a form of regulation, considering the great capacity for evil that movies possessed. The resulting shockwave of this decision was felt by the motion picture industry until the mid-fifties and would greatly impact the development of radio and television. This decision set the stage for a series of political battles where the government interest in protecting “public morals and welfare” collided with the motion picture industry’s desire to survive, resulting in a number of self-regulatory attempts. Several attempts were made, and none were completely successful in appeasing its critics. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) Production Code under the supervision of Joseph Breen came the closest (Inglis, 1947; Leff & Simmons, 1990; Miller, F., 1994; Randall, 1968). It would be 37 years until the Supreme Court would hear another case concerning the constitutionality of motion picture censorship, with surprisingly different results.


The United States is one of the only industrialized nations to never censor motion pictures on the national level, though this is not for lack of trying (Randall, 1968). The history of film censorship in the United States follows the story of an industry desperately trying to keep up with a series of state and local censorship boards’ preferences concerning what is acceptable in their jurisdiction (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982; Leff & Simmons, 1990; Randall, 1968). On numerous occasions the industry turned to organized self-regulation to try to fend off potential federal regulation of motion pictures. The history of organized self-regulation is bookended by two significant Supreme Court cases concerning the relationship between movies and the First Amendment. The first case, Mutual v. Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (1915), effectively stripped the movies of any protection under the law, while the second case, Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952), completely reversed the first, providing complete First Amendment rights to motion pictures, marking the beginning of the end for motion picture censorship (Jowett, 1996). Not only did the cases set two completely different standards for motion pictures, they are the only two Supreme Court cases involving the content of movies heard during the 37 year time span (Cook, D. A., 1990; Pember, 1999; Randall, 1968). The significance of these cases move beyond their impact on the motion picture industry because motion pictures, as the first electronic mass medium, set the standard for the other mass media that followed (Nyberg, 1998; Saunders, 1994; Schumach, 1964). An understanding of the environment surrounding the self-regulation of motion pictures in this era must include a thorough understanding of these cases.

Motion Picture Censorship before Mutual

The first recorded protest against a motion picture happened in 1895 at a kinetoscope parlor on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Just two weeks after Edison’s new machine was introduced, the owners pulled a short film, Dolorita in the Passion Dance, to avoid interference with the local authorities (Blanchard, 1992; Miller, F., 1994; Randall, 1968). In 1897 New York City officials filed an official complaint against Orange Blossoms, a short film that showed a bride getting ready for her wedding. The film showed the woman taking off her clothes and showing a little skin (Blanchard, 1992). The film was closed by a court order with the judge denouncing the show as “an outrage on public decency” (People v. Doris, 14 App. Div. 117, aff’d, 43 N.Y.S. 571 (1st Dep’t 1897); see also Randall, 1968). This combination of official censorship and unofficial public pressure continued through the turn of the century.

It was not until 1907 that the first local movie censorship ordinance was passed in Chicago (Blanchard, 1992; Miller, F., 1994; Randall, 1968). But the first line of defense for municipalities against motion pictures came in the form of laws on the books for several decades. Theater licensing laws, in place since the middle of the previous century in most large cities, provided officials and protestors the legal foundation to challenge the showing of “indecent” films. The first comprehensive licensing law, passed in New York in 1839, required any place exhibiting “theatrical or equestrian performances” to obtain a license from the Mayor’s office (Czitrom, 1996, p. 17). Every violation was punishable by a fine of five hundred dollars. Licensing statutes were successfully used in large municipalities to regulate the content of theatrical performances and, later, movies. Anthony Comstock and his supporters actively challenged the renewal of licenses of establishments they found to be encouraging indecent behavior. Many continued to use theatrical licensing laws to regulate motion picture houses until the early 1910s, when more detailed laws became necessary to deal with the newly organized motion picture industry (Czitrom, 1996).

The 1907 Chicago censorship ordinance made it illegal to use any public facility to show any kind of motion picture in a penny arcade or any other place with a motion picture device, “without first having secured a permit thereof from the chief of police who must either grant or deny the permit within three days after such inspection” (Block v. Chicago, 87 N.E. 1011 (Ill. 1909). In 1908 a permit to show The James Boys in Missouri and Night Riders was denied by the Chicago chief of police. This action was challenged in court by Jake Block and two hundred other proprietors of “five and ten-cent theaters,” claiming that the law was unreasonable and oppressive and denied him of his rights under the Constitution (Miller, F., 1994). The district court judge dismissed Block’s claims and the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed that decision (87 N.E. 1011). Chief Justice Cartwright explained in the court’s opinion, “The purpose of the ordinance is to secure decency and morality in the moving picture business” (87 N.E. at 1013). One of the compelling reasons behind the support of this ordinance was:

The audiences include those classes whose age, education and situation in life specially entitle them to protection against the evil influence of obscene and immoral representations. The welfare of society demands that every effort of municipal authorities to afford such protection shall be sustained, unless it is clear that some constitutional right is interfered with. (87 N.E. at 1013)

The fact that the ordinance did not define “obscene” or “immoral” did not seem to bother the court. The court stated, “the average person of healthy and wholesome mind knows well enough what the words ‘immoral’ and ‘obscene’ mean and can intelligently apply the test to any picture presented to him” (87 N.E. at 1015). This case provided strong legal support for motion picture licensing acts, and many other cities followed suit in the years to follow. In 1911 Pennsylvania passed the first state licensing program, followed by Ohio and Kansas in 1913 and Maryland in 1916 (Blanchard, 1992; Liston, 1973; Randall, 1968).

In 1909, the same year of the Block decision, the motion picture producers in New York teamed with the People’s Institute to form the first self-regulatory agency, The National Board of Censorship (later the National Board of Review, still in existence today), to review and evaluate films before their release (Blanchard, 1992, Miller, F., 1994, Randall, 1968; Schumach, 1964). According to Richard Randall (1968), “Its creation was in direct response to threats of New York officials to close down movie houses in the city” (p. 12). The threat was real, as New York mayor George B. McClellan had already closed all movie theaters on Christmas Eve of 1908 for “safety reasons.” McClellan had later threatened to revoke the licenses of any proprietor exhibiting movies “which tend to degrade or injure the morals of the community” (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982, p. 10).

National Board of CensorshipThe National Board of Censorship served as a buffer between the movie producers and the city officials. The board was comprised of representatives from the City Vigilance League, the Children’s Aid Society and the Neighborhood Worker’s Association (DeGrazia & Newman, 1982). The board issued a set of standards used in evaluating films, which included prohibitions against obscenity, vulgarity, libel, and elaborate depictions of violence (Blanchard, 1992). But the primarily liberal board was more concerned with promoting and circulating films than reforming the motion picture industry (Randall, 1968). For several years the National Board of Censorship, who changed their name to the National Board of Review to disassociate themselves with “censorship,” helped fend off government regulation in New York, but other states actively disagreed with Board assessments of films and cut or banned them in their states (Miller, F., 1994). Then in 1914 a motion picture was released that was so offensive to so many that it would eventually lead to the Supreme Court determining that movies were not protected by the Constitution.


Blanchard, M. A. (1992). The American urge to censor: Freedom of expression versus the desire to sanitize society—from Anthony Comstock to 2 Live Crew. William and Mary Law Review, 33, 741.

Block v. Chicago, 239 Ill. 251; 87 N.E. 1011 (Ill. 1909).

Burstyn v. McCaffrey, 101 N.Y.S.2d 892 (Sup. Ct. 1951).

Burstyn v. Wilson, 104 N.Y.S. 2d 740 (1951), 101 N.E.2d 665 (N.Y. App. 1951), rev’d, 343 U.S. 495 (1952).

Cook, D. A. (1990). A history of narrative film (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Czitrom, D. (1996). The politics of performance: Theater licensing and the origins of movie censorship in New York. In F. G. Couvares (Ed.), Movie censorship and American culture (pp. 16–42). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

DeGrazia, E., & Newman, R. K. (1982). Banned films: Movies, censorship and the First Amendment. New York: R. R. Bowker.

Jowett, G. S. (1996). “A significant medium for the communicating of ideas”: The Miracle decision and the decline of motion picture censorship, 1952–1968. In F. G. Couvares (Ed.), Movie censorship and American culture (pp. 258–276). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Leff, L. J., & Simmons, J. L. (1990). The dame in the kimono: Hollywood, censorship, and the production code from the 1920s to the 1960s. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Liston, R. A. (1973). The right to know: Censorship on America. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc.

Miller, F. (1994). Censored Hollywood: Sex, sin & violence on screen. Atlanta, GA: Turner Publishing.

Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 215 F. 138 (N.D.Ohio 1914), aff’d, 236 U.S. 230; 35 S. Ct. 387 (1915).

Nyberg, A. K. (1998). Seal of approval: The history of the comics code. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Pember, D. R. (1999). Mass media law. Boston: McGraw–Hill College.

People v. Doris, 14 App. Div. 117, aff’d, 43 N.Y.S. 571 (1st Dep’t 1897).

Randall, R. S. (1968). Censorship of the movies: The social and political control of a mass medium. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Saunders, K. W. (1994). Media self-regulation of depictions of violence: A last opportunity. Oklahoma Law Review, 47, 445.

Schumach, M. (1964). The face on the cutting room floor: The story of movie and television censorship. New York: William Morrow.

Public Enemy (1931) trailer

The original trailer from Public Enemy (1931, William A. Wellman)

Babyface Trailer

The original trailer for Baby Face (1933, Alfred E. Green).

The Fourth Wave

by Chris A. Blair, Ph.D.

Thomas Doherty states in his book, Pre-Code Hollywood: “The currents that flowed together in 1933–34 have identifiable names—the National Legion of Decency, the Motion Picture Research Council, and the New Deal—but what they represented was part of a stronger centrifugal force” (1999, p. 320). These three forces managed to generate public consensus concerning the direction Hollywood should pursue. Doherty (1999) states, “Where pre-Code Hollywood vented the disorientation and despair of America in the nadir of the Great Depression, Hollywood after 1934 reflected the restoration of cultural equilibrium under FDR” (p. 320).

In 1933, the Catholic Church formed the National Legion of Decency as a response to the preceding years of non-compliance to the Production Code written by Lord and Quigley. The code was viewed by the industry as merely an advisory document, and with no means of enforcement it went unheeded from 1930 to 1934. In October 1933, Monsignor Cicognani, in an address to the Catholic Charities Convention in New York, proclaimed:

What a massacre of innocence of youth is taking place hour by hour! How shall the crimes that have their direct source in immoral motion pictures be measured? Catholics are called by God, the Pope, the Bishops, and the priests to a united and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema, which has become a deadly menace to morals. (Jowett, 1976, p. 248)

In an editorial in America magazine on October 28, 1933, Father Wilfred Parsons added, “It is perfectly clear that letters and other written protests to Will Hays or anybody else will do little good. . . . Since they have made it perfectly clear that they have no intention whatever of heeding these protests, something else will have to be thought up” (Jowett, 1976, p. 248). Martin Quigley, one of the authors of the Production Code, wrote that the code would not have any effect unless “sufficient pressure and support of public opinion to encourage or compel the industry at large to conform with the letter and spirit of the regulations” (Randall, 1968, p. 186). The Legion of Decency was able to generate the level of pressure Quigley mentioned, by not only enlisting the support of Catholics across the nation but by generating the support of numerous Protestant and Jewish groups. In Catholic churches nationwide parishioners were encouraged to pledge to avoid objectionable movies as determined by the Legion of Decency. Going a step further, in June of 1934, Denis Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia called for all good Catholics to avoid motion pictures altogether, claiming that a “vicious and insidious attack is being made on the very foundation of our Christian civilization” (Doherty, 1999, p. 321).

Protestant churches would rally behind the Catholic Legion of Decency, despite attempts from the Hays Office to line up support from their previous allies. The Protestants, feeling that the MPPDA and the Hays Office had taken advantage of them, rejected the overtures and joined forces with the Legion of Decency. Doherty (1999) summarizes the unity between the Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, stating:

As Protestant clergy urged their congregations “to unite with Catholics in their campaign to raise the moral standards of pictures,” the Central Conference of American Rabbis called for cooperation “with other religious and civic bodies in bringing home to the picture producers their responsibility for taking immediate steps to elevate the standards of pictures.” (p. 322)

Boycott the MoviesThough those not wishing to see the Catholic view of morality imposed on all areas of society opposed the crusade by the Legion of Decency, the majority response was of support for their crusade. In addition to Protestant and Jewish churches, other civic organizations joined in support of the Legion of Decency. The National Education Association, the Knights of Columbus, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith, the Elks, the Masons, and the Odd Fellows all joined in support of the Legion’s pledge to boycott of objectionable movies (Jowett, 1976). The Legion succeeded in collecting over 3 million pledges in 1934 (Jowett, et al., 1996).

The Legion of Decency represented only one source of pressure for the motion picture industry, however. In 1933, the Motion Picture Research Council (MPRC), funded by the Payne Fund, began releasing the findings of their extensive, six-year research on the effects of motion pictures on children. The MPRC released seven volumes of their findings in 1933 and an eighth volume in 1935. The volumes included works entitled, Motion Pictures and Youth, Getting Ideas from the Movies, Motion Pictures and the Social Attitudes of Children, The Emotion Responses of Children to the Motion Picture Situation, Movies and Conduct, and Movies, Delinquency, and Crime. Additionally, the work of the MPRC was summarized in the popular book, Our Movie-Made Children by Henry James Forman (Jowett, et al., 1996).

The Payne Fund Studies, as they have become to be known, were lauded and criticized at their release. They have been both praised as the beginning of media studies in America and condemned as unscientific indictments of the motion picture industry (see Jowett, et al., 1996). One of the MPRC’s primary researchers criticized some of the research, claiming that the MPRC was not completely unbiased in its approach. W. W. Charters stated that he had been told that the MPRC “had been formed by . . . persons who were disturbed by the practices and policies of the motion-picture industry and were apprehensive about the harmfulness of the influence exerted by the movies upon the American public and particular upon the children and youth of the nation” (Jarvis, 1991, p. 129).

Our Movie Made ChildrenTheir influence in the crusade for significant regulation of the motion picture industry, however, is undisputed. While the scholarly volumes released by the MPRC would sell slowly in 1933, the summary volume, Our Movie-Made Children, was an instant success. Additionally, Forman wrote three articles for McCall’s magazine providing sensational stories and summaries of the studies that had been diluted in the editorial process for his book (Jowett, et al., 1996). These articles will be discussed in detail in the following chapter. According to an internal history of the Payne Fund, the MPRC studies were as influential on the formation of the Production Code and the Breen Office as any other factor:

The publication of the Payne Fund Studies of the influence of motion pictures on children and youth has had effects which were perhaps no less amazing to the Fund than to the motion picture industry. While it was expected that the findings would result in action by many organizations interested in the social effects of motion pictures, no such movement as that which swept the country had been foreseen. As stated by the New York Times, criticism of motion pictures, once carried on by isolated groups, became a national barrage from church, civic, and educational organizations. The Motion Picture Research Council initiated the organized campaign, but within a few months was overshadowed by the Legion of Decency, which enlisted millions of persons in a nation-wide movement threatening the general boycott of films. (Jowett, et al., 1996, p. 93–94)

While both the Payne Fund Studies and the Legion of Decency crusade were powerful forces in the formation of stringent self-regulatory measures by the motion picture industry, it can easily be argued that the most powerful contributing factor was the threat of government censorship, specifically federal censorship of the motion picture industry.

National Recovery ActThe closest the federal government came to the regulation of the motion picture industry came in 1933, when the National Recovery Act imposed a series of “codes of fair competition” on numerous industries including the motion picture industry (Jowett, 1976). The Supreme Court would eventually declare this part of Roosevelt’s New Deal unconstitutional in 1935, but its legacy would frighten the motion picture industry into imposing its own self-regulatory code in an effort to avoid any additional federal measures. The NRA Motion Picture Code covered all areas of the motion picture industry, from film content to ticket prices and the hourly wages of employees. Though the moral codes on film content were not as strict as the Production Code, the studio heads were afraid to offend the federal censors and risk receiving fines or having their film banned (Doherty, 1999). The NRA Motion Picture Code delegated most of the questions of content to the MPPDA, though it set up a number of industry “courts” across the nation to hear complaints over movie content, with the final decision resting with the Code Authority. For fear of further intrusion by the federal government, Will Hays approached Roosevelt with his plans for a stricter, more involved self-regulatory scheme, to which Roosevelt agreed not to pursue plans of instituting a federal regulator as long as the self-regulatory plan was working as well “as any other plan could work” (Jowett, 1976, p. 246).

On July 12, 1934, soon after the release of the MPRC findings, six months after the NRA Motion Picture Code was introduced, and just a few months after the Legion of Decency’s boycott pledge began, the MPPDA established the Production Code Administration (PCA), headed by former Studio Relations Committee chairman and staunch Catholic, Joseph I. Breen. The PCA was given enforcement powers over motion picture producers. No film could be distributed by MPDDA members unless it first received the PCA’s seal of approval. In addition, the MPPDA approved a $25,000 fine for noncompliance, the first such penalty in the history of the motion picture industry. In another move to ensure compliance to the Production Code, the MPPDA eliminated the Producers Appeal Board, which had given the studio heads the ability to overrule any of the Studio Relations Committee’s decisions. In essence, the PCA replaced the Producers Appeal Board in the hierarchy, and if a studio wanted to challenge a PCA decision, it would have to appeal to the full board of the MPPDA in New York.


The PCA under the authority of Breen ruled the motion picture industry for several decades, determining what was and what was not appropriate to show on America’s movie screens. This final stage of self-regulation continued in this form until the MPAA dropped the Production Code in favor of the current ratings system in 1968. Through the history of motion picture content regulation one can see the formation of the cycle of self-regulation that was repeated several times throughout the century, sometimes more precisely and other times with even more complications. The first stage began almost as soon as the first film was projected, but culminated into the events of 1907 to 1909, ending in the formation of the National Board of Censorship. This National Board of Review became the first half-hearted attempt at pacifying the critics—the second stage—followed by the formation of the MPPDA in 1921. But scandals and controversial films caused tension between the MPPDA and the people it sought to pacify, which would eventually force the movie industry to enter the final stage, creating a significant and enforceable regulatory code and an agency to enforce that code.

The arguments for movie censorship developed during the first three decades of the twentieth century, from arguments against the influence of the motion picture in general to one specifically focused on the negative influences of the content of movies on children. Historians note the Progressive movement to protect traditional Protestant values from the vast influx of non-Protestant immigrants as the motivation behind film censorship (Cripps, 1997; Jowett, 1976; Randall, 1968; Sklar, 1975). But a brief examination of the arguments during the early history of motion pictures shows that arguments for the protection of children against the negative influences of the movies appear as early as the mid-teens and are continually refined throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The addition of social science research to support the claims of the effect of movies on children, though not conclusively, significantly strengthened the arguments for censorship or regulation to protect children.

The history of the film industry in this area is complicated and marked by a number of failed attempts to strike a balance between self-regulation and government censorship. However, it provided a template for later media to follow when trying to strike a similar balance, making later instances less complicated and easier to follow. The arguments used against the motion picture industry would also provide a template for later reformers to follow. The combination of scientific research and examples of an increase in juvenile delinquency would prove to be a powerful message again in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the case against crime and horror comic books, in the 1970s and 1980s against radio and popular music, in the 1980s and 1990s against broadcast and cable television programming, and is currently with videogames and the Internet.


Cripps, T. (1997). Hollywood’s high noon: Moviemaking & society before television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Doherty, T. P. (1999). Pre-code Hollywood. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jarvis, A. R., Jr. (1991). The Payne Fund reports: A discussion of their content, public reaction, and affect on the motion picture industry. Journal of Popular Culture, 25(2), 127–140.

Jowett, G. S. (1976). Film: The democratic art. Boston: Little and Brown.

Jowett, G. S., Jarvie, I. C., & Fuller, K. H. (1996). Children and the movies: Media influence and the Payne Fund controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Randall, R. S. (1968). Censorship of the movies: The social and political control of a mass medium. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Sklar, R. (1975). Movie made America: A cultural history of American movies. New York: Vintage Books.

The Third Wave

by Chris A. Blair, Ph.D.

King of KingsThe third wave in the cycle for motion pictures would climax during the late twenties, when several controversial films tore apart the weak alliance between the MPPDA and religious and reform organizations. At the same time, the stock market crash of 1929 forced Hollywood to fall under the control of Wall Street investors (Shindler, 1996). Films such as Cecil B. deMille’s King of Kings (1927) offended many of the religious leaders, while an MGM comedy, The Callahans and the Murphys (1927), caused Irish-Catholics to protest the negative, stereotypical portrayal of Irish immigrants (Couvares, 1996a; Miller, F., 1994). In addition, the connection between movies and juvenile delinquency began to be articulated in the late twenties, as shown in Robert Lynd’s study, Middletown:

One working-class mother frankly welcomes the movies as an aid in child-rearing, saying, “I send my daughter because a girl has to learn the ways of the world some how and the movies are a good safe way.” The judge of the juvenile court lists the movies as one of the “big four” causes of local juvenile delinquency, believing that the disregard of group mores by the young is definitely related to witnessing week after week of fictitious behavior sequences that habitually link the taking of long chances and the happy ending. (Jowett, 1976, p. 142)

Strained relations prompted Hays to investigate the implementation of stricter guidelines than his “Hays Formula.” After gathering information on what type of material local and state censors cut most often, Hays drafted a “Purity Code,” most often referred to as the “don’ts and be carefuls” (Cook, D. A., 1990; Miller, F., 1994). The list of eleven subjects to avoid and twenty-five subjects to treat with caution was stricter than the previous guidelines. Hays, however, had little success in implementing the new code throughout the industry.

Production CodeThe Purity Code was ineffective and short lived, as the pressure mounted against the movie industry and the MPPDA. In late 1929, shortly after the stock market crash, Hays enlisted the aid of Martin Quigley, Motion Picture Herald publisher and devout Catholic, to draft a new comprehensive code that focused less on negative things to avoid—like the list of “don’ts and be carefuls”—and more on an overall statement about what messages the movies should be sending its audiences (Miller, F., 1994). The generic statement later became the introduction to the Production Code. But Hays needed something concrete that could be enforced fairly and consistently. Hays worked with Father Daniel A. Lord from Saint Louis University to draft what later became known as the Production Code. The MPPDA adopted the Code on February 17, 1930, but industry-wide implementation of the Code would not happen for four years, when yet again cries against the effects of movies—most notably the results of the Payne Fund Studies—and the threat of federal censorship prodded the industry to yield to the Code and hire Joseph I. Breen, a Catholic businessman, to enforce it (Cook, D. A., 1990; Jowett, et al., 1996).


Cook, D. A. (1990). A history of narrative film (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Couvares, F. G. (1996a). Hollywood, main street, and the church. In F. G. Couvares (Ed.), Movie censorship and American culture (pp. 129–158). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Jowett, G. S. (1976). Film: The democratic art. Boston: Little and Brown.

Jowett, G. S., Jarvie, I. C., & Fuller, K. H. (1996). Children and the movies: Media influence and the Payne Fund controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, F. (1994). Censored Hollywood: Sex, sin & violence on screen. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, Inc.

The Second Wave

by Chris A. Blair, Ph.D.

In the early twenties movie attendance increased drastically, as did criticisms of the films with such titles as Lying Lips (1921, John Griffith Wray), Red Hot Romance (1922, Victor Fleming), Sex (1920, Fred Niblo), A Virgin Paradise (1921, J. Searle Dawley), and The Fourteenth Lover (1922, Harry Beaumont). Hollywood scandals followed one after another in the early twenties, leading a Senator to conclude that Hollywood was “a colony . . . where debauchery, riotous living, drunkenness, ribaldry, dissipation, free love seem to be conspicuous” (Schumach, 1964, p. 19). In 1921, Fatty Arbuckle was charged with the rape and murder of a little known actress, Virginia Rappe, at a party in Arbuckle’s honor at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The first two trials both ended in a mistrial with one jury favoring acquittal and the other favored a guilty verdict. The third trial ended with an acquittal for the popular comedy actor, but it was not enough to save his career or the struggling film industry. Arbuckle was unable to find work after being marked by such headlines as “Arbuckle Orgy” and “Orgy Death” (Schumach, 1964, p. 23).

In 1922, one year after Fatty Arbuckle’s scandal, Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered in his home. He had been shot in the back twice, and soon two suspects surfaced—Mabel Normand, a famous comedy actress, and Mary Miles Minter, who had been marked as the next Mary Pickford. The circumstances around the murder and the facts uncovered concerning their personal lives made for a great scandal (Schumach, 1964).  Other scandals, such as the divorce of Mary Pickford from her first husband to marry Douglas Fairbanks and the drug related death of actor Wallace Reid, contributed to the sense that Hollywood was out of control (Jarvis, 1991). The combination of personal scandals and public controversy over films increased the pressure placed on the new Hollywood.

MPPDAThe motion picture industry struggled with the scandals and formed its own regulatory board, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), in response to the criticisms and with the hopes of avoiding further government censorship. In 1921, as the MPPDA was being formed, New York joined Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, Maryland, and Virginia as states with organized boards of censorship (Couvares, 1996a; Sklar, 1975). At the beginning of 1922, thirty-six state legislatures, as well as Congress, were considered varying types of censorship legislation (Cook, D. A., 1990). The formation of the MPPDA marked the climax of the second wave in the cycle leading to systematic self-regulation. The perceived threat of government censorship caused the industry to act, naming a movie “czar” charged with cleaning up Hollywood. Will H. Hays, former Postmaster General under the Harding administration and powerful Republican lobbyist, became head of the MPPDA (Couvares, 1996a; Miller, F., 1994). The MPPDA issued a press release stating the purpose of the association: “The object for which the corporation is to be created is to foster the common interests of those engaged in the motion picture industry in the United States, by establishing and maintaining the highest possible moral and artistic standards in motion picture production” (Schumach, 1964, p. 67).

Will HaysThe Hays Office, as it became to be known, worked ardently to stave off any government censorship and did so successfully for over a decade. Hays insisted that the titles of the films be less sensational and that all scripts be submitted to his office. He would make suggestions as to what material should be removed or changed so as not to offend any particular group. Often production companies would make several different cuts of the same movie. Each one fit the standards of the state or city in which it was shown. Hays and the industry came to a “gentlemen’s agreement” over a thirteen point list of things to avoid in their films, which came to be known as the “Hays Formula” (Miller, F., 1994, p. 38). Also, Hays was active in suppressing any scandals that might arise with the actors. Hays created a blacklist of actors banned from productions, due to some inappropriate aspect of their personal lives (Cook, D. A., 1990). He placed pressure on the studios to keep their actors away from situations that were potentially scandalous.

But Hays and the MPPDA were more concerned with improving the tarnished image of Hollywood and avoiding governmental censorship than with enacting any form of substantial change in the Hollywood system. One of Hays’ first goals was to establish formal relationships with the various religious and reformist organizations that criticized the movies. Hays contacted the Federal Council of Churches, the YMCA, the YWCA, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, the National Education Association, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Campfire Girls to enlist their participation in the newly formed Committee on Public Relations (Couvares, 1996a). Hays traveled around the nation promoting the efforts of the MPPDA and often brought leaders of various organizations to Hollywood to be “wined and dined” and to meet with the stars.  But the Hays Office would be short lived after that, for again scandal and public criticism would cause the motion picture industry to react.

The formation of the MPPDA and the “Hays Office” marked the end of the second wave of self-regulation, where the industry begins to act to prevent government intrusion, but focuses more on improving their public image and pacifying special interest groups than “cleaning up their act.”  Thomas Cripps (1997) described the achievements of the Hays Office, stating, “The MPPDA got through the 1920s by placating but not pleasing themselves, their fans, or their critics” (p. 78). This half-hearted effort at self-regulation, though generally unsuccessful, would be imitated by comic book publishers in the late 1940s.


Cook, D. A. (1990). A history of narrative film (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Couvares, F. G. (1996a). Hollywood, main street, and the church. In F. G. Couvares (Ed.), Movie censorship and American culture (pp. 129–158). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Cripps, T. (1997). Hollywood’s high noon: Moviemaking & society before television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jarvis, A. R., Jr. (1991). The Payne Fund reports: A discussion of their content, public reaction, and affect on the motion picture industry. Journal of Popular Culture, 25(2), 127–140.

Miller, F. (1994). Censored Hollywood: Sex, sin & violence on screen. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, Inc.

Schumach, M. (1964). The face on the cutting room floor: The story of movie and television censorship. New York: William Morrow.

Sklar, R. (1975). Movie made America: A cultural history of American movies. New York: Vintage Books.