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.
The 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).
The 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.