NPR’s Bob Mondello has an excellent essay on the Hays Code, which governed Hollywood films from 1930-1968, when it was replaced by the MPAA rating system.
A reaction to some provocative films in the days of the early talkies, the code was named for the former Postmaster Will Hays, who created it at the request of the movie studios.
Among those considerations: that no picture should ever “lower the moral standards of those who see it” and that “the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” There was an updated, much-expanded list of “don’ts” and “be carefuls,” with bans on nudity, suggestive dancing and lustful kissing. The mocking of religion and the depiction of illegal drug use were prohibited, as were interracial romance, revenge plots and the showing of a crime method clearly enough that it might be imitated.
There was very little about violence in the Code but there were restrictions that seem quaint today in other areas — for example, it prohibited portrayals of clergy that made them appear corrupt or foolish. There are legendary stories of battles over whether Rhett Butler would be allowed to say “I don’t give a damn” in “Gone With the Wind” (he was) or whether Bette Davis could get away with murder in “The Letter” (she wasn’t). And writer-directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges prided themselves on getting past the censors with subtle double entendres.
The Code was abandoned 40 years ago in favor of the ratings system. While it is very far from perfect, it does have the advantage of making it possible for movies to cover a wider range of subjects and characters.