Friday, October 20, 2023

The Hays Code in Early Hollywood

 by Edwina Kiernan

From the early 1930s until the mid-1960s, the Hays Code - also known as the Motion Picture Production Code - was a set of guidelines that regulated the content of Hollywood movies. 

The Hays Code sought to preserve moral values and advance social responsibility within the film industry. During its inception, there was a genuine apprehension that movies were capable of influencing and potentially corrupting societal morals, especially among the younger generation. The code was designed to ensure that films conveyed messages that were wholesome and ethically sound.

Cover of a paper copy of the Hays Code

Here are ten facts about the Hays Code:

1. Named After Will H. Hays: The Hays Code was named after Will H. Hays, who served as the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), the organization that developed and enforced the code.

2. Enforced in 1934: The Hays Code was officially implemented in 1934, although it was created in 1930. It was a response to increasing concerns about the content of films, which many considered morally objectionable. 

3. Strict Moral Guidelines: The code imposed strict moral guidelines on the content of films. It prohibited the portrayal of certain themes, such as nudity, explicit sexuality, and excessive violence. This was viewed as a measure to shield audiences, especially children, from exposure to harmful or inappropriate content.

4. Forbidden Subjects: The code explicitly forbade the depiction of a wide range of subjects, including drug use, and any content that was blasphemous or sacrilegious.

5. Clean Romance: The Hays Code placed significant restrictions on the portrayal of romantic relationships. It mandated that on-screen romances should not "arouse passion or lust." The Hays Code promoted the production of family-friendly and wholesome entertainment so people of all ages could enjoy watching movies together without apprehensions regarding offensive or objectionable content.

Will H. Hays (left) with movie camera
Will H. Hays (left) with movie camera

6. Seal of Approval: Films that adhered to the Hays Code were granted a "seal of approval" by the Production Code Administration (PCA), indicating that the film was in compliance with the code. The code offered a consistent and dependable set of guidelines for filmmakers to adhere to. This minimized uncertainty and controversy within the film industry, allowing studios to create movies with reasonable expectations of what would be deemed acceptable by the public and censors.

7. Enforcing Uniform Standards: The PCA, headed by Joseph Breen, was responsible for enforcing the Hays Code. Breen and his team reviewed film scripts and provided feedback to ensure compliance. The code worked in tandem with local censorship boards, giving them a standardized set of regulations to follow. This facilitated uniform standards in film regulation across the United States.

8. Loopholes and Rule-Bending: Filmmakers often found creative ways to work around the code's restrictions. Subtle innuendos and coded language were used to convey forbidden themes without explicit depiction.

9. Decline and Erosion: In the 1950s and 1960s, the Hays Code began to erode as filmmakers and studios challenged its restrictions. The rise of foreign cinema and changing social norms also played a role in its decline.

10. Replaced by the MPAA: The Hays Code was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system in 1968. This new system offered content ratings (G, PG, R, etc.) to inform viewers about a film's content rather than imposing strict censorship.

The Hays Code had a significant impact on the content and themes in Hollywood films during its existence, shaping the industry's approach to storytelling and content for several decades.

Did You Know?

My novella, A Vanishing Act, takes place in the fictional movie studio Prestige Pictures, and readers have called it “a definite page turner” and “a delightfully entertaining 40s mystery that kept me guessing”.

A faith-filled Christian cozy mystery, loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, set in 1940s Hollywood. Find out more about A Vanishing Act...

About The Author:

Edwina Kiernan is an award-winning author of Christian Historical Romance. She lives in rainy Ireland with her husband and son, and uses her pen to point people to Jesus - the Living Word. She also drinks more types of tea than most people realize even exist. Find out more at, and sign up for her weekly newsletter for lots of fun, fiction, freebies and faith.


  1. I have heard of these guidelines but didn't know exactly what they were. I was a teen when the rating system came into being. Drive-ins didn't card their patrons and lots of teens thronged to R rated movies. Sounds like the Hays code should have stayed in place.

  2. Thank you for posting today. I hadn't heard about the Hays code. Generations away from that now, I am often appalled at what my grandchildren see on a regular basis.

  3. I am a grandma who went back to the university to earn my BA. The Hays Code is one of the things we studied in a recent course. I don't remember learing that in high school. Thank you for sharing.