Will H. Hays: Wikis


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William Harrison Hays, Sr.

In office
March 5, 1921 – March 3, 1922
Preceded by Albert S. Burleson
Succeeded by Hubert Work

Born November 5, 1879(1879-11-05)
Sullivan, Indiana, U.S.
Died March 7, 1954 (aged 74)
Sullivan, Indiana, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Jessie Herron Hays
Profession Politician, President of the MPAA
Religion Presbyterian

William Harrison Hays, Sr. (November 5, 1879 – March 7, 1954), was the namesake of the Hays Code for censorship of American films, chairman of the Republican National Committee (1918–1921) and U.S. Postmaster General from 1921 to 1922.

Hays was born in Sullivan, Indiana. He was the manager of Warren G. Harding's successful campaign for the Presidency of the United States in the 1920 election and subsequently was appointed by Harding as Postmaster General. After a year in office, he resigned to become the choice of the Hollywood movie studios to become the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) until he retired in 1945. In the postwar period, this organization would be renamed the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).


Head of MPPDA

Hays resigned his cabinet position on January 14, 1922, in order to become the President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) shortly after the organization's founding [1]. He began his new job, at a $100,000 annual salary, on March 6 of that year [2]. The goal of the organization was to renovate the image of the movie industry in the wake of the Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle rape and murder scandal and amid growing calls by primarily Protestant groups for federal censorship of the movies. Hiring Hays to "clean up the pictures" was, at least in part, a public relations ploy and much was made of his conservative credentials, including his roles as a Presbyterian deacon and past chairman of the Republican Party.

Hays' main roles were to persuade individual state censor boards to not ban specific films outright and to reduce the financial impact of the boards' cuts and edits. (At that time, the studios were required by state laws to pay the censor boards for each foot of film excised and for each title card edited; in addition, of course, studios also had the expense of duplicating and distributing separate versions of each censored film for the state or states that adhered to a particular board's decisions.)

1922 Editorial cartoon by Cy Hungerford illustrating the perception that Hays was coming to rescue the movie industry.

Hays attempted to reduce studio costs (and improve the industry's image in general) by advising individual studios on how to produce movies to reduce the likelihood that the film would be cut. Each board kept its "standards" secret (if, indeed, they had any standardization at all), so Hays was forced to intuit what would or would not be permitted by each board. At first he applied what he called "The Formula" but it was not particularly successful. From that he developed a set of guidelines he called "The Don'ts and Be Carefuls." In general his efforts at pre-release self-censorship were unsuccessful in quieting calls for federal censorship.

Ironically, Catholic bishops and lay people tended to be leery of federal censorship and favored the Hays approach of self-censorship; these included the outspoken Catholic layman Martin Quigley, publisher of Exhibitors Herald-World (a trade magazine for independent exhibitors). For several months in 1929, Martin Quigley, Joseph Breen, Father Daniel A. Lord S.J., Father FitzGeorge Dinneen S.J., and Father Wilfred Parsons (editor of Catholic publication America) discussed the desirability of a new and more stringent code of behavior for the movies. With the blessing of Cardinal George W. Mundelein of Chicago, Father Lord authored the code, which later became known as "The Production Code", "The Code", and "The Hays Code". It was presented to Will Hays in 1930 who said, "My eyes nearly popped out when I read it. This was the very thing I had been looking for."

The studio heads were less enthusiastic and they agreed to make The Code the rule of the industry but with many loopholes that allowed studio producers to override the Hays Office's application of it. From 1930 to 1934, the Production Code was only slightly effective in fighting back calls for federal censorship. However, things came to a head in 1934 with widespread threats of Catholic boycotts of immoral movies as well as reduced funding by such Catholic financiers as Amadeo Giannini (Bank of America). The studios granted MPPDA full authority to enforce the Production Code on all studios, creating a relatively strict regime of self-censorship which endured for decades. (The Code was set aside in the 1960s when the MPPDA adopted the age-based rating system in force today.)

Hays's philosophy might best be summed up by a statement he reportedly made to a movie director: "When you make a woman cross her legs in the films, maybe you don't need to see how she can cross them and stay within the law; but how low she can cross them and still be interesting." [3]

The Production Code

The Production Code enumerated three "General Principles":

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Specific restrictions were spelled out as "Particular Applications" of these principles:

  • Nudity and suggestive dances were prohibited.
  • The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.
  • The depiction of illegal drug use was forbidden, as well as the use of liquor, "when not required by the plot or for proper characterization."
  • Methods of crime (e.g. safe-cracking, arson, smuggling) were not to be explicitly presented.
  • References to alleged "sex perversion" (such as homosexuality) and venereal disease were forbidden, as were depictions of childbirth.
  • The language section banned various words and phrases that were considered to be offensive.
  • Murder scenes had to be filmed in a way that would discourage imitations in real life, and brutal killings could not be shown in detail.
  • "Revenge in modern times" was not to be justified.
  • The sanctity of marriage and the home had to be upheld.
  • "Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing."
  • Adultery and illicit sex, although recognized as sometimes necessary to the plot, could not be explicit or justified and were not supposed to be presented as an attractive option.
  • Portrayals of miscegenation were forbidden.
  • "Scenes of Passion" were not to be introduced when not essential to the plot.
  • "Excessive and lustful kissing" was to be avoided, along with any other treatment that might "stimulate the lower and baser element."
  • The flag of the United States was to be treated respectfully, and the people and history of other nations were to be presented "fairly."
  • "Vulgarity", defined as "low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects" must be "subject to the dictates of good taste."
  • Capital punishment, "third-degree methods", cruelty to children and animals, prostitution and surgical operations were to be handled with similar sensitivity.


After his retirement, Will H. Hays returned to Sullivan, Indiana where he died on March 7, 1954.[4]

See also

  • List of people on the cover of Time Magazine: 1920s - 13 Sep. 1926

External links


  • Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994; ISBN 0-521-45299-6.
  • Hays, Will H. The Memoirs of Will H. Hays. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1955.
  • Jarvie, Ian. Hollywood's Overseas Campaign: The North Atlantic Movie Trade, 1920-1950. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Trumpbour, John. Selling Hollywood to the World: U.S. and European Struggles for Mastery of the Global Film Industry, 1920-1950. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.


  1. ^ "Hays to Be Mogul In Silver Screen Realm", San Antonio Express, January 15, 1922, p 4
  2. ^ "Will Hays, Who Is to Get $17 Hourly, to Make the Movies Behave Hereafter", Syracuse Herald, March 5, 1922, p33
  3. ^ Current Biography 1943, p277
  4. ^ "Will H. Hays Dies; Former Movie 'Czar'". Associated Press. March 8, 1954. http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/courant/access/890285142.html?dids=890285142:890285142&FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:AI&date=Mar+08%2C+1954&author=&pub=The+Hartford+Courant&desc=Will+H.+Hays+Dies%3B+Former+Movie+%27Czar%27&pqatl=google. Retrieved 2008-07-03. "Will H. Hays, 74, who left President Harding's Cabinet to clean up movie morals in the roaring 20s, died of a heart condition at his Sullivan home at noon today."  
Non-profit organization positions
First Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America
1922 – 1945
Succeeded by
Eric Johnston

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