Censoring the silver screen
When motion pictures first came into prominence in the years around World War I, some communities set up groups that would get previews of what the local movie houses planned to show and censor the ones they deemed unfit for the community to see. This could be arbitrary and totally at the whim of the local committee.
So at the height of the silent film era, just after the war, the motion picture industry established its own committee to rule on whether film scenes would be acceptable. It was called the Hays Office after the man who was its first head, William Harrison Hays Jr., who had been postmaster general. The office ruled not only actions shown on the screen but also on costumes — no woman’s dress could be too revealing, and the same went for the attire of men.
When the talkies came into vogue at the end of the Twenties, the Hays Office got to rule on language as well. No profanity or dirty words, and no suggestive actions. There was even an outcry when a foreign film was allowed to show the close-up of a long and voluptuous kiss.
Recently, The New Yorker reviewed a book about the Hays Office in the Thirties. It turns out one of the chief reviewers in that office was anti-Semitic. That was a surprise to me because by that time many of the heads of Hollywood studios were Jewish. But the book under review says most of their families came from Eastern Europe, where pogroms and persecution had been rife, so the studio heads in Hollywood were anxious to forget their backgrounds and allowed the man at the Hays Office to censor critical references to Hitler, who had just come to power in Germany, with strong anti-Jewish views.
In fact the book under review says the man at the Hays Office took advice from the German consul in Los Angeles as to what scenes were unfavorable to Hitler’s Germany. It was not until just before the start of World War II that Charlie Chaplin came out with “The Great Dictator,” which spoofed both Hitler and Mussolini.
World War II brought another change in Hays Office custom. After Pearl Harbor, actors were allowed to refer to the Japanese on screen as “bastards.” A player would be shown looking down on Hawaiian wreckage and murmuring “Those bastards. Those bastards.”
That was the beginning of a considerable amount of change in the film industry.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.