Skip to main content
Breen's Code: Interfaith Cooperation For Morals in Movies
Oct 1, 2000

When two students walked into Colombine High School in Littleton, CO, and killed 12 fellow students, a century-old debate was revived: Is there a connection between violence in motion pictures and real life? Or more generally, is the motion picture industry lowering society’s moral standards? Desensitization to television and movie violence and obscenity was a noticeable twentieth-century trend. When Leonardo DiCaprio in his long black trench coat shot his classmates in the movie The Basketball Diaries, it was not big news. However, it was a box-office success and one of the movies watched by the Columbine teens prior to their bloody attack.

The movie makers probably did not intend to make killing look attractive. But was it the final effect anyways? Do movies depicting indecent acts fail to show the consequences sufficiently? What can society do about this trend? These and similar questions have been asked and debated for decades. Below, we analyze a time in Hollywood when the concentrated efforts of concerned individuals and organizations had a significant positive impact on forcing the movie industry to move toward self-regulation.

The Beginning of the Movie Industry

Movies rose as a new form of entertainment at the turn of twentieth century. By the 1920s, 40 million Americans were watching them each week. After winning the right to vote in 1920, flapper girls were exercising their new-found freedom, Harlem nightclubs flourished with whites with an interest in African American culture, and the number of gangs selling liquor during Prohibition increased. Movie producers displayed these value changes in their films to attract more young people. This started the big fight between America’s moral guardians and the movie makers.

Hollywood scandals in the early 1920s accelerated the demand for movie censorship. In 1921, the famous comedian Fatty Arbuckle was accused of raping and murdering a young actress; director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered, and a series of front page stories revealed his drug use and sex life; actor Wallace Reid died of a drug overdose; and America’s “sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, got a quick divorce to marry Douglas Fairbanks.

The motion picture business had become an industry. Film companies seeking to integrate production, distribution, and exhibition had one formula in mind: expansion meant capital, capital meant Wall Street, and Wall Street meant conservative business practices. They could not afford any scandals or federal investigations of Hollywood.

The Pressure for Codes Builds

Leff and Simmons write: “In 1921 alone, solons in thirty-seven states introduced nearly one hundred bills designed to censor motion pictures. Women could not smoke on screen in Kansas but could in Ohio; a pregnant woman could not appear on screen in Pennsylvania but could in New York. Six censorship states, which controlled over thirty percent of the theater seats in America, condemned illegitimacy and sexual deviance.”(1) State censors recut films after the producers, and the outcome was unfavorable. Local exhibitors were tired of the cost of censor cuts and attacks by the public and the media. In January 1922, the movie company presidents formed a trade association, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributers of America (MPPDA). Postmaster General Will Hays, an ex-Republican national chairman with White House connections, was chosen as their head. He was a great success as a spokesperson, but failed as a censor regulator of movie content.

Under Hays, Hollywood instituted a morals clause that, as part of the standard employment contract, regulated performers’ off-screen lives: “The artist agrees to conduct himself with due regard to public conventions and morals and agrees that he will not do or commit any act or thing that will tend to degrade him in society or bring him into public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule, or that will tend to shock, insult or offend the community or ridicule public morals or decency or prejudice the producer or the motion picture industry in general.”(2) Furious with such self-regulation and restraints, many ignored the contract, and so the scandals continued.

A mainly Protestant anti-movie lobby grew larger and more threatening in the mid-1920s. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the Reverand William H. Short's Motion Picture Research Council, and Canon William Shaefe Chase's Federal Motion Picture Council, among others, all lobbied for federal action. Supporters of cencorship bills claimed that movies were immoral, vile, and corrupting young people. With the advent of —talking— films, the moral guardians of America faced a bigger threat: movies were more popular and dialogue challenged public norms. According to Black: —In 1928 the New York State censorship board cut over 4,000 scenes from more than 600 films submitted, and Chicago censors sliced more than 600 scenes.—(3) Martin Quigley, owner and publisher of the industry trade journal Exhibitors Herald-World, initiated in 1929 the first attempt by Catholics to influence the film industry. Believing that government censorship was futile, he began thinking of a code that would include rules, regulations, and philosophy. Father FitzGeorge Dinneen, Chicago censor board advisor, sent him to Father Daniel Lord, a St. Louis University professor who could write the document. The resulting production code had three working principles:

• No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it.

• Law, natural or divine, must not belittled, ridiculed, nor must a sentiment be created against it.

• As far as possible, life should not be misrepresented, at least not in such a way as to place in the mind of youth false values of life.(4)

The production code termed movies entertainment, and those who made them were obligated to produce —correct entertainment— for mass audiences. Movies had a profound impact on the —bodies and souls of human beings,— and could —affect spiritual and moral progress.— Hays saw the code in early 1930. He later wrote: —My eyes nearly popped out when I read it. This was the very thing I had been looking for.—(5) The code announced specific limitations on language and behavior. Lots of offensive words and phrases were banned, and the ridicule of religion, nudity, evocative dances, depiction of illegal drug use, and scenes of childbirth were prohibited. The code was explicit when it came to on-screen crime and sex:

I. Crimes against the Law

These shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.

1. Murder

  1. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation
  2.  Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified

2. Methods of crime should not be explicitly presented

  1. Theft, robbery, safe cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method
  2. Arson must be subject to the same safeguards
  3. The use of firearms should be restricted to essentials d. Methods of smuggling should not be presented

3. Illegal drug traffic must never be presented a. The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, will not be shown.

II. Sex

The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not interfere that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing. 1. Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively. 2. Scenes of Passion a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot. b. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown. c. In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not simulate the lower and baser element.(6) Interestingly, the above principles set forth by a Catholic scholar were in perfect accord with the moral codes of Islam, another Abrahamic religion that prohibits the vivid depiction of actions not approved by God.(7) By the beginning of the Depression, film studios turned increasingly to themes of sex and violence to attract audiences. Finally, Hays used the resulting public reaction to persuade the studios that enforcing the code would be the most secure and economical answer to their troubles. If the movie industry regulated itself, it could prevent likely government intervention. The film companies were in debt, having spent a lot of money to introduce sound, and many had lost money in the stock market crash of 1929. Desperate to cut costs, they decided to avoid paying to revise the film after the censorship boards made their edits, by following the code before making their movies. The code was adopted in 1930.

Joe Breen Gets Involved

During 1930-34, movie producers ignored and openly mocked the code. The pressure continued from the Catholic Church with the support from Jewish and Protestant leaders. In 1934 Joe Breen, a strict Catholic moralist working as a public relations man for the production code in Hay's office, was hired to run Hollywood's Production Code Administration (PCA). Breen brought new standards: —The PCA had the authority to review all movies and demand script changes. Any theater that ran a film without the PCA seal of approval would be fined $25,000.—(8) Finally the Code had some power. Studios accepted it and produced films that met Breen's standards. Largely because of his efforts to get the code implemented, it has become known as Breen's Code. It lasted for more than two decades, being officially abandoned only in 1968. Breen's Code is a perfect example of people affecting the behavior of institutions whose motives may not match the best interests of the people they serve. By expressing their dissatisfaction and organizing to pressure the motion picture industry, Americans managed to change the nature of the movie industry's products toward higher moral standards held in common by most monotheistic religions. As we go into the twenty-first century, there are many areas in which people of faith can work together to make a positive change in their societies and the world


  1. Six states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, New York, Maryland, Kansas, and Virginia. Leonard J. Leff, and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990), 4.
  2. Ibid., 5.
  3. Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Censored (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 34.
  4. Leff and Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono, 284-85.
  5. Black, Hollywood Censored, 40.
  6. Leff and Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono, 284-85.
  7. Bukhari, —The Prophets,— No. 8.

Additional References

  • O'Connor, John E. and Jackson, Martin A. (eds.). American History/American Film.
  • New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979. Walsh, Frank. Sin and Censorship. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.