Reading Film (Fall 2011)

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LATEST REVISION. Revised Investigative Proposal #4.

October 23rd, 2011 by Natalie Bernabe · 1 Comment · 3 Investigative Proposal

Natalie Bernabe

ENGL 110-13: Fall 2011

Dr. Kevin L. Ferguson

The Hays Code: Not Just Censoring Films of the 1930s.

            The Hays Code, which is a set of film censorship guidelines, was one of the methods most notable for the censorship of films that were deemed morally questionable in the 1930’s. The Hays Code’s namesake came from a Presbyterian elder named Will H. Hays, who was enlisted by Hollywood studios in 1922 in order to improve Hollywood’s image. This was in response to a series of a few off-screen scandals involving notable Hollywood stars. The Catholic Church played an important role in the establishment of the Hays Code by influencing the restriction of content that would be demoralizing traditional values that should be upheld in American films; such as portraying crime in a sympathetic way, or promoting sexual relations outside of marriage. These moral guidelines and restrictions in fact became the outline of the guidelines in the Hays Code. However, the Hays Code did not only review films that were filmed during the establishment of the Hays Code, but also to films that had been released prior to the code; or Pre-Code films. The primary method used to censor Pre-Code films was to review them, under the Hays Code, edit and cut content that were in violation of the Hays Code, and then re-release the film. The re-release of Hays Code approved Pre-Code films became a controversial issue in whether in fact this should be allowed. How did the Hays Code, influenced by the Catholic Church, justify the censorship of Pre-Code films, such as William Wellman’s 1931 film The Public Enemy?

I feel that investigating this question is important to understand why the censorship of film, under the Hays Code, was so deeply reviewed and controlled. The Hays Code had enough power in the censorship of films that they expanded to films that had already been showcased in theatres. It is also interesting as well, for although the Hays Code is not in effect today, the code’s goal might be sought out by a different person or a revised guideline. Answering this question will also help reader’s understand how films made today might still be influenced by the Hays Code, if at all. It is also important to discover if the justification for the review and re-release of Pre-Code films is sound and not biased or irrational, for then, what is the point of such an act?

My primary method of approach is from an ethical point of view. I will research the establishment of the Hays Code in full; to see who else had a part to play, other than the studios and Will H. Hays. I would use historical books for this; to study the Hays Code’s origin and its history, as well as look for biographies of some of the prominent Catholic Church leaders in order to note the specific amount of influence the Catholic Church actually had on the establishment of the Hays Code. This would then show me if their reasons are ethical and morally correct, for the influence the Catholic Church had on the Code. I would then look into which films the Hays Code, under the influence of the Catholic Church, sought to moralize; such as William Wellman’s 1931 The Public Enemy, and their primary method of review.

To help me further investigate the influence of the Catholic Church on the Hays Code, I will be searching for and referencing a number of electronica databases and journals, such as LEXIS-NEXUS and JSTOR for any Church publications that mention ‘censorship’.  This will help determine the exact influence the Catholic Church had on the movie industry, and its effect on the American people. Therefore, I will look for out the reaction of the public to the Hays Code, and the effect the Code had on them; to see if there were any backlashes at the studios and the Hays Code office. I will then research exactly how they censored William Wellman’s 1931 The Public Enemy, and if there are more like it. I would reference interviews, perhaps from people in the Hays Office, to the autobiographies of the directors that had their Pre-Code films changed, to see if the Hays Code has a sound justification for the censorship of those Pre-Code films.


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