In the 1920s, many state and local governments passed laws forbidding the showing of films with indecent or scandalous content. Fears of national censorship led Hollywood to adopt the Production Code of 1930, also called the Hays Code after Will H. Hays, the postmaster general who drafted the guidelines. Although following the code was voluntary, filmmakers treated it as mandatory because they wanted to be sure theaters would show their films.
From Slapstick to Screwball
For many Americans, going to the movies was their only or primary means of entertainment, and Hays Code censors worried about the messages being sent in films that treated immoral behavior, such as affairs or crime, as subject for comedy. In the early 1930s, physical slapstick humor, such as Laurel and Hardy's comedy western "Way Out West," gained massive popularity. With the stricter enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934, much slapstick gave way to more sophisticated screwball comedy, filled with fast-paced dialogue and clever one-liners. Famous actors in screwball comedies included Katherine Hepburn, Carole Lombard and Cary Grant. Their characters were eccentric, and any immorality was hidden in double entendre or symbolism to hide the content from censors who would shelve the movie.
A Wink and a Nudge
The Hays Code dictated that love triangles should never be used as subjects of comedy since those sorts of films painted adulterous affairs in a permissive light and made illicit relationships seem fun and thrilling. The bold sexual innuendo of comedic actors such as Mae West, who used bawdy physical acts and double entendres to poke fun at puritanical notions of sexual propriety, gave way to more subtle wordplay. In 1930s comedies, fast-paced verbal sparring replaced any obvious sexual tension. Humorous portrayals of the battle of the sexes, such as the film "It Happened One Night," portrayed relationships as affectionate and teasing rather than passionate and overt.
The Power of Suggestion
Hays Code censors weren't just concerned about sexual impropriety, however. The code also prohibited comedies that belittled or ridiculed the law or law enforcement officials. In the 1930s, ideals such as patriotism, justice and government order were no laughing matter. However, filmmakers found subtle and creative ways to lampoon the system without violating the code. For example, Charlie Chaplin survived the transition from silent films by remaining silent in his films despite the introduction of sound. As a silent character, his "Little Tramp" was better able to get away with scathing satires of government and industrial society. The Marx Brothers lampooned patriotism in "Duck Soup" and universities in "Horse Feathers."
Escapism in Laughter
All motion pictures, and comedies in particular, provided people with a means of escape from the demoralizing effects of the Great Depression. Comedies of the 1930s aimed to restore Americans' faith in the individual's power to triumph over adversity, such as in Frank Capra's films featuring ordinary men taking a stand against corruption. Screwball comedies fulfilled Depression Era audiences' hopes and dreams by depicting lavish lives of leisure. Hays Code censors, however, worried that film would encourage lax moral values. Since it wasn't possible at the time to restrict film audiences, the code sought to ensure that any film shown would be appropriate for viewers of all ages and education levels.
- University of Houston Digital History: Film Censorship
- NPR: Remembering Hollywood's Hays Code, 40 Years On
- University of Houston Digital History: Hollywood and the Great Depression
- AMC Networks Filmsite: Film History of the 1930s, Part 4
- The University of Virginia American Studies: Historical Context -- Movies in the Great Depression
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images