Hays, William Harrison

(redirected from William Harrison Hays)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Wikipedia.
Related to William Harrison Hays: MPPDA

Hays, William Harrison

William Harrison Hays is mainly known for his establishment of the code through which motion picture producers regulated themselves, thereby avoiding outside Censorship.

Hays was born in Sullivan, Indiana, on November 5, 1879, to John T. Hays and Mary Cain Hays. He first gained attention through a series of increasingly important positions within the Indiana Republican Party. In February 1918 his party career culminated in his appointment as chairman of the Republican National Committee. From that position he aided in the 1920 election of warren g. harding as president of the United States. As reward for his service, Harding appointed Hays U.S. postmaster general in March 1921, after which Hays relinquished his position as Republican chairman.

At this time a widely reported series of sex scandals contributed to a growing perception that the movie industry was out of control and out of step with U.S. society. With more than thirty state legislatures considering bills to censor movies, producers intervened to repair their image. In March 1922 they hired Hays, known as a teetotaler and an elder in the Presbyterian Church, to head the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) at $100,000 a year. With his high political profile, his personal moral characteristics, and his connections with businesspeople, including Hollywood executives, Hays was seen as an outsider who could restore public confidence in the morality of the movie industry.

The effort to head off federal or local censorship through hiring Hays was successful. In 1930 the Hays Office, as it became commonly known, coordinated the Production Code among the producers of movies to provide rules for the film industry's self-regulation. The 1930 code had no enforcement mechanism. Still, the hiring of Hays, the goodwill implied in the code, and a lack of cooperation and agreement among reformers, mainly Protestant, dissipated any danger of censorship in the early 1930s.

In 1934, with box office receipts down as the Great Depression widened, Hays responded to a renewed call for morality in the movies spearheaded by the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency. Operating with support from parish priests, from the church hierarchy, and from Protestant and Jewish reform groups, the Legion avoided efforts at government legislated censorship. Rather, it threatened to call for boycotts of films that failed to satisfy its requirements for moral behavior. Hays issued the Production Code of 1934, which added enforcement power to his earlier code. Though the 1934 code provided for fines and suggested that scripts should be pre-approved by the Hays Office, its real strength lay in requiring that a film receive the Hays Code Purity Seal of Approval in order to be shown in any movie theater owned by the studios. With the movie industry vertically integrated, so that studios controlled both a large segment of film production and the most successful and profitable movie theaters nationwide, even foreign and nonstudio films were submitted for code approval.

The Hays code went through refinements and shifts in emphasis, both before and after the addition of enforcement in 1934. In general, it was designed to protect impressionable movie-goers by clamping down on sex, language, and violence on screen, with rules relating to sex being particularly stringent. One overarching rule was that sympathetic portrayals of sinners or criminals were prohibited; transgressors had to be punished appropriately for their sins by the end of each film.

Hays maintained his partnership in Hays and Hays, a law firm begun by his father, throughout his tenure with the MPPDA. In 1945 he left his position as head of the MPPDA. He died in Indiana on March 7, 1954.

Further readings

Bergman, Andrew. 1971. We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. New York: New York Univ. Press.

Christensen, Terry. 1987. Reel Politics: American Political Movies from Birth of a Nation to Platoon. New York: Blackwell.

Crisler, B.R. 1984. "Portrait of an Indiana Lawyer." In The New York Times Encyclopedia of Film: 1937–1940. Edited by Gene Brown. New York: Times Books.

Maltby, Richard. 1993. "'Grief in the Limelight': Al Capone, Howard Hughes, the Hays Code, and the Politics of the Unstable Text." In Movies and Politics: The Dynamic Relationship. Edited by James Combs. New York: Garland.

Sklar, Robert. 1994. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. Rev. and updated ed. New York: Vintage Books.