Motion Picture Code
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On Movie Morality
Motion Picture Code

The Motion Picture Code

A Call for the Restoration of the Code

The essay in the table below is reproduced from Chapter 1 (pages 20-21) of Ted Baehr's seminal work So You Want to Be in Pictures? (Broadman & Holman, 2005). It's sort of an abridged handbook of what it takes to "make it" (whatever that means) in the Hollywood system. Gary Jackson's essay (available at gives a more thorough treatment of the early history of the Code.

Dr. Baehr cites a number of people in Hollywood about the subject of morality in general and, in a number of places, about Christianity and/or Judeo-Christian principles in particular, and he notes the the Motion Picture Association of America has replaced the old Motion Picture Code (which was sort of a "pass/fail" system), whereby you either got your Seal of Approval or you didn't. And if you didn't, the movie wouldn't see the light of a projector in any commercial theater, period. My, how things have changed.

I appreciate Dr. Baehr's words. Unfortunately, I don't think he went far enough. Let me make it clear: We decry the MPAA and its approach to motion picture ratings. You see, I don't think the MPAA is merely immoral, with its sliding scale of immorality that provided The Graduate with an X-rating (but without nudity) and The Notorious Betty Page an R-rating with its full frontal female nudity (not to mention Schindler's List, also with full frontal male and female nudity).

No, the MPAA is way beyond immoral. The MPAA is far worse. The MPAA is amoral. The MPAA has no morality at all. Black becomes white. There is no moral guide, no moral conscience at all. The studio with the biggest checkbook (Time/Warner and Betty Page) pays its money and gets its rating on demand. Disguting.

And I, as a screenwriter and a producer, intend to see that our pictures are submitted to a re-constituted board of church folks enforcing as far as possible the original Motion Picture Code (also called the "Hays Code"), which is reproduced here and here.

We're taking a giant step backwards, folks. Deliberately. And if the liberals don't like it, they don't have to buy tickets to our pictures. Period.

Dr. Baehr's citation on the old Motion Picture Code is reproduced below (without Dr. Baehr's permission, I might add, as we claim fair use under copyright law).

Once Upon a Time

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.
                                                               —George Santayana

Christians often forget that the church exerted a great influence on the entertainment industry from 1933 to 1966. For thirty-three years every script was read by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Protestant Film Office. Their job was to evaluate a movie in terms of the Motion Picture Code. If the film passed the Code, it received the Motion Picture Code Seal and was distributed. If it did not pass, the theaters would not screen it. The Short Form of the Motion Picture Code provided:

  • The basic dignity and value of human life shall be respected and upheld. Restraint shall be exercised in portraying the taking of life.

  • Evil, sin, crime, and wrong-doing shall not be justified. Detailed and protracted acts of brutality, cruelty, physical vio­lence, torture, and abuse shall not be presented.

  • Indecent or undue exposure of the human body shall not be presented.

  • Illicit sex relationships shall not be justified. Intimate sex scenes violating common standards of decency shall not be por­trayed. Restraint and care shall be exercised in presentations deal­ing with sex aberrations.

  • Obscene speech, gestures, or movements shall not be pre­sented. Undue profanity shall not be presented. Religion shall not be demeaned.

  • Words or symbols contemptuous of racial, religious, or national groups shall not be used so as to incite bigotry or hatred.

  • Excessive cruelty to animals shall not be portrayed, and animals shall not be treated inhumanely.

  • During the period of the Motion Picture Code, there was no explicit sex, violence, profanity, or blasphemy in movies. Also, films did not mock a min­ister of religion or a person's faith (the religious persecution in Germany prompted this wise counsel). For the most part movies and television pro­grams communicated the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Then, in 1966, the churches voluntarily withdrew from the entertainment industry. Many of the media elite bemoaned the retreat of the churches. One prophesied, "If the salt is removed from the meat, then the meat will rot." Many studio executives felt that church involvement helped them to reach the large Christian audience in the United States and believed that Christians would avoid films that did not have the Motion Picture Code Seal.

Censorship or Patron Sovereignty

Patron sovereignty has traditionally been commended by Hollywood as the right of movie patrons to determine what they want to see or avoid by their activity at the box office. When there was talk in the 1930s about government censorship, the movie industry requested patron sovereignty in the form of the Motion Picture Code. Throughout the life of the Code and its successor, the MPAA rating system, the entertainment industry has continued to express its preference for patron sovereignty rather than government intervention to curb tendencies in the industry toward obscenity and violence.

When the churches retreated, the Motion Picture Association of America instituted the rating system to take the place of the Code. However, this was like letting the fox guard the hen house, and the results were predictable.

Today, scripts are read by feminist, Marxist, and homosexual groups (such as GLAAD), but not by Christians. These groups award pictures and television programs that communicate their point of view and condemn movies and television programs that disagree with their point of view. …

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