From the Hays Code to NC-17: A Look At the MPAA’s Film Rating System

The subject of my last post called for some investigation into how films using the f-bomb are classified by the MPAA, which led to a deeper dive into the history of movie ratings. It’s actually quite fascinating.

In the Beginning — The Hays Code

We tend to forget that films released in the early days of the motion picture industry were pretty racy, a pushback against Victoria prudery of earlier decades. According to the Conflicted Film Snob’s best friend, Wikipedia, “films in the late 1920s and early 1930s included depictions of sexual innuendo, miscegenation, profanity, illegal drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and homosexuality. Strong female characters were ubiquitous in films such as Female, Baby Face, and Red-Headed Woman. Gangsters in The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface were seen by many as heroic rather than evil. Nefarious characters [profited] from their deeds, in some cases without significant repercussions.”

One needs to look no further than these scenes from The Public Enemy (1931) and 42nd Street (1933) for evidence of the above:

Beyond the questionable film content, Hollywood was reeling from highly publicized scandals within its ranks, including the unsolved murder of actor-director William Desmond Taylor and, more salaciously, the arrest and trial of Fatty Arbuckle, one of the era’s biggest stars (literally and figuratively), who stood accused of raping and murdering aspiring actress Virginia Rappe.

Under pressure to clean up its act, the MPAA (back then known as the MPPDA) hired Will H. Hays as its president in 1922. Five years later, after some failed starts to address the issue, Hays challenged various studio heads to think through how they could self-censor, which, all agreed, was preferable to having an outside agency dictate content. What became of this was the infamous “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” which I’m going to list in full because they’re so fun to read:


  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God”, “Lord”, “Jesus”, “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell”, “damn”, “Gawd”, and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion;
  5. White slavery;
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children’s sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

“Be Carefuls”

  1. The use of the flag;
  2. International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
  3. Arson;
  4. The use of firearms;
  5. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
  6. Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
  7. Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
  8. Methods of smuggling;
  9. Third-degree methods;
  10. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
  11. Sympathy for criminals;
  12. Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
  13. Sedition;
  14. Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
  15. Branding of people or animals;
  16. The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
  17. Rape or attempted rape;
  18. First-night scenes;
  19. Man and woman in bed together;
  20. Deliberate seduction of girls;
  21. The institution of marriage;
  22. Surgical operations;
  23. The use of drugs;
  24. Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
  25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.

With the help (read: insistence) of a couple Roman Catholic bigwigs, the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” were further refined into what became, in 1930, the final Motion Picture Production Code. Problem was, enforcement proved hit-or-miss because Hays et al didn’t have the authority to force studios to excise controversial footage. Then, in 1934, a solution: the MPAA decreed that all films released after July 1, 1934, would have to be submitted to the newly created Production Code Administration (PCA) for a “certificate of approval,” which, of course, used the Hays Code as its guide. Failure to do so (and, of course, failure to receive an approval) would mean the film wouldn’t receive distribution.

While filmmakers tried hard to push the boundaries of Hays Code restrictions, films generally remained pretty tame until the 1950s, when the combination of societal changes (stuff that had people hot and bothered in the old days just wasn’t that big a deal anymore), the threat of TV (movies needed to show stuff TV couldn’t to win over eyeballs and keep this tenacious competitor at bay) and the influence of foreign films (movies across the pond that made their way to American cinemas weren’t restricted by anything as strict as the Hays Code), led to parts of the Code being re-written or relaxed.

Take, for example, Hitchcock’s Vertigo. For those who’ve seen the film — and if you haven’t a) shame and b) spoiler alert — it ends with Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie watching his lover, Judy, fall to her death from the bell tower. Fin! However, at the insistence of the PCA, Hitchcock had to film an alternate ending in which we hear that the bad guy behind Scottie’s twice-over suffering (see the movie), an old college buddy named Gavin Elster, was apprehended and will face justice. You can check it out here:

Pathetic. Luckily for us, a truly shocking ending, one of the greatest in film history, was allowed to stay after much Hitchcock lobbying. If Vertigo had been released decades earlier, it never would’ve happened.

Jack Valenti and the MPAA Rating System

By the mid-1960s, it was apparent the Hays Code was sadly outdated and basically unenforceable. A new system was needed and this fell to the MPAA’s newest president, Mr. Jack Valenti, once an advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson (he can be seen in the background of the famous picture of Johnson being swore in as president as Air Force One returns to Washington with John F. Kennedy’s body).

Valenti was of the opinion that the Hays code promoted censorship, never a good thing in the arts. What was needed, he felt, was something more equitable and enforceable. Thus the creation, in 1968, of the MPAA’s film rating system, something no doubt you’re familiar with:

Like the Hays Code, the system has seen its fair share of revision over the years. For example, “PG” originally was classified as “M” (Suggested for Mature Audiences – parental discretion advised):

However, because of the confusing nature of the word “mature” (did it, parents wondered, preclude all children from attending?), the rating was reclassified in 1972 to PG (Parental Guidance Suggested – some material may not be suitable for children).

But this was little more than housekeeping; the real changes to the MPAA’s rating system came over a decade later.

Out with Rated X, In with NC-17

There was a time when Rated X (Persons Under 17 Not Admitted) signified nothing more nefarious than a film with decidedly adult content and thus not for children. In fact, several critical darlings directed by established filmmakers, including John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1972) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), were Rated X upon release.


However, the MPAA never copyrighted the “X” and soon the adult film industry co-opted it, forevermore establishing a link to porn. Once that happened, no legitimate filmmaker wanted the association. Of course, they could release their film with no rating, like Peter Greenaway’s well-regarded but controversial The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), but alas, many major theater chains wouldn’t touch unrated films with a 10-foot pole, thus limiting precious distribution. The MPAA’s solution? In 1990 they finally replaced the stigmatized Rated X with a brand new rating, NC-17 (No one 17 and under admitted), the hope being this would signify adult-only content without the porn baggage. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out very well. Despite the lack of a porn association, theater chains still seem to be squeamish about carrying NC-17 content. And advertising outlets feel the same. Which damages the financial prospects of quality films whose directors wouldn’t compromise their vision, including Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June (1990), Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007), Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2004). Thus, most studios go out of their way to trim questionable content to secure an “R” rating rather than be stuck with the fraught NC-17. In other words, very adult films still have trouble with getting into the distribution pipeline.

The Rise of PG-13

For those of a certain age, you may remember the hubbub that met the release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins in the spring of 1984. Both films were Rated PG, yet they featured some pretty graphic violence, including the bloody removal of a beating heart from a conscious person and sundry gremlin atrocities, including one being exploded inside a microwave. The MPAA found itself in a pickle. While the content of such films was definitely too much for the youngest members of the PG audience, it wasn’t inappropriate for older members of the same. Thus the content just didn’t justify an “R” rating. The solution? In 1984, an intermediate rating was introduced: “PG-13” (Parents Strongly Cautioned – Some Material May Be Inappropriate for Children Under 13). The first two films to receive the designation? John Milius’ nutty USA-invaded-by-the-Cubans film, Red Dawn, and Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape.

And, for better or worse (many people, including me, think the current rating system’s too easy on violence and gore and too harsh on language and consentual sex), this where we stand today.


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