Now you’re probably sitting there asking “What’s an MPAA?” as you furrow your brow in a feeble attempt to understand. Don’t worry about what to think, I’m here to do all the thinking for you.
The MPAA is the Motion Picture Association of America. It has two main functions. The first function is to act as the chief lobbyist for the major studios, and to administer the morals of the movies.
It doesn’t do either very well.
But before we get to its failings we need to start with one of my patented little history lessons.
IN THE BEGINNING
The MPAA was founded in 1922 as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, or the MPPDA. Back then its membership consisted of the three biggest studios in Hollywood, Famous Players-Lasky, Metro-Goldwyn Pictures and First National Pictures.
Under the leadership of former US Postmaster General Will H. Hays the group had a simple mission: Keep the Big 3 Studios on top by any means necessary.
Now there were more than three companies making and exhibiting movies in America in the 1920s and they didn’t react well to this. They formed the Independent Producers Association, and the Motion Picture Theatre Owners Of America and they fought it in courts and in public opinion calling it a “trust” that was seeking to illegally monopolize the movie business.
Of course it was, but the industry in the 1920s was already too big and too chaotic for a small elite group to control. So the MPPDA began to expand its membership to the larger of the smaller rivals in an attempt to represent the industry as a whole especially with its other important mission.
MOVIES AND MORALS
In the 1920s Hollywood was rocked by its first major scandal with the arrest and trial of comedy superstar Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Arbuckle was one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood, and in 1921 he hosted a part for some friends in San Francisco. That party was crashed by a bit-part actress and occasional prostitute named Virginia Rappe, who had a bit too much to drink, fell ill and died four days later. Medical experts who studied the case believe her death was caused by chronic cystitis that was aggravated by her heavy drinking, and substandard care received after having several abortions.
There was no physical evidence that Arbuckle has done anything to Rappe worse than bumping into her with his knee. However a casual acquaintance of Rappe’s with a résumé that included pimping and blackmail named Maude Delmont told the police that Arbuckle - known as the “most chaste man in Hollywood” for his shy good manners towards women - had raped Rappe in a variety of violent and bizarre ways.
Arbuckle endured three trials, and some of the worst media coverage ever seen. Speculations and outright fabrications were reported as fact, and while he was acquitted and even apologized to by the jury at the last trial, he was banned from working in the movies under his own name for years.
Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the history of the MPAA.
The Arbuckle fiasco was the beginning of a wave of sex scandals involving Hollywood stars, some of them were even guilty of what they were being accused of. Meanwhile the movies themselves were experimenting with racier subject matter that seem tame by today’s standards, but you have to remember, that they were only about a generation removed from the end of the Victorian Era.
This was also the age of Prohibition, where politically active puritans tried to legislate morality by banning liquor. That means it wasn’t much of a stretch of the imagination for these same puritans to get the government to start regulating the movie business. So the MPPDA headed them off at the pass by announcing they were going to regulate morality in the movies themselves.
The MPPDA chief Will Hays was an elder in the Presbyterian church and to get the morality crowd off Hollywood’s back created the Motion Picture Production Code so that filmmakers could censor themselves instead of the government.
The most famous part of this code was their lists of “Don’t & Be Carefuls” that went something like this:
Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:
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;
Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
The illegal traffic in drugs;
Any inference of sex perversion;
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
Children's sex organs;
Ridicule of the clergy;
Willful offence to any nation, race or creed;
And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
The use of the flag;
International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavourable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
The use of firearms;
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);
Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
Methods of smuggling;
Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
Sympathy for criminals;
Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
Branding of people or animals;
The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
Rape or attempted rape;
Man and woman in bed together;
Deliberate seduction of girls;
The institution of marriage;
The use of drugs;
Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a "heavy".
These rules controlled what could be seen on the Silver Screen for decades. Hays could be a tad lax when enforcing this code through the Studio Relations Committee or “Hays Office” of the MPPDA, drawing the ire of the morality mafia who viewed the code as a paper tiger. This ire inspired a reorganization of the MPPDA in 1934 putting the running of the code in the hands of the Production Code Authority nicknamed the “Breen Office,” because of its chief Joseph Breen.
Where Hays was lax and ineffective in enforcing the code, Breen was militant, putting an end to any dabbling in risqué and controversial material. He was also alleged to be a raging anti-semite, which probably made him even more unpopular in Hollywood than just his meddling alone could do.
Enforcing the code, and making sure the state and federal governments stayed out of the censorship racket was one of the MPPDA’s main jobs for the next few decades. The other job was taking advantage of rapid changes in the world and the global movie market.
But that's another story...
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