Will[iam] H[arrison] Hays (1879-1954), one-time U.S. Postmaster General and chairman of the Republican National Committee, a Presbyterian deacon and the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, is best remembered for his work in advising Hollywood studios on acceptable moral content of their movies. The work of his office and its successors from the 1920s to 1950s is generally referred to as censorship or self-censorship, but I don’t really think that its. The code produced by his office was only advisory and did not empower him to edit content or ban films, and his work was solicited by the industry in order to help them get their films past the censorship boards of individual states, which did ban movies or require editing before certain movies could be shown in various states.
Because the Hays Office was widely seen as the gatekeeper between decent, hard-working American families and the degradation of a wicked Hollywood that was always seeking to undermine the morals of red-blooded American youth, Hays was constantly petitioned to ban this or that thing, or promote this or that other thing. Churches demanded that religious figures be portrayed with respect, educators clamored for control of slang and the depiction of their profession, moralists successfully banned references to homosexuality, interracial romantic relationships, and carefully controlled depictions of murder, passion, and the how-tos of safe-cracking, bank robbing, and rum-running.
In 1942, the LDS Relief Society, Sunday School, Young Men’s and Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Associations, and the Primary made their own petition to the Hays Office regarding certain concerns:
November 14, 1942
Mr. Will H. Hays
28 West 44th Street
New York, New York.
Dear Mr. Hays:
For some time the auxiliary organizations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been alarmed at the increasing use in motion pictures of alcoholic beverages and tobacco. By the constant presentation of drinking and smoking on the screen the wholesome resistance of youth and childhood is being broken down.
Drama is one of the cultural fields with which we have full sympathy and in which some of our organizations work extensively among the young people. We know of the immense influence of dramatic representation on the human mind. It is conceded that in some situations the use of tobacco and liquor might legitimately give a truer picture of life, although our own standards lead us to ban these articles from the stage. Incidentally, we have been pleased to see that plays do not suffer thereby. A talented group of professional and amateur players recently put on “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” without smoking, drinking, profanity or vulgarity, and without lessening, strange as it may seem, the humor in the slightest. We know, therefore, that a great decrease in the use of tobacco and alcohol on the stage can be accomplished if there is the will to do it, and we earnestly petition you to set standards that will reduce these harmful things to the minimum.
Although most states, perhaps all, have statutes forbidding the use of tobacco or alcoholic drinks by minors, yet whenever a drink is taken in a play, or a cigarette lighted, especially by actors who represent to the young patrons almost everything desirable in life, a definite impact is made on their resistance to observe the law.
The liquor and tobacco interests know the power of such example and of course do everything to extend the use of these articles in the business of the play. It is most unfortunate that the great institution of motion pictures, with its immeasurable educational and character-forming influence, should be used to promote this evil. That is truly a breach of its great trust.
Our responsibility to childhood and youth, besides giving them the spiritual training to prepare them for eternal life includes the endeavor to help them be healthy, temperate, upright and clean. Alcohol and tobacco, with their degenerative effects endanger both objectives.
We commend you for all the fine things that you have done – the elimination of profanity, for example. And now in the name of our youth and of all American youth we appeal to you, who bear so much moral responsibility in this phase of our recreational life, to look into this situation and answer to your conscience as the good American that you are. We believe the wrong done to impressionable young people will tend to debauch individuals and bring about a poorer grade of American manhood and womanhood. Those who love America will support you in the action we plead with you to take.
AMY BROWN LYMAN,
President, Representing 115,015 mothers, National Women’s Relief Society
GEORGE D. PYPER,
General Superintendent, Representing 360,337 members of all ages, Sunday School Union
LUCY GRANT CANNON,
President, Representing 76,867 young women, Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Ass’n.
GEORGE Q. MORRIS,
General Superintendent, Representing 65,511 young men, Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Ass’n.
MAY GREEN HINCKLEY,
Superintendent, Representing 129,958 children and teachers, Primary Association