“Complete Nudity Is Never Permitted”: The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930
Mae West spent her career on the stage and screen skirting—and sometimes transgressing—the boundaries of sexual and moral propriety. In 1926 and 1927, she outraged some critics (and landed herself in jail) with two sensational Broadway productions, Sex(a play she wrote about a Montreal prostitute, in which she also starred) and The Drag (a “homosexual comedy-drama” that she wrote and staged). In 1928, New York police arrested her again, this time for her play about a troupe of female impersonators, Pleasure Man. In 1932, she brought her brand of ribald humor to the movies. West’s move from Broadway to Hollywood was surprising, given the substantially tighter moral scrutiny under which the film industry operated. Adopted in 1930 by the Association of Motion Picture Producers, the Motion Picture Production Code, excerpted below, spelled out in detail what was and was not permissible in the nation’s most popular form of entertainment.
Motion picture producers recognize the high trust and confidence which have been placed in them by the people of the world and which have made motion pictures a universal form of entertainment.
They recognize their responsibility to the public because of this trust and because entertainment and art are important influences in the life of a nation.
Hence, though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda, they know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.
During the rapid transition from silent to talking pictures they have realized the necessity and the opportunity of subscribing to a Code to govern the production of talking pictures and of reacknowledging this responsibility.
On their part, they ask from the public and from public leaders a sympathetic understanding of their purposes and problems and a spirit of cooperation that will allow them the freedom and opportunity necessary to bring the motion picture to a still higher level of wholesome entertainment for all the people.
The following subjects must be treated within the careful limits of good taste:
1.Actual hangingsor electrocutions as legal punishments for crime.
3.Brutalityand possible gruesomeness.
4.Brandingof people or animals.
5.Apparent crueltyto children or animals.
6.The sale of womenor a woman selling her virtue.
Source: "The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930," as quoted in Leonard J. Jeff and Jerold Simmons, eds., The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1990), 283–286.