The Hays Code was introduced in 1930 to regulate the morals of the US motion picture industry and influenced film production up until 1968.
Before it was introduced censors were independent in each State, meaning that different films could be banned, cut or shown to differing degrees in different parts of the country. This caused a lot of animosity towards the censors from within the industry as shown by this quote published October 1922’s PhotoPlay magazine. It describes the censors as “ruthlessly mutilating, stunning and destroying. There is not one single logical argument in favour of censorship of any kind – and never will be… There is no excuse for censorship and it will never be anything but intolerance. Censorship is the hooded Klu Klux Klan of art.”
The same article states examples of scenes featuring baby clothes being torn out of films because they’re suggestive of the act which created the children, and even Treasure Island being banned in Ohio because the censors feared it might teach piracy to children.
The protection of public morals during the 1910s and 20s was a very regional thing. You weren’t allowed to allude to the birth of a child or mention infidelity in Pennsylvania, show cigarettes in Kansas, show bathing girls in New York or Kansas, or even admit that feminine limbs exist in most of the states. And as for depicting murder, arson or kissing. You should be so lucky!
The Hays Code (also known as the Motion Picture Production Code) clamped down on all of this and provided a nationwide set of strict rules for the movie industry. Things which were banned included profanity (not even mild swearing was permitted), licentious or suggestive nudity, drugs, white slavery, venereal diseases, childbirth, and ridicule of the clergy, amongst other things. There were also very specific rules of what was acceptable regarding any kinds of threat, violence, sex or crime.
The code was introduced at the start of the decade but wasn’t strictly enforced until 1934, which is why Bird of Paradise and The Sign of the Cross (below) were able to slip through the net.
Here are some of the more shocking or salacious movies which made it into production before the Code cracked down on pretty much everything!
I think all on-screen adaptations of Cleopatra have been a visual feast, but none were quite as risque as the 1917 silent movie starring Theda Bara. With costumes barely covering her assets, the movie was an enormous commercial success but has since sadly been lost. After the Hays Code was implemented the film was judged as being too obscene to be shown. You can see more of Theda Bara’s amazing Cleopatra costumes here.
A Daughter of the Gods (1916)
A Daughter of the Gods was a silent movie starring actress and swimming star Annette Kellerman. It was the first movie to include a nude scene by a major star, although her nudity was covered (to a certain extent) by her long hair.
The film was a major production and one of the first movies to cost $1 million to make. It is thought that approximately 20,000 people were employed in its production. The movie is now considered as lost, as with so many movies from this time, but a series of stills exist from the movie including the risque photo of Kellerman from her nude scene below.
Hula was one of Clara Bow‘s last silent movies before she moved into Talkies. She plays a strong controversial character who wears trousers and seduces a married man who takes her fancy (by performing a sexy hula dance for him), but the biggest scandal was caused by a scene at the start of the movie where she swims naked (see the publicity photo below).
The Branding Iron (1920)
The Branding Iron was a controversial movie in lots of ways. It deals with the subject of an insanely jealous husband who brands his wife to show that she is his property. However this wasn’t the part that the censors objected to. The bathing scene below was cut from the movie and the movie itself was later banned because it dealt with the subject of infidelity. Personally I think the idea of branding your wife is more shocking than either infidelity or a skinny dip, but what do I know..?
Bird of Paradise (1932)
This movie shocked the censors with its nude bathing scene by major movie star Delores del Rio. Despite the nudity and a great plot (take a look at the plot summary below) the film lost an estimated $250,000 at the box office.
“As a yacht sails into an island chain in the South Pacific, a large number of natives in pontoon boats sail out to greet them. The natives dive for the trinkets the yacht’s crew throws them. A shark arrives, scaring most of the natives away. In an attempt to catch a shark by throwing it bait that has been tied to a harpoon-sized hook, Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) accidentally steps into a loop that tightens around his ankle. The shark takes the bait, and the rope grows tighter, causing the rope to yank the young man overboard. Luana (Dolores del Río), the daughter of the chief, saves his life by leaping into the water and cutting the rope.
It is not long before they meet in the middle of the night. Swiftly falling in love, they discover she has been promised by her father to another man – a prince on a neighboring island. An arranged wedding with an elaborate dance sequence then follows. Johnny appears at the nick of time, runs into a circle of burning fire, rescues her as the natives kneel to the fire.
They travel to another island where they hope to live out the rest of their lives. He builds her a house with a roof of thatched grass. However, their idyll is smashed when the local volcano on her home island begins to erupt. She confesses to her lover that she alone can appease the mountain. Her people take her back. When Johnny goes after her, he is wounded in the shoulder by a spear and tied up. The people decide to sacrifice both of them to the volcano, but on the way, the couple are rescued by Johnny’s friends and taken aboard the yacht.
Johnny’s wound is tended to, but his friends wonder what will become of the lovers. Luana does not fit into Johnny’s world. When Johnny is sleeping, Luana’s father demands her back. She goes willingly, believing that only she can save her people by voluntarily throwing herself into the volcano’s mouth.” Source
The Sign of the Cross (1932)
This Cecil B. DeMille Roman epic was released before the code was being strictly enforced, and contained scenes including seduction, an erotic lesbian ‘Dance of the Naked Moon’, gladiatorial combat and a scene including naked women being sacrificed by wild animals in a gladiatorial arena (below). These scenes were cut after 1934 but added back in in more recent releases.
Auction of Souls / Ravished Armenia (1919)
This last movie was rather different in subject matter to the usual films which were banned by the censors for using nudity for titillation. Auction of Souls depicted the 1915 Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire as written by a survivor of the atrocities. It was cut by the censors, particularly a scene involving the flogging and nude crucifixion or women but still shown to a wide cinema audience in an attempt to raise awareness and support for persecuted minorities.