Hollywood Bans “Sexual Perversion” in Films Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Hollywood studios enacted the Motion Picture Production Code, which prohibited all references in film to homosexuality or “sex perversion.” The code was strengthened in 1934 under pressure from the Catholic-led Legion for Decency, and it remained in force until the mid-1960’s.

Summary of Event

Reeling from scandals, criticisms that movies corrupted America’s youth, and threats to establish more local and state censorship boards, the heads of the major studios in 1922 hired Will H. Hays, U.S. president William Harding’s Harding, William postmaster general and a Presbyterian, to head the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA). Hays successfully stalled efforts to impose external controls on the content of movies, and he encouraged the members of the association to recognize that the best way to defeat such efforts was for Hollywood to regulate itself. [kw]Hollywood Bans “Sexual Perversion” in Films (1930’s-1960’s) [kw]"Sexual Perversion" in Films, Hollywood Bans (1930’s-1960’s)[Sexual Perversion] [kw]Perversion" in Films, Hollywood Bans “Sexual (1930’s-1960’s) [kw]Films, Hollywood Bans ”Sexual Perversion" in (1930’s-1960’s) Sexual perversion;in film[film] Film;and homosexuality[homosexuality] Censorship;of gay film[gay film] Homosexuality;and film censorship[film censorship] Religion;and film industry[film industry] Motion Picture Production Code [c]Arts;1930’s-1960’s: Hollywood Bans “Sexual Perversion” in Films[0320] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1930’s-1960’s: Hollywood Bans “Sexual Perversion” in Films[0320] [c]Organizations and institutions;1930’s-1960’s: Hollywood Bans “Sexual Perversion” in Films[0320] [c]Religion;1930’s-1960’s: Hollywood Bans “Sexual Perversion” in Films[0320] Hays, Will H. Lord, Daniel A. Breen, Joseph

In 1930, the MPPDA ratified the Motion Picture Production Code (sometimes called, inaccurately, the Hays code), pledging its members to abide by its guidelines on what was and was not appropriate content for film. Homosexuality was not a significant feature in the scandals and criticisms, nor did it receive elaborate consideration in the code. One terse sentence, however, banned homosexuality from the screen: “Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.”

Most of the code was written by Father Daniel A. Lord, a professor of drama at St. Louis University. Recognizing the power of film, Lord felt that chances to shape society by producing films that glorified morality had been lost. Lord and his coauthors made the code into more that just a set of do’s and don’ts; they described film’s unique place in popular culture and argued for its ability to promote moral values. The authors, however, soon felt betrayed because Hollywood ignored the code in the early 1930’s, filling films with sex and violence in an effort to turn a profit in the days of the Great Depression.

To pressure Hollywood, the Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church;and film industry[film industry] Decency, Legion of created its Legion of Decency Legion of Decency to rate films and encourage a boycott of those condemned for immorality. In response, Hays, in 1934, got the MPPDA to approve the creation of the Production Code Administration Production Code Administration (PCA), an office that had absolute control over whether a film met the code. To head the PCA, Hays hired Joseph Breen, a print journalist associated with the authors of the code and the establishment of the Legion of Decency. For the next thirty years, until the code was replaced in the mid-1960’s with a new ratings system, the United States had a Catholic layperson enforcing a code (written by a Catholic priest) over mostly Jewish movie moguls, who made films for a Protestant majority.


Breen and the PCA were largely successful in keeping the open and direct portrayal of the lives of gays and lesbians off the screen, even when a film’s historical, literary, or theatrical source had queer content. When faced with the code’s prohibition, filmmakers often made substitutions. In These Three, for example, a 1936 adaption of Lillian Hellman’s hit play The Children’s Hour in which two female teachers of a girls’ school were lesbians, became the story of a rumor that one teacher was having a heterosexual affair with the fiancé of the other teacher.

In adapting a novel into the film The Lost Weekend Lost Weekend, The (film) (1945), director and screenwriter Billy Wilder Wilder, Billy turned the main character’s confusion about his sexuality into a man with writer’s block. A killer’s rage against homosexuals in the novel The Brick Foxhole became anti-Semitism in the movie Crossfire (1947). In Tea and Sympathy (1956), a schoolboy’s concern about being gay was turned into a story about the boy doubting his ability to make a woman love him. Under pressure from the PCA, filmmakers sanitized their adaptations of Tennessee Williams’s plays Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958).

Gays and lesbians, though, were not completely absent from the screen, though their orientation was never directly acknowledged nor portrayed in a positive or sympathetic way. At best, they were confused about their gender identity, as in Calamity Jane (1953). At worst, same-gender desire was coded in such a way to make the villain more villainous. These villains include the sinister housekeeper tormenting the new Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca (1940) or Bruno in Strangers on a Train (1951), who offered to swap murders with a tennis star aspiring to marry a senator’s daughter.

By the early 1960’s, the PCA’s ability to shape the presentation of certain topics was diminishing. Nonetheless, the office still moved to keep homosexuality off the screen, even in the vaguest of references. One of the more noted examples was when the PCA required director Stanley Kubrick to delete the scene in Spartacus (1960) where the Roman general Crassus questions his slave about the slave’s preference for oysters or snails. Nevertheless, under pressure from studios wishing to include adult material in a responsible way, the PCA amended the code: “In keeping with the culture, the mores and values of our time, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations may now be treated with care, discretion and restraint.” This openness, however, did not represent an improvement. Those characters who acknowledged or acted on their desire were fated to meet an untimely end. In a 1961 remake of The Children’s Hour, one of the teachers hangs herself after confessing her desire for the other teacher. In Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) a man is punished for his homosexuality by being cannibalized by his tricks, while in Advise and Consent (1962) a senator slits his throat when he learns he is about to be blackmailed for a youthful homosexual indiscretion.

Cataloging Hollywood’s misrepresentation of queer lives addresses only the most obvious impact of the production code’s ban on depictions of homosexuality. More subtly, and more deadly, the films made under the code meant that for more than thirty years, according to the documentary film The Celluloid Closet Celluloid Closet, The (documentary film) (1995), “Hollywood…taught straight people what to think about gay people, and gay people what to think about themselves.” Sexual perversion;in film[film] Film;and homosexuality[homosexuality] Censorship;of gay film[gay film] Homosexuality;and film censorship[film censorship] Religion;and film industry[film industry]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrios, Richard. Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood, from Edison to Stonewall. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Frank. Censored Hollywood: Sex, Sin, and Violence on Screen. Atlanta: Turner, 1994.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tyler, Parker. Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993.

February, 1927: Wales Padlock Law Censors Risque Theater

March 7, 1967: CBS Airs CBS Reports: The Homosexuals

1979-1981: First Gay British Television Series Airs

1985: GLAAD Begins Monitoring Media Coverage of Gays and Lesbians

1985: Lesbian Film Desert Hearts Is Released

July 25, 1985: Actor Hudson Announces He Has AIDS

1988: Macho Dancer Is Released in the Philippines

1992-2002: Celebrity Lesbians Come Out

March 21, 2000: Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in Film

September 7, 2001: First Gay and Lesbian Television Network Is Launched in Canada

March 5, 2006: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Transamerica Receive Oscars

Categories: History