by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For nearly a quarter century, the diminutive, but powerful Will H. Hays was easily one of the most powerful figures in the film industry as head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which hired him just after its formation in 1922 to bring stability to a business that was reeling from such scandals as that involving comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle as well as financial issues.
Hays was born in 1879 in the western Indiana town of Sullivan, near the Illinois border, graduated from Wabash College in Crawfordsville (home of General Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur) at the start of the 20th century, and became an attorney. His forte, however, was being a consummate political insider, starting with local Republican politics and then moving rapidly to being chair of the state party and, between 1918 and 1921, serving as the Republican National Committee chair.
In the heavily contested 1920 Republican national convention, Hays, who was considered something of a dark horse for the nomination, hosted on of those “smoke-filled room” confabs in a hotel suite and then became a campaign manager for nominee and eventual winner, Ohio Senator Warren Harding. For his efforts, Hays was made Postmaster General and he quickly initiated a number of reforms, including with rural delivery, cost efficiency and others.
When the Teapot Dome scandal erupted concerning oil reserve land leases by Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall to such major tycoons as Harry Sinclair and Los Angeles’ Edward Doheny, Hays was embroiled in it because of his position as G.O.P. national committee chair. Specifically, he had to answer questions from a Congressional investigating committee about donations of cash and stock from Sinclair, though Hays was never charged for his role.
Ironically, scandal is what took him to his role with the new motion picture organization and producers and distributors felt that Hays’ national stature, his work with the post office, and his staunch Presbyterian faith were assets, especially from a public relations perspective. There was also a major issue with several states creating boards of censorship over potentially objectionable content in films, particularly references to sex and other behaviors considered unseemly.
United Press correspondent Hugh Baillie, a University of Southern California graduate who ran the UP from 1935-1955, wrote a piece, published in the Los Angeles Record, in which the journalist asserted that
All the altruistic and uplift purposes attributed to the move may be properly endorsed, but the true story of the extremely practical plan is of an extremely practical set of big business men behind one of the biggest of America’s industries.
The masters of the moving picture business definitely expect that Will H. Hays by harmonizing the industry’s business policy will save [money] for them and therefore in effect earn them ten times his salary [reportedly a princely $150,000 a year] . . .
The explanation is in the fact that the great trouble with the moving picture business at present is duplication in sales.
Specifically, small theaters were contracting for more films than they could actually show, but only paid for those screened. In 1921, it was estimated that up to 30% of the contracted business was lost to these dormant productions, with perhaps as much as $15 million wasted. So, Baillie wrote, paying Hays the reputed $150,000 annually was a fraction of what the principals of the new association would save.
Be that as it may, there is no question that Hays sought to squelch content and themes of films that were considered too risque by him and other moralists and there was something to these concerns in terms of broad support. One reason, for example, why biblical epics became popular by the mid-to-late 1920s was to address concerns of moral turpitude, although it was certainly also more than evident that salacious stories, characters and behaviors in movies, epitomized by the wild flapper and other suggestive elements, not only were produced in large numbers but avidly watched by filmgoers.
In fact, it could be argued that Hays’ role in the industry mirrored much of what was going on in society broadly—there were, in the Roaring Twenties, simultaneous movements of strong conservatism, especially in the political world, while social aspects often were quite liberal and unconventional. For producers of movies, though, the bottom line was the bottom line and when films were box-office winners, the profits were often astounding and they walked a fine line with Hays and others who propounded the “clean film” ideal.
By mid-1927, Hays had been on the job for five years and it was telling that, in the film section of the Los Angeles Times of 11 June, an article discussed the upcoming feature by the producer and director Cecil B. DeMille to follow his massive successful Biblical epic, The King of Kings, released in mid-April. While the auteur would not discuss plot details, he stated that Jeanie McPherson, writer of The King of Kings and the earlier The Ten Commandments, was at work on something that “has to do a great deal with the youth of today, and with some of the deep-seated problems of the hour.”
The picture, 1928’s The Godless Girl was about a young female atheist, purportedly modeled after one from Hollywood High School, who had a reform school romance with a Christian boy. Importantly, DeMille told the Times “I have talked it over with Will Hays, and he thoroughly approves.” Approval, however, was not found among picture-goers and the film was a decided dud at the box office, though trying to top the commercial success of The King of Kings was going to be a major hurdle regardless. The picture was the director’s last silent film.
Despite the overly moralistic inclination of that project, on the same page as the article, are advertisements for a few of the typical films of the period, including Flesh and the Devil with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert and the prurient Is Your Daughter Safe?, which blared “Teach Girls Sex Truths!” and had hours restricted by gender, so that women only could see the picture from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, while men were admitted from 6 to 11 p.m and from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays.
As for Hays’ effectiveness in his role, he certainly had his detractors. On 9 June, the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America held its annual convention in Columbus, Ohio and there was “a spirited discussion of the merits of Will Hays’ administration as ‘movie czar.” A press agent for Broadway plays, Harry Reichenbach, led the charge against Hays and his attack reportedly “drew applause from a majority of the theater owners.”
In particular, Reichenback accused Hays of discrimination, including “private grudges against certain persons in directing the affairs of moviedom and with rendering decisions influenced by ‘the power or wealth of interested parties, rather than by justice.” Cited as an example was the adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1921 short story “Miss Thompson” and which was presented on the stage the following year as Rain.
William Fox wanted to make a film version, but, apparently, this was denied by Hays “because of its alleged immorality,” though a Gloria Swanson vehicle, released in 1928 as Sadie Thompson was allowed to proceed and it was reported that Swanson got a verbal approval from Hays. Reichenbach colorfully told the assemblage:
Hays is in the position of a preacher in front of a blind tiger—if he moves away, the place is raided.
Yet, Harry Warner of the powerful Warner Brothers empire vigorously defended who the Pittsburgh Press called “the movie dictator” as he said that Hays was “the only stabilizing influence in the motion picture industry.” Elsewhere in June 1927, Hays was embroiled in a controversy in which, after a meeting he called, major studios, beginning with Famous Players-Lasky and reportedly soon to be followed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and Paramount—this latter releasing more films than any studio at the time and which would have saved 25% of costs had the plan been enacted—were looking to trim salaries for anyone earning more than $50 a week by 10%, albeit voluntarily.
Sounding not all that unlike Elon Musk with his current controversy involving Tesla employees working at home, Jesse L. Lasky was quoted as stating, “all incompetents, persons hindering progress or costing us money, regardless of their positions and reputations, must go. The process of stabilization will bring to light the shirkers and the wasters.”
The directors of the newly created Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences met and passed a resolution called for a month-long suspension of adoption of the plan so that further discussion could be held and Hays had his western representative respond that his organization’s executive committee was looking at the Academy’s resolution before responding. While the salary reductions were implemented, they were later rescinded.
More enjoyable for Hays that month were more charitable endeavors including his participating in a fundraiser for a gymnasium at Occidental College, which was a Presbyterian institution, as well as his support of the United Jewish Appeal at B’nai B’rith Hall, for which he stated, “the cause of the Jewish sufferers [in eastern Europe] is worthy of the best efforts of all of us. The Christians of America will, I am sure, do their full duty in this regard and with sympathy and generosity to a full degree meet the demand which is on us.”
Finally, there was the diversion embodied in the highlighted object from the Museum’s holdings for this post: a press photo from International Newsreel, dated 13 June 1927, and showing the “motion picture czar” with his son, Will, Jr., as the 11-year old sat on a horse given to him by western movie star, Tom Mix, “after an impromptu rodeo staged by the Mix cowboys at the Mix Ranch,” which was located in what became the northeast San Fernando Valley community of Arleta. Nobody, however, seemed to think it was a problem for an actor to give an expensive film to the family member of the “movie dictator,” though Hays’ association with the Sinclair “gift” to the Republicans earlier in the decade led to no reprisals, either.
Hays’ work to reform the (im)moral content of films, however middling in success to that point, would soon get a major boost. Aided especially by religious organizations, most specifically Catholics, he was able to, in 1930, push forward with what was formally known as the Motion Picture Production Code, though commonly denoted as the Hays Code. Not actually enforced until 1934, the Code was actually handled by Hays’ appointee Joseph Breen, a journalist and devout Catholic as well as someone who expressed anti-Semitic sentiments when it came to the alleged moral failings of Jewish studio bosses and others in the film industry.
Hays remained in his position with what is now the Motion Picture Association until he retired in September 1945, just after the end of World War II, though he remained a paid adviser while also continuing a law practice with his brother in their hometown. When he died not quite a decade later, at age 74 in 1954, he was lauded for his twenty-three years of “cleaning up” Hollywood and it is hard to overestimate the affect he had on the film industry, especially in the Code years, which finally ended in the mid-1960s amid another period of rapid and pervasive cultural change. As for his son, young Will, Jr. wrote screenplays and a musical, taught English at Wabash College, was mayor of Crawfordsville and lived to be 84, dying in 2000.