Will H. Hays c.1921, from the Library of Congress
Meet William Harrison Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee, then U.S. Postmaster General, then president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945, making him one of the most influential people in American film. The MPPDA (later the Motion Picture Association of America) was formed following the criticism made of the Hollywood following such scandals as the death of the drug-addicted Wallace Reid and the lurid Fatty Arbuckle case. The industry feared the imposition of federal censorship and created the MPPDA to demonstrate that it could govern itself.
The MPPDA was therefore a trade association whose chief interest was in maintaining good relations with government, church groups, and other bodies concerned at the influence – real or imagined – that motion pictures had, particularly on the young. Its best known output was the Production Code, popularly known as the Hays code, of 1930, which set down moral guidelines for the production of motion pictures, with these three guiding principles:
- No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
- Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
- Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
The Code as not mandatory at first, but became so in 1934 (hence the ‘Pre Code’ films of the era immediatelt before 1934) and would remain in force, though progressively infringed, until 1968, when it was replaced by the MPAA ratings system.
All of this makes the operations, decisions, personnel and associates of the MPPDA of huge relevance to the study of American motion pictures, in the silent era and beyond. And so the creation of the MPPDA Digital Archive is considerable importance to our field.
This is a database, with digitised documents, of the extant records of the General Correspondence files of the MPPDA, covering the period from 1922 to 1939. The MPPA microfilmed some of its archive of documents in 1965, then threw away the originals. Researcher Richard Maltby discovered the reels in 1984 and had copies made of twelve of them. Subsequently the original microfilms were donated to the Special Collections Department of the Centre for Motion Picture Study of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, by which point some had been mislaid (covering the 1920s). So some of the reels made by Maltby are the only surviving copies, and they can be found on the MPPDA Digital Archive.
There are some 35,000 pages available. Owing to the poor quality of the microfilms, the use of optical character recognition for converting the documents into word-searchable text wasn’t possible. Instead – and thanks to assorted research grants – Maltby as fellow researchers at Flinders University, Australia (notably Ruth Vasey) have transcribed, described or otherwise annotated huge numbers of the documents, as well as having them digitised and ordered in a form that respects their original arrangement and enables reliable citation for scholars. It is a model piece of database construction.
An advertisement for Daughters of Today (1924) which caused an uproar by mentioning Leopold and Loeb (see http://mppda.flinders.edu.au/records/137)
So what will you find? You will find the essential minutiae of an industry protecting its reputation through the subtle arts of public relations. As the website puts it:
The documents in the MPPDA’s General Correspondence files are an immensely rich source of information about the history of the motion picture industry. They describe the organization and operation of the industry’s trade association, and include extensive correspondence and other documentation relating to industry policy and public relations, distributor-exhibitor relations, censorship and self-regulation. The great majority of this material is unavailable from other sources.
You will find letters, telegrams, memos, press releases, speeches, official statements, newspaper cuttings, and much more. The search apparatus is extraordinary. As well as being able to search for any term, you can search by frame reference, year, record type, keyword, organisation, film, or person. In each case a drop-down menu is provided, with the number of records held under each term, so straight away you can see that there are, for example, 75 press releases available, 13 documents on audience research, 30 records relating to United Artists, 10 documents on Battleship Potemkin, and 986 document that reference Will H. Hays himself. Some of the classification employed (i.e. for the keywords) is idiosycratic or unevenly applied (only one record keyworded under ‘sex’?), but it makes the database compulsively browsable as well as useful.
The database is open to all, but the document appear in low resolution form unless you are registered with the site (which is free). The higher resolution images come with a helpful zoom option for examining documents in closer detail. There is much background information on the MPDDA, its archives and the construction of the database, with quick links to featured records, people and organisations available on the front page for these needing a flavour of what the site contains (so, for example, the entry on Harry Warner gives you a short biography, links to organisations and links to all association records where he is mentioned). Although the archive is advertised as covering 1922-1939, there are a few documents going back to 1912.
Richard Maltby, Ruth Vasey and the Screen and Media Department of Flinders University, Australia continue to work on the database, adding new transcriptions and supporting descriptive information. It is an extraordinary achievement and a huge boon to moving image research, for the silent era and beyond.