How did Hollywood movie ratings start?

With the invention of sound in motion pictures the movies that were being created had more sexual content, crime, alcohol and drug use and was feared to be lowering the moral standards of those who saw them. From the 1920’s to 1930’s there was censorship in place, but it wasn’t strictly regulated. Many states had their own boards of censorship in place on what was allowed to be seen in their state, and the producers had to submit a different edit of each film to the different state boards. This was a very expensive process of editing and re-editing for each different market, and the cost was starting to affect the studios.

The government was getting ready to create a national board of censorship. Hollywood studios did not want to allow the government to make up the censorship rules, so in the early 1930’s, they formed the group, Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). William H. Hays, who was a Presbyterian elder and had been the postmaster general, became the president of the MPPDA and created the Motion Picture Production Code, or the "Hays Code."

The Hays Code had a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls.”

In the 1940’s, directors were starting to test the rules. In the movie Notorious (1946) director Alfred Hitchcock had stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman get around the restricted “no kiss longer than three seconds” rule by interrupting the kiss with talks of dinner, and even making a phone call while kissing.

It wasn’t until the 1953 movie The Moon is Blue that words like “pregnancy” and “virgin” were even said in a movie. By the 1960’s the code was starting to struggle. Films were being seen that were breaking the Hays Code that were financial successes. This led to the code being completely abandoned by 1968.

The MPPDA changed their name to Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and created a new rating system. This new system didn’t dictate which films audiences were allowed to see, instead it was a way to educate parents on what was going to be seen in the movie. Originally the ratngs were G for general, M for mature, R for restricted to under 17 with a parent and X for not admitted under 17. The M was later changed to PG.

In the 1980’s movies were released with a PG rating that parents felt were too graphic for their younger children. Movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) Poltergeist (1982) and Gremlins (1984) were ones that parents were having problems with. These movies were either directed or produced by Steven Spielberg and he did not want to have to change movies ratings to an R that would be too restrictive. Spielberg suggested an in-between rating and the PG-13 was created.

The X rating eventually became associated with porn, so the NC-17 was created for those movies that can’t be seen under the age of 17. The porn industry thought that the X was just not exciting enough and added a few more X’s to it creating the XXX rating.

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