Film, Miscegenation and the Hayes Code

This is arguably more of a GQ, but since first and foremost it’s about film I’ll put it here.

The Hayes Code of 1930 forbade depictions of miscegenation in film (as well as depictions of childbirth, using religious ministers as villains, nudity, etc.). Two questions about this:

1- Does anybody know if there had been a mixed race romance in any motion picture prior to 1930? (I also wonder if the abduction of Lillian Gish in Birth of a Nation counted.)

2- Does anybody know how they got around this with the 1936 version of Show Boat? (I wonder if the fact that Helen Morgan was actually white [even though her character was biracial] was what saved it.)

Any other comments on the Hayes Code or ways around would be cool as well.


Just released on DVD is a fully restored version of Josephine Baker’s 1927 film Siren of the Tropics. The point of the film is very much about the forbidden love between the North African Baker and a white nobleman. They’re not allowed to marry, in the end, but the picture is reportedly steamy.

Not a U.S. film, nor one that could have been made in the U.S. given all the topless scenes. But you did say “any.”

There are some scholarly studies you can check into. (Found by Googling: I haven’t read them.)

Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation: Spectacular Narratives of Gender and Race, 1903-1967, by Susan Courtney

The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema, Edited by Daniel Bernardi

That latter book mentions Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona in which a white woman falls in love with an Indian nobleman, which was made into three silent movies, the first by D. W. Griffith.

However, noblemen were probably not what the Hayes Code was protecting American womenhood against.

East Indians aren’t “white?” Ethnologically they are Caucasoid.

Oh, you’re talking about that color thing, aren’t you? 'Tis a red herring, but, like you suggest, the most important color for some people is green.

• Before 1921, all states (and many cities) had their own censorship boards, leading to films being cut differently from place to place.

• In the early 1920s, after a series of scandals, former Postmaster General Will Hays was brought in to become the industry censor. He was pretty Hollywood-friendly, easy to work with and let a lot get by.

• Came the talkies, and what passed in the silents horrified people in sound. The Production Code was rewritten in 1930, at the behest of Father Daniel Lord, a Jesuit teacher.

• After several wonderfully shocking “pre-Code” films, the hard-assed Joe Breen was hired to run Hollywood’s Production Code Administration. In 1934, he created the Code that was in effect till 1968.

Where’s a good place to start with these “shockers”?

Trouble in Paradise springs to mind, but after that I’m floundering.

Film Forum, in NYC, is running a series of pre-code Paramount movies. Universal actually owns the films now. Paradise, Blonde Venus, Ladies of the Big House, Pick-Up, An American Tragedy, This is the Night and Kiss and Make-up.

True, but the “Indian nobleman” in Ramona is an Indian of the type now referred to as “Native American”. Ramona herself is half-Indian, but looks white, and is initially kept ignorant of her mixed-race background.

Hate to disagree, but at most, censorship boards existed in eight states (Maryland, New York, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Viriginia, Kansas, Massachusetts), plus numerous municipalities.

The Interracial Film Festival:

The Squaw Man (1914), The Cheat (1915), The Planter (1917), The Renaissance at Charleroi (1917), The Tenderfoot (1917), The Squaw Man (1918), Vengeance (1918), The Last of the Mohicans (1920), Toll of the Sea (1922), Oklahoma Jim (1931), The Squaw Man (1931), Daughter of the Dragon (1931), The Forty-Niners (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932), Madame Butterfly (1932), Imitation of Life (1934), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Rescue Squad (1935), Anthony Adverse (1936), The Last of the Mohicans (1936), Show Boat (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), God’s Step Children (1938), The Shanghai Gesture (1942), White Cargo (1942), Unconquered (1948), Pinky (1949), Right Cross (1950), Samson and Delilah (1950), Broken Arrow (1950), The Last Outpost (1951), The Big Sky (1952), Fort Ti (1953), Othello (1955), Untamed (1955), White Feather (1955), The Violent Men (1955), Raw Edge (1956), The Searchers (1956), The Halliday Brand (1957), Ride Out for Revenge (1957), Sayonara (1957), Island in the Sun (1957), Monkey on My Back (1957), Gun Fever (1958), Kings Go Forth (1958), Hong Kong Affair (1958), China Doll (1958), Man or Gun (1958), Imitation of Life (1959), I Passed for White (1960), Walk Like a Dragon (1960), The World of Suzie Wong (1961).

I believe the miscegenation part of the Production Code was repealed in 1947-1948. The Production Code Office apparently considered “miscegenation” to be only between white and black, not between white and Asian.

This I did not know. How on earth did Elmer Gantry get made?


Wow, great list, Walloon! I’d add at least two more – Broken Blossom (1919) and South Pacific (1958).

It was a combination of things. First, it was 1960, and the Code wasn’t being enforced so strictly. Second, the people who were most vocal about that section of the code being enforced was the Legion of Decency, and they weren’t as concerned about Protestant ministers being negatively portrayed.

In Elmer Gantry, the evangelist played by Jean Simmons is sincere and good; it’s Burt Lancaster who is duplicious. And by the end of the movie even he seems to be on the road to reform.

The Production Code Office wasn’t necessarily lenient on the negative portrayal of Protestant ministers; the occupation of José Ferrer’s lustful character in Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) was changed from minister to the lay head of a missionary council.

There are several good books on pre-Code Hollywood movies and censorship:

Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, by Mark A. Vieira.

Pre-Code Hollywood, by Thomas Doherty.

Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies, by Gregory D. Black.

Actually, I remember seeing a silent on TCM, in which all the action in the movie was being observed by a nude woman. I came in late, so I didn’t get exactly what was going on, but I think she was supposed to be the embodiment of some virtue (and all embodiments of virtue are naked, of course). She also participated in the action at the end of the film, in much the same way Genda the Good did in the poppy field in the film The Wizard of Oz.
I’m sorry I don’t remember more, but it was late and I was tired that night. Perhaps someone here better with the silent era can fill in more detail.

That would be this film, unless there’s another film like that which I’ve forgotten.

I think The Hypocrites is the film. The lovely Margaret Weber, as Truth. Interestingly, the director’s name was Lois Weber. I wonder how many films had been directed by women up to then. Thank you, GQ.

Thanks, Captain Amazing and Walloon. Thanks, too, to everyone with information about the Code. I’ve never really thought about it that much. Which is probably why the aspect that said, “No bad religious folk,” struck me as really too much.