Have you ever thought about what it takes for a film to get an R rating over a PG-13 rating? Who decides movie ratings? And what do they even mean? The history of movie ratings goes back to the medium's infancy. Movie ratings have always been controversial, but when they first appeared, the censorship boards hoped to limit viewership of films deemed unwholesome. Initially, movies were judged on whether or not they were morally objectionable, but as time went on, the idea of morality slowly vanished.
If you've wondered about how movie ratings have changed throughout the years - prompting filmmakers to make more PG-13 movies and twisted film adaptations - this rating board history lesson will provide the answers.
In The Late 1800s, State Censorship Boards Tried To Ban A Boxing Film
In 1897, James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons competed in a boxing match in Carson City, NV. At the time, Nevada was one of the few US states where boxing was legal, but thanks to Enoch Rector, fans around the country could watch the fight in local movie theaters. Two months after the match, Rector began touring The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight around 10 cities for a year.
Seven different states passed a law that fined anyone who showed the film - which showcased a sport that was illegal in many places at the time - but authorities did not yet enforce the new rule.
The Hays Code Attempted To Streamline Hollywood Morals
In the late 1920s, former Postmaster General Will Hays helped create the original version of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) as a way to enact a moral code for films to follow. Hollywood studios were fine with making sure their films adhered to Hays's rules, as long as it meant their movies played across the country as they were intended to be seen.
In 1927, Hays introduced his 36-point code, "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," which the studios had to observe. Hays insisted that films should neither "lower the moral standards of those who see it," nor feature subjects considered racy or deviant at the time, including lustful kissing and interracial marriage.
Studios Ignored The Morality Codes For As Long As They Could
While Will Hays endeavored to enforce the morality code in Hollywood, the studios weren't paying him any mind. From around 1930 to 1934, studios merely paid lip service to Hays and his code.
However, according to Thomas Doherty, professor of American studies at Brandeis University, when President Franklin Roosevelt enacted the New Deal in 1933, studios became uneasy about the creation of a federal censorship board.
Doherty writes in his book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934:
When the New Deal in Washington insinuated the probability of federal censorship, and a reformist educational group called the Motion Picture Research Council published a series of reports linking bad behavior to bad movies, the studios found themselves fighting a three-front war against [the] church, state, and social science.
The Initial Rating System Was Strict
Prior to the rating system familiar to modern audiences, there was a whole other set of draconian ratings. Working in tandem with the National Legion of Decency, an organization led by the Catholic Church, the MPAA came up with easy-to-remember ratings: A, B, and C.
If a film had an A rating, it was considered morally sound and suitable for all ages. An example of a movie rated B: the original 1947 Miracle on 34th Street was "morally objectionable in part" due to a character having had a divorce. Lastly, a C rating meant it was condemned outright. However, by the late '60s, not many paid attention to the National Legion of Decency.