You've probably heard the expression, "They don't make them like they used to." When that comes to the movies, that figure of speech likely refers to a specific time - 1930 through 1968, to be exact. During that span, most films had to adhere to the Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code.
What was the Hays Code? It was a set of moral guidelines, thought to ensure that audiences only consumed appropriate entertainment. Old Hollywood scandals from the 1920s had painted Tinseltown and the abusive studio system as a place of crime and sin, and political pressure spurred executives to take action. Something had to be done to rein in the morally bankrupt Hollywood machine, and a Presbyterian elder named Will H. Hays seemed to offer a solution. His system of "don'ts" and "be carefuls" soon morphed into an official code. By 1930, several major studios agreed to the new set of rules.
Beyond being strict, the Hays Code was downright bizarre. Strange rules in old Hollywood outlined how men and women could interact, forbid dancing, and even limited funny portrayals of religious figures. The weirdest rules in the Hays Code read like parody, but they influenced Hollywood for years. It's both entertaining and intriguing to consider how the Hays Code changed movies.
When it came to depicting men and women in the bedroom, the Hays Code offered filmmakers two options. They could have the couple sleeping in separate twin beds, like the wholesome, sexless partners the audience supposedly clamored for. Or, they could show the couple sleeping in the same bed, with one caveat: the woman had to have one foot on the floor for the duration of the scene. Presumably, this was to reassure viewers that no racy acts were about to occur.
The Hays Code says, "White slavery shall not be treated" - though, curiously, the rule comes under the heading of "Sex." No mention is made of the enslavement of any other race.
Nudity is still heavily regulated in movies. But in the days of the Hays Code, not even a hint of bare skin could be shown. That extended to silhouettes of nude bodies, too. The Code primly noted, "Transparent or translucent materials and silhouette are frequently more suggestive than actual exposure."
Undressing was a no no as well - scenes in which a character changed outfits could only be included when "essential to the plot."
Per the Code, criminal activities that included safe-cracking were not to be glamorized under any circumstances. Why? The Hays Code authors were apparently worried about giving audiences ideas; the rule appears under a section beginning, "[Crimes against the law] shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation."