The first act of movie censorship in the United States was an 1897 statute of the State of Maine that prohibited the exhibition of prizefight films. Maine enacted the statute to prevent the exhibition of the 1897 heavyweight championship between James J. Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons. Some other states followed Maine.
In 1915, the US Supreme Court decided the case Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio in which the court determined that motion pictures were purely commerce and not an art, and thus not covered by the First Amendment. This decision was not overturned until the Supreme Court case, Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson in 1952. Popularly referred to as the “Miracle Decision”, the ruling involved the short film “The Miracle”, part of Roberto Rossellini’s anthology film L’Amore (1948).
Between the Mutual Film and the Joseph Burstyn decisions local, state, and city censorship boards had the power to edit or ban films. City and state censorship ordinances are nearly as old as the movies themselves, and such ordinances banning the public exhibition of “immoral” films proliferated.
Public outcry over perceived immorality in Hollywood and the movies, as well as the growing number of city and state censorship boards, led the movie studios to fear that federal regulations were not far off; so they created, in 1922, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (which became the Motion Picture Association of America in 1945), an industry trade and lobby organization. The association was headed by Will H. Hays, a well-connected Republican lawyer who had previously been United States Postmaster General; and he derailed attempts to institute federal censorship over the movies.
In 1927 Hays compiled a list of subjects, culled from his experience with the various US censorship boards, which he felt Hollywood studios would be wise to avoid. He called this list “the formula” but it was popularly known as the “don’ts and be carefuls” list. In 1930, Hays created the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) to implement his censorship code, but the SRC lacked any real enforcement capability.
The advent of talking pictures in 1927 led to a perceived need for further enforcement. Martin Quigley, the publisher of a Chicago-based motion picture trade newspaper, began lobbying for a more extensive code that not only listed material that was inappropriate for the movies, but also contained a moral system that the movies could help to promote – specifically a system based on Catholic theology. He recruited Father Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest and instructor at the Catholic St. Louis University, to write such a code and on March 31, 1930 the board of directors of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association adopted it formally. This original version especially was once popularly known to as the Hays Code, but it and its later revisions are now commonly called the Production Code.
However, Depression economics and changing social mores resulted in the studios producing racier fare that the Code, lacking an aggressive enforcement body, was unable to redress. This era is known as Pre-Code Hollywood.
An amendment to the Code, adopted on June 13, 1934, established the Production Code Administration (PCA), and required all films released on or after July 1, 1934 to obtain a certificate of approval before being released. For more than thirty years following, virtually all motion pictures produced in the United States and released by major studios adhered to the code.  The Production Code was not created or enforced by federal, state, or city government. In fact, the Hollywood studios adopted the code in large part in the hopes of avoiding government censorship, preferring self-regulation to government regulation.
The enforcement of the Production Code led to the dissolution of many local censorship boards. Meanwhile, the US Customs Department prohibited the importation of the Czech film Ecstasy (1933), starring an actress soon to be known as Hedy Lamarr, an action which was upheld on appeal.
In 1934, Joseph I. Breen (1888–1965) was appointed head of the new Production Code Administration (PCA). Under Breen’s leadership of the PCA, which lasted until his retirement in 1954, enforcement of the Production Code became rigid and notorious. Breen’s power to change scripts and scenes angered many writers, directors, and Hollywood moguls. The PCA had two offices, one in Hollywood, and the other in New York City. Films approved by the New York PCA office were issued certificate numbers that began with a zero.
The first major instance of censorship under the Production Code involved the 1934 film Tarzan and His Mate, in which brief nude scenes involving a body double for actress Maureen O’Sullivan were edited out of the master negative of the film. Another famous case of enforcement involved the 1943 western The Outlaw, produced by Howard Hughes. The Outlaw was denied a certificate of approval and kept out of theaters for years because the film’s advertising focused particular attention on Jane Russell’s breasts. Hughes eventually persuaded Breen that the breasts did not violate the code and the film could be shown.
Some films produced outside the mainstream studio system during this time did flout the conventions of the code, such as Child Bride (1938), which featured a nude scene involving 12-year-old actress Shirley Mills. Even cartoon sex symbol Betty Boop had to change from being a flapper, and began to wear an old-fashioned housewife skirt.
In 1952, in the case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overruled its 1915 decision and held that motion pictures were entitled to First Amendment protection, so that the New York State Board of Regents could not ban “The Miracle”, a short film that was one half of L’Amore (1948), an anthology film directed by Roberto Rossellini. Film distributor Joseph Burstyn released the film in the U.S. in 1950, and the case became known as the “Miracle Decision” due to its connection to Rossellini’s film. That in turn reduced the threat of government regulation that justified the Production Code, and the PCA’s powers over the Hollywood industry were greatly reduced.
At the forefront of challenges to the code was director Otto Preminger, whose films violated the code repeatedly in the 1950s. His 1953 film The Moon is Blue, about a young woman who tries to play two suitors off against each other by claiming that she plans to keep her virginity until marriage, was the first film to use the words “virgin”, “seduce” and “mistress”, and it was released without a certificate of approval. He later made The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), which portrayed the prohibited subject of drug abuse, and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) which dealt with rape. Preminger’s films were direct assaults on the authority of the Production Code and, since they were successful, hastened its abandonment.
In 1954, Joseph Breen retired and Geoffrey Shurlock was appointed as his successor. Variety noted “a decided tendency towards a broader, more casual approach” in the enforcement of the code.
Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) were also released without a certificate of approval due to their themes and became box office hits, and as a result further weakened the authority of the code.