The Letter is a 1940 film based on the 1926 W. Somerset Maugham short story of the same name. In the film Leslie Crosbie, the wife of Robert Crosbie, a rubber tree plantation owner in Malaysia, shoots and kills Geoff Hammond one night while Robert is away. She claims that she killed Hammond because he tried to “make love” to her. Everyone sympathizes with her, but she must, as a formality, go through a trial. Preparation for the trial goes well until it is learned that Hammond recently married a native woman, and that the woman has a passionate letter that was sent by Leslie to Hammond the very day of his death. Hammond’s wife agrees to hand over the letter in return for a large sum of money and does so though she humiliates Leslie while doing it. So the fact that Leslie was having an affair with Hammond never comes to light during the trial, and she is exonerated. At the end of the movie Hammond’s widow kills Leslie.
Maugham’s short story differs from the film in a number of ways. In the short story Hammond is living with a native woman, but is not married to her. And at the end of the story Leslie is found innocent and is reintegrated into society. She seems to have no regrets, and never pays a price for her crime of passion.
Admittedly, the end of the movie is much more dramatic with the widow confronting and killing her husband’s murderer, but that’s not why that ending was used. It was used because a code was in place that demanded that people who do wrong must be punished, so Leslie had to pay for her crime. It also stated that nothing on screen should tend to lower the moral standards of the audience. Therefore, Hammond had to be married to the native woman instead of merely living in sin with her.
Early films did not have to meet the strict standards that were imposed on The Letter. Many featured immorality and violence that many found offensive. Also, there were numerous scandals that tarnished the reputation of the industry. So Will Hays, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and U.S. Postmaster General, was chosen by the film industry to clean up its image. One of the most pressing problems that Hays faced was that individual states developed their own codes for what would and wouldn’t be allowed in films. Unfortunately the lack of uniformity of state codes forced the movie companies to cut or edit different scenes to meet the many codes that were in place. Then the studios had to make distribution copies of each altered film.
Some people called for a federal law to control censorship, but many were leery of getting the federal government involved. They preferred that the film industry develop a code of decency on its own. Thus The Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as The Hays Code, was developed and put in place in 1930. Though movie makers were unhappy about it, by 1934 most studios found that they had to abide by it.
The Hays Code consisted of a set of rules (often called “The Don’ts and Be Carefuls”) that stated the following:
Resolved, that those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:
- Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” “damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
- Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
- The illegal traffic in drugs;
- Any inference of sex perversion;
- White Slavery
- Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
- Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
- Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
- Children’s sex organs;
- Ridicule of the clergy;
- Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;
And be it further resolved, that special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
- The use of the flag;
- International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
- The use of firearms;
- Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
- Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
- Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
- Methods of smuggling;
- Third-degree methods;
- Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
- Sympathy for criminals;
- Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
- Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
- Branding of people or animals;
- The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
- Rape or attempted rape;
- First night scenes;
- Man and woman in bed together;
- Deliberate seduction of girls;
- The institution of marriage;
- Surgical operations;
- The use of drugs;
- Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
- Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.
Producer/Director Cecil B. DeMille tended to disregard The Hays Code. Rita Braver of Sunday Morning recently interviewed his granddaughter, Cecilia DeMille Presley, who has co-authored a book about her famous grandfather. She is particularly interesting because she went to live with her grandparents (DeMille and his wife, former actress Constance Adams) when she was only eight years old. She often traveled with him, so she can provide a portrait of him that no one else could possibly give us.
DeMille’s 1932 film The Sign of the Cross is an example of a film that was quite racy. In the Sunday Morning interview Presley discusses a conversation that DeMille had with Hays during which Hays demanded that DeMille tone down The Sign of the Cross.
The Hays Code was adhered to (though grudgingly) until the 1950s when competition from television and racy foreign films caused some studios to ignore parts of it. In 1968 The Hays Code was done away with, and the current film rating system was adopted. It put the responsibility for deciding what was and wasn’t appropriate on the individual rather than on a code authority. The history and demise of The Hays Code is described in a well-done National Public Radio (NPR) segment. It is also the subject of numerous books, articles and videos.