Trouble with the Hayes Office: Cartoon edition

Classic film buffs will acknowledge, perhaps with a heavy sigh, the era of the Hayes Office in Hollywood films. The Motion Picture Production Code, in place between 1934 and 1968, was the bane of Hollywood producers hoping to push the limits of acceptability in film productions. It set forth a list of guidelines for acceptable content in films during this period, and led to a crackdown on profanity, violence, and sexual imagery. A combination of waning popularity, free speech concerns, and lack of enforcement led to the censor being replaced with the current ratings system in 1968.

Theatrical cartoons were arguably given a longer leash than live action films, as “heroes” often lost, characters would be sent to hell, and sexual innuendo abounded in animated cartoons of the era. Cartoons were affected by censorship, however. Betty Boop, one of the most popular stars of the black and white era, was often shown in sexually suggestive clothing, or even portrayed completely topless, in early cartoons. Hayes Office crusaders ensured that her dresses were a bit longer in later cartoons, something which coincided with, and possibly contributed to, her fading popularity.

Warner Bros. Cartoons, known for its “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” series, was usually the biggest target for the censors. In a 1944 cartoon entitled “Hare Ribbin’,” cartoon creators crossed the line by having Bugs Bunny shoot his antagonist dead at the end of the cartoon (this was changed to the antagonist committing suicide to appease the censors). While some moments of censorship, like the foregoing cartoon ending, might at least be considered consistent with the mandate of the Hayes Office, other restrictions were more arbitrary. In early cartoons with Tweety Bird, the character, being a baby bird, was featherless. The Hayes Office determined that this was an instance of indecent nudity, and demanded that Warner Bros. add feathers to the character in later cartoons.

Directors of the cartoons sometimes inserted jokes that were expected to be removed just to irritate the censors. In one case, however, a cartoon joke meant to troll the censors unexpectedly slipped by, and continues to be shown today in television airings. In the cartoon “An Itch in Time,” a dog bombarded by a flea begins dragging his nether regions across the carpet to stifle the itch. He then pauses, looks at the camera, and says, “You’d better cut this out, I may get to like it.” It is probably safe to say that this was one of Hollywood’s earliest, if not its earliest, reference to autoerotism.

That cartoon, attached in full, has the joke around the 7 minute mark.