7 November 2019

Censoring "The Great Gatsby" (1926)

In 1922, following the public outcry against immorality in Hollywood films and the scandals involving some of Hollywood's biggest stars, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was founded. The main goal of this new trade organisation, with former Postmaster General Will Hays at the helm, was to clean up the film industry's bad image. Also, the industry was worried about the increase of city and state censorship boards, fearing that federal censorship was not far away. In order to avoid outside meddling, the MPPDA eventually set up its own censorship guidelines in 1929 -- i.e. the Motion Picture Production Code, to be rigidly enforced from mid-1934 on.

Before Hollywood started censoring its own films, state and local censorship boards decided whether films were fit for screening or not. In 1907, the city of Chicago created the first censorship board in the U.S. and other city boards soon followed. State governments also began to follow suit, with the state of Virginia being the last of seven U.S. states to create its own censorship board in 1922. Because of their different censorship rules, these boards were a major headache to Hollywood -- what was acceptable in one city/state could be unacceptable in another, meaning that studios often had to issue multiple versions of the same film (costs being paid by the studios)

The man responsible for collecting the complaints of the various censorship boards was Will Hays. It was Hays' task to contact the producers of the films involved and to inform them of the changes that needed to be made. On 15 November 1926, Hays wrote to Jesse Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (later Paramount), communicating the views of the Virginia Censor Board regarding Herbert Brenon's The Great Gatsby, the only silent film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. The Virginia Board demanded several cuts, including the elimination of certain subtitles, e.g. the suggestive "There are things between Daisy and me which you will never know".

Incidentally, it is known that Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda went to see the film but, being New Yorkers, the version they saw may have been different from the one released in Virginia. In any case, the film was not to their liking and they reportedly walked out on it, with Zelda later describing it as "rotten", "awful" and "terrible". 

The 1926 The Great Gatsby is considered a lost film, only the trailer still exists.


November 15, 1926

Mr. Jesse L. Lasky
Famous Players-Lasky Corpn.,
485 Fifth Avenue
New York City, N.Y. 

Dear Mr. Lasky:

The word from the Virginia censor board as to cuts in "The Great Gatsby" follows: 

"Eliminate close-up view of girls' legs, grouped around small table set for cocktails; eliminate close-up view of man and woman in bathing suits in suggestive postures on raft; eliminate the two close-up scenes where Jerry and Daisy are shown with skirts so blown by the wind as unduly to expose their legs. Of the several successive scenes showing man lying with his head in lap of Myrtle's sister, eliminate all but one - a four foot flash to carry the sub-title; eliminate that scene in which Myrtle's sister in quickly rising from the couch makes suggestive exposure of underwear. Eliminate scene at close of lovemaking between Myrtle and Tom Buchanan showing him lying on sofa by her. Eliminate sub-title 'There are things between Daisy and me which you will never know'; also sub-title 'Things neither of us can ever forget.' (These sub-titles are suggestive of connubial relations)" 

With kindest personal regards, I am

Sincerely yours,

signed" Will H Hays" 

Above: l-r: Lois Wilson as Daisy Buchanan, Warner Baxter as Jay Gatsby, Hale Hamilton as Tom Buchanan and Neil Hamilton as Nick Carraway in the 1926 silent The Great Gatsby. Below: First chairman of the MPPDA, Will Hays.

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