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The MPA Rating System began its life in 1934 as the Motion Picture Production Code. This self-censoring venture was undertaken by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to avoid the passage of state-level censorship threatening to create a nightmarish web of regulatory approvals. The Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that motion pictures were not protected as free speech & a number of states had since set out to censor films. So rather than recut each film to satisfy each state's regulations, the industry hired Presbyterian elder & former head of the Republican National Committee Will H. Hays to rehabilitate its image & define the first content code.
This single, authoritative code demanded that all films released be found acceptable in even the most conservative states, & Hays' conservative & religious background would inform a list of rules that would ensure that all movies would please even the most uptight politicians. He sought to "eliminate vulgarity & suggestiveness" & to "emphasize good taste," ushering in an era of unprecedented censorship that reflected a national mood: the shift from the excess of the roaring '20s to the puritanism of the conservative '50s. Not only were sexuality & violence outlawed, but so were affronts to religion. A relatively benign line from 1931 like Dr. Frankenstein's "Now I know what it feels like to be God!," for example, would have qualified as "pointed profanity" after 1934, as comparing oneself to God ran afoul of the code.
Enforcement of the code would wain as censorship fell out of fashion in the '60s & it would be replaced outright in 1968 with the MPAA Rating System. This new system--which introduced the G, M, R, & X ratings--gave directors leeway to release more explicit films to restricted audiences. Directors quickly took full advantage, & the X-rated Midnight Cowboy won an Academy Award for best picture the year after the rating system was introduced. But the X-rating soon became associated with pornography, & X-rated films quickly became commercially unviable. For this reason, filmmakers sought to edit out more controversial content in order to receive an R-rating.
To detach the X-rating from pornography, it was renamed NC-17 in 1990. But the stigma stuck & filmmakers continued to edit out content to avoid commercial failure. Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses, for instance, had to cut a full 15% of its runtime in order to qualify for an R-rated theatrical release in 2003.
The complicated legacy of the R-rating endures today, at once a symbol of late '60s cultural liberation, attached to many of the most adventurous films of the post-studio era, & also an artifact of the unavoidable compromises demanded by the marriage artistic & commercial interests. It may not be the perfect rating, but it will be forever associated with many of the best, most lurid & horrifying movies ever captured on film.