Of Black Centaurettes, Twin Towers, and Political
Correctness: The Question of Censorship.

By Alexandre Paquin, December 20, 2001.

In 1978, the legendary queen of the double entendre, Mae West, 85 years old at the time, appeared in what would turn out to be her final film, "Sextette", based on one of her plays. The result, in spite of being uneasy, and even extremely embarrassing, included numerous celebrities in supporting roles -- 32-year-old Timothy Dalton (cast as her latest husband), George Hamilton, Ringo Starr, Dom de Luise, Walter Pidgeon, George Raft, and Tony Curtis. And even though West's fans would undoubtedly have preferred that the film never was made, its success, either critically or commercially (it failed in both categories), was ultimately not the primary objective. "Sextette" represented, more than anything else, the actress's belated victory over the censors who had destroyed her film career.

West had first become famous in the 1920's thanks to the controversy surrounding the stage plays which she wrote and starred in, and which all broke taboos related to sex. Faced with increasing censorship in the production of her plays, West became interested in making films. Before the advent of sound in motion pictures in 1927, Mae West, a specialist of the innuendo, would not have been a hot commodity in Hollywood, but by 1930, sound had become widespread throughout the industry, and West's commercial potential was such that in 1932, she was promptly put under contract at $5,000 a week by the rapidly sinking Paramount Publix Corporation, where she first played a secondary but memorable role in "Night After Night" (1932), which established her screen personality. Paramount soon gave her starring roles in "She Done Him Wrong" (1933), based on West's play Diamond Lil, and "I'm No Angel" (1933), for which West wrote the screenplay. The two films proved to be unprecedented successes, and are often credited with saving Paramount from bankruptcy.

Mae West, among her dozens of famous one-liners, is credited as having said "I believe in censorship. After all, I made a fortune out of it." While it is undoubtedly controversy which had made her famous, it was, ultimately, the same controversy which would hamper her film career. Her third starring film, "Belle of the Nineties", was the first to be heavily censored, and the result was that the film was tamer than her previous vehicles, although there was enough piquancy left in it to create opposition to the film.

The story of censorship in films goes back to the 1900's, when cinema was still an infant industry. With the realization that "moving pictures" would not be a fad came the awareness that films could have a negative impact on audiences, hence the necessity to censor what was being offered to the public. However, the task of censoring films was in the hands of local and state censorship boards. The lack of a unified board of censorship posed a problem to the film industry, as all boards would have different criteria before approving a film, which led to additional costs to the industry in applying for approval and the constant worry that the film may be banned in the largest money-making states or cities. On the other hand, the industry was well aware that controversial subjects -- crime and sexuality -- had more appeal for audiences than more conventional topics, and it would mark the first time that the industry would attempt to comply with the censors while trying to get as much material past them.

By the early 1920's, the film industry had begun to move its studios to the more appropriate climate of the West Coast, although most of these studios' corporate offices remained in New York for financial purposes. This led to a concentrated film community in Hollywood, and with it, news about the "decadent" behaviour of some of its members began appearing in the press. The main scandal of the early 1920's was the Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle trial. Arbuckle, who was at the time the second most popular comedian after Chaplin, was accused of the murder of a young starlet, whom he had allegedly raped. This dirty tale of sex and murder was a popular theme in the press, which was quick to condemn Arbuckle in advance, and even though the comedian would eventually be acquitted after three trials, the film industry's reputation was tarnished to such an extent that the movie moguls of the day agreed to create the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America MPPDA), which would be administrated from New York by the former Postmaster General in President Harding's cabinet, Will H. Hays. The MPPDA had as its mandate to defend the interests of the industry and improve its reputation in the eyes of the American public. To improve relations between studios and the MPPDA, and after the failure of the "Formula", an earlier attempt at self-censorship which relied on the studios' cooperation by submitting any literary source which a studio wanted to film to the Hays Office for approval before going into production, Hays established the Studio Relations Committee, a branch of the MPPDA in California, with Jason Joy as its head. With concerns over the content of film still being raised by the guardians of American virtue and morality, Joy would begin to issue a series of guidelines (usually referred to as the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls") which film producers were encouraged -- but by no means obligated -- to follow in order to make pictures which would meet with less opposition. However, since sex and other material of a disreputable nature were box office winners, producers were reluctant to conform with the guidelines set forth by the MPPDA, but at least the industry could give the excuse to the press and the government that it was trying to regulate itself.

The widespread advent of sound made matters worse, because it opened up an entirely new area where what was commonly referred to as "good taste" could be assaulted. The vulgar language used in a number of productions raised concerns, and sound effects -- gun shots and screams, for example -- increased the impact of what may have already been considered visually questionable in the silent era. Criticism returned, and in 1930, the Catholic publisher of the Motion Picture Herald, Martin Quigley, asked a St. Louis Jesuit priest, Father Daniel Lord, to write a new set of guidelines, which would afterwards be submitted to the MPPDA. With the Catholic origins of the new guidelines carefully hidden (anti-Catholic forces of the day would have hampered their implementation), Hays supported the new document, which became known as the Motion Picture Production Code, according to which, the Studio Relations Committee had to be kept informed of the development of a film, from the choice of story to the final cut of the picture. A code covering the advertising of motion pictures was simultaneously adopted.

However, while the Code became the official document by which films would be judged, the head of the Studio Relations Committee, Jason Joy, was not unilaterally applying the rules, mostly because he was unable to do so. He understood that a difference had to be made between serious, intelligent and artistic films and the deliberately provocative pictures which used controversy to make extra money at the box office -- this latter category existed because, in spite of the claims of the censors and other citizens demanding more orality in films, the average movie-going person liked to see sex and violence on the screen. Joy also understood, in the economic context of the Depression, that to allow the studios to release pictures with sex and violence would ensure their financial survival. The application of the Code, moreover, was ultimately left to the good will of the studios, Joy and the MPPDA lacking the leverage necessary to enforce it extensively. Box office prospects, as it turned out, was the only criterion which the industry respected, and in the case of disagreement, the studio could appeal any unfavourable decision in front of a "Hollywood Jury" made up of studio producers, who were, needless to say, sympathetic to the appellant, expecting to be returned the favour someday. Joy, eventually getting tired of the constant fights with producers, left the Studio Relations Committee to join Fox as a story consultant in late 1932, and was replaced by New York censor James Wingate.

While Wingate would also try to enforce the Code, he was plagued by the same problems as his predecessor, and would sit powerless while Mae West was filling the screen with her presence. America was now at its lowest point in the Depression, and the screen seemed to offer only sex and violence as entertainment. The Studio Relations Committee was still powerless because of its lack of impact on the box office, but the situation would change with the mobilization of the Catholic Church, encouraged by a small group of prominent Catholics which included Quigley, Father Lord, and one Joseph I. Breen, who was at the time in charge of public relations in Hollywood for the MPPDA.

In early 1934, with the Mae West film "Belle of the Nineties" already in production, the American Catholic leadership announced the creation of the Legion of Decency, which would encourage the production of moral films and promptly condemn any film with an immoral message. The Catholic population was encouraged to pledge allegiance to the Legion and respect its judgements on any film, and in spite of the denominational divide, some conservative members of other religions also found themselves agreeing with the Legion, therefore increasing the organization's power. A widespread Catholic ban on any condemned film could -- or could not -- be enough to sink it, but in the middle of the Depression, it was not a gamble that the studios could afford to make, particularly since a number of the studios' Wall Street financial backers were Catholic, and could refuse to lend money to a studio not conforming to the Code. Furthermore, opposition from the Catholic Church would undermine the control of the MPPDA over the industry and would leave the door wide open for state or federal censorship -- a prospect made more credible with the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House, whose "New Deal" policies demonstrated his will to allow government intervention in the economy, and the fact that Hays was a staunch Republican made matters worse. Hays nevertheless managed to convince Washington that Hollywood could regulate itself, but this claim would require a major change in the administration of the Code.

By late 1933, Wingate had proved to be a most inefficient censor, and there was no indication that Wingate would be the ideal person to enforce the Production Code. Wingate had already met with growing criticism from the Catholic leadership, and Breen's Catholic connections began putting pressure on Hays to replace Wingate with Breen. In December 1933, Breen was finally given Wingate's post at the head of what would become the Production Code Administration (PCA), and would begin to establish his authority during the next six months. By July 1, 1934, Breen's influence was such that no film which did not bear the oval-shaped seal of approval of the Production Code Administration could be released in the United States, and the necessity of PCA approval was applied retroactively to films released before mid-1934 in the event of a re-release. Breen, while consolidating his power, also took the opportunity to abolish the often hostile Hollywood Jury as an appeal mechanism. The only appeal that could now be made was directly to Hays and the board of the MPPDA in New York.

With the mounting pressure on the industry to release moral films, the Code could now be hailed as a bulwark against condemnation, lower box office revenues, and possible new censorship laws which would be detrimental to the industry. Nevertheless, the studios did not entirely abandon any hope of making a film on controversial topics, nor did PCA approval guarantee that the picture would not be additionally censored by local boards, or avoid condemnation by the Legion of Decency. The Production Code, however, forbade nearly every controversial topic from films made during the period. The general principles of the Code clearly explained its purpose:

"1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation."

In practice, this meant that sex, either implied (Mae West's rather inoffensive double entendres) or explicitly presented, was forbidden, as were extramarital relationships, miscegenation, and white slavery. Criminals and other villains could not be sympathetic to audiences, their lifestyles could not be appealing in any way (which meant in practice that the villain had to lose), and the modus operandi of criminals, in order to avoid imitation or attractiveness, could not be shown in detail. For similar reasons, it was eventually forbidden for law enforcement officers to die at the hands of criminals in any film. The traffic of drugs on the screen could not be treated, the use of alcohol could only be justified by plot necessities or proper characterizations, and there were specific clauses forbidding the unsympathetic portrayal of institutions, whether governmental, judicial, economic, or religious. As a result, profanity and blasphemy, but also lesser vulgar words, were forbidden.

Getting a Code-compliant picture released was a rigid and bureaucratic process, albeit one made necessary by the prospect of paying a hefty fine of $25,000 in the case of any violation of the Code (an agreement made by all the studios with the MPPDA), not to mention box office losses due to potential boycott by the Legion of Decency. While it was unlikely that the highly cumbersome and overly moralistic document would survive even a few years of restrictive interpretation and application, the Second World War and the politically conservative climate of the 1950's gave the Code a longer life than it would normally have had. Nevertheless, World War II changed the public's tastes, and the pre-war films made under the Code seemed too innocent, naive, and stilted, for audiences who had live through a lengthy and bloody international conflict, and it is precisely this change in the public's mores, and a few landmark cases, which would eventually ring the death knell of the Production Code.

The first film to openly challenge the Production Code was independent producer Howard Hughes's "The Outlaw". The film was completed in 1941, but was not released until 1943, due to the difficulty of obtaining the PCA's seal. "The Outlaw", listed as being directed by Hughes himself (after the original director, Howard Hawks, had left after a disagreement with the producer), made a star of newcomer Jane Russell, and was a typically routine Western film, which however highly irritated censors because of the themes of the picture (adultery, and the possibility that Billy the Kid may get away with his crimes), and mostly because of the camera's conspicuous focus on Russell's bosom. With a few cuts, the film finally obtained PCA approval, but when it was first released, the response from critics and audiences alike -- that the film was unintentionally funny -- prompted Hughes to pull the film from circulation. Hughes, however, rereleased the film in 1946 after an aggressive publicity campaign which emphasized the two large reasons why Jane Russell was a star. However, this time, his emphasis on sex in the publicity violated the advertising code, and the PCA removed its seal from the film. Hughes, however, went ahead with the rerelease and sued the Motion Picture Association of America (to which the MPPDA had changed its name in 1945, following Hays's retirement), claiming that the MPAA discriminated against independent producers, and that the PCA violated the First Amendment of the American Constitution. The judge who listened to the case rejected Hughes's claims, because as the producer was not a member of the MPAA, he was under no obligation to submit his film to the PCA. Hughes had done so voluntarily, and therefore had accepted to submit his film to the regulations of the Code. The judge furthermore saw Hughes as a profiteer who had sued the MPAA only as a publicity stunt. "The Outlaw" was an unquestionably exploitative film devoid of any artistic merit, was condemned by the Legion of Decency, and was censored in a number of states, but it proved a box office hit wherever it was released. With a few more cuts, Hughes finally secured a seal of approval in late 1949 for yet another rerelease in 1950, which also proved successful.

Less than a decade later, however, films would become protected under the First Amendment as the result of another lawsuit. In 1952, the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of a lawsuit launched by an independent distributor who had seen one of its imported films, Italian director's Roberto Rossellini's "The Miracle" ("Il Miracolo") (which dealt with a pregnant woman believing to be the Virgin Mary), banned by the New York Board of Regents because of the pressure from the Legion of Decency, stated that films could be defined as works of art (overturning an earlier decision reached in the 1910's, which had stated that films were a business product, and therefore could be regulated), and thus could be protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. As the Production Code Administration of the MPAA was apparently not directly concerned by the ruling, to Breen, still firmly at the helm, this meant business as usual. The studios, also feeling unconcerned by one independent distributor's lonely crusade against the censors, continued to accept the strict guidelines of the Code.

In 1953, however, renowned director-turned-independent producer Otto Preminger released through United Artists the film version of a F. Hugh Herbert play, "The Moon is Blue", without the seal of approval from the PCA. The film dealt with a love triangle, by no means a controversial situation in films, but it was its language, which included such words as "virgin", "pregnant", and "mistress", that led to the ban. The Legion of Decency had, incredibly enough, not condemned the film at first, although it did afterwards for the principle of supporting the Production Code. Nevertheless, the film was widely released, and was a box office hit. When the PCA also refused to give a seal to Preminger's 1956 production, "The Man With the Golden Arm" (on drug addiction -- this one was not condemned by the Legion), United Artists left the MPAA altogether.

Joseph I. Breen, the driving force behind the Production Code for two decades, retired in 1954, and his successor, Geoffrey Shurlock, had to deal with the growing criticism from film-makers and audiences regarding the Code. In 1956, the Production Code was partially rewritten to allow, when "treated within the careful limits of good taste", such previously banned topics as drug addiction, prostitution and childbirth. The only forbidden elements left were nudity, venereal diseases, and sexual perversion. However, in spite of the liberalization of the Code, it must have been obvious to any insider that the principles of the Code were quickly becoming obsolete in a more permissive society.

With the advent of major social changes in the 1960's, the remaining barriers set up by the Production Code gradually fell, with such films as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up" filling the screen with vulgar words for the former, and nudity and objectionable themes for the latter. But mostly responsible for the ultimate fall of the Code was the decline of the old studio system (due in part to a 1948 ruling which forced the separation of the studios from their theatre chains, the end of the studio star roster system, and the advent of television), which deprived the MPAA of its most faithful allies. While the majors branched off into television and other activities or were taken over by other companies, independent producers became the leaders of the industry, and these independents -- not unlike Hughes and Preminger -- had a peculiar dislike of any attempt at regulation, whether by the government or by the industry itself. The development of international cinema also made it increasingly difficult to restrict what American audiences could see on the screen, and even the major Hollywood studios now found the Code too cumbersome to maintain. The Legion of Decency's purpose changed to an advisory role, and changed its name to the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, and eventually became the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting.

The appointment of an advisor to president Lyndon B. Johnson, Jack Valenti, as the head of the MPAA in 1966 (the third president after Hays and his successor, Eric Johnston) would lead to a series of major changes. About the existing Production Code, Valenti claimed that "there was about this stern, forbidding catalogue of "Dos and Don'ts" the odious smell of censorship. I determined to junk it at the first opportune moment." Valenti soon announced the creation of a new Production Code which would "keep in closer harmony with the mores, the culture, the moral sense and the expectation of our society", and which would allow the PCA to introduce an unofficial and simplistic classification system. Nevertheless, the new Code, albeit liberal, was perhaps even more subjective in interpretation than its predecessor, and in any case would be short-lived. Following two Supreme Court rulings in early 1968, which decreed that material not obscene for adults could be obscene for children, and that film classification schemes aiming at the protection of children could be constitutional if they were clearly defined, Valenti concluded that the only way for the MPAA to play any relevant role in the future was to introduce film ratings. The MPAA, in late 1968, introduced four categories: G (general audience), M (adults and mature young people), R (only accessible to persons over 16 or younger people accompanied by an adult), and X (just as naughty as it seems -- people over 16 only). These have remained relatively unchanged to this day, even though a few categories were changed (M became GP, and later PG; X became NC-17; reasons for a R rating started in 1990) and added (PG-13) over the years. And still today, in typical MPAA fashion, the relative success of the ratings system and its popularity in mainstream circles, therefore proving the triumph of the film industry's self-regulation measures, have prompted Valenti to declare that ratings had proved the uselessness of government censorship.

But have they?

To avoid the claim that the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings system is a discreet form of censorship, the organization, also to avoid being classified as a trust, constantly points out that the ratings are an entirely voluntary measure, and that film-makers are by no means coerced to submit their films for review. Yet very little appears to have changed since the days of the Code, and there was in fact some continuity in the administration. The Production Code Administration became the Code and Rating Administration, and after 1977, the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA). Even though the old Production Code was increasingly criticized for being too rigid, it enjoyed a relatively long life because of the Legion of Decency and the studios' adherence to it, until drastic changes in American mores told its death knell. Today, the movie ratings have enjoyed a similarly long existence because of the American parents' approval of the system, and, again, because of the major studios' support. But the ratings system, when juxtaposed to the film industry's use of demographics in the analysis of box office prospects, leads to some expected results: just as with the Code, the industry, while accepting the ratings system as a bulwark against possible censorship, tries to get around it as much as possible. With the knowledge that the most regular movie-goers are teenagers and people in their early twenties, everything is done to bring down the rating of a film as much as possible. A NC-17 is undoubtedly the worst possible rating, because it will not only prohibit anyone under 17 from viewing the film, but it will also make older patrons who may not appreciate offensive contents on the screen stay away from it. Bringing down a rating from NC-17 to R is a sound business decision, due to the bad reputation associated with the former classification. And it is not unusual for a studio to try to bring a R-rated film down to PG-13 after making a few changes.

Critics of the ratings system have used various arguments regarding why the classification system is a failure. First, there is the rather arbitrary nature of ratings themselves, which they consider to be little more than catch-all categories inconsistently used (for example, "Natural Born Killers" and "Shakespeare in Love" were both rated R, while "Gone With the Wind", when re-released in 1971, was rated G). But mostly, their complaints revolve around the fact that, except in the case of obvious violations of US criminal law on such questions as child pornography, there was no censorship of films done by the MPAA ever since the rating system was implemented. Controversial films with content of a questionable nature which may never have been exhibited under the Code or any other form of censorship were merely being relegated to R or NC-17 status, and were basically available to anyone who met the categories' age requirements and was willing to see it. The lack of censorship is, in their opinion, the major flaw of the system, regardless of the fact that the "Miracle" decision in 1952 had protected films under the First Amendment. After all, most other countries have classification systems but have maintained censorship powers. The venerable British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), which changed its name to British Board of Film Classification in 1984, established a film classification system as early as 1912, and had written down strict rules about unsuitable topics in films in 1916, which were not unlike the Code but even more conservative regarding authority, particularly political institutions. The BBFC has continued to censor films ever since, and has been routinely rejecting films until the mid-1980's (it has rejected one in 2000). It is undoubtedly this approach which would satisfy critics of the ratings system.

In spite of the increasing public outcry about the violence in films and on television, it has become almost impossible to successfully justify even the slightest amount of censorship, because the public still prefers industry self-regulation through ratings to government intervention, and considers that censorship unacceptably limits the American people's possibility to judge for themselves whether the material in question is indeed offensive. Furthermore, the supporters of censorship have often proved to belong to the most conservative strata of society, or to radical wings of religious movements (not unlike the old Legion of Decency). Left in their hands, censorship would be pushed to an exaggerated limit, and the prohibited topics would extend to the expected sex scenes and moments of violence, but also to Harry Potter's "witchcraft" and "subliminal" messages in Disney cartoons. The majority of the American public is wary about these groups and those that belong to them, and rightly so, but the overall impact is that censorship, which could be a perfectly acceptable tool if carefully kept in check, is unjustly dismissed as infringing on the liberties of the American people.

The Production Code undoubtedly has a great deal to do with the population's present opposition to censorship, yet the Code was not entirely inappropriate when it was drafted in 1930. It is difficult to argue that the Code, with its emphasis on morality, was not created out of good intentions. In spite of the Catholic origins of the Code, it received support from other religious denominations, and ultimately, even when the Code was in decline, from the industry itself. The real problem with it lies in Breen's stern interpretation and application during his twenty years at the helm of the Production Code Administration. Under his tenure, the Code was applied to the letter, without consideration for the context of the offensive situation or the artistic value of the picture as a whole. While Breen's decision to withdraw the seal of approval from such a picture as "The Outlaw", given the Howard Hughes's attitude at the time, was entirely justified, his opposition to "The Moon is Blue", or his refusal to allow a reissue of the 1930 classic "The Blue Angel", are not. Even Jason Joy, in charge of the Code's application in 1930, had recognized the artistic importance and the serious tone of "The Blue Angel", and had allowed it to be screened as it was (although local boards of censorship made cuts afterwards).

It is undeniably Breen who firmly established the Code in Hollywood, and although one can wonder what films would have looked like without the Code in place during that period, it is perhaps no coincidence that the late 1930's are often regarded as the second "Golden Age" of cinema. The Code forced film producers to find alternatives to the ever-useful but unimaginative solutions of sex and violence to attract patrons. Even though the stern application of the Code effectively meant the end of highly violent gangster films such as "Scarface", "The Public Enemy", and "Little Caesar", it must be borne in mind that countless other gangster films modelled on these three but of absolutely no artistic value were released with the intent of shocking audiences for entirely commercial purposes. When the genre resurfaced under the Breen administration in such films with a social message as "Dead End" (1937) and "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938), it had completely reinvented itself. And even though Mae West's film career, based on her inoffensive sexy double entendres, was destroyed by the Code, the screen had been filled with completely worthless films which used even more sex to sell tickets. While sex virtually disappeared from screens after 1934, it was generally replaced by a worthier genre, the romantic comedy.

There is the widespread belief that the kind of picture best representative of the spirit of the Production Code is a Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musical -- that is, naive, melodramatic, overly innocent, stilted, filled with unambiguous characters and Platonic relationships, and of course entirely risible today except for amateurs of this old-fashioned style. Yet a number of films made under the Code still rank among the best ever made, according to various lists of the best films, perhaps because of the studio system, but also perhaps because of the Code itself. The American Film Institute's list of the 100 best American films includes six films made under the zenith of the Production Code (1934-1956) in the top ten, and two more made between 1956 and 1968. While the AFI's lists are often controversial, at least one of the six films made between 1934 and 1956 ("Citizen Kane", "Casablanca", "Gone With the Wind", "The Wizard of Oz", "On the Waterfront", and "Singin' in the Rain") is found in virtually every best American movies list written by film critics. 

While it is true that the Code' unvariably moralistic stance was overwhelmingly restrictive, Breen's interpretation of the Code, although severe, rarely went beyond the borders of the document, and proved invaluable to the industry. While the use of the word "damn" in "Gone With the Wind" was indeed a major concession from Breen, which is now impossible to assess because of the even more vulgar language audiences expect to find in films, it must be remembered that without the Code, the word "nigger" would also have been in the 1939 classic, as it was Breen who insisted that the word should be left out. Would "Gone With the Wind" be a classic now if this pejorative and offensive word had crept in the final script? Perhaps, because "Gone With the Wind" is still regarded as a classic in spite of its stereotypical portrayal of African Americans, but one would undoubtedly feel even more uneasy watching it.

Essentially, the Production Code was a tool to promote political correctness, as defined by 1930's standards. It avoided issues that were controversial at the time, for instance eliminating the lesbianism from the film version of the Lillian Hellman play "The Children's Hour" (made into a film as "These Three"). But there is perhaps no better example of the extent of the political correctness of the Code, and of the irony of it all, than the 1951 film adaptation of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical "Show Boat". The theme of miscegenation is essential to the story, and although it was constantly played down in the film, the relationship between Julie Laverne (played by Ava Gardner) and Steve Baker (Robert Sterling) was kept in, but Lena Horne, a black performer, could not play the role of Julie because the Code banned on-screen interracial relationships -- even though that is supposed to be the purpose of the story! From this perspective, it is easy to understand the commotion that the release of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" in 1967 created.

The Production Code may have died, but political correctness did not. While films became more daring and controversial in the years following the demise of the Code, political correctness has been maintained in films for commercial reasons, until public mores made it clear that it could be discarded without negative consequences. Political correctness is still a concept in which the film industry wraps itself when the necessity arises, but which is sent flying by the window just as quickly, and this demonstrates, more than anything else, the hypocrisy of the film industry, which is by no means a new phenomenon. In fact, this hypocrisy has been lurking behind the Code during its existence. Under the all-powerful studio system, the publicity departments had to find every way to increase the reputation of the stars under contract, which meant rewriting their past if necessary, or trying, as it happened in several instances, to plead with authorities to hush up a scandal. The studios, after all, could not afford to have stars with tarnished private lives.

Even this era, however, had reporters trying to find skeletons in Hollywood's closets in the persons of rival gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, and it was not long before studios went to Louella and Hedda to do some damage control. Today, the situation is not quite different, although Louella and Hedda were replaced by tabloids so notorious that their names need no mention. The problem, however, is that now the viewer is drowned with information, making it more difficult to cut the line between biased and unbiased reporting on films. While the majority of the American people can (hopefully) see behind the all-too-neat image of stars and the industry in general at that annual mutual back-scratching and back-stabbing ceremony known as the Academy Awards, can they make a distinction between the rest of the information provided to them about the stars and the films in which they appear? Knowing that there is still an important part of the population which believes that infomercials are an accurate and objective source of information, it is not too hard to imagine the same people believing that a half-hour television featurette on a film about to be released is all you need to watch before deciding whether to see the film or not.

It is predictable, however, that not much about the film will be negative in it.

But this is only one of the most obvious instances of biased information. Others are more subtle, and more difficult to expose. Do we really expect to find unbiased information on "Entertainment Tonight", when it is made by Viacom, the same company that owns Paramount? And certainly when Paramount is planning a large production, they do not want to see an actor turning down a part only because he was not pleased with his treatment on "Entertainment Tonight". The problem with the structure of the conglomerates of today is that a major film studio is usually only one of several other enterprises to be part of it, and while in the "good old days", it was clear that Louis B. Mayer, Darryl F. Zanuck, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Harry Cohn, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, and the four Warners were the undisputed heads of their studios, nowadays the conglomerates are administrated by faceless executives accountable to an equally faceless mob of stockholders, and the studio head is no longer God Almighty in his realm, but yet another faceless executive sitting on an ejectable seat. And the ramifications of these conglomerates are equally obscure, making it difficult to know if the media reporting on movies are not in a situation of conflict of interest. Even a medium not belonging to any of these conglomerates covering films and stars will find a lot of doors closed if it covers them in a negative light.

What remains is movie critics, whose purpose is not to look at the glamour surrounding a film or listen to the absurdities a star is told by the studio, or by his or her agent, to say, but to review the film itself. But of course, the studios thought about those pesky little critics, and try to control that front with publicity junkets and press releases. And as an extra incentive, who wouldn't resist having a blurb in a film's advertising? And of course, you won't get that opportunity if you write that "it is the worst film of the decade". Nevertheless, there are critics who have more integrity (the late Pauline Kael, controversial but honest, comes to mind), and tell things as they think they are, not according to what the studios want to hear. The question, though, is, who's listening? Critics like to remind people what Hollywood is all about, but what value does a "snooty critic" have against Jennifer Lopez and Angelina Jolie? The people do not want to be told the truth about Hollywood. They want to be entertained, they want to forget about their miserable lives for a few hours. They do not want to think, but just to be amused until they drop dead of the floor.

A case at hand is Twentieth Century Fox's "Behind Enemy Lines", which obtained one of the highest results of test screenings that Fox has obtained in its history. At this level, this would make "Behind Enemy Lines" rank somewhere alongside "The Sound of Music", except for one thing: People still enjoy "The Sound of Music" after more than thirty years; "Behind Enemy Lines" will be forgotten in five. Most critics hated it. What the results of the test screenings point out, however, is that America will take anything, and hail it as its best, if it comes wrapped in a flag -- and this, regardless of the intrinsic quality of the product, or, more often, as in this case, lack thereof. This film was released earlier than planned to take advantage of the pro-American attitude following the terrorist attacks of September 11, and there is, in these troubled times, nothing that the American population likes more than to see the US military kick some enemy butt. The American government is of course trying to encourage Hollywood to release more patriotic films, but Washington needs not worry: if there's a buck to be made -- and there is -- Hollywood will release patriotic films, with or without Washington's encouragement, and the majority of them will be mediocre. And in the following years, the American population will see more anti-Arab films than in the days of the oil crises or even the Gulf war. But is there room for a thoughtful film on the dramatic impact of war at home, or on the soldiers themselves in the manner of "All Quiet on the Western Front"? Certainly not, not because the government is opposed to it, but because the hoi polloi would not pay to see it.

The most common, and perhaps the best, argument against censorship is the claim that regulation would lead to routine productions rather than intelligent and thought-provoking films. This was undoubtedly true during the Production Code era, because several films which intended to deal with thought-provoking subjects had to challenge the Code as the result of their position. However, even without the Code, thought-provoking films are a scarcity, not because film-makers are restrained from making them as the result of regulation, but because such films are not justifiable from a commercial viewpoint. When a film with a novel approach is popular with audiences, with a hint that it could be used again with success, it will spawn countless imitations until the genre loses in popularity, and even then, a few more productions will be made until the genre is dead and beyond revival. 

This brings us back to the political correctness issue, and its intermittent use by Hollywood. There is perhaps no better example of this than the mindless teenage flicks which have been released in the last years and which can be divided in three categories: (pseudo-) horror, (pseudo-) romance, and (pseudo-) humour, plus a few (again pseudo-) adventure films. Not only do these films follow the usual predictable lines, but any attempt at distinguished humour is left aside. Interestingly enough, on the issue of political correctness, these films are mixed bags. We have Martin Lawrence and Marlon Wayans providing the usual Black stereotypes which should have disappeared long ago. All these films feature men that are stupid and obsessed with sex (except for the protagonist), girls which are either overly sweet or bitches (a throwback to the days of "Archie"), "parents" that rhyme with "tyrants", a defiant look at authority, and some of the most offensive fat and homosexual jokes ever seen on the screen. On the other hand, we always get the bland boy-meets-girl-next-door plot with a mischievous rival. Everyone is rich, perfectly dressed, and pretty. Nobody has personal problems deeper than the inconsequential and nobody ever commits suicide (the last such suicide in a film was, in this writer's memory, "Dead Poets Society", but it cannot really be considered a teenage flick -- it was more of a piece of nostalgia for parents). And after Hollywood's favourite stallion Freddie Prinze, Jr., has been declared "fit to breed" with Jessica Biel (or any other partner), everything is merry forever in Eugenicsville.

The scary thing is, some people watching -- and presumably enjoying -- these films will be tomorrow's elite. And these films, as well as television, undeniably do have an impact on society, and the consequences range from the lack of political correctness of the youth of today to the Columbine high school massacre. The old Production Code application of its purpose that "no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it" would now be rightly seen by most as irrevocably outdated, but the principle in itself, while being overly restrictive, does have a noble intent at its core, but one which the film industry of today regularly discards whenever justified by monetary reasons. 

In the United States, censorship isn't called censorship, it's called the right to do business, and if "censorship" still endures today, it comes from commercial, rather than moral, considerations. If villains still lose in today's films, it is not because film-makers are forbidden to let them win by fear of encouraging criminal behaviour, but because audiences like to see the villain lose. A winning villain would make them feel bad, which is precisely what the industry wants to avoid. This is precisely for this reason that the World Trade Center towers were digitally erased from films released shortly after the September 11 tragedy. This time, political correctness thankfully won. However, will this lead to a major "reworking" of older films in which we see glances of the two towers in a New York panoramic scene because they bring back the sad reality of life to moviegoers who look for escapism? While the Woody Allen films may be safe from this self-censorship because of their reputation and prestige, all the lesser-known films may be subjected to this politically correct approach. And while no film in which the action is located in the World Trade Center, except at the moment of the tragedy itself (in spite of the bad taste of the latter idea, just expect this one to show up) will ever be shot in the future, will filmmakers doing a film taking place in New York in the 1980's be discouraged from either digitally adding the towers, which were there at the time, to a panoramic shot of New York, or from using stock footage? The forthcoming "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" DVD proves the extent of the new "politically correct" climate on certain issues, as it will include a reworked version of the film in which a reference to terrorism has been removed.

Censorship applied retroactively to past films is not a phenomenon that was born while irony allegedly died on September 11. Breen, after all, had been applying the Code to films made before 1934, with little regard for artistic value or the integrity of the picture. Such a temptation to go back and modify old films has been present ever since, but the post-Production Code era of retroactive political correctness is best exemplified by the Walt Disney Company. Because Disney's works, particularly their animated features, are expected to be seen by children, the company has deemed it best to re-edit some of its older films to make them suitable for kids. One of the best-known examples of Disney's self-censorship (and the one which enrages film purists the most) is 1940's "Fantasia", which was censored, including the version advertised as "original" and "uncut", because of the presence of black stereotypes (the "Black Centaurettes") in the "Pastoral Symphony" segment. Similar concerns about the portrayal of African Americans explain why 1946's "Song of the South" was not released in the United States after 1986. Were the stereotypes in "Fantasia" offensive? Difficult to know, because only one frame of the original, uncensored footage is available on the Internet, but from it, this writer's answer would be, "yes", since it depicts a Black centaurette as a shoeshiner. However, the historical importance of the uncensored footage, which gives us a glimpse of the social prejudice of the time, cannot be denied, and "Fantasia" should be released in an uncensored format. However, since Disney has the rights on the film, it can do whatever it wants with it. While indeed the missing footage from "Fantasia" could have been considered inappropriate for children, one is left wondering whether the Walt Disney Company's primary concern in this case, as in several others, is children, or its own reputation.

There is something particularly disturbing about the urge to censor the past to make it fit the present, as this reminds one of tactics employed in the Soviet Union under Stalin, Nazi Germany, or, more recently, Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Yet, it was to be expected in a commercial system. What the audience can take is OK, what it cannot must be avoided. The 1968 Mel Brooks film "The Producers" includes a gem of political incorrectness with "Springtime for Hitler", a deliberately sympathetic portrayal of the Führer, who at the time must still have been a touchy subject. If one decided to make an updated version of it with "Springtime for Bin Laden", it would create a public outcry. That's the vox populi, and be certain that Hollywood is listening very carefully.

What hope is there for serious content in films? Very little if we look at Hollywood alone. There can be no talk about "quality" if we look at ninety-five percent of the films released, and we cannot talk about "talent" when, ever since Elvis, supermodels and singers without really any acting talent -- Justin Chambers, Estella Warren, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears -- take precendence over stage actors who do not have the advantage of being known before entering movies. There is no innovation or self-reform to be expected from Hollywood. Then, what about the independents, or foreign films? Often lacking the budget of a Hollywood production, these films rely on situations requiring cheap special effects, or none at all. The well-known screenwriter William Goldman wrote that, in his opinion, most independent films are pretentious and boring, and he may be right. Whether Goldman, a Hollywood screenwriter whose output varies from excellent to atrocious, believes that the boredom factor is a direct consequence of the small budget is unclear, but the pretentiousness he denounces in independent cinema is an impression that virtually any outsider has of the milieu, mostly because independent filmmakers appear to be divided in two groups: the Hollywood hopefuls, and those who want to remain outside of the mainstream. The hopefuls would do anything to get in Hollywood, while the others would do anything not to, which leads to the most unusual results.

Independent cinema may be financially rewarding. The legendary king of the cheap horror film, Roger Corman, made a fortune out of it. But what film critics like to regard as truly "independent" cinema is not the means of production, the source of funding, and other company or budget concerns, but the nature of the film itself, which means a serious film that does not look Hollywoodish. "The Blair Witch Project" was a dirt cheap film which made millions, and which spawned two unnecessary sequels, and would not be considered as an "independent" film -- just a cheap film that was lucky enough to make it big.

The problem with "independent" films is that, to show their distinctiveness from Hollywood, their makers have to move beyond acceptable limits because Hollywood has increasingly been pushing them back over the years. While "The Moon is Blue" in 1953 only had to include the words "virgin" and "mistress" to show its revolutionary character, today's film-makers, having been exposed to such a commercial yet violent film as "Natural Born Killers", allegedly a denunciation of sensationalism, which was in fact sensationalistic itself, and the half-commercial product of David Cronenberg, had to bring it to the next level.

This brings us to French filmmaker Catherine Breillat's "Fat Girl" (original title: "À ma soeur!"). While by no means Breillat's only controversial film, this one had the distinction of being banned in the Canadian province of Ontario by the Ontario Film Review Board (OFRB). "Fat Girl" tells the story of one teenage girl who starts experimenting with sex while being forced to drag her younger sister around, all of it shown explicitly and violently on the screen. The OFRB had demanded that fifteen minutes of the film be edited out, which the distributor of the film refused to do. The OFRB then promptly banned the film in November 2001, judging it "offensive to community standards", mostly because of the teenage nudity. In spite of an appeal by the distributor, the OFRB maintained its earlier decision. Of course, prominent Canadian film-makers such as Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg immediately raised their voices against the Ontario Film Review Board's decision. But their intervention has as much credibility as the testimony of a few ninety-year-old Nazi war criminals coming to the rescue of the reputation of der Führer, because they are only defending their own interests in doing so. The British Board of Film Classification, in contrast, asked for the advice of a Queen's Counsel regarding whether "Fat Girl" violated the Protection of Children Act of 1978, and finally approved the film uncut based of the QC's belief that the film was not "indecent". Breillat has been controversial before, and is getting used to having her films censored. There was a debate in Australia regarding one of her previous films, the reportedly even more repulsive "Romance" (1999), which was first banned by Australia's classification board, the Office of Film and Literature Classification, but then given a "restricted" rating due to public outcry following the rejection of the film, an attitude explainable more as a response to the increasing conservatism of Australian institutions than as actual support for the film or its message.

Critics have been divided over "Fat Girl", some calling it important, others, deliberately and unnecessarily repellent. Few, however, went as far as to make the argument that is at the core of the debate: that such a film should never have been made in the first place. Not because it is downbeat -- Ingmar Bergman's films are not exactly merry, but contain moral dilemmas which are treated with care and discretion, and are important in the history of cinema -- but because it transgresses the basic rules of common decency, and this is an area in which censorship should be exercised regardless of the context. The fact that the audience is not watching the sex scenes live does not justify why an action which would lead to prosecution if performed in public or on the stage should be allowed on the screen. But it is easy to see why how such a film has gathered its share of supporters, starting with the critics who wrote about the movie in a positive way.

The US Supreme Court's "Miracle" decision of 1952 proved to be the beginning of the idea that films were, indeed, works of art. Such a concept was strongly emphasized with the coining of the "auteur" theory by aspiring French film-makers in the 1950's and 1960's, which basically stated that film was an art form and a means of expression used by the director of the film. And even though the "auteur" theory still creates controversy today, it has left an indelible mark on film theory. The problem with this, however, is that it has transformed censorship, a perfectly acceptable tool if used with discernment and moderation, into an abominable breach of the freedom of expression of the "auteur".

The problems with the "auteur" theory are often mentioned as ignoring the contribution of anyone but the director, which led directly to the identification of any film with its director -- even for non-"auteurs". When this writer watches "The Lion in Winter" and "Network", however, he immediately thinks about screenwriters James Goldman and Paddy Chayefsky, not directors Anthony Harvey and Sidney Lumet, and how cannot one shiver when hearing about "Victor Fleming's "Gone With the Wind""? Film theory is probably the worst addition to film criticism (because of the constant desire to review all films according to one theoretical framework), and film school graduates are only too eager to demonstrate that they know better than the rest of the movie-going public on it. Anyone with a minimum of interest in film can spot plot discrepancies and bad acting in a film and write a review of it without even discussing the underlying artistic movements or the director's famed signature shot. Film theorists try to bring it to the next level, to discuss ideas, artistic movements, and concepts, which are not entirely inappropriate to film criticism if carefully dosed. However, once the emphasis is on the perceived social message of the director, and that more practical matters, for instance the editing, the cinematography, the art direction, the music, or even the actors' performances, are completely ignored, that the question of whether the film can be enjoyed by the average movie-going person is overlooked, and that the surprise ending of the movie is revealed just for the sake of making a point, there begins the feeling that the author is writing for the select few rather than for the general public. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as the author does not attempt to give the impression of writing a film review.  There are countless writers who spend most of their day looking for hidden messages and psychological meanings, doing as much name-dropping as they can ("the concept was first used by so-and-so"), using concepts that nobody can really define unless they are looking the words up in the dictionary (only to get some vague impression of what the author means), and making their writings useless unless one has already seen the film, which is exactly at the opposite of the purpose of a review. The problem with all those elitists out there is that nobody really cares whether the film is based on "a predominant Leviathan-esque concern in favour of the supremacy of a single central authority" -- unless one reviews a film on the life of Thomas Hobbes.

This pompous intellectual talk, however, had the consequence of reinforcing the belief that films convey a meaning (and therefore should be protected as free expression), and of making any serious film appear completely inaccessible to the average film-going person without a degree from a film school. Although we may disagree about Roger Ebert's thumb constantly pointing upwards, no one can deny that his reviews are both easily accessible and (generally) erudite. If you are looking for references to Freud and Ferdinand de Saussure, though, one is advised to look elsewhere. But the "snooty critic" accusation remains because of certain critics who scorn any kind of popular entertainment in favour of higher levels of film-making, and their contribution to cinema has been to make censorship virtually impossible to enforce due to freedom of expression concerns.

Censorship, under the Production Code, has proved restrictive to film-makers who wanted to bring forth questions of vital interest. Many, but not all, of these controversial films that resulted from the clashes between the Production Code Administration and the producers are now considered as classics from the period, and once public mores began to change, there was no reason to maintain the archaic Code. Nevertheless, the considerable absence of censorship in the United States has led to unacceptable consequences, for instance the constant pushing back of the limits of good taste by Hollywood, and the release of blatantly offensive films such as "Natural Born Killers" and "Fat Girl". However, censorship is not a solution for the lack of intelligent pictures coming out of Hollywood, as it would only lead to the production of more mindless and conventional films. Furthermore, the present promoters of censorship would apply it to a larger extent than most people would consider appropriate. Censorship, under the present conditions, should be a left open as a possibility, but used wisely and only against blatantly offensive material.

However, it must be borne in mind that even under the Code, films released without the seal of approval from the PCA proved phenomenally successful, thus proving the claim that no self-censorship can be effective if it opposes what the public demands. As well, censorship by a government body cannot be effective, even when right, if the vox populi demands otherwise. With the development of the Internet, the success of potential censorship is further diminished, although the extent of this remains to be seen. The real debate of the early twenty-first century is whether it is possible, in an unregulated and commercial domain, to produce quality films that will make a profit, without having to sacrifice the former to increase the latter. And at this level, censorship has no role to play, because the nature of censorship is not to foster the creation of intellectual content, but to limit exposure to inappropriate material (and it remains relevant in this role). The Code tried to promote moralistic pictures, and eventually failed because the public had tired of them. Another concern is the extent of corporate self-censorship, in the name of such a concept as political correctness, which is however quickly discarded as soon as the occasion arises.

The ideal, albeit Utopian, solution to the future of film-making is not to coerce the movie-going public into watching only what is thought-provoking and reasonable, but to provide them with the arguments why they should, and let them judge for themselves. As history has demonstrated, only changes in public tastes will bring changes to film-making.

Copyright © 2001, by Alexandre Paquin.
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Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Goldman, William. Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade, New York: Vintage Books, 2001 {2000}.

Leff, Leonard J. and Jerold L. Simmons. The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001 {1990}.

INTERNET SOURCES: (Links will not be kept up-to-date.)

The Motion Picture Production Code:
There are several other websites reproducing an integral version of the Code, but this one is the most complete.

American Film Institute:

British Board of Film Classification:
Of particular interest are the history of the Board and the rating statistics.

Office of Film and Literature Classification (Australia):

Information on "Fat Girl": 

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting: http://www.nccbuscc.org/movies/index.htm

Motion Picture Association of America:
Of particular interest is the Jack Valenti article "How it all began" and others under the "movie ratings" heading.

Classification and Rating Administration of the MPAA:
http://www.filmratings.com/ or http://www.cara.org/

Ontario Film Review Board: 

Additional Information on the Code:

The Censoring of "Fantasia": 

Additional Information on Australian Censorship:
Not impartial, but accurate as far as this writer can tell.

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