It began with a kiss. To be precise, The Kiss: a brief Edison film of a man and woman cuddling, talking and eventually kissing. For two seconds. It’s a brief, silent, grainy scene of innocence, but it outraged some Americans in its day and inspired a small but determined group who continually denounced movies. The motion-picture industry learned to ignore their outrage. They became so good at ignoring them they didn’t hear a rising chorus of outrage from mainstream America.
To be fair, the motion-picture industry had a troubled childhood. It entered this world without parents: an unplanned birth of opportunity, it grew up wild, guided by little else than the need to make a buck. Oh, a few noble souls tried making an art out of motion picture. But for every D. W. Griffith who wanted to give it the legitimacy of the stage, there were scores of amateurs who relied on sex, violence, and cheesy melodrama to make their movies profitable. They could make a reliable profit with cheap humor, pointless nudity, fantastic fistfights, threadbare plots with scheming orientals, rapacious black men, conniving Jews, and brainless women: movies used every element that guided burlesque and killed vaudeville.
Public outcry grew so loud that New York City established a Review Board in 1915 to select which movies could be shown in public theaters. Other cities and states followed their example. By 1930, one third of American movie audiences were watching only the movies these boards approved or had edited.
The Review Boards made little impact on the industry. But when the press played up several scandals in the industry, it began affecting ticket sales. Suddenly Hollywood was listening. It hired Will Hays, a former bagman for the Teapot Dome gang, to write a code that defined what could and could not be shown in movies.
But as J.P. McEvoy wrote in 1938:
the Do’s and Don’ts handed down from a California mountaintop were no more effective than their illustrious predecessors, handed down from Mt. Sinai. The Do’s and Don’ts admitted of too many interpretations, and there was no final authority with punitive powers. Hays could advise, protest and threaten; but after all he was only an employee, and the boss could always get another boy. It was the League of Nations all over again; there was a policy, to be sure, but no police.” [The Back Of Me Hand To You” Dec. 24, 1938]
The Hays code had become so powerless by 1934 that MGM could release Tarzan and His Mate which showed three minutes of nude swimming by Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan. If the scene would get an “R” rating today, imagine how scandalous it must have seemed 65 years ago. (If you look up the video on the internet, be advised it is Not Safe For Work.)
That same year, the Catholic Church in America came up with something more effective than the Hays code. It formed the Legion of Decency to review motion pictures. It didn’t use the courts or police, and it didn’t appeal to movie producers. Instead it went directly, and powerfully, to the consumer by forbidding any Catholic to attend the movies they condemned.
Meetings were held, speeches made, sermons delivered, articles were printed in all the Catholic newspapers and magazines, and the campaign spontaneously taken up by the general press as huge parades were held and millions of Catholics throughout the country arose to their feet in churches on Sunday morning and solemnly repeated aloud a pledge to stay away from all places of amusement which showed indecent and in a moral motion pictures and those which glorified crime or criminals.
When the major studios saw early effects of the Legion’s code, it jumped on the bandwagon to create the Production Code Administration (PCA), which enjoyed a power over movie-making Hays could only have dreamed of. According to Stanley Frank, who wrote about film censorship in 1947,
The P.C.A., which supervises the products of most major studios from the inception of story ideas to final cutting, lays down rules governing screen treatment of crime, sex, religion and antisocial malfeasances. [Headaches of a Movie Censor, Sep. 27, 1947]
To illustrate, Frank quoted one of the directives sent from the PCA.
To: Mr. Samuel Goldwyn
Re: Dead End [1937, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by William Wyler]
Pages 4. We suggest you eliminate, where it occurs, the action of [the character named] Spit actually expectorating.
Page 32. Please omit the word “louse” from Angel’s speech.
Page 8. and several of the pages which follow we recommend you deleted the business of people stepping on cockroaches. It is our experience that such action is always offensive to motion-picture patrons.
Page 16. We would like to recommend, in passing, that you be less emphatic throughout in the photographing of this script in showing the contrast of conditions of the poor in tenements and those of the rich in apartment houses.
In 1938, the United States had censoring boards in eight states and 260 cities in addition to the Legion of Decency. But there was no national board. We were the only country besides Canada without one. Elsewhere in the world, governments were carefully censoring movies coming out of the United States, not just for our famous sex-and-violence formula, but also for political implications. With World War II just one year away, McEvoy wrote,
political censorship is growing more and more difficult, as Fascist nations censor for Communism, Communistic nations censor for Fascism, and both gang up on democracies, who, in turn, gang up on the Communists and the Fascists. You have the militarists, who censor anything savoring of antiwar, and the pacifists, who object to armament races; and in addition to the battle of ideologies, the American producer must also straddle or avoid a thousand subtle nationalistic prejudices.
Wild west pictures are rejected in Greece because they are too violent, and The Prisoner of Zenda was barred “because it ridiculed royalty.” Kissing is restricted by the Japanese, because it shocks them. Among other cuts recently ordered by Japan was a line in Seventh Heaven in which Marie says; “Well, I suppose there are all kinds of wedding nights.” According to the logical Japanese, this statement is either true or not true. Obviously it is true, so it isn’t news, and it wastes footage.
Australian bureaucracy seems to be sensitive, for Paramount News was ordered to delete the following: “Mr. White is a Government servant and has plenty of time for other things.”
Poland decided that the song “Old Man River” in Show Boat was Communistic and cut the lines about “Darkies working while the white folks play, getting no rest ‘til the judgment day,” “because of labor-class struggle which could be improperly interpreted and apt to around indignation of local public.”
Alcatraz Island was rejected by Sweden “on account moral tendency” whatever that might mean. But Estonia is my pet. When those fearless little people rejected Double Wedding, the only reason they deigned to give was “Worthless.”
Next: The Occupational Hazards of Censoring