The Plight of the Censor

In 1946, Howard Hughes released a tawdry little western called “The Outlaw.” The movie nominally concerned “Billy the Kid” but was primarily a exhibit for Jane Russell’s scantily covered breasts.

The Production Code Authority demanded the film be cut before its release. In retaliation, Hughes staged a campaign of faked protest, with fictional letters to the media demanding the film be permanently banned. Well, Americans can only stand so much of that sort of talk. The public was soon demanding to see this “controversial” work. When it was finally released to a grateful nation, it proved extremely profitable.

When studio owners realized that censorship was hurting their business, the PCA began losing its control over the industry. Now it would be up to the state and municipal review boards to control what was seen in the nation’s movie houses.

Mrs. Helen Tingley was working for one of those review boards in 1947. Employed by the state of Maryland to approve motion pictures for the state, she watched an average of eight movie a day.

She was not a religious fanatic, or a prude, as Stanley Frank discovered when he interviewed her for Headaches of a Movie Censor. Instead, she appeared to be a woman of sound judgment and a good sense of the outrageous.

Frank joined her in the viewing room to watch some of the latest movies being reviewed. The final feature of the day, he reported, had been an embarrassingly brainless romance.

“Under the law,” Mrs. Tingley said, “we can reject pictures that are sacrilegious, obscene, indecent, immoral or inhuman. Too bad we can’t bar [the last film] for inhumanity . . . to the audience.”

“I’d like to scream after a whole day of B pictures,” Mrs. Tingley confessed, “and I frequently do. Since taking this job I’ve become nearsighted and I get raging headaches, but I’m crazy about it. I’ve never done anything that’s more fun. Maybe this proves I’m cracking up, but if the Governor didn’t reappoint me, I’d pay the state to let me stay on as a censor.”

She loved the work. And yet she was opposed, in principle, to all censorship, and she despised “the professional bigots who sponsor it to undermine personal liberties.”

“I like to justify my position by thinking it serves the same purpose as the cop on the corner. He and I patrol our beats to prevent offenses against society.

The ultimate argument for censorship stresses the need for protecting children from the screen’s harmful influences. Mrs. Tingley believes the whole thing is a false alarm. “Every expert I’ve consulted tells me violence and horror presented dramatically have very little effect on children.”

“Hollywood is always bleating that it’s persecuted by bluenoses who want to stifle freedom of expression. If the producers listened to the criticism of thoughtful people, maybe they wouldn’t be under the constant threat of censorship. This business of knocking out cheap, sordid pictures that make crime and sex attractive, then tagging on a sappy, happy moral in the last hundred feet to conform to the code, is a trick that doesn’t fool anyone.

“Although I dislike the sound of the phrase, I think there ought to be a ceiling on sin—that is, a limitation on the quantity of it presented. One gangster picture doesn’t cause a crime wave, but the repetitive effect is bad when they come in cycles, as they always do.”

If she was working today, she’d have made an excellent film reviewer. She had already learned not to make the mistake of many reviewers: endlessly watching movies in isolation.

“It’s necessary to see movies where they are meant to be shown—in theaters, where public opinion can be gauged. After all, the public decides what is offensive and acceptable. I think anyone who sees a great many pictures is apt to have a more tolerant attitude toward morals than the occasional movie-goer. This has nothing to do with personal standards or private prejudices. It’s simply a case of sitting through so many stinkers that when a picture comes along with a fresh idea expressed imaginatively, you’re so grateful that you have a tendency to pass a questionable scene just because it’s done well. If there is tittering and giggling in a theater, I know a slip has been made. Sure, it’s happened loads of times.”

While she scorned the men who passed sleazy sex films among the cheap theaters in Baltimore, she saved her real outrage for the major studios that still employed any cheap convention that would make a buck.

“I came to the censor job with no axes to grind,” she confides, “but I’ve got a dandy one now I’d like to bury in Hollywood’s skull. I think its treatment of psychiatric themes is disgraceful. The movies have created the impression that all mental patients are violent nuts with homicidal tendencies… The movies should show the dramatic struggle made by patients to restore themselves to society. I suppose that wouldn’t dish out enough horror to fatten the box office though.”

“The headaches of a censor’s life,” she grouses, “are not inconsistencies or tricky interpretations of policy. Endless cliché and corny situations are what get you down. I’m going to throw something the next time a lovers’ quarrel winds up with an oaf, male or female, saying, “If that’s the way you want it—“ I’m fed up with juvenile stars, particularly when cast as band leaders, with old guys and dames trying to act cute, and with crazy scientists who make apes out of men, or vice versa. I get ill when I see actresses who try to look like cocker spaniels — you know, the Lauren Bacall and Lizabeth Scott hairdo — and tough males like John Garfield throwing their sex around.”

There are compensations, however, for the exquisite boredom Mrs. Tingley suffers in performance of her duty. She knows how to halt an elephant stampeded. (“Just yell, ‘No cookie,’ It always works for Tarzan.”)

She can tell instantly whether a picture had been made on a lavish or limited budget if the action calls for someone to fall down a flight of stairs. (Stunt men get $150 for taking a dry dive on stone and only $75 for the same job on wood.) She knows an actress is on the down grade when she is tricked out in a negligee that was worn in another picture.

“One nice thing about this job,” Mrs. Tingley says wistfully, “is that it makes you an incurable optimist. You’re always hoping tomorrow will bring a British film, or even an American movie with a new idea.”

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