The furor that has been triggered by THE INTERVIEW has caused me to write a post concerning censorship in Hollywood. This is not a new subject to this blog in regards to a wonderful if not very detailed book that I was reading called HOLLYWOOD CENSORED by Gregory D. Black. Censorship goes on today – even if it does seem that it doesn’t, considering the amount of questionable moments in today’s films. What censorship in film does is to create a two edge weapon; which in itself is dangerous not only to quality of film but also to the sheer quantity of pictures produced.
Film has been censored since it first began as a kinescope show for a nickel. There has always been some group or groups of people in society that wished to control the message, the images, and the depiction of what was acceptable. This is not a history of censorship. That can easily be found from other sources.
I have included below some of the key points that were subject to scrutiny during the Golden years of Hollywood.
Resolved, that those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:
Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” “damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
The illegal traffic in drugs;
Any inference of sex perversion;
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
Children’s sex organs;
Ridicule of the clergy;
Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;
And be it further resolved, that special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
The use of the flag;
International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
The use of firearms;
Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
Methods of smuggling;
Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
Sympathy for criminals;
Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
Branding of people or animals;
The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
Rape or attempted rape;
Man and woman in bed together;
Deliberate seduction of girls;
The institution of marriage;
The use of drugs;
Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy”.
Some of these examples still stand today as not being acceptable in film and rightly so, even if some films push the boundaries. The large studios, in spite of their power to control lives, manipulate the newspapers, and in some cases even obscure criminal facts from public eyes, knuckled under to the code controllers by editing their pictures accordingly. Many of the studios held previews in little known theatres and edited films or re-shot whole endings or added new sequences on the strength of printed reactions from the public. The famous MGM train that housed Irving Thalberg, Louis B Mayer and others comes to mind as they shifted through the audience reaction. If it was a good preview, it was a wonderful trip back, if poor then there was tension both creatively and figuratively.
The reason the studios capitulated was that they simply could not alienate a group of people such as the Catholic population. The Churches has tremendous power, lead by THE CATHOLIC LEGION OF DECENCY. When you were told not to go to a particular film, you did not go. This brought about the slow demise of such people as Mae West plus it also made what are now called Pre-code film for the 1920s to 1934 all the more interesting to watch today. The studios could not afford to offend people of other countries in their depictions as the European market was a huge moneymaker. Many of the studio moguls were also originally from Europe or Canada and felt an obligation to their roots. Hollywood’s treatment of my country Canada during the Golden Age is in question as we seem to be dominated by frozen lakes, thick forests, Frenchmen named Gaston, red uniformed, lantern jawed mounted policeman in the person of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. The late Canadian author Pierre Burton covered the movies perceptions of Canada in HOLLYWOOD’S CANADA quite well.
Today, the impact of censorship as dulled as we seem to think it is our right to see what the studios think we should see both on film and television. The censored film THE INTERVIEW has to be released; not for merit of a message but because the studio must recoup its investment. The danger today with the various media delivery systems that we have to homes, phones etc. can make something like that into a “must” see for people. Audiences will want to see it simply because it is forbidden by a segment of our planet, and this can make for a cult film.
I have not seen the picture nor do I have the desire as this style of film does not appeal to me. It baffles me that THE INTERVIEW is even made, given the press it has received, is going to make money in its secret underground releases when so many other projects are not done. Our adoration process today can overshadow flaws in making something marginal into something that it is not. I also do not see why we make film that offends a section of the population. Mind you, we still do it with persons with disabilities, women, minorities, religions in the media yet we do not criticize them well, with respect for their traditions. We have lost the ability to produce satire or humor in the media without pushing buttons, causing fear, animosity and cruelty to those we aim our salvo. If we are clever in our approach to a story it is perceived as being ‘highbrow,’ where film for some is but entertainment. The offended groups often protest in media without effect and film as an industry continues to take liberties with them. We continue to do what film has done on many levels and that is to appeal to the lowest person in society because it’s about money. The original moguls knew that right from Hollywood’s beginning.
The real shame is film which is a world media is wonderful for telling stories with that comes a certain amount of responsibility. It can criticize, illuminate parts of the human condition and our world in ways we have not thought of or used. The real danger today is that we elevate so rapidly what we like or perceive that we should like, to heights undreamed. I cannot help but wonder if it is deserved. Word of mouth, perceptions of the public are massive force in film just think of the fate of THE LONE RANGER (2013). The controversy for THE INTERVIEW will continue on and on in the media that fosters notoriety. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Caveat emptor.