Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive
100+ Years of Censored, Banned, and Controversial Films
The surrealist school of writing uses several games to encourage writers to break out of their conventional ways of thinking. Film scholar Robert Ray advocates several surrealist-derived games as impetuses for developing original, nontraditional critiques of the cinema. I have used one of his suggested games, the ABC method of organization, to examine a book on film history, Obscene, Indecent, Immoral, and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned, and Controversial Films, in order to get to the heart of the material as efficiently as possible and include discussions that may not have been able to find a place within a traditional review structure.
An early proponent of censorship, Aristotle “advocated restricting the use of ‘improper language’ in the theater” according to author Stephen Tropiano. He points out that as long as there have been movies, there have been people seeking to regulate what can and cannot be shown and, in fact, this trend long predates the cinema. However, Tropiano argues that no one medium (until television) has come under such intense scrutiny. There must be some perceived power held by motion pictures that is conspicuously absent from either the still image or the live drama. Somehow, if cinema is deserving of such scrutiny by censors, close-ups and third meanings created via editing must hold a special ability to corrupt like no other artistic technique can.
The advent of sound in cinema only increased a film’s potential to offend. Curiously, not all offensive sounds were necessarily words. The Bronx Cheer, also known as the “razzberry”, was forbidden from use in film by the 1939 Amendment to the Motion Picture Production Code. It goes to show just how arbitrary the process of deeming certain groups of sounds to be offensive really is (particularly as it has no linguistic meaning whatsoever). Tropiano offers a brief history of the sound, the people who were offended by it, and films that were censored accordingly.
Censorship and Controversy
These are the issues that the book focuses on, not the films themselves. Though the book is grounded in examples from specific films, the main issues are not the instances of offensive material within a given film but the ensuing controversies and attempts to censor it.
A short section is devoted to documentary filmmaking, which can be particularly offensive and/or disillusioning due to the sense of “reality” and objectivity implied by the genre and style of filmmaking. It is not solely content, but also style and technique that have historically offended censorship groups and, as Tropiano refers to them, “opponents of the cinema” in general.
The “Catholic Church’s 35-year reign of terror had at last come to an end” says Tropiano of the success of Rosemary’s Baby in spite of the Catholic Church’s condemnation of the film. This cleared the way for The Exorcist. The film was spared the dreaded “X” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), but carried with it a special provision that no one under 17 would be admitted. Attempts to ban the film failed, leading an anti-obscenity law in the state of Mississippi to be declared unconstitutional in the process.
Fit to Fight
Though made for the educational purpose of teaching enlisted soldiers in the US military about the dangers of venereal disease, this film was later released to the general public as Fit to Win and promptly banned in the state of New York—a ban that the courts upheld. Effectively, the US government censored a film produced by the US government on grounds of “immorality”, illustrating one of the many dilemmas of censorship: who defines morality, when, and in what context.
Great Hollywood Scandals
“The Great Hollywood Scandals of 1922” is the title of a section exploring the historical events that led the Hollywood film industry to “self-regulate” its output. The line between regulation and censorship is a fine one: Tropiano asserts that the two are synonymous.
The focus of the book is on how films have been received by audiences in America. While exhibitions in other countries, films produced in other countries, and American independent films are mentioned, the book is primarily concerned with Hollywood films and attempts to censor films in America.
Groups such as Il Progresso Italo-Americano called for gangster films to be banned (or at least alter their content). From the beginning, gangster films made the negative portrayal of Italian-American characters a convention of the genre. Though the group’s grievances are understandable, they also serve to illustrate that any organization can become an advocate for censorship of at least one particular aspect of a particular type of film. By that logic, removing any material that is deemed offensive to a certain group would leave virtually nothing.
A figure who is, on film at least, highly likely to provoke controversy. The portrayal of Christ in film, even a fairly wholesome one, seems bound to offend someone, as showing any one aspect of his life as opposed to another is bound to give it a certain emphasis. Christians who don’t feel such an aspect should be emphasized (for example, Christ’s death as portrayed in The Passion of the Christ) may deem it blasphemous and react accordingly.
Ku Klux Klan
Members of this white supremacist group are painted as the heroes of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The film is blatantly racist and historically inaccurate, yet received the praise of sitting US President Woodrow Wilson when it was released. To make matters worse (and/or more bizarre), Griffith saw his film as a documentary and awaited the day when movies would replace books as the primary way to learn about history.
The painting of the Klansmen as heroes in the film is particularly problematic for the reason that many people, including Tropiano, have dubbed the film “a cinematic masterpiece” and see it as having a great deal of artistic merit. It is also historically significant as the first feature film ever made. While it may have led the cinema into the realm of legitimate, respectable art, it also may have led to increases in membership of the Klan. “Artistic merit” and “obscenity”, while relative terms to begin with, are clearly not mutually exclusive concepts.
Legion of Decency
This arm of the Catholic Church was the primary censorship group/ratings board in America for decades. Most of the controversial films discussed in the book were controversial because this organization said so.
The Motion Picture Association of America is Hollywood’s system for rating films without (in theory) directly censoring them. Tropiano explores how the MPAA privileges mainstream studio productions and big-budget films as well as certain types of offensive material.
The topic of the fifth chapter, the display of nudity and sexuality in a film will often earn a more restrictive rating with the aforementioned MPAA. Tropiano explores this apparent moral judgment by the ratings board through several examples.
“It is a legal term defined as ‘disgusting to the senses’” that is “often sexual in nature”. The author contrasts it with the definitions of “profanity” and “vulgarity” at the beginning of the chapter on “bad language”. He traces the use of all three from the silent cinema through the present.
While most of the controversies in the book revolve around conservative religious groups, at least one film has been protested by the Adult Film Association of America. This group of porn stars and filmmakers were upset at a certain film’s “X” rating primarily for violent content despite the pornographic connotation the “X” had taken on.
This book is a quintessential work for any readers interested in studying issues of censorship in film (and I’m not just saying that because I needed a “q”). It is written in such a way that the casual movie-goer is given enough background to understand the issues and in enough detail that even the most seasoned cinephile is likely to find new and interesting information.
Though the book deserves to be read in its entirety, the structure allows it to be taken in short, not necessarily linear chunks for readers who may be more interested in the anecdotal trivia given about a particular film rather than the entire historical context surrounding a certain issue. The appendices feature a collection of primary source articles related to the history of film censorship. This book is an invaluable resource to film students of any level.
In the ‘60s, it was acceptable to show scenes of rape, but showing nudity in those scenes was over the line. Tropiano explores this conundrum through the example of The Pawnbroker.
In the preface, Tropiano tells readers that his book will examine the “strategies opponents of the cinema have been using since audiences first laid eyes on ‘moving pictures’”. These “strategies” include “self-generated hysteria”, “Gestapo-like tactics”, and “morality-based legal maneuverings”. This passage assumes that groups who seek to regulate or censor films are inherently “opponents of the cinema” as a whole and that the strategies they have employed in attempts to regulate the industry are worth studying in terms of their underlying motivations as well as their ultimate degree of effectiveness.
Tonda Lynn Ansley
Ansley was found not guilty by reason of insanity for an alleged killing thanks to the “Matrix insanity defense”. In a series of cases, including this one, defendants believed they were part of the film The Matrix. This attests not only to the potential power of the cinema, but suggests that courts may see a direct causal relationship between movies, an individual’s thought pattern, and his or her actions.
During the silent cinema era, “uplifters” were citizens without groups who were self-appointed moral guardians for society. They attempted to have films they deemed offensive shut down. Tropiano tracks the evolution of their mentality through the more centralized regulatory boards that soon followed.
Violence on the screen and real-world violence have often been linked, usually on the level of specific event to specific scene. In spite of apparent copycat crimes, violence in film has been given a relatively high degree of leniency by most American ratings boards and censors.
World War II
For the first time in the 1940s, films about an actual war were produced and released while said war was taking place. The immediate relevance of such films, perhaps combined with the need to convey an “emotional truth” on par with the documentary-style reality of newsreels, led to some individual exceptions and loosening of restrictions being made for language and violence in war-themed films.
The MPAA’s most restrictive rating was later changed to “NC-17” to rid itself of pornographic connotations.
The group that most advocates of censorship have claimed is put at risk by viewing certain films. When groups have been able to ban a film outright, the second step tends to be attempting to keep younger audiences from seeing it Coincidentally (or not), younger audiences tend to be the most avid movie-going demographic.
Depending on the time and place, any age from 13 to 21 may be considered too young to see a given film. With Tropiano’s earlier reference to ancient Greek views on censorship, perhaps motion pictures may not come under such unduly severe scrutiny as he suggests. After all, I can’t recall any recent filmmakers forced to drink hemlock for their negative influence of younger audiences.
Zanuck, Darryl F.
This producer called the display of actress Jane Russell’s cleavage on film (and the subsequent use of the images in advertising campaigns) “a disgrace to the industry”. This instance draws attention to the highly-sensationalistic nature of film advertising through history, which has essentially gone unregulated (unlike the films themselves) and usually capitalizes on the most “offensive” aspects of a given film, particularly when said film has aroused any sort of controversy.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article