Who Put the Sin in Cinema?
Seducers of the Innocent Medium Included Censor and Creators
Written By Patricia Eliot Tobias
(From the November '99 issue of "Written By")
I n a dark room audiences sat on hard chairs and stared in shock at the images projected, sputtering, on a sheet. The year was 1903, and no one had ever seen anything like The Great Train Robbery. Full of sophisticated, state-of-the-art innovations--double-exposure, film-editing, a close-up--the exciting 12-minute film saved its best effect for last. As people watched in horror, a masked bandit aimed his pistol right at their faces and fired, a puff of hand-tinted red smoke spewing from his gun barrel. Audiences all across America dove to the floor.
IS THAT A GUN IN YOUR POCKET OR . . .
Constance Bennett might be offering answers for the title question in 1933's Bed of Roses.
Nine years later a young man blamed the film for inspiring him to commit a copycat train robbery and murder. The Philadelphia Record headline read, "Young Bishie's Express Robbery Tragedy an
Exact Reproduction from 'Movies.' Slew Trusting Friend." Shortly thereafter, Young Bishie was hanged for his crime.
Since then, Hollywood has been battling itself. The issues of violence in the media and censorship, freedom of speech, and responsibility to the public have never gone away. At times the calls insisting that movies and TV deserve the right to freedom of expression drown out the clamor for censorship. Sometimes the pendulum swings the other way.
On the tail of a movement that has been growing for several years, the Littleton, Colorado, shootings inspired cries for the creators of films and TV shows to tone down the violence. How will it turn out? Hollywood's own history gives us a clue about what could happen, but today's writers might not like the future if it's accurately reflected in the past.
When Killing Mrs. Tingle becomes Teaching Mrs. Tingle, when we get sensitive about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when former and current presidents blame Hollywood for the violence in our society, when copycat crimes make headlines, when pediatricians say children younger than two shouldn't watch TV, when the MPAA is accused of being too weak, it's time to look to the past and brace ourselves.
From the beginning America loved, and loathed, movies. While the largely immigrant audiences thronged into the makeshift theaters and made millions for theater owners, such progressives as Jane Addams worried that movies exerted undue influence, particularly on the young. Although she also believed movies could have a positive effect, Addams wrote in The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets that it was "astounding that a city allows thousands of its youth to fill their impressionable minds with absurdities that certainly will become the foundation for their working moral codes." Social leaders, especially ministers, police, and reformers, called for censorship. In November 1907, Chicago became the first city officially to endorse film censorship.
It wasn't the last. State and local censorship boards burst into existence. In some towns it was forbidden to show the drinking of alcohol; in others, scenes of child abuse were clipped, and a simple kiss would bring out the censor's scissors (literally). Although many applauded this attempt to protect audiences from obscenity or violence, some insisted that movies should be treated the same as books or plays, that the same Constitutional freedoms should apply.
In 1915, when The Birth of a Nation broke box-office records, the NAACP organized protests and boycotts in major cities across the country. The Birth of a Nation, the first important American feature film, was technically groundbreaking for its day, and it glorified the Ku Klux Klan. Nearly extinct when Birth premiered, the Klan used the film as a recruitment tool during the 1920s to attract thousands of new members. Black leaders hinted at violence if the film was not severely censored or banned. Although most towns showed the film as it had been made, other communities censored it, toning down the inflammatory sequences. The New York State Motion Picture Commission removed scenes of a slave-whipping, a master in chains, and a black man attacking a white girl. But the film was far too big a hit to be completely banned.
In her autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, Lillian Gish, one of the film's stars, recalled, "Part of the early success of The Birth may have arisen from the immediate raging controversy it incited. Everyone wanted to see the film that the NAACP and the Booker T. Washington clubs were trying to have outlawed. Fist fights and picket lines occurred at many premieres of the film. The opening at Clune's had nearly been halted by rumors of a race riot. Extra police stood guard around the theater just in case."
According to Gish, writer/director D.W. Griffith, who had actually toned down some of the original book's more offensive passages, was stunned. "Not even he had realized the full power of the film he had created," she wrote, "a film that raised the threat of legislation for national censorship." Griffith responded to the film's critics by writing, publishing, and distributing a vehemently worded pamphlet about freedom of speech: ". . . so long as even one man is given the privilege over another of deciding for him the thing he shall or shall not see in the way of even the simplest of motion pictures--then there is no such thing as entire freedom of speech in that community."
He went on to say, "In every essential feature the moving picture film is a publication within the meaning of the constitutional guarantee. The moving pictures are, in fact, a pictorial press, performing in a modern and entertaining and instructive manner, all the functions of the printed press . . . If the pictorial press can be subjected to censorship by a mere act of Congress, then so can the printed press. And, of course, there would be an end, at once, to the freedom of writing and printing."
His efforts were in vain. The same year The Birth of Nation overwhelmed audiences with its power, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that local communities could protect themselves from the evil aspects of the movies. Government censorship of film was now legally sanctioned.
Virgins and Villains
By the early 1920s film censorship had become a convoluted muddle. Despite multiple censors, there was little agreement, and reformers were yelling for still more supervision. A series of Hollywood scandals outraged women's groups and religious organizations. The scandals included the unfounded manslaughter trial of comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and the shooting death of popular director William Desmond Taylor.
WHERE'S THE CODE OF HONOR?
Glenda Farrell pleads with Edward G. Robinson in 1931's Little Caesar (above), while Paul Muni is about to deny Osgood Perkins in 1932's Scarface (left).
To pacify the public and stave off possible government censorship, studio executives brought in former U.S. Postmaster General, and former chairman of the Republican Party, Will H. Hays. Hays became the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, a newly created trade organization, ancestor of today's Motion Picture Association of America.
Following the bad press about the scandals, many in Hollywood hoped Hays would be their savior. Initially, he served less as a censor than a movie-industry booster, funneling complaints about the movies through his office. The scandals had jeopardized the entire business, so his job as a public relations man was no small challenge. Some thought Hays was out of his league.
Sam Marx, longtime MGM story editor, recalled attending a banquet in Hays's honor at the Coconut Grove. Marx said he sat at a table in the back, "where I was able to see that some of our foremost stars of the day were imbibing pretty strongly out of what looked to be teacups, but it wasn't tea because of Prohibition. At the same time," Marx continued, "Mr. Hays failed to observe that and was making a marvelous speech about how beautiful he had found Hollywood to be, how he intended to maintain it, how he intended to keep it completely sober, and how he would do everything possible to give the public faith in the soundness of Hollywood and the moviemakers. And meanwhile, literally, there were people being carried out of the hall."
Although he was brought in for public relations, Hays soon realized that censorship was a big issue with the public and a big problem for the industry. More states passed censorship bills into law. In March 1922 alone 37 states passed 100 different bills. Hays had to do something. After waging a losing battle over a censorship bill in Massachusetts, he offered the compromise of self-censorship.
This resulted in unpredictable writing rules. Herman Mankiewicz, writing to Ben Hecht in 1925, offered these screenwriting tips: "I want to point out to you that in a novel a hero can lay 10 girls and marry a virgin for a finish. In a movie this is not allowed. The hero, as well as the heroine, has to be a virgin. The villain can lay anybody he wants, have as much fun as he wants cheating and stealing, getting rich and whipping the servants. But you have to shoot him in the end."
Hays, known as the "czar of all the rushes," announced, "What the world needs is more human and heartwarming pictures." During the next few years, his office tried several unsuccessful variations on self-censorship, all of which coexisted uncomfortably with the various still-active state and local censorship boards. Eventually, during 192930, his office settled on the Motion Picture Production Code, spurred by intermittent threats of movie boycotts by religious groups, especially the Protestants and the Catholics.
The Production Code would be created and managed by representatives of the Catholic Church but run through Hays's office, eliminating, proponents suggested, the need for state and local censors. If the films were made right in the first place, Hays believed, there would be nothing to censor.
There were only two problems: The movies had just made the very expensive transition from silence to sound, and the Depression had begun.
Sex and Death
The studios were in serious financial trouble. Audiences demanded sound movies, but it cost the studios dearly to build sound stages, convert theaters, and import hundreds of writers and actors from New York. And now, just as the industry was beginning to recover from its vast investment, the Depression caught up with Hollywood.
Hays tried to reason with the censors, the Catholics, the Protestants, anyone who would listen. For a while he kept the forces of censorship at bay. As Hays bargained, the Catholic censors looked the other way, and Hollywood revved up. The films got ever more graphic, grittier, sexier, and overt. Such films as Call Her Savage, Female, Freaks, Ex-Lady, Hot Saturday, Ladies They Talk About, Picture Snatcher, and The Worst Woman in Paris? teased the public and taunted the censors. Complicating everything was sound. For the first time audiences could hear the rat-a-tat of a machine gun, the brrrinnng of a doorbell, or such provocative lines as, "The only time she ever said no, she didn't hear the question."
Audiences could hear Edward G. Robinson die in a hailstorm of bullets in Little Caesar: "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?" In Public Enemy, they heard the slap and squish of a grapefruit Jimmy Cagney thrust into Mae Clarke's face during a breakfast argument. They heard Paul Muni's Scarface mumbling, "I didn't know. I didn't know" after learning that his sister was married to the man he had just murdered in a demented fit.
Little Caesar started a spate of gangster-as-human films. According to screenwriter W.R. Burnett, who wrote Scarface and had been the first journalist on the scene of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, "Ultimately, what made Little Caesar the enormous success it was, the smack in the face it was, was the fact that it was the world seen completely through the eyes of a gangster. It's a commonplace now, but it had never been done before then. You had crime stories but always seen through the eyes of society. The criminal was just some son of a bitch who'd killed somebody and then you go get 'em. I treated 'em as human beings. Well, what else are they?"
But this was despite the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, which very clearly stated, "These shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation."
The portrayal of gangsters and criminals as human beings became a hot issue. By depicting them sympathetically studios became the targets of the antimovie crowd. Where the studios saw the films as realistic portrayals of social issues, the naysayers saw them as dangerous. The country was financially and socially unstable; antisocial, antilaw, antiestablishment movies frightened people. They blamed Hollywood.
Even when the filmmakers intended their characters to be utterly without sympathy, audiences still liked the screen tough guys, many based on such real-life criminals as Al Capone (the basis for Scarface), and made them into heroes. Darryl F. Zanuck, who produced The Public Enemy for Warner Bros., insisted that sentiment stay out of the film: "Everyone in this movie is tough, tough, tough. People are going to say the characters are immoral, but they're not because they don't have any morals. They steal; they kill; they lie; they hump each other because that's the way they're made, and if you allow a decent human feeling or a pang of conscience to come into their makeup, you've lost 'em and changed the kind of movie we're making."
Similarly, producer Howard Hughes, battling Will Hays during the making of Scarface, told director Howard Hawks to make the film as "realistic, as exciting, as grisly as possible." When censors throughout the country banned the film, Hughes responded, much as Griffith had in 1915, by defending his right to free speech. "It has become a serious threat to the freedom of honest expression in America," he said, "when self-styled guardians of the public welfare, as personified by our censor boards, lend their aid and their influence to the abortive efforts of selfish and vicious interests to suppress a motion picture simply because it depicts the truth about conditions in the United States, which have been front-page news since the advent of Prohibition."
Although it was under increasingly intense fire, the movie industry--finally breaking even--persisted in pushing the boundaries. Paramount brought racy Broadway star Mae West from New York, where she had written two plays about homosexuality, The Drag and Pleasure Man, and had served 10 days in jail for "corrupting the morals of youths" for her play Sex. Onscreen, she delivered her double entendres into that newfangled boom mike: "When women go wrong, men go right after them." "You know it was a toss-up whether I go in for diamonds or I sing in the choir. The choir lost." "Awwww, you can be had." "Don't worry. I ain't gonna hurt him. I only wanna feel his muscles." "When I'm good, I'm very good. But when I'm bad, I'm better."
Hays, working with the Catholic Church, continued to walk the tightrope between censorship and economics. The Catholic censors, wanting to keep the business of Hollywood afloat, approved many films that then became the targets of public outcry. The situation continued until 1933.
By that time any topic had become fair game. The notorious William Faulkner novel Sanctuary was made into The Story of Temple Drake. Sanctuary, which Faulkner penned in an attempt to write "the most horrific tale" possible, had been a torrid bestseller. The book's protagonist, Temple Drake, is a judge's daughter who is raped with a corncob, runs off with her impotent rapist, and eventually allows two men to die for murders they didn't commit.
Originally, the Hays office insisted that no film should ever be made from the story. After much debate, a slightly tamed cinema version was eventually approved. That film, following on the trail of so many other sexy, violent, and anarchistic pre-Code movies, sealed Hollywood's fate. The religious zealots, who had been simply concerned about movie content in the '20s, became outraged.
The New York State Motion Picture Commission removed scenes of a slave-whipping, a master in chains, and a black man attacking a white girl.
In the middle of all this onscreen mayhem, one real-life incident became a catalyst for action against the movie industry. A couple of New Jersey boys who had recently seen a gangster film, decided to play cops and robbers. They used a real gun. One of the children was killed.
Almost immediately, publications throughout the country began demanding that Hollywood behave more responsibly toward young audience members. Parents magazine argued for a national boycott of the movies. The New York Times pointed out that the 1930 Production Code prohibited brutal killings, suggesting that if the producers had adhered to the Code, the incident might not have happened.
The Mae West films, among those that helped to save Paramount from bankruptcy, were suddenly too hot for the censors. West, recognizing the situation, devised a strategy for dealing with the censors. "When I knew the censors were after my films," she later said, "and they had to come and okay everything, I wrote scenes for them to cut. These scenes were so rough that I'd never have used them. But they worked as a decoy. They cut them and left the stuff I wanted. I had these scenes in there about a man's fly and all that, and the censors would be sittin' in the projection room laughing themselves silly. Then they'd say, 'Cut it' and not notice the rest. When the film came out and people laughed at it and the bluenoses were outraged, they came and said, 'Mae, you didn't show us that.' But I'd show them the scripts they have okayed themselves!"
At about the same time, another book hit the bestseller lists--James Henry Forman's Our Movie Made Children, which accused the movie industry of "helping shape a race of criminals." A summary of a nine-volume sociological study on the influence of movies on children, the book was an indictment. The book reported that 49 percent of young men in prison learned their criminal technique from the movies and that children had trouble sleeping after seeing exciting films and often had nightmares. One young subject, whose favorite actor was Jimmy Cagney, said, "You get some ideas from his actin'. You learn how to pull off a job, how he bumps off a guy, an' a lotta t'ings." As sensational as the book was, not everyone agreed with its results. Newspaper editorials were divided, with many writers insisting the study was flawed. "The book is distinctly biased," stated the St. Paul Dispatch.
In the end the Catholic Church turned the tide from permissiveness to restriction. Groups within the church created a Legion of Decency. After years of promises, they no longer trusted Hays or Hollywood to regulate itself. Catholic groups intended to boycott Hollywood films, pressure businesses into removing financial support of the film industry, and insist that Hays put their man, the virulently anti-Semitic former journalist Joseph I. Breen, in charge of enforcing the Production Code. They succeeded where others had failed.
As he took over the newly created Production Code Administration, Breen blamed the mostly Jewish studio heads for Hollywood's excesses. "These Jews seem to think of nothing but moneymaking and sexual indulgence," Breen wrote to Father Wilfrid Parsons in 1932. "The vilest kind of sin is a common indulgence hereabouts, and the men and women who engage in this sort of business are the men and women who decide what the film fare of the nation is to be. They and they alone make the decision. Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the Earth."
Hays and the studio heads, perhaps not realizing the extent of Breen's antiSemitism, did recognize a change in the tide of public opinion, had good reason to fear government interference in the industry, and didn't want to risk the lost business if the Catholic boycott really took effect.
In the face of such an organized effort, they caved in, preferring this form of self-regulation to government intervention. After decades of worming around the censors, they gave up, allowing Breen almost complete control of the content of the movies. "I am the Code," he claimed, and he was right. The Breen-enforced Production Code would rule Hollywood for nearly 20 years.
Many writers who wrote films under the Production Code hated it, found it repressive, and expressed concern that social topics were slighted during the heyday of the glossy studio film. Others said they found working with restrictions an interesting challenge. Some even claimed they were creatively inspired during the years of the Code enforcement.
"Censorship makes you think," said Henry King, who directed The Song of Bernadette during the 1940s. "It makes you guard your language, makes you express yourself in a wee-bit different way, makes you smart enough to bypass this, makes an audience see it without them actually seeing it. It makes you three times sharper than you would be without it."
But even under the Code, the basic issues of violence, censorship, responsibility to the public, and freedom of speech resurfaced. For example, during the 1940s, the height of the Code's power, a spate of copycat crimes showed up in the news. A cowboy and a doctor's wife murdered her husband, basing their crime on 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice. A serial murderer used horror films as inspiration. A 14-year-old boy who loved gangster films killed a cop. When captured, he held a nine-shot German luger to his head, quoting the oft-used movie cliché "You'll never take me alive, coppers." Then he pulled the trigger, managing somehow to miss shooting himself.
The enforcement of the Code waned by the mid-1950s, although the Code itself continued for another decade. But the debate continues. Same old issues. Same old questions. What will result? Nearly a century after The Great Train Robbery, only one thing is absolute: These issues aren't going away, and there aren't any easy answers.
CREDITS: THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, written by Edwin S. Porter; TEACHING MRS. TINGLE, written by Kevin Williamson; BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, created by Joss Whedon based on his screenplay; THE CITY STREETS, screenplay by Fred Niblo Jr. and Lou Breslow and S.I. Bernstein; THE BIRTH OF A NATION, written by D.W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods Jr., based on a novel by Thomas Dixon; LITTLE CAESAR, written by Robert N. Lee and Francis Faragoh; PUBLIC ENEMY, written by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright and Harvey Thew; SCARFACE, written by Bill Hecht and Seton I. Miller and John Lee Mahin and W.R. Burnett, and Fred Pasley; THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE, screenplay by Oliver H. P. Garrett, based on a novel Sanctuary by William Faulkner; MRS. MINIVER, screenplay by Arthur Wimperis and George Froeschel and James Hilton and Claudine West, based on a novel by Jan Struther; THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, screenplay by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, based on a novel by James Cain