Those of us who are lucky enough to live in countries with robust laws protecting freedom of expression may take it for granted at times. When we do, we can get a jolt when those who don’t think such protections are valid suddenly make their feelings known.
In the United States, censorship of motion pictures began in earnest on the state level in 1911, more than 15 years before we’d enter the era of “talkies.” It quickly spread among states and municipalities, and was considered by many in the production industry to exert a suffocating effect, both creatively and financially.
In a landmark Supreme Court case in 1915, the Mutual Film Corporation, the producer of many Charlie Chaplin films, challenged the increasing threat of movie censorship in court, asserting that the censors’ practices infringed upon their first and fourteenth amendment rights.
Their rights to free speech and due process of law were being violated. Or were they?
When the court’s 9-0 opinion was announced, it was official – films were deemed a business. As such, they were not entitled to the benefits of free speech that were afforded to artists or to members of the press, and were subject to the whims of the censors.
“Immoral,” “indecent,” and “dangerous” activities and themes were consequently identified and expunged from our films.
In the 1920s, the Hollywood studios attempted self-censorship, hoping to get the censors off their backs, but it didn’t take, and Hollywood continued to be closely watched and criticized.
During the Great Depression, movie attendance slumped, so the studios did what they could to jump start sales – they added more sex and violence.
While that may have increased ticket sales, it also increased censorship activity, and in 1934 the industry was forced to bow to the demands of outspoken religious groups, mostly Protestants and Catholic. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), as the MPAA was then known, set up the Production Code Administration, tasked with ensuring that films conformed to their Motion Picture Production Code.
The stated goal was to produce:
”Entertainment which tends to improve the race, or at least to re-create and rebuild human beings exhausted with the realities of life”
It was mandated that:
“Dueling should not be presented as right or just. Obscenity should not be suggested by gesture, manner, etc.”
“The triangle, that is, the love of a third party by one already married, needs careful handling, if marriage, the sanctity of the home, and sex morality are not to be imperiled.”
“...dances with movement of the breasts, excessive body movements while the feet are stationary, violate decency and are wrong.”
The following should not be shown, according to a list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls.”:
“-Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture
-Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette
-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)”
The PCA, led by the devout Catholic Joseph Breen, lost some of its teeth in the ’50s as the public came to demand more realistic – and risque – material. Racy foreign films whetted their appetites, as did the work of filmmakers such as Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger, who bucked the code and went on to enjoy great success at the box office.
In 1950, the short film Il Miracolo (The Miracle), by Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, caused quite a stir within the Catholic community for its analogies to – and perceived mockery of – the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus. They claimed it was sacrilegious, and the film lost its license to be shown.
The film’s distributor sued, and the case traveled to the nation’s highest court. In what seemed like a miracle itself, the justices unanimously decided that film was an art form, and that a film could not be banned according to some censor’s definition of “sacrilege.” This effectively reversed the 1915 decision.
By the late ’60s it was clear the PCA didn’t work, so the MPAA replaced the outdated and ineffectual Production Code with a voluntary rating system. This was a huge change – from a draconian list of demands to a voluntary opt-in policy (though the egalitarianism of this system has come into question).
These days we live in a super-connected world, where in most places the art of other countries and cultures is just as readily accessible as that of our own. This has led to new kinds of media critics, the kind who don’t use traditional channels when they seek to censor.
Did North Korea attempt to censor The Interview, an American film, from afar?
Were the men who murdered the staff members of Charlie Hebdo seeking to “teach them how to behave,” as a senior Yemeni Al-Qaeda operative has stated?
It seems that obstructionism and censorship will always have their champions, mainly among those who crave power or aim to retain it. Information and art have a different feel, more that of a constant, rushing force, like the Colorado River carving the Grand Canyon as it flows over the stone.