Censorship and Self-Regulation

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Censorship and Self-Regulation

The Production Code
The Legion of Decency
Government Censorship
Censorship and Anti-Communism

Censorship of the American film industry in the 1950s can best be regarded as a complex series of negotiations among several parties. The Production Code Administration (PCA), the film industry's self-censorship group, worked with studios and producers to ensure that Hollywood films met consistent moral standards. The PCA had been established in 1934 in order to minimize the dangers of outside censorship. The Catholic Church's Legion of Decency, often working in concert with the PCA, was an important force for conservative morality on screen. Government was involved at several levels, via state and local censorship boards, judicial oversight, and pressures from the U.S. Congress. The film studios responded to all of these conflicting groups, as well as to a rapidly changing audience.

The Production Code

The Motion Picture Production Code was written in 1929 by the Jesuit priest Daniel J. Lord and the publisher Martin J. Quigley (owner of film industry trade papers, and a Catholic). This was a code regulating the moral content of feature films, designed so that Hollywood could police itself and thus avoid or minimize outside censorship. It was adopted by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), the film industry trade association, in 1930. The Code begins with the following "General Principles":

  1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law—divine, natural or human—shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.1

The Code then lists a number of "Particular Applications," including treatment of crime, brutality, sex, vulgarity, obscenity, costumes, religion, etc. The Code also provides a few pages of explanation for the general principles and the applications.

The Code was advisory at first, but quickly became more obligatory thanks to outside pressures plus corrective actions taken by MPPDA Chairman Will H. Hays. In 1934 the Production Code Administration was formed as a branch of the MPPDA. The major and minor distributors belonging to the trade association agreed to submit scripts and finished films to the PCA. No film from these distributors was to be released without a "PCA Seal of Approval." The first head of the PCA was Joseph Breen, one of Hays's assistants. This choice embodied the intricate politics that was always a part of the PCA, because Breen, a Catholic layman, had been orchestrating Catholic pressure on the MPPDA while working for Hays.

PCA employee Albert Van Schmus, speaking long after the PCA's demise, had two explanations for the Catholic Church's influence on a supposedly independent and non-sectarian organization. First, Catholics were concentrated in the big cities that were the film industry's crucial audience. Second, Catholics were far more organized and therefore more capable of pressuring the film industry than the numerically superior Protestants, who were split into many denominations.2 The Council of Churches of Christ (an umbrella group of Protestant churches), was occasionally consulted by production companies and/or the PCA when Protestantism was portrayed on screen. For example, the Los Angeles office of the Council was asked for comments on the church scene in High Noon. However, the Protestant churches of the United States had no film industry lobbying organization that could compare to the Legion of Decency.

Breen, Jack Vizzard, and other Catholics involved in the self-censorship process did try to establish a broad, ecumenical tone for the PCA in the 1950s. This philosophy is nicely outlined in correspondence between Martin Quigley (still an unofficial advisor to the PCA in the 1950s) and historian/columnist Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1954. Schlesinger had written a piece in the then-liberal New York Post attacking the Production Code. Quigley replied that the principles of the Production Code "derive wholly from the Ten Commandments, the basic moral charter of all of the religions of the Judean-Christian civilization."3 When Schlesinger objected to the "niggling detail" of the Production Code, not implied, in his opinion, by the Ten Commandments, Quigley pointed to the general principles of the Code and not the specific details as central.4 Schlesinger, somewhat mollified, replied "I do not disagree with many of the general rules," but continued to question their narrow application.5

There has been some debate about whether the Production Code had a specifically Catholic orientation. Jack Vizzard, writing about Martin J. Quigley's beliefs, described what he called the Catholic Church's "jaundice about human nature": Man lives under "the blight of Original Sin," in a "state of exile." Therefore, humanity must be protected not only from obvious immorality, but from too much enjoyment of "the enticements of the world."6 Historian Stephen Vaughn finds a similar viewpoint in Father Daniel J. Lord's "traditional Catholic interpretation of postlapsarian man."7 When applied to the photographic medium of film, this attitude becomes a fear of the physical and of the body. Many PCA rules, from the ban on indecent dancing to the restrictions on costuming, were designed to limit the appeal of the physical world. This policy does link up with Catholic doctrine, but it also matches the beliefs of many Protestant denominations. It is consistent with the Jewish religion as well (though the reasons for distrusting the body may differ between Judaism and Christianity)—an important point, for a majority of the studio bosses (but not Zanuck, Skouras, or Hughes) and many of the creative personnel were Jewish. The Catholic influence on the PCA had more to do with the politics of decision-making than with the Code itself.

Joseph Breen had headed the Production Code Administration since the 1930s. He felt that the PCA had broad powers to ensure the morality of Hollywood films, and he refused to limit himself to the written provisions of the Code. He once told a new staff member not to waste time reading over the written Code, explaining "Just you listen to me. I am the Code!" Jack Vizzard explained that Breen was technically correct, since at least one of the Code's General Principles—the section on "divine, natural and human" law—was so broad as to include almost anything.8 Nevertheless, Breen and his staff frequently had to negotiate with the Hollywood studios, which were at least indirectly their employers. For those films that had Code problems, the PCA would work with the producers (usually at script stage, occasionally after filming) to suggest solutions. The producers would accept some changes, contest others, and eventually agreement would be reached. The PCA and its parent organization, the MPAA (successor organization to the MPPDA), were financed by the studios, so the PCA's authority (indeed, its very existence) was dependent on the companies it was censoring/regulating. On the other hand, the studios needed PCA approval to show various sectors of the public—the government, the churches, the press, the exhibitors, and the paying customers—that Holly-wood films were following accepted standards of morality and good taste. Both sides had considerable incentive to make the system work. The PCA could refuse a Seal of Approval to a particular film if negotiations with the producer and distributor were unsuccessful, but this very rarely happened.

During the early 1950s, the film industry's PCA-enforced morality gradually came into conflict with audience interests and industry conditions. For one thing, Americans were more worldly after the shocks and dislocations of World War II, with millions of men stationed abroad and millions of women in the workplace. There was also a great emphasis on sexuality in 1950s America, sexuality as both the cause and the solution of problems. The Kinsey reports (published in 1947 and 1952) and the popularization of psychoanalysis may have contributed to this emphasis. Also, the film industry's internal problems provided a reason for filmmakers to challenge the status quo. With the number of North American movie spectators consistently dropping, studios and independent producers were under pressure to find new, more sensational subjects and thus revive audience interest. They pushed against the restraints of the Production Code in a variety of ways: with more revealing costumes for women (The French Line, 1954); franker attitudes toward adultery (From Here to Eternity, 1953); and well-made treatments of previously forbidden subjects (The Man with the Golden Arm, about drug addiction, 1955; Tea and Sympathy, about the fear of homosexuality, 1956).

The Moon Is Blue (directed by Otto Preminger for United Artists, 1953) provided an early test of how the PCA would react to changing attitudes about sexuality. This was the adaptation of a very popular stage play that featured no revealing costumes or immoral behavior but a great deal of dialogue about sex. A young woman named Patty O'Neill (Maggie McNamara) meets architect Don Gresham (William Holden) on top of the Empire State Building and goes home with him for drinks and dinner. Joined at times by Holden's upstairs neighbors, aging playboy David Slater (David Niven) and his daughter Cynthia (Dawn Addams), they have a lively conversation about seduction, virginity, and marriage. For example, when Patty asks what's bad about the phrase "professional virgin," Don answers "People who advertise are anxious to sell something." After many misadventures, Patty angrily leaves in the early morning, but Don finds her the next day (again on top of the Empire State Building), and proposes.

The PCA reviewed the play script, then the film script, then the finished film, and consistently found The Moon Is Blue unacceptable. A 10 April letter from Breen to Preminger summarized the PCA's attitude as follows: "The picture contains an unacceptably light attitude towards seduction, illicit sex, chastity and virginity."9 Preminger and United Artists decided to release the film without a seal, with United Artists temporarily dropping out of the MPAA to avoid paying a fine. The film's reception was interestingly mixed. Many reviewers endorsed it, with Bosley Crowther of the New York Times exclaiming, "The theme of this confection is as moral as a Sunday school book. It is that virtue triumphs. The good little girl gets the man."10 On the other hand, Showmen's Trade Review said that it was "a shock even for the most sophisticated" to hear words like "virgin" and "seduce" in a motion picture." The Legion of Decency condemned the film, but this action was primarily aimed at supporting the PCA.12 Three state censorship boards banned The Moon Is Blue, but four approved it.

Largely because of the various censorship controversies, The Moon Is Blue became a big hit. Film historian Tino Balio reports that it "was shut out of many theaters, but where it did play it broke box-office records."13 United Artists and Preminger had won their gamble of releasing a film without a Code Seal. This suggested that the Production Code, written in 1929, was no longer a good fit with audience expectations and needs in the 1950s. The PCA responded by being more flexible, and eventually by revising the Code.

During the early 1950s, Joseph Breen gradually gave up his responsibilities to the PCA's deputy director, Geoffrey Shurlock. Shurlock, an Englishman and a Protestant, was less dogmatic and less confrontational than Breen. Albert Van Schmus describes Shurlock as an intellectual who "was responsible for innovations over the years that would permit the creative people" to get more of their ideas across.14 Shurlock was also a pragmatist who saw his job as protecting the film industry from outside criticism and intervention. Breen understood this as well, but Breen had his own moral and ideological agenda. The transition to Shurlock's point of view was already in process when the MPAA announced Breen's retirement on 15 October 1954. Shurlock took over as director, with Jack Vizzard as his deputy (thus continuing the Catholic influence in PCA management).

One example of the PCA's new pragmatism under Shurlock was the three-year effort to adapt Tea and Sympathy for the screen. This play by Robert Anderson, directed on Broadway by Elia Kazan, was a huge hit in the fall of 1953. Set in a New England prep school, it presents the story of Tom, an eighteen-year-old student, who is ridiculed by his peers for shunning team sports, liking folk music, and playing the female lead in the school play. He is comforted and defended by Laura, the wife of his housemaster Bill. After Tom is thoroughly humiliated and his expulsion seems imminent, Laura sleeps with him just once to show he is heterosexual and to give him confidence. Laura also comes to understand a problem with her own husband—he has an unacted-upon attraction to boys and therefore spends all his time with the students (and avoiding her). This insight also suggests that Tom is persecuted because his odd behavior makes the prep school students and masters uncomfortable about themselves.

Martin Quigley wrote to Joseph Breen (still director of the PCA in 1953) saying that Tea and Sympathy might be a "major problem." Sex perversion, the term used for homosexuality in the Production Code, could not be presented or implied in a motion picture. The "solution" to the drama, Lauras seduction of Tom, was equally objectionable, for the Code insisted that adultery must be shown as morally wrong. Quigley's letter commented that he did not see a way to change this theme of adultery as solution.15 Yet a third troubling theme was Laura's insight that many men, including those who persecute homosexuals, may have homosexual desires.

Breen sent two of his assistants, Shurlock and Vizzard, to New York to see the play. They agreed that Tea and Sympathy could not be adapted for film maintaining either the homosexual theme or the concluding adultery. Shurlock and Vizzard then communicated their decision to a long list of Hollywood figures who expressed interest in the play: Samuel Goldwyn, Elia Kazan, and playwright Robert Anderson (this group was planning an independent production); Dore Schary, William McKenna, and Robert Vogel of MGM; Jack Warner of Warner Bros.; Frank McCarthy and Julian Blaustein of Fox; Luigi Luraschi of Paramount; and several others. Harry Cohn of Columbia had been the first to inquire about the play—he sent the PCA a synopsis before Shurlock and Vizzard's New York trip.16 The PCA told all these executives and filmmakers that Tea and Sympathy had serious Code problems and that they could not see a solution. However, Vizzard's memo on the 29 October 1953 meeting with Schary, McKenna, and Vogel shows interest in a change proposed by Schary: suppose that Tom proves his manhood by defending Laura from her husband rather than sleeping with her? Schary's alteration would make Tom unconventional but still reassuringly masculine.17 Shurlock and Vizzard remained worried about homosexuality and adultery.

In 1955 Shurlock, as director of the PCA, was under pressure to resolve the dispute over Tea and Sympathy. Playwright Robert Anderson, now working with Schary, turned in a treatment for the film adaptation on 13 January 1955. Shurlock responded to Schary on 25 March that Anderson's treatment was still in violation, because of the two original problems. (The delay itself suggests a special case; the PCA usually responded in a few days.)18 Schary appealed to MPAA President Eric Johnston and scheduled a formal appeal to the MPAA Board of Directors. Though Shurlock told Johnston he saw "no solution," he resumed negotiations with Schary. Meanwhile, in mid-1955 the independently distributed British film I Am a Camera was released without a Code seal, and Otto Preminger and United Artists had announced their plan to release The Man with the Golden Arm (objectionable because of its portrayal of drug addiction) without a seal. Historian Jerold Simmons speculates that because Shurlock was threatened by an erosion of PCA authority, he compromised with Schary and approved Tea and Sympathy in August 1955.19 The word "queer," used several times in the play, had disappeared from the film script, and Lauras recognition of her husband's latent homosexuality was absent. Also, the script adds a "voice for morality" (a favorite PCA device) when an older Tom returns to school and finds Laura's letter saying their brief sexual encounter was wrong. However, the suspicion of Tom's homosexuality remains vital to the script, and Laura does still begin to seduce Tom (the cut after one kiss leaves no doubt about what will happen).

Though the PCA was satisfied, the Legion of Decency was not. In August 1956 the National Office of the Legion reviewed a finished print of Tea and Sympathy and found it still unacceptable. Father Thomas Little of the National Office wanted a stronger letter from Laura showing that adultery was wrong. Deborah Kerr, who played Laura, was called back by MGM to record a new version of the letter (spoken in voiceover). Father Little was still unhappy, but because of the mixed reactions of Bishop William A. Scully (head of a committee that supervised the Legion) and a special panel of reviewers, the Legion did not condemn the film.20 After three years of negotiations, Tea and Sympathy was ready for release.

On 11 December 1956 the MPAA announced a revision of the Production Code. Such controversial matters as abortion, childbirth, and drug addiction, all formerly prohibited, could now be presented (with important restrictions) in Hollywood movies. Miscegenation, defined as a "sex relationship between the white and black races," was prohibited in the 1929 Code but not even mentioned in the new Code. The Code language on brutality had been beefed up—it now said "Excessive and inhumane acts of cruelty and brutality shall not be presented. This includes all detailed and protracted presentation of physical violence, torture and abuse." A brief section on cruelty to animals was included in the Code proper—it was based on a special resolution of the MPAA Board of Directors from 1940. One portion of the Code that did not change was the prohibition of "sex perversion" (homosexuality).

Response to this fairly modest revision of the Production Code was mostly positive, with Samuel Goldwyn seeing "a considerable step in the right direction," whereas Martin Quigley stressed a continuity with the previous Code.21 Thomas Pryor of the New York Times correctly saw that interpretation, rather than Code language, was crucial: "It is doubtful that the alterations in the Code will bring about any noticeable change in the pattern of movie entertainment, for interpretation of the old Code, adopted in 1930, has become more and more liberal in recent years."22

In 1959, the Code was still around, but interpretation was increasingly loose. Jack Hamilton of Look summarized the situation as follows: "Many producers now evade, while claiming to uphold, the Code's musty restrictions. The good-behavior rule book is allowed to exist for only one reason: It serves as a buffer against outside, and more troublesome, censorship." To support his point, Hamilton mentions such films as Some Like It Hot (1959, with a scantily clothed Marilyn Monroe and jokes about sex and gender) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959, a courtroom drama including very specific discussion of rape). Shurlock explained to Hamilton that any subject except homosexuality could be presented in PCA-approved films, as long as a "moral conflict" provided the "proper frame of reference."23 Tea and Sympathy, a film passed by Shurlock, suggests that even this last forbidden area could be presented in acceptable ways in a Hollywood film.

Screenwriter James Poe proposed to Hamilton that the "national preoccupation with sex" meant that the MPAA should consider some kind of a classification system separating films for children and films for adults.24 The rating system idea had come up occasionally in the mid-1950s,25 but it was a hot topic in 1959. The PCA and the film industry in general felt squeezed by conflicting demands: (1) Audiences wanted to see more "adult" treatments of sexuality; and (2) religious and civic groups were increasingly upset by lax enforcement of the Production Code. Classification of movies as appropriate for certain age groups offered a possible solution to this dilemma, since it would create opportunities for adult viewing while also protecting young moviegoers. Ratings by age group were already in effect in Great Britain, France, and other countries, and both the Legion of Decency and the "Green Sheet" (a periodical sponsored by the MPAA, intended primarily for parents) were publishing advisory ratings in the United States. However, many film industry people, especially exhibitors, were strongly opposed to any system of classification. Though they complained about classification as censorship, their "motivating reasoning," said a Variety editorial, was clearly "loss of revenue."26 How could a struggling industry possibly benefit from restricting its customer base? Why should the film industry turn away teenagers, who were more likely than their parents to go out to a movie? The MPAA studied a classification system in the fall of 1959,27 but took no action on this controversial notion for several years.

The Legion of Decency

The Catholic Legion of Decency was the most successful pressure group in the history of American cinema. Founded in 1934, the Legion was designed both to influence the newly formed Production Code Administration and to directly pressure the film companies. Originally, the Legion was a campaign in which millions of Catholics signed pledge cards agreeing not to attend immoral movies. Pledges were administered in church on a yearly basis. This was supplemented in 1936 by a National Legion of Decency office in New York, which published a biweekly ratings sheet on films in release. Films were rated (primarily by a group of women volunteers) according to the following categories:

A-I     Morally Unobjectionable for General Patronage

A-II     Morally Unobjectionable for Adults

B     Morally Objectionable in Part for All

C     Condemned

The "A-II" category was actually something like the MPAA's later "PG" or "PG-13" ratings—guidance from parents and others was encouraged, but no specific age limit was given.

The majority of studio films were sent to the Legion office in New York for preview, and many films were re-cut to meet Legion objections. In those few cases when the Legions objections were not resolved, filmmakers risked not only a C rating but also denunciations from the pulpit, organized picketing and boycotts, and efforts to dissuade theaters from booking a film. The Catholic Church was not always unanimous in its view of an individual film, but certainly Hollywood took its threat of organized action seriously. The church also offered consultants to smooth out any script problems for films dealing with Catholic subject matter. Most commonly, the script consultant was Father John Devlin, head of the Los Angeles Legion of Decency. Father Devlin was involved, for example, in the plot problem posed by I Confess (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1953), where a priest played by Montgomery Clift cannot reveal a murderer's confession. Father Devlin was not paid for his consulting work, but the film companies generally made a donation to his Los Angeles parish.28

The close collaboration between the Legion of Decency and the PCA, established in the 1930s, continued into the 1950s. This was partly a matter of history and demographics, but it also stemmed from some shrewd political decisions. The Catholic Church consistently supported the authority of the PCA and joined the MPAA in opposing federal government censorship. It was willing to go along with even questionable PCA objections to specific films. In return, the Legion and the church expected access and influence. Martin Quigley frequently served as intermediary between the Legion and the PCA; he was in constant contact with the administrators of the National Legion of Decency, and he often visited and corresponded with Breen, Vizzard, and other PCA staffers.29 Jack Vizzard became the PCA's "specialist" in Catholic Church relations. For example, he was sent to St. Louis to consult with Archbishop Joseph Ritter about the opening of The French Line (1954), a Howard Hughes film which had been denied a PCA seal; and he was location consultant on Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (directed by John Huston, 1957), a film about a nun and a marine corporal marooned on a desert island.30

The influence of the Legion of Decency gradually declined in the 1950s when it became clear that Legion objections might not hurt a film at the box office. When "The Miracle," part of the three-part film Ways of Love (1950), was declared blasphemous by the Legion and the Catholic hierarchy, the ensuing publicity almost certainly improved the box-office prospects of this foreign language film. The French Line was also helped, if anything, by the condemnations of the Catholic Church, as Father Little admitted in his annual report.31

However, the Legion did have a negative impact on the release of Baby Doll, a 1956 film produced and directed by Elia Kazan based on a script by Tennessee Williams. The film describes a bizarre triangular relationship between middle-aged Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Maiden), who owns a cotton gin in the deep South, his nineteen-year-old bride, Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), and the handsome immigrant Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallaeh), who owns another local cotton gin. Archie Lee has agreed not to consummate the marriage until Baby Doll's twentieth birthday; he is relishing and Baby Doll is dreading the imminence of that date. Meanwhile, Silva is hanging around Archie Lee's ruin of a house, and Baby Doll seems far more interested in him than in her husband. One suggestive scene presents Silva sleeping in Baby Doll's crib upstairs; this implies a seduction, although Kazan joked that the cramped space made lovemaking impossible.32 Note that a beautiful nineteen-year-old blonde sleeping in a crib is already kinky; Baby Doll also sucks her thumb. At any rate, Silva seems less interested in Baby Doll than in confirming that Archie Lee is the arsonist who burned down his (Silva's) cotton gin. At the end of the film Archie Lee is taken away to jail and Silva abandons Baby Doll.

In 1952, the PCA strongly objected to an early script draft of Baby Doll, complaining about a "low and sordid tone" and an unacceptable treatment of adultery.33 However, by 1956 the Shurlock-led PCA was more accommodating; it accepted the film's tone and negotiated with Kazan on a number of specific points. Catholic figures including Martin Quigley were furious at what they perceived as major violations of the Production Code.34

The Legion of Decency condemned Baby Doll and the Catholic Church mounted a strong campaign against the film. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York spoke out against it from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral. He denounced the film as "evil in concept" and "certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it," adding that it was "astonishing and deplorable" that such a film had been passed by the PCA. Cardinal Spellman hadn't seen the picture; his speech mentions that it had been "responsibly judged."35 Other members of the Catholic hierarchy called for a boycott of the film. Theater owners were pressured not to show Baby Doll, and in some cases a six-month boycott was threatened for theaters that exhibited the film.36 Despite some criticisms of the anti-Baby Doll campaign, notably from Dean James A. Pike Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, Catholic groups did succeed in limiting the release of this film. According to Kazan, press releases trumpeting its box-office success were false. Kazan admits in his autobiography that "the cardinal's attack hurt us," and that Baby Doll "never made a profit." (At least one observer, writer Gregory Black, makes the intriguing suggestion that Baby Doll lost money because it was a mediocre film.)37

In the late 1950s the Legion began to change from a stern moral judge of Hollywood entertainment to a more flexible and appreciative critic of the industry. This was a response to liberalization within the Catholic Church as well as to the changing tastes and expectations of American audiences. In 1957, the Legion shifted its categories: "A-II" became "Acceptable for Adults and Adolescents" and a new "A-III" category, "Acceptable for Adults," was added. The existence of the new category allowed the Legion to approve films with "truly adult subject matter."38 This reduced the number of films rated "B" (objectionable though not condemned), and therefore smoothed relations between the Legion, the studios, and the film audience. The new category allowed the Legion to approve such films as Peyton Place (1957), which had been carefully crafted by Twentieth Century-Fox to meet PCA and Legion guidelines while retaining the adult appeal of Grace Metalious's novel.

Government Censorship

Seven state censorship boards and several dozen local boards were operating in the early 1950s with the specific task of regulating movie content.39 Major population centers such as New York State and the city of Chicago were included. The institutional setup of these boards varied greatly. In New York, the censorship authority was the Motion Picture Division, supervised by the State Board of Regents, an educational oversight group. In Maryland, the State Board of Motion Picture Censors was appointed directly by the governor. In Chicago, the censorship mechanism included both the Film Review Section (part of the Police Department) and a Motion Picture Appeal Board (an independent office within city government).40 The state censorship boards were actually supported by fees paid by film producers. State and local censors were empowered to require cuts, or to ban a film outright. In Maryland, the films banned were generally pictures from small distributors not part of the MPAA that featured "sensational treatment of sex and narcotics"—for example, Girls' Club, French White Cargo, Wild Weed, and Sins of the Fathers.41 However, the United Artists film The Well (1951) was never released in Baltimore because the Maryland Board requested fifteen cuts, effectively destroying the film's theme of racial conflict in a small town. Major Hollywood films which were released with important cuts included A Place in the Sun (Para-mount, directed by George Stevens, 1951) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). In Streetcar, the Maryland board cut most of the crucial scene between Blanche and Stanley where rape is implied.42

The legal standing of state and local censorship boards was greatly limited by a land-mark Supreme Court decision, Burstyn vs. Wilson (1952), usually known as "the Miracle decision." This case involves a forty-minute Italian film titled "The Miracle," directed by Roberto Rossellini, from a story idea by Federico Fellini, and starring Anna Magnani. This medium-length film was joined to two others of similar length ("A Day in the Country" by Jean Renoir and "Jofroi" by Marcel Pagnol) and presented in the United States in 1950 under the title Ways of Love.43 The distributor was Joseph Burstyn, a small independent specializing in foreign films. "The Miracle" told the story of a simple (perhaps feeble-minded) peasant woman, played by Anna Magnani, who believes she has been impregnated by Saint Joseph. It takes a half-ironic, half-believing attitude to the story, and treats the main character with great sympathy. This kind of ambiguous art film would normally have reached a very small American audience. However, after attacks by Catholic literalists, "The Miracle" became a battleground for pro-censorship and anticensorship forces, and the unexpected notoriety helped its box-office performance.

Ways of Love was approved by the Motion Picture Division of the New York State Board of Regents and opened at the Paris Theater in midtown Manhattan. Then "The Miracle," one segment of the film, was banned from theaters in New York City by Edward McCaffrey, Commissioner of Licenses for the city, who found the Rossellini segment to be "a blasphemous affront to a great many of our fellow citizens."44 At this point the Legion of Decency, New York's Cardinal Spellman, and other Catholic authorities launched attacks on the film. McCaffrey's ban was overturned in court, and Ways of Love (including "The Miracle") began a very profitable run in Manhattan. Then the New York State Board of Regents overruled its own Motion Picture Division, revoking the license for Ways of Love. Per the New York Times, the Regents' report "declared that the mockery or profaning of religious beliefs sacred to any portion of the public is abhorrent to the laws of the state."45

The right of the Regents to ban the film was upheld by the New York State Appeals Court, but then overturned by the United States Supreme Court. The Court based its unanimous decision on the simple but powerful principle that "expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech and free press guaranty of the First and Fourteenth Amendments."46 Movies had since the Mutual case of 1915 been considered as a "business pure and simple" and not as "part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion."47 The opinion in the Miracle case, written by Justice Tom C. Clark, carefully stated that First Amendment protection did not mean "absolute freedom to exhibit every motion picture of every kind at all times and places." However, the opinion did find that "sacrilegious" was not an adequate standard for censorship, and that government should not be called on "to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures."48

The principle that motion pictures were a protected form of speech meant that all state and local censorship was open to question. Statutes governing censorship had to make a compelling case for an exception to First Amendment protection. Over the next several years, both the U.S. Supreme Court and a variety of state courts used the Miracle decision to limit the appropriate grounds for film censorship. The Supreme Court invalidated criteria such as "immoral" or "would tend to corrupt morals" (La Ronde case, New York, 1952; reversed by the Supreme Court, 1954); "other than moral, educational, amusing or harmless" (M case, Ohio, 1953; reversed by the Supreme Court, 1954); "of such character to be prejudicial to the best interests of the people of said City" (Pinky case, Marshall, Texas, 1952; reversed by the Supreme Court, 1952); and "cruel, obscene, indecent, or immoral, or such as tend to debase or corrupt morals" (The Moon Is Blue case, Kansas, 1955; reversed by the Supreme Court, 1955).49 State courts in Ohio (RKO v. Dept. of Education, 1954) and Massachusetts (Brattle Films v. Commissioner of Public Safety, 1955) ruled that licensing of motion pictures was illegal because "prior censorship itself violated the First Amendment."50 However, in 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court in Times Film v. Chicago did affirm, by a 5-4 vote, that prior censorship of motion pictures was in some circumstances justified. The majority opinion by Justice Clark specifically mentioned obscenity as a possible ground for limiting free speech.51 State and local censorship was not dead, but it had been severely limited in scope. According to the MPAA, by 1965 only four state and ten local boards were actively involved in the censoring of motion pictures.52

At the same time that the Supreme Court was dramatically curtailing the grounds for film censorship, the legislative and executive branches of the federal government were pressuring Hollywood in a variety of ways in order to control film content. The most sustained pressure was brought by the HUAC hearings on communism, which are usually described as attacks on individuals but which had a chilling effect on film content as well (see Chapter 3). However, the federal government also tried to influence and control film content in other ways. In 1950 Senator Edwin C. Johnson (Democrat of Colorado), chairman of the Interstate Commerce Committee, threatened Hollywood with a bill that would "require Government licensing of all actors, actresses, producers and films and would deny or revoke licenses in cases of immoral behavior or content."53 Johnson's anger was evidently fueled by the love affair between Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini (Bergman was married to Dr. Peter Lindstrom at the time), and the outrageous advertising campaign for the Bergman-Rossellini film Stromboli (U.S. release 1950) which exploited that affair. It should come as no surprise, given the many scandals associated with Howard Hughes, that Stromboli was distributed by Hughes's RKO. Johnson's proposed bill, with its sweeping regulation of off-screen as well as on-screen conduct, was probably never intended as serious legislation. It was, instead, a way of pressuring Hollywood toward stricter self-regulation. Johnson called off his investigation when film industry leaders announced that they would amend the MPAA Advertising Code to prohibit "exploitation of misconduct" of actors and other film personalities.54 The MPAA board of directors approved such an amendment on 21 June 1950.

Throughout the 1950s, both the government and the press were very concerned about the distribution of American films abroad: Did they contribute to a positive or negative image of America? This was an urgent question because of the Cold War struggle for world dominance. Though the United States did not routinely censor or control the content of exported films, there were some federal government attempts to influence film exports. In 1953, Cecil B. DeMille became a special consultant to the Motion Picture Service (MPS), a branch of the United States Information Service (USIS). The MPS's main activity was producing and distributing documentary films that would be shown in USIS posts in 87 countries, but it also recommended films for showing in Eastern Europe and "regulated American participation in film festivals abroad."55 C. D. Jack son, who was President Eisenhower's Special Adviser for Psychological Warfare, met with DeMille on how best to use American films abroad.56 A 1959 Congressional hearing revealed a further USIS role—it "blacklisted" certain films from distribution in twelve countries (Burma, Chile, Indonesia, Israel, Pakistan, the Philippines, Poland, Spain, Formosa, Turkey, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia) by excluding them from a program which expedited payments to American companies. Among the eighty-two films denied participation ipation in this program (presumably because they presented negative images of the United States) were All Quiet on the Western Front, All the King's Men, The James Dean Story, and Sweet Smell of Success.57 Also, Luigi Luraschi, Director of Foreign and Domestic Censorship for Paramount, was recruited by the CIA as a confidential informant on the Hollywood industry; Luraschi's reports from 1953 focus on the international implications of Hollywood movies.58 On the legislative side, Senator Alexander Wiley (Republican of Wisconsin), ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave a 1955 speech blasting Hollywood for the export of films that show "an America of sex, sin and sadism, of gangsterism, corruption, filth and degradation." He added, "Such films—few in number—but powerful in effect, have literally been poisoning the minds of some people in the world against us. These films are causing the very opposite of the friendly effect which should be created, if we are to defeat Soviet propaganda."59 Senator Wiley's proposed solution was not federal censorship but heightened self-regulation.

In 1955, Senator Estes Kefauver (Democrat of Tennessee) chaired hearings of the Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee of the Judicial Committee on the influence of television, comic books, motion pictures, and pornography on juvenile delinquency. From 15—17 June the Kefauver subcommittee met in Los Angeles with psychiatrists, the critic William Mooring (of the Catholic publication Tidings), studio heads, MPAA officials, and other Hollywood figures including the actor Ronald Reagan (former head of the Screen Actors Guild).60 Kefauver's biographer notes that the subcommittee found no clear answers on "the link between juvenile delinquency and the crime, violence, and sex dramatized in movies, radio, books and TV."61 However, the subcommittee did recommend "consultation of behavior experts by the code agency and modernization of both the industry's film and advertising codes." Kefauver later announced that he was pleased by the revised language on brutality in the December 1956 revision of the Production Code.62

Yet another instance of the federal government influencing film content was the Department of Defense cooperation agreement with the film and television industries.63 Any filmmaker who wanted to use DOD personnel, equipment, or facilities was required to submit a script for approval. In practice, this meant that almost every film involving recent U.S. military history would need script approval from the DOD's Pictorial Branch, Office of Public Information. The DOD's "stipulations for extending cooperation" included not only accuracy but also adherence to DOD policy and "best interest."64 In the 1950s, the great majority of film industry-DOD collaborations were friendly and non-controversial. In a few cases (for example, Strategic Air Command, 1955), the scripts for war movies were actually written by retired military officers. When the source material for Hollywood films was critical of the military, as in From Here to Eternity (1953), Mr. Roberts (1955), and On the Beach (1959), there was considerable give-and-take between the military and the producers as to what would be acceptable in the film version. The only studio film which was refused cooperation during the 1950s was Attack! (1956), directed by Robert Aldrich for United Artists release. Lieutenant Colonel H. D. Knight of the Army's Public Information Division found the script of this film to be "a very distasteful story and derogatory of Army leadership during combat," and therefore he recommended denial of any form of cooperation.65 Director Aldrich and his partners (their independent company was called The Associates and Aldrich) decided to make Attack! without DOD aid instead of drastically changing the script.

Censorship and Anti-Communism

Both the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency were set up to evaluate movies based on moral criteria. The Production Code contains no discussion of politics except for the catch-all provision on "divine, natural and human law" and brief mentions of respecting the flag and fairly portraying all nations. However, the anticommunism of the 1950s was so pervasive that the wall between moral and political regulation largely disappeared. Kenneth Clark of the MPAA, responding to a charge that Born Yesterday (1950) was a Marxist satire, announced that the PCA would not approve a film hostile "to the purposes of our democracy." The New York Times added that Joseph Breen had been quietly recommending changes to screenplays "that he feels contain or seem to contain anti-capitalistic sentiments."66 Meanwhile, the unofficial and official representatives of the Catholic Church had a tendency to blur moral and political arguments. Thus, Martin Quigley in the Motion Picture Herald denounced "The Miracle" as Communist (though Roberto Rossellini was a supporter of the Christian Democrats in Italy), and Cardinal Spellman objected to Baby Doll as both a religious leader and "a loyal citizen" of America."67 Several Catholic critics (but not the Legion of Decency) actually referred to the film Martin Luther (1953) as communistic, even though their basic objection stemmed from religious doctrine rather than secular politics.68

One way to examine the influence of anti-communism on film censorship is to look at the Hollywood films that attempt a critique of the excesses of McCarthyism. In the early 1950s there simply were no films which directly addressed this issue. However, at least three films from the second half of the decade did take up the topic of extreme anti communism—Trial (1955), Storm Center (1956), and Three Brave Men (1957). The censorship histories of these films reveal a good deal about the limits of expression in 1950s Hollywood.

Trial, produced by MGM, is based on a novel by Don Mankiewicz (son of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, nephew of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz) which critiques the Communist party and small-town conservatives and McCarthyist investigating committees. David Blake (played by Glenn Ford in the film), a naive law professor, is hired by lawyer Barney Castle (played by Arthur Kennedy) to defend Angel Chavez, a teenaged Hispanic boy accused of killing a white girl his own age. With the help of Castle's secretary Abbe Klein (the film changes her name to Abbe Nile, or Nyle, perhaps to avoid the stereotype that Communists are Jewish), Blake develops a convincing argument for Angel's innocence. However, Blake is hindered by Barney Castle, because Castle is a Communist who wants to create a martyr. And even though Abbe and David are falling in love, she gives him no warning about Castle's background because she is a former Communist herself. Meanwhile, Blake is subpoenaed by a state committee investigating communism. Angel is convicted and executed in the novel, but Blake manages to clear his own name.

At the insistence of Dore Schary, the ending of the script (written by Don Mankiewicz, adapting his own novel) was changed so that Angel gets off with a light sentence to a juvenile work farm and the true villain, Barney Castle, is charged with contempt of court. An unhappy tale of how American justice could punish the innocent becomes a demonstration of how right will prevail.69 Nevertheless, Jack Vizzard of the PCA had major concerns about the script for Trial. Vizzard's "Memo for the Files" of 30 March 1955, summarizing a meeting with Schary, producer Charles Schnee, and Mankiewicz, noted that the project brought up a "policy problem" as well as Code issues. The "policy problem" was that the film, though "purportedly an anti-Communist story," could be construed as "Communist Party line propaganda." Some objectionable elements had already been omitted, but Vizzard was still worried about "a plea for kindness" for former Communists, and about the critique of the State Investigating Committee, which was used by its head, Senator Carl Baron Battle, "as an instrument to build himself up to the title of 'King of the Anti-Communists.'" Vizzard worried that a film like this could discredit the entire industry. He concluded that Trial would be denied a Code Seal until the policy matter had been resolved by MPAA President Eric Johnston.70

Vizzard's autobiography reveals that he was terribly concerned about Schary's loyalties—was the MGM studio head a Stevenson liberal or a Communist sympathizer? Vizzard was greatly relieved when Schary agreed to change the script and remove anything that could be construed as Communistic. Schary commented (according to Vizzard) "This is a risk that everyone encounters when he tries to make a picture about a social injustice, on the side of the underdog."71 It is extraordinary that Dore Schary, who had co-written the Waldorf Declaration of 1947 (inaugurating the blacklist) and had enforced the blacklist at RKO and MGM, could be suspected of communism in 1955. However, Vizzard's paranoia about Schary may have been widely shared. This same attitude was expressed by Luigi Luraschi, who told his CIA contact that "Metro" (MGM) is "the Company we must do something about." The only reason given was: "It is felt that he [Dore Schary] leaned very much to the left."72 Evidently, being a liberal and making films about underdogs and minorities were suspicious matters in Cold War Hollywood.

Trial's various objectionable points were changed and the film was released to good reviews and solid business. Most of the reviewers described Trial as a hard-hitting anti-Communist film, though some also found it controversial. For example, the Los Angeles Mirror-News stressed the anti-Communist angle. According to Variety's reviewer, "the film says a lot of fairly grim and unpretty things about human nature" but leaves the viewer with a good feeling. Boxoffice commented that the film presented "racial bigotry, rabble rousing and a Communist rally," which are "rarely shown on the screen"73 Almost all of the book's discussion of the Battle committee disappeared in the film, and Abbe no longer has a Communist past (she was only a fellow traveler). Trial is a fascinating example of how liberal ideas were limited and channeled in the Hollywood of 1955: it retains the theme of minority rights, but must give up (because of PCA objections) the critique of investigating committees.

In the early 1950s Daniel Taradash and Elick Moll wrote a script for producer Stanley Kramer about a small-town librarian who loses her job because she will not remove a book titled The Communist Dream from the library collection. The film project got a publicity boost when Mary Pickford agreed to appear in it (she had not made a film for many years), but at the last minute Pickford withdrew. The film, with an explicitly anti-McCarthyist theme, was, according to Taradash "a terribly difficult picture to make because it ran counter to the entire mood of the country."74 However, in 1955 Taradash convinced Columbia Pictures to finance the film for Phoenix Corporation, an independent company formed by Taradash and producer Julian Blaustein. Bette Davis would star, Taradash would direct, and Taradash and Blaustein would take no salaries but would share in the profits (if any). Harry Cohn personally supported this film, despite the objections of other Columbia executives.

The Librarian, the working title for the film, obviously would not do, so in 1956 the title was changed to Storm Center. It is an uneven film, with an excellent role for Davis but also less-than-satisfying subplots about a disturbed young boy who burns down the library and an ambitious, Red-baiting city councilman. The burning of the library is not well connected to the rest of the plot, but emotionally it suggests that removing a book from the shelves is the equivalent of burning it. Davis's character is ultimately rehired, and she vows never to allow another book to be removed.

The censorship history of Storm Center is interestingly mixed. The PCA approved it with minimal fuss, asking only that caution be used in presenting children playing with matches.75 The MPAA actually participated in a First Amendment-oriented publicity brochure for the film, with Arthur DeBra, MPAA Director of Community Relations, writing about "the untrammeled right to read."76 On the other hand, the Legion of Decency found storm Center disturbing and objectionable. The film had no profanity, nudity, brutality, or other moral problems, so the Legion gave it a Separate Classification (rather than a "C" rating), explaining that "the highly propagandistic nature of this controversial film (book-burning, anti-communism, civil liberties) offers a warped and strongly emotional solution to a complex problem of American life."77 Father Little of the Legion actually called Columbia Pictures to discuss possible Communist affiliations of producer Julian Blaustein, who had been investigated by the Tenney Committee in California in 1948. Columbia ignored Father Little's implicit threat.78 The Legion was evidently unwilling to accept any criticism of anti-communism in 1956, and this included Taradash's very specific and limited argument for free speech.

In 1957, Twentieth Century-Fox released Three Brave Men, a dramatic film about a real-life mistake made by the U.S. Navy's internal security program. The film was based on Pulitzer Prize-winning articles by Anthony Lewis, who reported on the case of Abraham Chasanow. Chasanow, a civilian employee of the navy with almost twenty-three years of service, was declared a security risk and suspended without pay on 29 July 1953. He was charged with Communist associations and with being part of a radical group in Greenbelt, Maryland. Chasanow's friends rallied around him, and an official hearing endorsed his good character and suggested that the charges arose from an emotional dispute about housing in Greenbelt. Nevertheless, Chasanow was fired by the navy in 1954. A few months later, a new, more thorough investigation requested by Assistant Secretary of the Navy J. H. Smith Jr. found no Communist affiliations and no radical group. Chasanow was cleared and reinstated.79

Chasanow's story was adapted for the screen by Philip Dunne for Twentieth Century—Fox; Dunne also directed. The "three brave men" of the title are Bernie Goldsmith (the Chasanow character), played by Ernest Borgnine;80 his lawyer, played by Ray Mil-land; and the assistant secretary of the navy, played by Dean Jagger. Philip Dunne's script was found uncontroversial by the PCA. However, the final script was shaped by intensive collaboration between the filmmakers and the U.S. Navy.

Twentieth Century-Fox sent the script of Three Brave Men to the navy in July 1956. Though Fox did want navy help with props and locations, this story involved no combat scenes and it could have been shot without cooperation. Nevertheless, Fox submitted to a kind of voluntary censorship (which was, of course, common practice for American films about the military). Fox most likely wanted the navy's advice and also its approval—to avoid any controversy after the film's release. Thomas S. Gates Jr., acting secretary of the navy, found Philip Dunne's script inaccurate and misleading.81 In response, Dunne quickly wrote a new draft, relying on navy sources for accuracy and emphasizing "that the Chasanow case was far from being a typical case and that under current procedures it could not happen again." Dunne's script also stresses the necessity for security procedures and eliminates "direct reference to the anti-Semitic aspect of the case."82 Albert Pratt, assistant secretary of the navy, upon receiving the new draft, replied that the film still needed to make clear that the "Communist internal threat" was responsible for new security procedures and that the navy was working hard to meet this threat "while at the same time preserving the traditional rights of the individual."83 The film company and the U.S. Navy must have reached an understanding, for a later memo announces that the DOD was generally satisfied by the finished film.84

Philip Dunne's autobiography expresses disappointment with Three Brave Men. The original idea was to tell "a story (the true one) of unseen terror, of a man fighting in the dark against unknown enemies." Chasanow is "accused of disloyalty, fired, disgraced and ruined," and he is not allowed "to avail himself of any of the protections supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution." However, the film was rewritten, following the navy's recommendations, so that the emphasis was on "the Navy's point of view, not the victim's."85 The basic theme of the finished film is that the navy's internal security program made a mistake and later corrected its mistake. This theme is powerfully presented by the closing lines of the film, spoken by the assistant secretary: "A free country learns from its mistakes. I offer you the Navy's apology for the grave injustice you've suffered." Philip Dunne was hoping for more—for a Kafkaesque tale of the denial of human rights—but he does note that "no other picture had even feebly attacked the witchhunters."86 He is correct in his assessment, with the exception of Storm Center.


The Hollywood film industry of the 1950s faced a confusing pattern of government censorship and "voluntary agencies" that "exercise some measure of surveillance, judgment and even control" over the film medium.87 Many different censoring and influencing organizations had to be considered, and the "rules" of what was morally and politically acceptable were rapidly changing. State and local censorship became much less active after the Miracle decision of 1952, but the federal government tried to influence movie content in various ways. Among the "voluntary agencies," the most important were the Production Code Administration (the "internal censor" of the film industry), and the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency. These two organizations, which often but not always worked in complementary ways, had a firm grip on film content in the early 1950s but gradually loosened that grip as the decade progressed.

It must be stressed that the PCA and the Legion did not simply make judgments on finished films, they worked with the filmmakers to set the moral and, in some cases, political tone of 1950s Hollywood (as with Three Brave Men, the Defense Department could also be involved in this process). Consensus emerged in a give-and-take between the filmmakers and the regulators. In many cases there was no controversy about a film' content. In a few highly publicized cases—The Moon Is Blue, Baby Doll, Tea and Sympathy, and a few others—there was great deal of controversy, decisions made regarding them set future parameters for both the film industry and the regulating agencies. However, the influence of the audience must also be considered. For example, both the PCA and the Legion opposed The Moon Is Blue, but audiences flocked to it and critics endorsed it. This weakened the voluntary agencies and speeded the trend toward more explicit treatment of sexuality in Hollywood films.