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The history of American cinema in the twen­tieth century is understood today as a march from inhibition to expression. The films produced during the long reign of the Motion Picture Production Code, from 1934 to 1968, are assumed to be deficient for honoring limits on what could be seen and heard on the screen. Likewise, the frankness and explicitness that came to characterize films after the Code fell are assumed to be an unqualified good: Artists, we are told, should be free to depict whatever they want, and those who object to candid representations of sex and graphic displays of violence must be prudes or scolds.

We are told that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice; undoubtedly, the arc of the cinematic universe bends toward freedom. But at what cost? Most of us can recognize that the end of screen censorship had unintended social consequences, but few appreciate the artistic and aesthetic ­ramifications.

In a 2000 essay, filmmaker and film scholar Peter Bogdanovich noted that the period between the Code’s implementation and its demise coincided with an era of artistic splendor in Hollywood: “The code was in force . . . through much of what we now look back on as the Golden Age of talking pictures (1929-1962).” These were the years of Citizen Kane (1941), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The Code’s restrictions resulted not in movies intended exclusively for children, clergymen, or old ladies, but rather in sophisticated and civilized movies that, within reasonable boundaries, presented the human parade in all its richness.

The notion that movies should be able to show or say absolutely anything would never have occurred to the earliest practitioners of the medium. Long before the implementation of the Production Code, various forms of censorship, official and unofficial, were attempted, pondered, and sometimes put into practice. Social norms set limits on what any mogul would even consider filming.

The stakes were clear as early as 1915, with the Supreme Court ruling in Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that the new art of motion pictures fell outside the protections of the First Amendment. “It cannot be put out of view that the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit, like other spectacles, not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion,” wrote Justice Joseph McKenna. The decision stood until 1953, when film distributor Joseph Burstyn succeeded in persuading the Court that freedom of speech should shield Roberto Rossellini’s controversial short film The Miracle from censorship in the state of New York.

During the teens and twenties, the studios faced significant exposure, as films that flirted with controversial material or outre attitudes risked butting up against state censor boards. In 1922, in a bid to wrest censorship power from government agencies and rehabilitate an industry dinged by a series of unsavory scandals, former U.S. Postmaster General Will H. Hays was tapped to helm what was then known as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.

Several years of scattershot efforts to regulate content led, in 1929, to a more vigorous regime of self-censorship, the Production Code. The handiwork of Motion Picture Herald editor Martin ­Quigley, a Catholic, and Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit, the Code was astonishingly comprehensive in what it asked filmmakers to omit. In the version approved in 1930, the Code predictably forbade nudity, graphic representations of violence, and profanity; it also prohibited scenes of drug trafficking, arson, disrespect to the American flag, and cruelty to children or animals. The Code could be over-the-top—there’s no other way to read the warning against “dances which emphasize indecent movements”—and at times prejudiced in the manner of its era, as in its prohibition of portrayals of interracial relationships.

Yet the Code was more than a checklist. “Contrary to popular belief,” wrote film historian Thomas P. Doherty in his book Pre-Code Hollywood, “the document was not a grunted jeremiad from bluenose fussbudgets, but a polished treatise reflecting long and deep thought in aesthetics, education, communications theory, and moral ­philosophy.”

Early on, Hollywood opted for a laissez-faire approach to carrying out the Code. In fact, enough controversial pictures reached the public that this era is considered “pre-Code.” Anti-censorship ­voices speak of this period much as ­Christians refer to the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Gangsters ran wild in films like The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932), and sex was alluded to in films like Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)—although, viewed today, these films appear only slightly naughty and moderately amoral.

We are accustomed to hearing, in regard to social or cultural matters, that you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube—but in 1934, Hollywood did. Joseph I. Breen, also a Catholic (and, history tells us, a bully and an anti-Semite), was drafted to helm the Production Code Administration (PCA), which was granted ­authority to assure compliance with the Code by consulting with studios and then issuing seals of approval. The boisterous, Jazz Age–style freedom of the pre-Code era was gone, but the push-pull between Hollywood and Breen’s iron hand didn’t result in so much milquetoast. To the contrary, Hollywood entered its Golden Age.

Those who applaud the fall of the old constraints on movies, music, and television presumably believe that these media were, in some fashion, inhibited by those constraints. Some major filmmakers thought so. “If you committed adultery, you were struck by lightning, or you fell down the well—you were punished,” George Cukor, who directed The Philadelphia Story, My Fair Lady, and a dozen other classic films, said in an interview with Bogdanovich. “If you were punished and saw the error of your ways that was OK.”

Certainly the Code’s tendency to simplify human behavior is regrettable, but Cukor overstated the case. Films of ambition and complexity routinely navigated the Code; they were merely tethered to good taste in the same manner that public ­indecency laws enforce good taste on all of us (by requiring, for instance, the wearing of clothes). Among the moguls who defended the Code was Darryl F. Zanuck, who, as Frank Walsh reports in his book Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry, “challenged anyone to name ten best-selling novels or stage plays that could not be put on the screen because of Breen’s office.” As examples of risky material that had made it past the Code and into American theaters, Zanuck cited From Here to Eternity and A Streetcar Named Desire. Great directors became experts in alluding to what could not be shown. Fireworks accompanied a kiss between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955), and since Grant and Ingrid Bergman, playing unmarried would-be lovers, would not be allowed to share a bed in Indiscreet (1958), Stanley Donen devised split-screen shots in which the performers talked to each other while occupying their own beds.

But to defend the Code is not merely to celebrate clever workarounds. At its best, the Code promoted an atmosphere in which goodness and virtue were always in filmmakers’ minds, regardless of whether the checklist was adhered to. “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it,” the Code decreed, and to look back at Hollywood during those years is to find films that, with remarkable consistency, upheld kindness, humility, chastity, and common decency, while denouncing malevolence, arrogance, wantonness, and bigotry. Films such as Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Vincente ­Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) offered visions of the world as it ought to be. The genre of film noir, not to mention the thrillers of Hitchcock, certainly delighted in stylish and compelling villains, but those pictures plainly inhabited a movie dream world, a fantasy of fallenness. And the Production Code had room for pictures that presented ugly social realities: Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) confronted ills of the age—anti-Semitism and ­racism—with dignity and ­seriousness.

Would Ford’s The Searchers have been more powerful if filmed with Tarantino-style graphicness? Or Hitchcock’s Vertigo more potent if Kim Novak had been given a nude scene? Most people, if they’re honest with themselves, do blanch when they see graphic violence, do feel embarrassed (or titillated) when they see an unclothed body. These reactions can easily overwhelm narrative and characterization. Films like The Searchers and Vertigo endure thanks in part to their artful indirection.

In the prescient but forgotten book Man in Modern Fiction (1958), literary critic Edmund Fuller contrasted the clinically accurate depictions of sex in contemporary fiction with the far subtler evocations of physical love in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. “Where have these insights into the sexual experience of the human creature been surpassed?” Fuller asked. “What could be added to them by the four-­letter-word or anatomical-chart approach? Such expedients could only diminish the effect.”

The cultural vanguard, dissatisfied with playing inside the lines, agitated for freedom. In 1953, Otto Preminger released his, in hindsight, exceedingly decorous bedroom farce The Moon Is Blue—controversial at the time merely for its use of words such as “virgin”—without the imprimatur of the Code. Increasingly, Code approval was given to films that tested its limits, including Preminger’s masterpiece Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Sidney Lumet’s brilliant portrait of a Holocaust survivor, The Pawnbroker (1964). These films were, as they should have been, accommodated by an evolving Code; Breen had left the PCA in 1954. But the center did not hold, and by 1968, the Code was no more. The ineffective ratings system still in use today sprang up in its stead.

Among the elite, this process was regarded as a natural, necessary evolution. In 1972, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael praised the release of Bernardo Bertolucci’s X-rated drama Last Tango in Paris, starring ­Marlon Brando and Maria ­Schneider as strangers seeking sex, as an artistic advance on par with the premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Kael found in both works “the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism.” “The movie breakthrough has finally come,” Kael enthused. Yet ­Bertolucci’s film has won no enduring audience. Its achievement has been to help to mainstream graphic displays of sex and nudity in later, and lesser, films and shows. Today, no one claims that Game of Thrones is a successor to a ­Stravinsky ­masterpiece.

If we accept Kael’s premise—that the movies were in need of a “breakthrough”—then mass media is on a treadmill with no end. Yesterday’s breakthrough is today’s old news. For a film to startle audiences, as Last Tango in Paris did fifty years ago, it will have to be more explicit than what came before; this is how we end up with Boogie Nights, Shame, Midsommar, and the Saw series. One shudders to think that the entertainment industry will someday reach what might be called maximum offensiveness.

As films won the right to show more, they became, overall, less aspirational and more “realistic”—that is to say, grittier, grimier, often tackier and tawdrier. As Bogdanovich noted nearly a quarter-century ago, the Code’s fall “has not translated into a greater degree of maturity or artistry, but rather the opposite.” It is not clear that Brando and Schneider’s confused strangers in Last Tango in Paris depict reality with greater insight than, say, William Powell and Myrna Loy’s contented married couple in The Thin Man series. Last Tango’s explicitness is taken by many as a token of sophistication, whereas, in fact, overt sex and violence have become media commodities valued above sophistication, which they eclipse.

In lieu of outright censorship, our lives today are ruled by ratings, age restrictions, content warnings, and trigger warnings. But, like the attempt of Tipper ­Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) to affix warning labels to offensive CDs in the 1980s, these half-hearted attempts at censorship are unworthy of the name. Interrogating Gore and her critics on a 1988 episode of Firing Line, William F. Buckley expressed sympathy for her position but concluded, as we must, that her measures were insufficient:

It is nowhere written in the Constitution that people have a right to peddle merchandise, especially to children, that encourage this kind of wantonness, so I say Mrs. Gore is correct in suggesting that we ought to move in the direction of doing something about it but that she has not come up with an impressive means of doing this, perhaps because she is intimidated, as I don’t think one ought to be, by the sound of censorship.

Let us recall Hollywood under the Code and muster the determination not to be intimidated by the sound of censorship.

Peter Tonguette writes from Columbus, Ohio.

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