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II)A)3) The Collapse of the Studio System and the Rise of the “Art House.”

I hope I don’t sound condescending when I suggest that perhaps a modern audience might read the Production Code [previous post] and wonder how anyone could produce creatively and financially successful films under such limitations. In fact, the Code-era coincides with Hollywood’s Golden Age.

I have an ongoing discussion with my uncle (who is somewhat more conservative than I am) about whether or not the code restrictions were a good thing our a bad thing. He loves the movies of the Golden Age, and abhors the casual vulgarity and violence that is so common in contemporary-culture.

I appreciate the classics (and as a low budget filmmaker find them especially informative for basic film-craft. The best advice I ever got about editing was “watch old movies and study how they get people in and out of rooms.”) But also find them mannered. Watching movies from the Golden Age, I don’t feel transported in quite the same way that I do watching something like The Wire.

Where my uncle and I meet is in the very grown-up movies of the late 60s and early 70s – Carnal Knowledge, Klute, Midnight Cowboy, etc – the films made in the very first few years after the demise of the Production Code. But before getting into those movies, why they suddenly flourished and then just as suddenly disappeared, I think it’s worthing taking a look at the forces that brought about the end of the Production Code.

The detective’s maxim is “follow the money,” and when I follow the money I end up in the government forced break-up of film studios and theaters.Up until the 50s, Hollywood had been a vertically integrated opporation. Studios produced films to show in theaters they owned (or visa versa) and there wasn’t an easy path for films made outside the this “close-shop” to find their way to an audience. After the devestiture, films made outside the studio system and outside the Production Code had a way in.

My uncle remembers Italian and French films from this era as being strikingly different from American fare. They were gritty and grown-up n a a way that American films weren’t, and dealt with adult themes with a frankness that American films couldn’t. It wasn’t so much course language or nudity (though there was both in these films), it was that these films seemed more “real”, and by comparison typical Hollywood fare suddenly seems quite artificial.

That writers, directors, and actors were eager to get in on this is no surprise. New themes and new approaches are like new paints or new filmstocks, and any creative person clamors to play with new toys. But more important (in my mind at least) is that the studio bosses wanted in too, and were willing to go to the mat for “creative freedom” and the box office receipts that came with it. Three movies seem to stand out.


Thelma Oliver in The Pawnbroker (1964)

In 1964 The Pawnbroker was initially denied a Production Code seal over a brief showing of a woman’s bare breast. The studio appealed and won. The Pawn Broker become the first film with female nudity of any sort to be released under the Production Code.

In 1966 after “negotiations” with the MPAA Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf was released under the Production Code seal with some alterations to Edward Albie’s dialog, but also with language never before heard in a Production Code film.

In that same year MGM’s Blowup was denied a Production Code seal, and MGM turned its back on it’s fellow MPAA member studios and released the film without changes and without a Production Code seal.

Now if you’ll permit me  personal detour.

In 2006, as required by Australian law, the Melbourne Underground Film Festival requested permission from the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) to screen my film Damon and Hunter: Doing it Together at the seventh edition of the festival. The OFLC denied the request, and MUFF went ahead and screened the film anyway. (So many people showed up an impromptu screening was set up in a second room!)

Maybe this sounds sort of like MGM defying the MPAA over Blowup, but in fact it’s nothing like that at all, and here’s why.

Two months later queerDOC, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian International Documentary Film Festival scheduled Damon and Hunter for two screenings in their 2006 festival. But when the OFLC became aware of queerDOC’s intention to screen my film, they threatened the festival with a fine, and it’s director Lex Lindsey with jail. queerDOC subsituted a gay-themed sit-com in place of Damon and Hunter.

In 2007, again as required by law, the Melbourne Underground Film Festival requested permission from the OFLC to screen Ashley and Kisha: Find the Right Fit at the eighth edition of the festival. Again the OFLC denied the request, and informed festival director Richard Wolstencroft that if he screened Ashley and Kisha he could face fines and jail time. Wolstencroft responded with an open letter to the OFLC stating that he intended to comply with the OFLC’s demands.

None the less, on the night of the proposed screening the OFLC had officers from the Melbourne Police Department despatched to the theater to make sure that, unlike 2006, MUFF did not go ahead with the screening. Two member of the Melbourne Police Department, wearing side-arms stood by, while a round table on censorship was held in place of the OFLC cancelled screening.

This is why I get a little short tempered when I hear people talk about the MPAA and/or the Hays Code as censorship. I have yet to read anywhere any suggestion that the MPAA sent armed agents of the state to MGM to prevent the release of Blowup.  Whatever its excesses, idiosyncrasies, and shortcomings, in its past or present incarnation, it’s not censorship.

Blowup was the last straw. With studios ready to bolt in pursuit of artistic integrity and the profits they hoped would follow, the Production Code was dead. What quickly came in its place was a four-tiered system of “parental notification” – a system that would usher in opportunities and excesses of its own.

Next post: How “X-rated” became synonymous with “porn,” and the death of movie making for grown-ups.

Thanks for reading. If you have a thought or correction or a different point view, please do chime in!

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5 Responses

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  1. Tony's uncle said

    I’m following my nephew’s blog on this subject with great interest, as I’m old enough to have grown up with the Production Code and never knew Hollywood movies that were any different. Extreme violence was usually off-screen, husband and wife slept in separate beds, bad people were punished in the last reel, and there was no nudity or cursing.

    None of that made the movies any less enjoyable for me. Despite the Code’s restrictions (or because of them), there was a lot of subtext in these movies, ideas or dialogue that were lost on youngsters like myself but that the grown-ups got right away.
    I don’t necessarily mean the camera gliding off to a fireplace
    or to crashing waves after the man and woman kiss, even though that was a common cinematic device for sex. I’m thinking now about the homosexual undercurrents in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” or the racy banter in the Bogart/Bacall films. When I see these movies today, I’m amazed at their not-so-subtle eroticism.

    Back then, movies were made for a general audience. But once in a while you’d see “Adults Only” or “Not Suitable for Children” in an ad or on a sign at the theater’s box office. That usually meant the theme had to do with unwed motherhood, marital infidelity, or the suggestion of rape. Occasionally there was a wildly violent movie such as “White Heat” with James Cagney, which drew one of those labels.

    In the late ’40s, after WWII, Hollywood movies got a certain “edge” to them. The Code was still in operation but the story lines became more mature. Good examples of this trend would be “The Lost Weekend,” “The Snake Pit,” “Pinky,” “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” and “Crossfire.” These movies dealt directly with once-taboo subjects such as alcoholism, mental illness, race, and anti-Semitism, which was very startling at that time. These films were “adult” in every sense of the word, without naked bodies, simulated sex, or the f-word being heard every five minutes. The influences, of course, were the changing social values after the war and the emergence of gritty European films such as “Open City.” Interestingly enough, I don’t recall any “adults only” restrictions for these movies, as I saw all of them when I was quite young.

    One film made during this time that should be mentioned is “Duel in the Sun,” David O. Selznick’s over-the-top 1946 Western. Today, it’s a movie that causes some people to snicker, and even in its era it was laughlngly dubbed by critics as “Lust in the Dust.” The movie, however, was truly daring for its time as it was all about sexual obsession. Not Hitchcock’s cool and sophisticated depiction of obsession in “Vertigo,” but a flamboyant and unapologetic sexuality that had not been seen on the screen since the pre-Code days. “Duel in the Sun” had an unyielding hothouse atmosphere about it, with almost every scene presented in a torrid, heavy-breathing, red-and-orange style. Jennifer Jones, that innocent young girl from “The Song of Bernadette,” was suddenly photographed in the most lascivious manner and Gregory Peck was cast against type as an amoral, sneering outlaw. The movie defied the Code: rape, murder, miscegenation, adultery, violence, religious hypocrisy, etc. Selznick ran afoul of the censors and was forced to make a few cuts to get the coveted Seal, but the movie still shocked audiences. (In a documentary about Hollywood, Martin Scorcese remembers its saturated color and its opening credits: shotgun blasts against a blinding sun.)

    I was only 12 years old when “Duel in the Sun” was released, so I was not allowed into theaters to see it. But its advertising and promotion were everywhere (there were even jigsaw puzzles of scenes from the movie), so I was well aware of it. It was definitely “Adults Only.” When I was 16, I finally was old enough to get in and saw it on a re-issue. I felt so grown-up, as if I had had my first sexual encounter!

    I do understand what my nephew says about The Golden Age of Hollywood producing movies that were somewhat mannered. For sure, they weren’t as realistic-looking as movies made today and the acting styles, with some exceptions, look artificial by today’s standards. And yet, many
    dozens of them stand the test of time (witness the popularity of Turner Classic Movies), while I doubt that few made today will be long remembered.

  2. orthodoxhe said

    The first sections of Mark Harris’ recent book Pictures at a Revolution has a pretty good capsule history of the undermining and collapse of the code and it’s just a fun read, too.
    As to whether the MPAA was practicing censorship, I would agree that it is not coercive state censorship. But censorship does not always happen at the end of a gun. I would ask, if an organization is previewing and demanding changes, at the script level and at each stage of production thereafter, as the Hays Office did, doesn’t it have a similar result? There’s no need for police – the offense never sees the light of day. Today’s MPAA does not do that, of course – rather than a censorship before the fact it operates in a softer, more managerial form – anyone can make anything, but the MPAA shapes exhibition possibilities through the certifications they affix (acknowledging that this isn’t the ONLY shaper of those possibilities). Maybe it’s not George Orwell’s censorship but it does serve a definitional function of some kind, doesn’t it – limiting possibilities in the marketplace?

  3. Tony Comstock said

    I’ll concede a little ground if we’re talking about the Golden Age, when Hollywood enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the moving image.

    But having both the experience of being a part of various trade organizations that expect certain standards of behavior from their membership (BBB, CoC) and actual point of gun censorship — both over seas and here in the US — I feel more qualified than most to offers an informed opinion about what the difference is.

    Also, I think the exhibition issues around X/NC-17 are mostly unintended consequences and consequences very much outside the MPAA’s control. More on that in the next post!

  4. Tony Comstock said

    And not to put too fine a point on it, today Rob Black and LIzzy Borden pled out their obscenity case and will be going to jail for a year each.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. II)A)4) How “X-rated” became synonymous with “porn,” and the death of movie making for grown-ups. – The Intent to Arouse linked to this post on July 2, 2009

    [...] But there have always been films deemed “not suitable for children,” and long before X or NC-17 there was an “adults only” classification, given to films like DUAL IN THE SUN, BABY DOLL, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, TO EACH HIS OWN and others that, by the standards of the day, were deemed to be inappropriate for children. (More about this in my uncle’s very excellent comment on the previous post.) [...]

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