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Movies and Morals

From the Pit

By Gerald E. Bunker

For some time the development of American cinema as responsible social criticism has been hampered by an outdated Movie Production Code which has recently been radically liberalized. This code is a voluntary intraindustry set-up designed to assuage self-appointed guardians of the national moral fiber and to squelch agitation for federal censorship. It is not aimed primarily at pornography or obscenity, but at insuring that the films will not conflict with moral principles of one sort or another. Crime doesn't pay, true love always wins out, infidelity and adultery must be punished, national honor, the fair name of American womanhood, and the Church must not be besmirched or ridiculed, such unsavory things as dope addiction or sexual abberation should not be mentioned, and everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

The major effect of the old Code was to cheapen the film's subject matter rather than purify it. Instead of presenting sex, which is after all the theme of most drama, honestly and openly, Hollywood presents us Marilyn Monroe wiggling her hips, and the audience is supposed to respond "This is SEX." Such an attitude is perhaps greatly responsible for the gold-plated, wired-for-sound image of the world that Hollywood purveys.

The need for a new code has been long felt in the industry and most directors have become quite adroit at suggesting rather than stating the obvious, or implying one thing and saying another. The movie-version of Tea and Sympathy for instance, turned a lad suspected of homosexuality into an introvert who didn't like sports. But the theme of The Man With the Golden Arm could not be twisted enough to fit inside the limits of the Old Code. As one wit put it, "You just can't make a dope addict into an off-beat character." The film was released without the Production Board seal of approval, and was financially successful, as were I Am a Camera and The Moon is Blue, also released without the seal.

The new Code which the industry has recently formulated under Board Chairman Eric Johnson was promulgated under these pressures and it makes a sharp departure from the strict provisions of the old Code. The new Code now defines as its criterion "the limits of good taste." That the industry should so repudiate its old standards on the grounds of the success of the banned films indicates a sharp break with the several pressure groups who largely formulated the old Code. The industry has realized that the American public is not so puerile as the Legion of Decency or the American Legion would have it.

The powers of these amateur censors are expressed in the following ways:

1) Private blacklisting on political or religious grounds.

2) Economic threats and other sanctions applied against the Production Code Board and individual producers before a film is released.

3) Pressures applied against individual theatre owners.

Certainly individuals and groups have the right to say what they please and no one can object to this. No one questions the right and obligation of religious leaders to counsel their congregations, but it is an abridgement of a fundamental freedom (as well as a misuse of their position) to attempt to enforce their opinions on the nation as a whole. Msgr. Thomas E. Little, Chairman of the Catholic Legion of Decency declared, for example, that he felt most Protestants and Jews should concur with the Legion's guidance in encouraging "better" motion pictures and discouraging "morally undesirable" ones.

The second sanction, however, is perhaps the most dangerous and the most effective; that is, efforts to censor a particular film before it is released. And the economic power of these groups is sufficient to force many producers to comply. Robert Aldrich, an independent director-producer, claims that the producer has "no recourse" when the Legion demands cuts. Kazan also was irate in a letter to the New York Times complaining of 28 separate cuts he had been forced to make in Streetcar Named Desire to get the Legion's approval. And no producer is willing to alienate the large percentage of the population which the Legion claims to represent.

Thirdly, there are numerous examples of boycotting or picketing individual theatres, or tacit agreements that certain films should not be shown. It is fair to say that a theatre owner has the right to show what he wants. But on the other hand, a movie as a work of art depends upon its exhibitors for its very life, and should have the same right of dissemination that printed literature has. If there is a substantial demand for a certain film, it should not be squelched by the disapproval of a minority, or even ideally, of a majority.

Even more objectionable than censorship on moral grounds are the various attempts to ban or obstruct films on the basis of the political beliefs or activities of the artists involved. Chief among these transgressions is the American Legion's picketing of Charlie Chaplin's films, or even of Born Yesterday because Judy Holliday once signed a front organization's petition.

There is very little that any art form, most of all the cinema, can say significantly that is not bound to offend somebody. But the offense is less dangerous than the suffocation of the art. Modern drama and literature have shown a deep concern for the darker side of life; to cut the cinema off from this mainstream of intense concern and bewilderment in modern art is to allow it to become more and more a picture of a mythical and unreal world.

The revised Code, and the Board's approval of the controversial Baby Doll, however, is a sign that the industry is freeing itself from the undue influence of particular groups in regard for a broader popular taste and artistic integrity. Perhaps with time and with liberal support, the industry will assert itself towards removing these hindrances to free expression and will raise the stature of the American cinema to a creative art. As Sam Goldwyn said, speaking for the industry, "We should and must have the same right as any other medium to say what we think, and to show what really exists."

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