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Censorship and the Movies
The question of to censor or not to censor has been one that has plagued this country for decades. Censorship is a government action to keep certain things that are considered dangerous from entering into the mass market. One wonders whether why this is not a good idea, but it all goes back to the first amendment: Freedom of Speech. In the United States, the Constitution grants us the privilege to say whatever we want to say, as long as we are responsible with this privilege. The first question which pops up is what would the government censor if they were allowed to censor. Pornography? All well and good. Filthy language? Good idea. Christianity? Uh-oh. Problem. You see, there has to be some standard by which things can be judged. In a culture which has become largely un-Christian, there is no longer any standard except personal feelings. We have no way of controlling which things the government might censor; therefore allowing them to censor at all is dangerous to our belief systems and our way of life.
Censorship in the movies started after a fashion almost as soon as movies were born. There was no federal censorship, but individual states and cities tried to censor films in their own areas. A few censorship cases were appealed by movie studios all the way to the Supreme Court. However, several things soon became clear. Firstly, the Supreme Court did not recognize that the freedom of speech clause was binding to states (Carmen 18). In other words, the federal government was not allowed to do national censorship, but the states could exercise censorship within their jurisdiction. Secondly, the Supreme Court did not apply freedom of speech to the movies, considering them sideshow entertainment and not worthy of the label “speech” (Carmen 12). Thirdly, the Supreme Court saw a difference between freedom of speech being taken to mean freedom to communicate ideas and freedom of speech meaning freedom to communicate ideas in any fashion whatsoever (Carmen 32). In other words, the government cannot keep someone from speaking on any subject he wants. However, the government can keep someone from using a loudspeaker (or sound truck) while he speaks on any subject he wants (Carmen 36). The first is protected by freedom of speech; the second is a possible infringement on the rights of others.
By the early 1920s, many states and cities had many different film censorship laws. For example: “Women could not smoke on-screen in Kansas but could in Ohio. A pregnant woman could not appear on-screen in Pennsylvania but could in New York” (Leff and Simmons 4). This inconsistency was a headache for Hollywood producers. They had no way of synthesizing all of the rules, and it was not acceptable for the states simply to cut out objectionable footage, for this might ruin the continuity of the movie. The answer: Joseph Breen. He was called in under the auspices of former Postmaster General Will Hays to be Hollywood’s link with the federal and state governments. Breen was responsible for screening all films made and advising the producers on what might be problematic in some areas, using a document called “The Don’ts and Be Carefuls.” The studios had no problem with this arrangement, because Breen also interceded on their behalf when he felt it was necessary. Breen and the Don’ts and Be Carefuls lasted only a few years, however, before they were replaced with the Hollywood Production Code (Leff and Simmons 8). The Code would not gain complete authority until 1934, four years after its introduction, due to the rather lenient system utilizing a jury made up of West Coast producers.
The most powerful moral force in the 1920s was the Catholic Legion of Decency. The studios were deathly afraid of offending the Legion; afraid that the Legion would ban their films, causing a ghastly drop in box-office due to the number of Catholics not attending. It was actually a Catholic newspaper man, Martin Quigley, who wrote the text of what would become the Production Code in 1930 (Leff and Simmons 8).
However, in 1932 a monkey wrench named Mae West was thrown into the Hollywood works. Her bawdy stage plays had become scandalous hits on Broadway, and Paramount Pictures saw dollar signs all over her hourglass figure. Paramount signed her against the orders of the Hays Office and released She Done Him Wrong, which went blatantly against several portions of the Code, but still made money. Production of a second West vehicle was begun, and the Legion, working with the Hays Office, made a calculated attack on it, forcing Paramount to clean up its act by banding together with several large censorship cities. By 1934, Joseph Breen was again in charge of the Code, and a revised version was put into effect. This time it worked. The Golden Age of Hollywood was ushered in through the efforts of the Will Hays Office, the Legion of Decency and Joseph Breen.
There are a few things that should be noticed about this period. First, the Production Code was censorship. The studios, while ostensibly allowed to release a film without its being approved by Breen, were highly discouraged not to do so by the threat of boycott from the Legion of Decency as well as less-desirable censorship from the state and local governments. Second, it was not dictatorial censorship. Breen and his associates also worked on the sides of the studios when they felt that something was integral to the story. For example: Second-in-command Colonel Joy “devoted much time to protecting serious but controversial pictures from abusive cuts by local, state, and foreign censor boards” (Leff and Simmons 15). Third, this censorship originated not in the government, but in the church. This is proper. The church should be the moral guardian of a country. The government should not. However, when the church begins to neglect this responsibility, the government will step in to take over. Nature abhors a vacuum. Fourth, this censorship was supported by the cultural climate of America. The general populace of the United States in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s was composed of upright, churchgoing citizens. Many of the moviegoers were children, or families with children. Movies were, and still are, the essence of mainstream entertainment.
As the culture changed, so did the climate of Hollywood. In the 1960s, daring producers were beginning to release films without Code approval. Many of these films did well financially, undermining the power of the Motion Picture Association of America (which is what the Breen Office evolved into). In 1968, Jack Valenti became MPAA president and abolished the Code, setting up a version of our modern ratings system. Producers submit films to the MPAA to be rated and ask for the rating they would like. If the MPAA approves the film for that rating, all is well and good. If not, the director may edit the film and resubmit it; or they may release the film without a rating.
Does the ratings system count as censorship? Only because our mainstream culture has refused to accept films with X-rated content. Nobody is keeping filmmakers from releasing whatever they want to release. Although filmmakers claim the ratings system is dictatorial and oppressive, the truth is that the public would not accept the movies many filmmakers apparently want to make. The ratings system, in theory at least, is a reflection of what is wanted by the majority of moviegoers.
The ratings system is there as a guide. A film rated G has been given the seal of approval for all audiences. One rated R has been restricted to adult audiences. Critics like to nitpick on certain instances where the MPAA was arbitrary or compromising in its ratings, but the fact is that the system, for the most part, is a helpful guide for parents.
And this is the most important thing. It is a guide for parents. The ultimate censor is the parent. This goes back to what I said with the Legion of Decency in the Production Code days. If all parents would keep up with their responsibility toward their children, there would be no need for censorship of any kind. When parents neglect this responsibility, the church takes over. When the church does not fulfill the responsibility, somebody else will take over. Nature abhors a vacuum. There will always be someone telling us what we can and cannot see. If it is the state, it is wrongful censorship. If it is the church or the parent, it is righteous censorship.
Besides being the job of the parent in the first place, the decision of what movies children should watch can only be made successfully by the parent. Government bureaucrats cannot know when each child reaches the level of maturity necessary to see certain films. Each child matures at his or her own rate. Only the parent has any idea when his or her child is mature enough to handle things.
Government censorship is wrong and should be guarded against. We as Christians have virtually no control over what policies government will make in this non-Christian age. Therefore, we have no control over what government might decide to censor. We must allow everyone to have freedom of speech only as long as we want to keep it ourselves. The church may practice limited guidance in areas of morality, but should not attempt to use censorship as a way to keep its members in line. As soon as the church makes anything other than belief in Christ a condition for being a believer, we run into a problem. That is, if the church goes as far as to say that the one’s good standing in the church will be directly affected by seeing a certain movie, the church has begun to add things to the Bible. The best way for the church to react to immorality in movies is to publish thoughtful reviews, such as those in Critique. Parents should practice absolute censorship with their small children and strong guidance with their older children. Only the parent can know what their children are ready for, and at what age their children are ready to start making their own decisions. No government agency can do that successfully, and none should try.
Carmen, Ira H. Movies, Censorship and the Law. University of Michigan Press, 1966
Leff, Leonard J., and Simmons, Jerold L. The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, & The Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990
Keough, Peter, ed. Flesh and Blood: The National Society of Film Critics on Sex, Violence, and Censorship. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1995
Poussaint, Alvin. “Let’s Enforce Our Movie Ratings,” Reader’s Digest Sep 1997: 37-38
Schultz, Valerie. “They’re Just Movies, Lighten Up!” America May 8, 1999: 18-19
Carcaterra, Kate: “Why Carding Kids is a Bad Idea,” Time
June 21, 1999: 42-43
This paper originated as a paper for College Composition II, Missouri Baptist College, Fall, 1999.
©1999 by Jandy Stone