About a week ago a friend of mine argued that Hammer horror movies were considered adult fare and were “rated accordingly,” which I knew was demonstrably wrong—at least in America for the first 11 years of the studio’s heyday. Yesterday my mother forwarded me one of those annoying e-mails extolling how “great” things used to be that asserted that movies didn’t used to need ratings because they were made by “responsible people” who made sure they were suitable for “everyone.” I knew that was pretty much banana oil. These two things—along with various bouts of balderdash I’ve heard over the years—prompted me to offer this column in an attempt to set a few things straight.
Let’s start with where we are today and the ratings system of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and how we got there. The MPAA is the current incarnation of MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America). The MPPDA was founded in 1922 for the express purpose of fending off the possibility of a national government board of censors. There was a great moral outcry at that time over the “excesses” of Hollywood—as much offscreen as on. It wasn’t just the content of the movies that brought this on, but the scandals of the movie industry like the murder of director William Desmond Taylor and the trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for the rape and murder of starlet Virginia Rappe. It didn’t matter that Arbuckle was exonerated, and the situation wasn’t helped when matinee idol Wallace Reid died of a morphine overdose in January of 1923. The idea was that Hollywood had to clean its own house or the federal government would step in.
That’s still the governing principle behind the MPAA today—to prevent the establishment of a government censor. While there have been state level censors over the years, America has never had a national movie censorship board. And this leads us to one of the biggest of all misconceptions prevalent today—the belief that movie ratings have some sort of legal weight. They don’t and they never have had. They are overseen by NATO (National Association of Theater Owners), who have been known to send operatives to find out if theaters are adhering to the MPAA ratings, but this also carries no legal meaning. It is not illegal for someone under the age of 17 to see an R or NC-17 rated movie, even though most theaters adhere to the policy. And it most certainly is not—as I have heard outraged patrons insist—a “violation of federal law,” because there is no federal law dealing with the topic.
Prior to the 1922 formation, there was no governing principle behind what could and couldn’t be in a film. Movies merely more or less conformed to the standards of the day, which—to judge by the evidence of pre-1922 movies—were pretty loose. Nudity was not unheard of and violence was common and fairly graphic—as witness the beheadings in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). The standards supposedly established in 1922 didn’t alter things all that much. Cecil B. DeMille quickly discovered that his sex dramas with near or glimpsed nudity were still permissible—if they wore dressed up as religious spectacles. Indeed, he would take that to such extremes in 1932 with his The Sign of the Cross, that he contributed to the impending crackdown on “immorality” in no small measure.
In many cases—at least until recently—the actual original content of these films was little known, because viewers were seeing later re-issue prints that had been cut to conform to later, more strict standards. When I first saw Ben Hur (1926) in college, its topless women were nowhere to be found. Similarly, the print of Sign of the Cross that can on TV when I first encountered it, the inventive atrocities inflicted on the Christians had been toned down, and the pompous, preachy prologue and epilogue that had been slapped on it 1944 was still there. (I don’t recall whether or not Claudette Colbert’s nipples and obvious lesbianism were intact, but the scenes alligators, man-eating elephants and the naked girl chained to a stake and menaced by a gorilla were not there.) In recent times, this material has been restored.
The richest period for movies that put the lie to the idea of movies made by “responsible people” that were suitable for everyone are those early talkies we refer to as “pre-code,” of which Sign of the Cross was definitely a part. The term “pre-code” means that these films were made prior to Production Code of 1934 when very strict—and enforced—rules were brought into play, largely created by the Catholic Legion of Decency. These rules would attempt to emasculate the movies for years and went largely unchallenged for 20 years.
It is this code that gave rise to the myth that Clark Gable saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” was the first time anyone swore on the screen. Yes, it did require a special dispensation from the code folks, but it was hardly a first. Without thinking too much about it, I can rattle a fair number of instances of pre-code swearing: Disraeli (1929), Sunnyside Up (1929), The Green Goddess (1930), Mammy (1930), The Dentist (1932), and The Old Dark House (1932). There was also a degree of nudity—as witness the bra-less girls in very sheer blouses in Flying Down to Rio (1933)—not to mention the cheese-and-beef-cake parade that is Search for Beauty (1934). The scene next to this paragraph is from that curious work. Drugs, prostitution, crime unpunished, casual sex, infidelity treated as comedy, gay subext—you name it, it’s in pre-code film.
One of the worst things about the code lay in the previously mentioned practice of re-issuing popular films and cutting them to meet the new requirements. In some cases this was disastrous. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) is a classic example, being cut from 90 minutes to around 70 minutes. For years the film was suppressed by MGM, who bought it from Paramount so they could follow its screenplay for their 1941 version of the story—and so no comparison could be made. By the time that was no longer a consideration, all anyone could turn up was the shortened print—and it remained so for years. When I first saw the film, it was that print. It was also one of the biggest disappointments of my moviegoing life. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t brilliant. Seeing the 90 minute print was a revelation. Taking 20 minutes out of the movie had completely destroyed the pacing. It was like being dragged through a really cool museum so fast that you couldn’t really look at anything.
Jekyll and Hyde had a happy ending. Other films—including Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight—haven’t been so fortunate. According to some sources, Love Me Tonight originally ran 104 minutes. Other sources, list 96 minutes. Current prints clock in at 89 minutes. Oddly, the code folks advised Paramount against re-releasing the film in the late 1930s because of all the cutting it would require, but by the late 1940s the standards had changed to a point where it was agreed a compromise could be reached. That appears to be the only version left. The original negative is gone or lost and no complete print is known to exist. (It doesn’t help that individual states—some of which did have government censor boards—had cut the film in 1932.) This is not an isolated incident.
Fortunately for the post-code movies, the code office was far from infallible and could often be bamboozled. A common trick was to put something guaranteed to send the into a tizzy in a script right next to the scene you wanted to go through, working on the idea that they’d be so outraged over the deliberate affront that they’d miss the real one. According to writers and directors who dealt with the code, this often worked. It also helped that censors are not always terribly savvy or, perhaps, smart. Nothing else explains the presence of references to Sherlock Holmes’ drug use in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942), or the lesbian aspects of Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and The Seventh Victim (1944), or the white slavery ring in The Monster and the Girl (1941). And obviously, they had no clue that the word “gunsel” in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) was underworld argot for homosexual.
As the years wore on, the restrictions relaxed—in part just because of the changes in society, but also because some filmmakers, notably Otto Preminger, chose to ignore the code altogether and release movies without an approval seal. When this didn’t prove to be quite the kiss of death at the box office the MPAA assumed it would be, they broadened the code. The interesting thing about this is it quickly disproves the fantasy of those “responsible people” making movies suitable for everyone a second time. Looking at the movies I was taken to as part of a family outing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I am astonished to see the wide range of movies that were clearly not appropriate for children. And those Hammer horror films that were rated for adults only in Great Britain were not only “approved” in the States, they were frequently booked for kiddie matinees.
But these changes weren’t enough. When Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) was not only popular, but garnered a couple of Oscar nominations without a code seal, the groundwork for MPAA head Jack Valenti to implement his idea of ratings (based to some extent on the British approach). This was the birth of the rating system. And by November 1968, the original ratings—G, M, R, X—appeared. The M rating (for mature) was then changed to GP and finally PG, with PG-13 arriving in 1984, after the fuss over a PG rating for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
This came with its own set of problems. Thought the original G rated films covered a wide-range of titles, it quickly became a liability as code for children’s movies. The result? Filmmakers added swearing to movies to avoid the rating. The X rating was even more troublesome—in part because the rating was never trademarked. As a result, it became associated with porn and theater chains started refusing to book them, while some newspapers wouldn’t advertise them. By 1974, the rating was all but dead.
The MPAA tried to revive the rating in 1984, urging New World Pictures to accept the X rating for Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion. According to the film’s screenwriter, Barry Sander, the MPAA saw the film as a chance to make the rating legitimate once again. But New World insisted on an R rating and the idea went nowhere. This was supposedly fixed by coming up with the NC-17 rating replacing the X. The same problems arose with theater chains and newspapers. There’s a frequent hypocrisy to this. Carmike Cinemas, for example, view themselves as “family friendly” and won’t book an NC-17 film, but they will book an unrated film and treat it as an R. About the only place you’ll see an NC-17 rating is on art titles—Almodovar’s Bad Education (2004) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), for example.
Neither the X, nor the NC-17 rating seem to be very clearly understood. Most people tend to think that it means the film is uncensored in an anything-goes manner. It doesn’t. Movies granted that rating are also subject to approval and demands for cuts are not unknown by any means. A film like John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006) would not have gotten a rating of any kind from the MPAA. The only route for a complete lack of censorship is to release a film with no rating at all. And since rating aren’t a legal requirement, there’s no actual reason for it, except that it makes theater chains easier to deal with—as long as you don’t get anything harsher than an R.