Sheri Chinen Biesen on Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen

Through original and rich case studies, this volume explores the authorship, power and organization of censorship in compelling ways. Enormously valuable.

~ Ellen Scott, University of California, Los Angeles

This week one of our featured titles is Sheri Chinen Biesen’s new cinema history book, Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen. Today, we are happy to present you with a guest post from the author herself!

Remember to enter our drawing for a chance to win a free copy of the book.

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My new book, Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen explores the world of motion picture censorship, the struggles between filmmakers and censors to produce this fascinating art form of cinema, and how film regulation evolved and eroded over the years. Whether it’s the Cannes Film Festival banning Netflix films from competition or Sony Pictures canceling the release of controversial film The Interview after hacking and cyber threats, the term ‘screen censorship’ comes to mind.

Concerns over screen content have arisen since the earliest days of motion pictures. In the early ‘pre-Code’ era, movies projected racy images with abundant sexual innuendo and illicit cinematic suggestion, as in the provocative, bawdy humor of Hollywood stars like Mae West. In fact, strong, independent women stars such as West, Marlene Dietrich, and Katharine Hepburn were actually targeted and blackballed from Hollywood during the 1930s in a nasty, sexist ‘box office poison’ smear campaign, which nearly destroyed their careers. She Done Him Wrong publicity promised Mae West gives a ‘Hot Time’ to the Nation.

Here are some ribald screen moments from Mae West:

Screen censors were buoyed by protests and threatened boycotts by religious groups such as the National Catholic Legion of Decency, which rated and even condemned films. In fact, by the 1930s, after the Great War, Prohibition, the Jazz Age, and onset of the Great Depression, Hollywood censors tried to crack down on unsavory film content and heralded a new era, moving from ‘rawness to romance.’ Seeking to avoid depictions of what they called an ‘orgy of sadism,’ they banned sex, nudity, brutality and proclaimed a sweeping moratorium on violent gangster, crime and horror films. In Public Enemy (1931), James Cagney smashes a grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face.

In the mid-1930s, ‘Hays Office’ censors even banned and blackballed the film adaptations of salacious ‘red meat’ ‘hard-boiled’ stories of sex, violence, murder and adultery as in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Cain bitterly complained, ‘I think the whole system of Hays censorship, with its effort to establish a list of rules on how to be decent is nonsensical … A studio can obey every one and be salacious—violate them and be decent.’

By the end of the decade, however, despite bans on gangsters, horror and grisly ‘hard-boiled’ novels, censors grew alarmed at the increasing number of crime films and a rising array of ‘crime-horror’ pictures. Indeed, the ‘horrific’ criminal nature of these films was not of the typical Al Capone, Frankenstein or Dracula variety. They were a different sort altogether, churned out like hotcakes by the 1940s. As censors scrambled to deal with the resurgence of deviant hoodlums and cinematic mayhem, the crime trend would eventually proliferate and be termed Hollywood’s ‘Red Meat’ ‘crime and romance’ cycle in 1944, soon to be called ‘film noir’ in 1946.

In particular, writer-turned-director Billy Wilder collaborated with first-time screenwriter Raymond Chandler to successfully adapt Cain’s Double Indemnity in 1943-1944, during World War II, after Cain’s novels had been banned from Hollywood screens for nearly a decade.

Here is a wonderful example of how films noir like Double Indemnity skirted the boundaries of Production Code censorial strictures:

The Postman Always Rings Twice soon followed. See femme fatale Lana Turner.

Such dark, gritty crime pictures opened the censorial floodgates for ‘films noir’ with abundant criminality, violence, murder, adultery and sexual innuendo, which had previously been prohibited by Hollywood screen censors. In fact, much of the dark, shadowy, iconic ‘shady’ style of film noir was actually achieved in response to Hollywood screen censorship of the time. Moreover, studios would even promote stars with attire that was not permitted by censors on screen as in this RKO publicity still of femme fatale Jane Greer for director Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 film noir Out of the Past. (She is covered up, dressed like a nun, rather than in a scanty negligee, in the movie.)

In fact, independent filmmakers like David O. Selznick and Howard Hughes challenged the very basis of Hollywood industry censorship and played an important role in defying the Code system. Hughes’ controversial film The Outlaw provoked censors, yet Hughes exploited his salacious, banned film for huge profits over the years, even using a blimp to publicize ‘The Picture That Couldn’t Be Stopped!’

By the late 1950s to 1960s, as Hollywood motion picture censorship unraveled and eventually ebbed, filmmakers like director Alfred Hitchcock had greater latitude and were able to push the envelope of screen censorship even further with sex, violence, criminality, and murder in films such as North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). Here is Hitchcock discussing his cinematic style and vision for the famous crop duster sequence in North by Northwest, comparing it to the typical style of what had become the clichés of film noir (amid eroding censorship) by the late 1950s to 1960s:

Alfred Hitchcock

As films like director Arthur Penn’s bold, counterculture-era gangster yarn Bonnie and Clyde (1967) were released, allegorically critiquing the violence of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, Hollywood’s Code censorship was finally dead.

In an ever-changing global regulatory film-viewing climate, new strictures arise which may affect and constrain our ability to see and screen films.

However, while the term ‘film censorship’ is often invoked in contemporary parlance to refer to efforts to regulate screen content, movie fans, cinema scholars and film buffs may not necessarily understand that today’s contemporary American films are not actually censored in the way they were during the height of the classical Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s under a codified system of film censorship—enforced by ‘Hays Office’ Production Code Administration (PCA) censors such as Joseph Breen and Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America Association (MPPDA) president Will Hays—which unraveled by the 1960s after the demise of Hollywood’s movie industry ‘moral blueprint,’ the Motion Picture Production Code.

Moreover, despite the controversy and ratings battles over the content of specific films, many do not even realize that the motion picture production and reception climate for contemporary American cinema is quite different than in the earlier classic era of the Hollywood studio system ‘Golden Age’ in which film censorship thrived. Further, there is in fact a distinction between official federal film censorship enforced by the government, versus a voluntary system of self-censorship regulation enforced by the motion picture industry as in classical Hollywood, versus unofficial efforts by a studio to constrain film content to secure a desired rating or market a film in a global arena.

Yet, in this context, the ideal legal climate for censorship in the United States has dissipated since the Supreme Court’s rulings (Mutual vs. Ohio case and its overturning with The Miracle decision) laid the groundwork for First Amendment ‘free speech’ battles which would eventually allow for greater latitude with regard to film content.

Dr. Sheri Chinen Biesen is Professor of Film History at Rowan University. She is author of Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), and Film Censorship: Regulating America’s Screen (Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2018). She received a BA and MA at University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, PhD at University of Texas at Austin, taught at USC, University of California, University of Texas, and in England, and contributed to the BBC documentary The Rules of Film Noir and Turner Classic Movies’ Public Enemies Warner Bros. Gangster Collection.


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