This evening, TCM is featuring three films labeled “code breakers,” movies whose provocative, mature themes and scripts contributed to the breakdown of the Production Code Administration’s influence in Hollywood.
I’ve made my feelings about the Production Code clear in the past; censorship may seem to be a necessary evil to some, but in my eyes, deliberately stifling the creative spirit over the moral qualms of a few is tantamount to impeding (and sometimes, outright destroying) art. Still, it’s interesting to look back at Code-era films and see the deft ways in which filmmakers subtly (or in the case of tonight’s lineup, not so subtly) challenged the moral strictures of the Code, whether through innuendo, camera tricks, or other means.
The lineup tonight features three films from the 1950s, the decade in which the first really substantial challenges to the Code emerged.
First up is The Moon is Blue (airing at 8PM EST), released in 1953 and starring William Holden and David Niven as a couple of Lotharios determined to rid Maggie McNamara of her pesky virginity. Director Otto Preminger had a fight on his hands with the Production Code office from the very beginning–the movie was based on a controversial play of the same name by F. Hugh Herbert, and Joseph Breen, the head of the Code office, objected to the racy material and the use of terms such as “virgin” and “mistress” in the script.
Preminger made the movie anyway, and when it was denied a seal of approval from the PCA, the studio behind the movie, United Artists, used the controversy as a selling point for the film. And it worked: The Moon is Blue was a smash hit.
Though this was the first time a studio had ever dared to release a film without PCA’s seal of approval, it would hardly be the last. The next film in tonight’s lineup, 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm (airing at 10PM EST), also directed by Preminger, faced some of the same difficulties with Breen’s office based on the source material.
The film stars Frank Sinatra as heroin addict Frankie Machine, with Eleanor Parker as his crippled wife, Zosh, and Kim Novak as his disapproving girlfriend, Molly. It is based on the notorious 1949 bestselling novel of the same title, written by Nelson Algren. As the book (and, subsequently, the film’s script) deals with the effects of drug abuse and addiction in a gritty, somewhat realistic manner, the PCA was not exactly eager to grant the film its seal of approval. Once again, Preminger made the film he wanted to make, and as with The Moon is Blue, United Artists released the picture without the Code seal. And, as before, the film was a great success despite this lack of approval.
Also in 1956, director Elia Kazan adapted a screenplay by Tennessee Williams (based on his one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton) into a black comedy named Baby Doll (airing at 12:15AM EST). Starring Karl Malden as Archie Meighan, the ineffectual, sexually frustrated husband of child bride Carroll Baker (the titular Baby Doll), the movie flirts with the themes of pedophilia, adultery, and sexual deviance.
And yet, surprisingly, the film was awarded a PCA seal of approval. Don’t ask me how; maybe Breen was off that day. Despite this, though, the film reaped its share of controversy when the Catholic Legion of Decency (one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Code in the first place, interestingly enough) condemned the film. Several Catholic leaders even forbade their congregants from seeing it. Because of the Legion’s movement to ban the film, Baby Doll was ultimately the only one of these three films not to turn a profit.
As you will see while (hopefully!) watching tonight’s lineup, in various ways, each of these films contributed to the eventual collapse of the Production Code’s influence in Hollywood. Thanks to directors like Preminger and Kazan, who were willing to challenge the status quo in an effort to put more realistic portrayals on the big screen, cinema today has very few–if any, really–boundaries. And though some arguably take that freedom too far, and the debate between morality and artistic liberty continues, at least we moviegoers have the option to watch more “adult” fare if we so choose.
And isn’t that what it’s all about, truly–the choice to watch whatever floats your particular boat, and to ignore whatever sinks it?