The Ups and Downs of Censorship and the Film Industry

Paper by Leila Esmaili.

The American film industry has gone through drastic changes throughout history. Changes within the industry have profound effects on the types of film created during that time. The Production Code was rigid set of guidelines film industries abided by that limited the content filmmakers could showcase in their films. After its downfall, filmmakers had developed more freedom to create the types of the films they wanted. This led filmmakers to push the boundaries and create more controversial films. In the 1970’s, this was taken one step further with the rise of the X film. It is interesting to see how the changes that the American film industry experienced through the abolishment of the Production Code, and the creation of the MPAA ratings system drastically affected the content of films created at the time. The difference between the types of films created before and after the Production Code can be seen by evaluating The Sound of Music (1965) made right before the end of the Production Code and The Graduate (1967) made right after the end of the Production Code. The MPAA ratings system allowed for more controversial films like The Graduate to come about and also ushered in the birth of the X film in the 1970s.

The Production Code was a harsh set of rules that many film industries followed before its abolishment in 1966. Filmmakers were limited on the type of things they could show in their movies. An example of one of the principles set in forth in the Production Code is:

Out of regard for the sanctity of marriage and the home, the triangle, that is, the love of a third party for one already married, needs careful handling. The treatment should not throw sympathy against marriage as an institution. (Hayes).

It is interesting to see how the Production Code had rules such as above that promoted conservative Christian values. In movies today, the sanctity of marriage is not an ideal that is constantly upheld. It is easier for a person in modern times to think of a film where marriage is not ideal than to think of a film where the ideal perfect marriage it shown. The guidelines in the Production Code called for films with plots that would be unrealistic. Life is full of struggles. Life is not censored like the films produced during the time the Production Code was in effect. There seemed to be more things that could not be shown rather than what could be shown. The Production Code set of guidelines was not the only form of censorship during the time. The Catholic Legion of Decency rated films as being morally acceptable. When the Catholic Legion of Decency would deem films morally unacceptable, Catholics were instructed not to view this films. This encouraged filmmakers to make films that were seen as morally acceptable in order not to lose the chance of making a profit off of Catholic audiences. The Production Code was more of a set of guidelines than the Legion of Decency, which was more of a rating system within the Catholic church. The Production Code’s rules dictated the films that were released. If a filmmaker wanted to make a movie about a marriage between a black man and a white woman, they were not able to under the Production Code. Anything seen as immoral could only be implied or said indirectly. An example would be rape. Rape was not to be discussed unless it was critical to the plot. When this topic was brought up it had to be addressed in a respectful manner and details could not be explicit (Hayes). This topic was to be implied, but never acknowledged directly. The destruction of the Production Code gave filmmakers a newfound freedom to create the films they wished without having to adhere to such a strict set of rules.

When the Production Code was abolished, the Motion Picture Association of America replaced the code with a new ratings system. This ratings system consisted of four ratings G for general audiences, M for Mature, R for restricted (under 16 with an adult), and X for 16 and older (Lewis). This changed the way films were made. Instead of films being made in a way to please the Production Code, they were made however the filmmaker wished. When the movie was released it came with a rating that would inform audiences of the maturity of the content in the film. This was brought about by Jack Valenti. Carl Bromley states in his article that, “Valenti left an early imprint with his overhaul of the old, prudish Hays Production Code that prohibited lustful embraces, among other things (his replacement, with a few nips and tucks, still stands today)” (para. 7). It is amazing to see the impact Valenit had on the ratings system that it has survived fifty years. This ratings system has however been adjusted through the years. In modern times, the ratings are G for general audiences, PG for parental guidance, PG-13 for parents strongly cautioned, R for restricted (under 17 with an adult), and NC-17 (no one 17 and under). This changed the way films were made even further as more controversial films came about. These controversial films incorporated topics that previously were never seen in theaters. At first, it gave a shock value. When watching these films, even though they were not as explicit as they are now, was shocking. During the Production Code, sex was not discussed so when seeing a slightly sexual scene in movies was new for movie goers at the time. If people did not wish to see films that were inappropriate or wanted to be aware of the content of films they took their children to then they were now more informed. It did not change the type of film, but rather gave audiences the choice when picking a film to see in theaters. For example, if a mother and father knew nothing of a film that their children wanted to see they could look at the rating and determine if it was appropriate. This is still seen today as younger children would beg to see an R rated film and parents would see its rating and automatically not allow their children to see it. The idea of a ratings system still stands today and is both beneficial to movie goers and filmmakers.

The rise of the X-film began in the 1970s. At first, the rating X was given to films that could not be viewed by audiences under the age of 16. In the 1970’s, the X rated film became synonymous with pornographic films. The release of Deep Throat (1972), “the most successful pornographic film of all-time”, was an X-rated pornographic film (Dirks 4). It is stunning to hear that this film was shown in theaters and is a landmark in X-rated film history. This film shaped the general public’s view of X-rated films to be associated with pornography. Obviously a film like this would not have been show during the days of the Production Code as it was a pornographic film. It added shock value, but also was a huge success. It was a pornographic film, but it still had a plot and character development. Its success is mimicked today as, “the production of X-rated films enjoys a good average profit of 50 percent per year” (Faye 278). Deep Throat is a representation of the change experienced by the film industry and enabled X-rated to not only be seen as a rating, but also a film genre.
It is interesting to see the difference between the films that came about during the age of the ratings system and right before it during the time of the Production Code. The Sound of Music was a family friendly film that followed all rules set by the Production Code. It not only obeyed the Production Code, but also pleased the Catholic Legion of Decency. In the beginning of the film, Maria is a young woman studying to be a nun. She is instructed by the convent to become a governess for the children of the recently widowed Caption Georg von Trapp. The premise of this film is encouraging the Catholic ideal of following God’s will. She follows the instructions of the superior nuns of the convent. Her obedience to their instructions is synonymous with her obedience to God. In the Catholic church, the ideal that God has a plan for each person is emphasized constantly. It is said that God has a will and a person must trust in God and in his plan. Maria in The Sound of Music listens to the nuns, seen as spiritual leaders, and therefor, is showing her obedience to God and her loyalty to the Catholic church. This promotion of Catholic ideals shows the effects both the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency had on films. Maria’s character is said to be headstrong and lacking discipline so it is not true to her character for her to automatically become more disciplined when the nuns instruct her to leave the convent. The consistency of her character is not seen to be as important as adhering to the Production Code and pleasing the Catholic Legion of Decency.

The Sound of Music promotes the Catholic ideal of following God’s will repeatedly. This was seen not only in the beginning where Maria willingly abides by the rules of the nuns, but also when she leaves the von Trapp family when the Captain becomes engaged. Her own decision was to leave the family and returns to the convent. Upon her return, the superior nun instructs her to return to the family and only then does she return. It is of Maria’s character to make her own decisions. It was her own decision to leave the family and go back to the convent where she began. Once again when she received instructions from a nun, a representative for the church, did she obey without hesitation. This again emphasizes the idea that a person must always follow God’s will and trust in God. This promoted Catholic ideals. In the eyes of the Catholic church, this would be a film that would be encouraged as it promoted their values and teachings.

The sanctity of marriage was instructed to be upheld by the Production Code and in The Sound of Music marriage was treated no different. The nuns of the convent instructed Maria to return to Captain von Trapp and Maria obeyed. She was listening to God’s will and when she married Captain von Trapp she embodied the Catholic ideal of marriage. Maria and the Captain married in the convent where she began This implies that they partook in the Sacrament of holy Matrimony. In the Catholic Church, members are taught there are three ways to live a holy life. One is through religious life where an individual becomes a priest or nun. Another way is through single life where outside they promote Catholic values while being outside of the Church. The third way is by holy matrimony. This was the way Maria and the Captain would continue their life. They would raise the children in the Catholic church while serving as an example of a Catholic marriage.

The Sound of Music was released in 1965 while the Production Code was still active while the film The Graduate was released in 1967 after its downfall. The Graduate was a controversial film of its time for good reason. The premise of the film revolved around a recent college graduate engaging in an affair with an older married woman. This does not uphold the ideal of a sacred marriage and is the complete opposite of the marriage shown in The Sound of Music. The aspect of this film that makes it even more strange is the fact that Mrs. Robinson, an older woman, is trying to seduce young Benjamin. Before when the Production Code was active, sex was not to be presented in a way that was immoral. Sex was a controversial topic to begin with but in The Graduate, this was taken one step further. An older married woman attempting to seduce a young man was shocking. This type of film would not have been made during the reign of the Production Code. The premise of the film was controversial and already broke the rules of the Production Code. Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin’s relationship was that of an immoral affair, the exact opposite of Maria and the Captain’s wholesome Catholic marriage.
The Graduate was an example of the controversial films released after the Production Code was no longer used. The major difference between this film and films before it was how the controversial content was presented. The relationship between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin was shown directly. There were no indirect notions, but rather explicit and vivid scenes. It was not an implied relationship, but rather was the forefront of the film with no major censorship of the topic. There was no mistaking that Mrs. Robinson had seduced Benjamin and they were engaging in an affair. The controversy of the affair was followed by Mrs. Robinson falsely accusing Benjamin of rape. The topic of rape is a sensitive subject and the fact it was addressed at all was a controversy already, but for Mrs. Robinson to use it as a tool to escape her responsibility in the affair with Benjamin made it even more controversial. Another taboo aspect of the film was the fact that Benjamin gets involved with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine. He becomes romantically involved with a mother and daughter, which is a controversy in itself.

The Production Code undoubtedly restricted the freedom of filmmakers, but the MPAA ratings system restored the art of the cinema. Filmmakers were able to make movies they wished and audiences could appropriately judge a film based on its rating. Films such as The Sound of Music are an effect of the Production Code at work, while films like The Graduate showcased the newfound freedom of filmmakers. The MPAA ratings system ushered in a new era of cinema. Controversial films were made and X-rated films rose to fame. The film industry has truly changed through the abolishment of the Production Code and the creation of the MPAA ratings system, and the films created during those times proves it.

Works Cited
1. Bromley, Carl. “The House That Jack Built. How Valenti Brought Hollywood to the World.” The Nation, vol. 270, ed. 13, 03 Ape. 200, p. 39-41.
2. Dirks, Tim. “The History of Film: The 1970s.” AMC FilmSite.
3. Faye, Guillaume. Sex and Deviance. Arktos Media Ltd., 2014.
4. Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History. W. W. Norton & Company


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