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A History of Movie Censorship
February 4, 2011

I don’t know why this is running at Time Out Boston’s website, but this list of the 50 most controversial movies does a nice job of covering some of the films most famous for causing outrage. There are a number of horror movies included, which caused problems based on their violence and shock value, but also listed are such well-known examples as

  • The Moon Is Blue — the first major movie released without MPAA approval, for using the word “virgin”, this film led to the modern rating system replacing the Hays Code; I tried to watch it a couple of months ago, and it was very boring and talky, but representative of the concerns of its time (early 50s)
  • I Am Curious (Yellow) — setting a court standard that allowed explicit foreign films to be exhibited
  • The Man With the Golden Arm — for its portrayal of a junkie musician (played by Frank Sinatra) shooting up
  • Titicut Follies — banned for revealing horrendous conditions in a mental asylum
  • Song of the South — racism
  • Henry & June — the first NC-17 movie, showing that a new approach to rating wasn’t going to be successful

I admit, the sex-based examples are more interesting to me because I’ve always been fascinated by how mixed-up the U.S. is when it comes to that area of popular culture. I learned a lot about movie history from this list; I wish it was a book, so it could go into more detail about the films, their production, and the backlash.

9 Responses  
Nick writes:  

That’s an interesting list. I could quibble about the relative rankings of several of the items, but what would be just that – quibbling – so I won’t.

Some of the entries – and I can only speak for the films I’ve seen and/or know about – are a bit suspect, though, in that Time Out Boston don’t tell the full story, or get the story a little mangled. Possibly this might be down to them only having a small amount of space for each entry, but it does affect the accuracy of certain entries more so than others.

The rest of the comment here is not meant to be nitpicking for the sake of it, or anything of that sort. Rather, I just want to add this information, in case anyone finds it interesting. Say it’s further reading, of a sort.

44. Reservoir Dogs: it’s worth noting that the actual ear-cutting happens off-screen.

31. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: perhaps the most controversial aspect about this film – moreso than what’s mentioned in the article, I think, though I’ll admit that being British might alter my perspective somewhat – is that Mario Van Peebles, who had an ‘energetic’ sex scene in the movie, was only 13 at the time. As a result, it’s impossible to legally acquire an uncut version of the film in the UK, as certain scenes (censored in the legal DVD release) breach the Protection of Children’s Act.

11. Straw Dogs: the article doesn’t make it clear that the cuts the censors demanded actually exacerbated the problem. Meeting the censors demands in cutting material led to what remained seeming to reinforce the impression that Amy was enjoying it. Similarly, in one of the rape scenes, the excising of the wider shots meant that in the remaining tight shots, without the context of the excised wide shots it appeared that Amy was being anally raped, which in the eyes of many made it even worse.

9. Bonnie and Clyde: Crowther was eventually let go from the Times, yes, but the phrasing Time Out Boston use – “Crowther eventually lost his job over the review” – is very misleading, as it implies that Crowther wrote the one bad review and eventually lost his job over it. Instead, Crowther wrote several bad reviews, and also attacked the film in reviews of other films. A single bad review is unlikely to kill any film critic’s career. What seemed to have done it in this case was that he consistently attacked the film, which showed two things – one, that he was letting things affect his work unduly, and two (and more importantly) he was increasingly out of touch with current cinema and the public’s appetite. And that’s what likely did for him.

 
Johanna writes:  

That’s some very useful background. Thanks for filling out the stories.

 
David Oakes writes:  

“I don’t know why this is running at Time Out Boston’s website”

My only experience with “The Moon is Blue” is an episode of “M*A*S*H” where Hawkeye insists they the unit screen the movie because it was “Banned in Boston”, and he wants to see something naughty. Needless to say, he is quite disappointed. Maj. Winchester, being from Beantown, at one point adminishes him that “what is banned in Boston may not be all that interesting anywhere else”, or words to that effect.

 
Johanna writes:  

ha! Nice quote, thanks. Good reminder of some of Boston’s history.

 
Barney writes:  

Lena Nyman who starred in I Am Curious Yellow just died.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/05/movies/05nyman.html

 
JRB writes:  

“I admit, the sex-based examples are more interesting to me because I’ve always been fascinated by how mixed-up the U.S. is when it comes to that area of popular culture. I learned a lot about movie history from this list; I wish it was a book, so it could go into more detail about the films, their production, and the backlash.”

I found Jon Lewis’ Hollywood V. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry to be quite informative; it covers in detail the progression from the Hayes Code through the modern ratings system to the creation of the NC-17 rating, the failure of both the X and the NC-17 to make a permanent space for explicit mainstream films, and how these things affected producers and theaters as well as content. Along the way it discusses many of the films listed in the linked article. It’s an academic book (but quite readable) and therefore rather expensive, so it’s best obtained through interlibrary loan.

 
Johanna writes:  

Oh, thank you! I’ll look for that.

 
Grant writes:  

I’m glad I have a bootleg copy of Song Of The South (copied off Japanese Laser Disc) While I agree with the criticisms leveled against it, I still think it should be released on home video. I enjoy it on a film history level as well as for the milestone in animation that it is.

 
Johanna writes:  

I would like to see that movie again myself, now that I’m much more aware of such considerations.

 
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