Friday, April 11, 2014

"Final Judgment Will Be Based on the Finished Picture"

One of the most popular postings in Goodson Blogson history was our 2009 exploration of Hollywood's "Hays Code," which governed immoral or indecent conduct in American films during the early part of the twentieth century. (In hindsight, the attraction might have been the salacious title lifted directly from the Code's text, "Complete Nudity Is Never Permitted".) The 2009 post outlined the history of Hollywood’s self-censorship from the 1920s to the 1960s, which began as a way to evade planned scrutiny by a proposed Federal Motion Picture Commission. Thanks to the film industry's self-regulation efforts, the planned federal agency never materialized. In its place came a series of morality codes, drafted by former U.S. Postmaster General William Hays. The “Hays Code” grew from a 1927 brief list of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" into the more formal "Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures" which began to appear in the 1930s. These codes were enforced by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), which was replaced in the 1960s by the Motion Picture Association of America, and its familiar movie content rating system which continues to operate today.

The Duke University Libraries' new subscription database Hollywood, Censorship, and the Motion Picture Production Code, 1927-1968 allows researchers to learn even more about this interesting era in cinema history. This archival collection digitizes a microfilm set of primary sources, and includes MPPDA regulators' correspondence and memoranda related to specific films of the era. For example, the 1959 courtroom classic Anatomy of a Murder, featured in the Goodson Law Library's Legal DVDs collection, generated several dozen pages of correspondence between the studio and the MPPDA on suggested changes to the script, including a lengthy dispute over sanitizing verbal references to a rape, which was a central plot point in the film.

Coincidentally enough, the author of the best-selling book on which the film was based was a moonlighting Michigan Supreme Court justice. John D. Voelker (who published his 1958 novel under the nom de plume Robert Traver) also served as legal adviser to the film, and drafted a two-page memorandum to the censorship board, arguing against the suggested terminology changes. To bolster his argument, Justice Voelker cited such familiar research resources as Black's Law Dictionary, Michigan state legal encyclopedias, and the state criminal law treatise Tiffany's Criminal Law. The censors appeared unmoved by the judge's thorough legal research, writing in response to producer and director Otto Preminger: "I imagine Justice Voelker would likewise appreciate the fact that a good deal of clinical discussion of rape, while valid in a court of law, would undoubtedly be considered unacceptable for discussion before mixed audiences in a movie theatre. […] [T]his is not quite the same as laying down a judgment in a restricted court of law."

The remainder of the collection's 42 pages on Anatomy of a Murder consists of press clippings and reviews, many of which detail the film's censorship battles over its groundbreaking frankness in the discussion of rape. In July 1959, the film was banned in the city of Chicago; Preminger fought the ban in federal court, and it was quickly reversed. Preminger and Voelker ultimately had the last laugh – the film was a critical and box-office success, earning seven Academy Award nominations and numerous other accolades.

Interested in reading the correspondence for yourself, or checking out discussions to censor some of your favorite classic movies? Access the Hollywood, Censorship and the Motion Picture Production Code database via the Duke University Libraries. For additional resources about film and the law, be sure to Ask a Librarian.