“I believe in censorship. After all, I made a fortune out of it.” This quotation from Mae West, scourge of the Hays Office in the early 1930’s, is one of a host included by Aubrey Malone in this hugely entertaining history of film censorship. It’s a quip which underscores the fundamental contradiction at the heart of attempts to protect the public from the perceived evils of sex and violence. As West soon found out, the more controversy her films generated, the more spectacular the results at the box office. While the likes of Will Hays and the fiercely anti-Semitic Joe Breen became the self-appointed moral guardians of the nation, the savage cuts they inflicted on some of the more daring films of the day did nothing to stem the public taste for salaciousness and violent sensation. Accordingly, Malone’s book is both a condemnation of the asinine and ham-fisted proscription of some of these films, as well as a celebration of the cunning and ingenuity exercised by directors like Cecil B. de Mille in circumventing the Production Code’s litany of regulations.
Censoring Hollywood is a daringly ambitious and panoramic overview of the history of film censorship – stretching from the early silent cinema of Hollywood, when “vamps” like Theda Bara first attracted the ire of self-appointed moral guardians, through the steamy undercurrents of film noir and cinematic adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ plays, right up to the pivotal late ‘60’s/early ‘70’s liberalisation of Hollywood and modern cause célébres like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. The author is strong on the subject of notorious censor-baiting landmarks such as A Clockwork Orange, The Devils and Bonnie and Clyde – but lesser known works which challenged the established orthodoxy (such as The Miracle and The Pawnbroker) are also explored. Roberto Rosselini’s now half-forgotten The Miracle – scripted by none other than Federico Fellini – an allegorical tale of a peasant girl who believes she has been impregnated by St.Joseph, was instrumental in loosening the stranglehold of Catholic groups on what was permissible on screen. By the dawn of the ‘60’s the old days of Breen and Hays were buried forever by the new classification system – when Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar in 1969 it was a defining moment, an emphatic signal of the mainstream’s absorption of what would once have been considered outré material. The subsequent incremental erosion of the power of film censors reached its logical extreme when Michael Winterbottom’s sexually graphic 9 Songs was passed in Ireland completely without cuts in 2004.
What sets this book apart from others on this subject are the arcane and sometimes hilarious details : such as the little known fact that E.T was banned in, of all places, Sweden, for apparently showing a child being treated with criminal neglect by its parents, and Will Hays cutting a scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs because it hinted at a possible sexual relationship between the heroine and the titular dwarfs. ( This is far from the most risible example of the censor’s ludicrously myopic reading of otherwise innocuous film material.) There is also plenty of interest here for any student of the history of Irish film censorship, with a detailed exploration of the furore caused by Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, when embattled censor Sheamus Smith was flooded with piously outraged entreaties from hundreds of Catholics who managed to be grossly offended by the film despite never having seen it.
The author’s deft turn-of-phrase and liberal use of pomposity-pricking humour lend a much-needed air of levity to this sometimes vexed subject. Entertaining personal reminiscences – such as memories of an abortive attempt to stage a viewing of the infamous Last Tango in Paris in Trinity College Dublin in 1972 – also help to keep the material in the realm of free-wheeling historical guide rather than drily academic treatise. Witty, well-structured and rigorously researched, this is an indispensable examination of the century-long battle between meddling censor on one side, and the priceless creative freedom of the film artist on the other.