BOSTON — During the 1920s, there was plenty of aggravation between Hollywood and its audience over everything from nudity to language to the scandalous behavior of the early stars.
Relations came to a head over a Barbara Stanwyck film about a child prostitute. As a result, in 1930 the Motion Picture Production Code, a.k.a. "The Hays Code," was born, the industry's attempt to stave off government censorship. Under the iron rule of former US Postmaster General Will Hays, this strict code dictated film content for 36 years.
At that point, pressured by the social ferment of the 1960s, movies with unheard-of sexuality and strong language came along, observes film studies Prof. Cynthia Farah at the University of Texas. "Lolita" and "Hud" were some of the first, she explains.
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was at the edge of the first language slip in 1966 when the code, deemed antiquated, was replaced by the film-ratings system, still in use today.
"In spite of numerous [profanities], 'Woolf' was deemed a work of art and allowed," explains Ms. Farah, adding that it was the beginning of a slippery slope with respect to language.
In 1970, the final language barrier was broken with "M*A*S*H." "I was at the premire," recalls screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd. "It was the first use of [an extreme expletive]. The audience gasped. They'd never heard anything like that before."
But then, adds the writer who is working on a coming PBS series about the coarsening of American culture, "nothing happened. The sky didn't fall in, and that was the end."
Profanity-laced movies such as "The Last Detail" and "Scarface" appeared in short order because "people realized they could get away with it."