Early in 1946, a major battle erupted when some American cities banned "Scarlet Street," a Hollywood movie starring Edward G. Robinson as a mild-mannered clerk who becomes the unwitting target of a seductive woman and her gangster boyfriend.
Indignant producers, angry legislators, opinionated critics, and everyday moviegoers traded charges and countercharges over the film. But as Matthew Bernstein points out in a recent Cinema Journal article, the people most eager to cite its unsavory ingredients often overlooked the fact that its misguided characters are brought to nothing but misery.
Finally the movie's director, German-born filmmaker Fritz Lang, restored some perspective by asking a Pittsburgh reporter, "How could anyone possibly want to copy any of ze sings zese characters do?"
Fifty years later, Lang's question still resonates. While some films clearly aim at nothing more lofty than exploitation and titillation, others set audiences debating whether sex, violence, and other illicit behaviors have a place on movie screens even in cautionary contexts that no thinking person could conceivably want to imitate.
Amid the arguments are increasing calls for some kind of control or censorship, often couched in terms of pressure-group protest or economic boycotting. At times outraged citizens move from angry rhetoric to direct action, as when religious protesters set up picket lines outside "Priest" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" in recent years.
These are just the latest developments in a history of debates going back to ancient times. In an essay for a Pacific Film Archive program on the subject, censorship expert Leonard Leff quotes Plato's call for "a censorship of the writers of fiction" that would, among other things, "desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized [stories] only."
Given the continued immediacy of such concerns, it's not surprising to find a growing number of authors exploring the history of American movie censorship. The most recent books to arrive are "Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry," by historian Frank Walsh, and "Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies," by Gregory D. Black, an expert on mass communications.
If both studies refer to Roman Catholicism in their titles, it's because the story of American screen censorship is largely the story of two institutions that began operating in the early 1930s: the Production Code Administration, forerunner of today's rating system, and the Legion of Decency, founded by Catholics worried about declining moral values in the new medium of talking pictures.
There were clear differences between these organizations, in both function and philosophy. Supported by the Hollywood studios, the Code office saw its main job as staving off outside censorship by steering filmmakers away from offensive or controversial material. By contrast, the Legion was a pressure group devoted to promoting Catholic values through the moral and economic clout it wielded in American cities.
"Where are such watchdogs now that we really need them?" worried moviegoers of the '90s may ask. The answers, spun out by Walsh and Black with somewhat different emphases, make dramatic reading and instructive history.
Set up by the Hollywood studios, the Code office considered itself not a nit-picking adversary but a sort of tough-love parental figure, helping filmmakers avoid the dangerous pitfalls lurking in their overactive imaginations. But as much as Code administrators tried to deny it, censorship is a profoundly subjective business. Wracked by frequent disagreements, their office was saved from falling apart by the authority of its hugely self-confident bosses, among them former postmaster Will Hayes and conservative ideologue Joseph I. Breen. Breen's most famous pronouncement - "I am the Code" - shows how willing he was to shape the morality of American cinema on the basis of his personal, often idiosyncratic tastes and political views.
He and his colleagues failed to keep up with changing values among moviegoers at large, however. By the early '60s their efforts had become a laughingstock as audiences flocked to comedies like "The Moon Is Blue" and dramas like "The Bicycle Thief," bewildered as to how such inoffensive films could have earned Code condemnation for fleeting moments that seemed innocuous. The current rating system was instituted in 1967, closing out the Code era and sparking a new set of problems that have been addressed largely through new categories such as PG-13 and NC-17.
Something similar happened to the Legion, where internal disagreements also festered, as when its reviewers gave the 1950s classic "La Dolce Vita" a wide range of votes distributed over four separate categories. Catholics themselves paid less and less attention to its recommendations, and movie producers became apathetic, showing more interest in dodging an X rating from Hollywood's own organization than in pleasing moralists.
At least Catholic authorities learned from the Legion's experiences, though. Walsh points out that Christian fundamentalists greeted "The Last Temptation of Christ" with noisy protests that boosted its box-office take, while the US Catholic Conference opted for quiet persuasion aimed at disapproving the film without adding to its notoriety.
Might censorship have a future? It's possible moral activists and pressure groups will renew their former sway over American films, although many additional factors - including the displacement of established studios by independent production companies - indicate that the difficulties would be more formidable than ever. It's also unlikely today's moviegoers would put up with particular political views like those of Hays and Breen.
History also suggests censors often disagree and public perceptions may be still more diversified. Ironically, Hollywood censors were frequently the last to realize how irrelevant their viewpoints had become. It took episodes of public embarrassment to nudge the guardians toward changes of course that were usually too little and too late.