Jon de Vos: Clap your hands for Deadwood
July 1, 2009
Have you conjugated with that special someone lately? Wait, isn’t “conjugate” a dirty word? Well, that’s sort of up to you and the image it conjures up in your mind. Conjugate simply means the act of joining things together. Dirty words are often in the ear of the beholder, but God-fearing prudes have put some words out of bounds, claiming their very utterance degrades our moral values and contributes to the ruination of our children. Others say we’re lucky to have such a rich trove of swear words for that time only profanity will do. X-rated language and those who would censor it predate the Tower of Babel.
Back in 1939, the producers of “Gone With the Wind” fought for months to let Clark Gable utter, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Movie censorship may well have some roots earlier in silent films when actors like Douglas Fairbanks would swing from chandeliers, slashing at their enemies with swords while screaming obscenities at them, knowing that the black dialogue screens would tone down their filthy words to read “You Swine” or “Avast, You Scoundrel”. That came to a screeching halt when deaf lip-readers were, well, dumbfounded to ‘read’ what the actors were actually saying. Religious groups from the start found fault with the loose-living and lax morals of Hollywood actors and the made-up lives they portrayed. Their spiritual activism was the cornerstone of the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship, already a powerful force by 1909.
That same year saw an early victory for degeneracy when a Congressional bill was narrowly defeated that would have denied copyright protection to any film that did not seek and gain the board’s approval. Nonetheless, most major producers still submitted their films to the censor’s scrutiny for fear of religious protests and boycott of films without their Seal of Approval.
By 1930, the New York Censors had morphed into the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America with a code that embraced three principals. Movies must not lower the morals of viewers; only the correct standards of life were allowed; and natural laws were not to be ridiculed. The fine print added, no nakedness, no suggestive dances, no mocking of religion, no drunken priests, no villainous or comic ministers, no drug use, no alcohol enjoyment, no explicit criminal acts, no homosexuality or venereal disease, no depictions of childbirth, no bad language, no realistic murder scenes, no themes of revenge, no unmarried people in relationships, no adultery, illicit sex, or miscegenation, no passion or lustful kissing, no stimulation of base elements, no flag burning, no prostitution, no surgical procedures or disgusting subjects, and now it’s time to roll the credits. One basic problem censors faced was the First Amendment that guaranteed freedom of speech, but zealots, driven by their interpretation of God’s will, fought hard to protect their vision of a sanitized world.
Well, fortunately for society’s libertines, around the time of the Second World War, the nation’s mood began to swing the other direction. Howard Hughes’ 1943 adult western, The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell was headed for the cutting room floor with 37 objectionable scenes where censors argued that her overemphatic chest was objectionably overemphasized. As if. Hughes argued for three years before releasing the movie without approval, opening to huge crowds as a major box-office hit.
The early 1950’s saw growing competition from foreign movies and television and in 1952 the Supreme Court dealt censorship a body blow in the “Miracle Decision”, a ruling about an Italian film, “The Miracle”, by ruling that, “expression by means of motion pictures is included within the free speech guaranty of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”
So, the next time you have to clap your hands over Junior’s ears while watching TV re-runs of Deadwood, remember, you owe it all to Howard Hughes.