Pass Adam His Fig-Leaf


Ever since 1894, when Edison's kinetoscope debuted in a Broadway parlor, the things which you are allowed to see on a movie screen, and in person, have been considered as quite different.

You might sleep with your spouse in a double bed, but for years in films, married couples slept lonesomely in twin beds set 18 measured inches apart.[1] You might say "Damn!" when goaded past endurance, but censors tried to prevent Rhett Butler from telling Scarlett O'Hara (despite considerable provocation) that he didn't give a "damn" what happened to her.

Since that April evening in 1894, thousands of small, often-anonymous pressure groups, backed by the power of God, government and box-office, have decided what films you may or may not see. A quick look at the history of American film censorship is therefore important to those who would live in freedom. It might also explain a bit of the "why" for those who wonder why so many of their favorite books are turned into lousy movies.

"Don't bend her backwards
while kissing her; that's


The first attempt to repress the movies was a humdinger by any standards. In 1908 the Mayor of New York City ordered his police to close all the cinemas in the city. His reasoning was similar to that of a Chicago judge who claimed (in another connection) that nickelodeons "cause, indirectly or directly, more juvenile crime coming into my court than all other causes combined."[2] (Sound familiar?)

Although the movies proved irrepressible, and the mayor's order was eventually annulled, censorship was already a way of life in many of the states. New York City and Chicago (as well as other locations later) demanded that all films be screened and licensed, and only those which were not considered "immoral," "obscene" or "improper" were allowed to be shown.

The misuse of the censorship power was already so great that Congress could pass a law in 1912 barring any film to interstate commerce which showed a prize fight. The law hoped to prevent "racial disturbances" after the black Jack Johnson won the heavyweight championship from the white Jim Jeffries.[3] The law wasn't rescinded until 1940.

In 1915 the Supreme Court favored censorship by expressly removing films from the protection of the First (freedom of speech) Amendment of the Constitution, stating that since films were made for profit they were no more deserving of constitutional protection than carnivals and circuses. This pronouncement conveniently ignored, of course, the fact that newspapers and book publishing companies were also profitmaking, yet covered by the First Amendment! But then nobody said regulations had to be consistent.

In the years after World War I the morals of the country changed rapidly as the nation rushed exuberantly into the Jazz Age. Moviemakers, engaged at the time in a shifting and consolidating of ownership, happily produced quantities of films which would make moneyand that meant movies with lots of sex and oodles of violence. The sophisticated life was shown as full of booze and seduction; the public lapped it up, with an astronomical 50,000,000 box-office admissions a week in the twenties.[4]

The pure-hearted, of course, went wild. State after state introduced censorship bills; in 1921 alone, almost 100 were introduced in 37 states.[5]

Desperately, in an effort to prevent more government censorship, the industry founded an organization in 1922, The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Hoping to gain by the abilities of an apt politician, they reached into President Harding's Cabinet for a director, Postmaster General Will H. Hays.

Hays launched a public relations campaign to divert pressure from the industry, and then attempted (through his list of 11 "Don'ts" and 27 "Be Carefuls") to persuade movie-makers to tone down the objectionable in their films.


Hays' efforts helped for a few years, but by the end of the decade the hysteria against films was mounting again, brought about to a significant extent by three factors: (a) the advent of sound in 1927 (bringing as it did a closer re-creation of reality and startling the "pure" with its dialogues); (b) the profound social changes resulting from the Great Depression (which Hollywood reflected but was blamed for causing); and (c) publication of a series of studies criticizing the effect films had on children.

Out of this particular uproar arose one of the most powerful, if unofficial, censorship bodies this country has ever known, the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency, which roared mightily during the next decades to "protect members of the church." In Chicago alone nearly 500,000 Catholic women could be enlisted to campaign against "objectionable films."[6] Sometimes Catholics were told they "sinned" if they went to see particular films. The Legion's box-office clout empowered it to work effectively behind the scenes, contributing to the industry's efforts at "self-regulation."[7]

By this time, the mid-30's, ownership of the industry had consolidated itself into a few major studios. This was the "Golden Era" of Hollywood. A majority of the best talent in the world sat well-protected in little enclaves, with enormous amounts of capital at its disposal, and with an efficient distribution/exhibition system available to spread its creations effectively throughout the country and throughout the world.

The list of "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls," which had tried to keep producers in line in the 20's, had been turned into the Motion Picture Production Code, and Code enforcers haggled, harrassed and bargained with producers to remove from films what the public might find objectionable. The difference wasthe Code had teeth. It was enforceable because its "voluntary" signatories were the centralized studios, which owned 70 percent of the first-run theaters in the country. They had agreed that no film could play their theaters without the Code Office's seal of approval.

Thus kept in check, everyone went about the business of making films on noncontroversial topics and in noncontroversial ways.[8] Of course, producers gleefully bent the Code at every opportunity (and they were sometimes ingenious in dreaming up ways), but basically the Code ensured a steady flow of "acceptable family fare." If "pre-self-regulation self-censorship" didn't work, "self-regulation" would. A list of the films changed by precensorship and self-regulation (some drastically and quite arbitrarily) would make staggering reading.

Prostitutes and adulterers had to repent "sufficiently"[9]; murderers and robbers had to be punished "appropriately." If a man kissed a woman standing up, that was "romance," if she was bent backwards that was "lust" and, naturally, verboten. The Army, Navy and State Department had to be shown in a good light. You had to be careful how you treated ethnic, religious, professional and racial groups because Jews, Italians, doctors and blacks were all sensitive to unsympathetic treatment on the screen. Sometimes it seemed like the bad-guy had to be a nonprofessional white Anglo-Saxon atheist, or else a Greekthose two groups never seemed to complain about unsympathetic treatment.

Much as the Code acted to keep film entertainment at a sort of adolescent level, it still provided the producer with an amount of predictability, because he knew exactly where he stood before he finished his picture. Over a drink at the Tail O' the Cock, or some other movieland hangout, he could haggle with a member of the Code office for an extra killing in the film, or an extra inch of cleavage, or a less-ridiculous repentance for his leading character.

Once the Code's seal of approval was given, however, predictability was at an endthere was no guarantee that the film would pass the multitudes of censors outside Hollywood.[10] For the most part those censors remained unchecked by the courts and careened about the countryside acting, not only as guardians of our moral thoughts but, eventually, of our religious, social and political thoughts as well.

Films on "passing as a white person" were being banned to preserve the "peace and order of the community"; other films were banned on the grounds that they were "communist" or "sacrilegious." Some films were banned and no reason was given at all.

Censors often acted in complete indifference to decrees from the Supreme Courtcensorship "in law" and "in fact" being two different things. In New York, counsel for the state censorship body could claim that a Supreme Court decision (condemning one of that body's actions) had "no bearing on New York's film censorship procedures.…We intend to continue just as we have in the past."[11]

Even if a banned film was eventually restored for exhibition in a community, the struggle would already have cost the owner months or years (and thousands of dollars) before it eventually could be resolved.

The chaotic atmosphere in which censorship took place can be partly illustrated by a quote from a lady censor in Pasadena who said, "We don't censor the movies. We are not censors. We just tell the exhibitors what pictures they can't show."[12]


Finally in 1952 the Supreme Court ushered in a new era in censorship, curbing the locals somewhat by granting to films the First Amendment protection it had previously denied them. The Court, however, still refused protection to films where obscenity was the dominant theme. An ideal of freedom was far from being reached, still it was a definite improvement over the melee before.

This new censorship leniency came upon the scene at a time when the movie industry itself was drastically changing, largely due to government decree.

In 1948 the major studios were ordered to divest themselves of their movie theaters or risk antitrust prosecution.[13] As the divestiture proceeded, the studios began to crumble. As distribution efficiency decreased, costs for film rentals began to rise and the supply of films to fall.

Producers, who were leaving the now-crumbling empires for independent endeavors, were not signatories to the Production Code; the movie houses, now separated from the studios, were no longer bound to show only approved films.

At the same time the Production Code Office appointed a new director, a man who refused to act as "the conscience" of movie producers, and became more and more lenient in his interpretations of the Code. All these factors contributed to an increasing permissiveness in film-making and exhibition.

At the same time, television began to grow in popularity and to take over as provider of "family fare." In order to encourage people out of their homes and into expensive theaters, movies had to offer something television was unable to give.

Again sex and violence came to the rescue. The Code no longer prevented violent or sexy films from being made; people were more than willing to pay to see them; the Court gave film exhibitors more freedom in showing them. So!Why not?

As might be expected, a howl of indignation began building in the country. Again the Motion Picture Producers Association tried to dissipate the pressure, this time (1968) by initiating an informational rating system to let parents know which films were appropriate for children and which were not (the G, PG, R, and X system).

A new Hollywood apprenticeship system soon developed. Many new producers would begin their film careers by making cheap X-rated films. They then used their profits to step up to R-rated films. When they were wealthy enough or well enough known to secure financing, they climbed clear up to the heightsthe riskier G and PG ranks (riskier because that was where television so effectively competed).


It should have been obvious, however, that classification would never stem the storm of protest. Pictures like Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones and Last Tango in Paris were driving the indignant insane.

Into this fertile climate the Supreme Court's latest ruling arrived with a horrifying crunch: on June 21, 1973, in a 5-4 decision, the Court returned power to "the community" for setting standards in obscenity.

Justice Burger wrote, "The basic guidelines must be (a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, and (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law and whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value…"[14]

Denied—Constitutional protection for the "consenting adult" (implicit in the rating system), allowing him to see whatever film he chooses;

Gone—the longstanding constitutional requirement that a work must be completely without redeeming "social importance" before being judged obscene;

Undefined—the "average person" and what his "contemporary community standards" are (leaving that up to 50 states to define, each in its own way);

Undiscussed—the source of the power which that "average person" was being given to impress his "contemporary community standards" upon other persons;

In—the test for "obscenity" as that which arouses in a viewer "sexual thoughts"thoughts which arise naturally, all by themselves, in the average day of the average citizen without any outside help from Hollywood filmmakers.

The path was open for a million interpretations of the word "obscenity."

Within a week of the ruling, 6,000 obscenity cases were under investigation by the FBI.[15] The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Carnal Knowledge and Last Tango in Paris, as well as PLAYBOY and PENTHOUSE magazines, had been banned in various communities.

To top off the hysterical movement, Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel frieze of "Adam and Eve" was made to suffer a typical fate: although for centuries it has been gazed upon by countless American teachers, librarians, schoolkids and little old ladies from Pasadena, it was now considered too shocking a sight for the eyes of our cinema audiences. In the film S-s-s-s-s-s, to be on the safe side with the censors, the producers decided to give Adam a fig-leaf![16]

Today more than ever before, no one knows in advance what the censors will determine; in fact, nobody knows who the censors are likely to be—a special, appointed board (made up of long-time political workers who need to be rewarded but gotten out of the way?), or the D.A.'s office, or a local court?

The result is a real heyday for the moral guardians of the nation.

For several months, work in Hollywood (except at Disney and the TV studios) ground to a halt; projects begun or contemplated were shelved or rewritten. If Paper Moon could be considered "obscene," what couldn't?

The Industry, already badly hurt by the long writers' strike, became more depressed than ever. Because the Industry is so diffuse and unorganized, we will probably never know how many thousands of dollars of effort were rendered useless, let alone the amount the Industry has had to spend on censorship fees (already costing moviemakers an annual $1,500,000 in the early 1960's[17]), and miscellaneous other censorship-related costs (for lobbying, overturning government decisions, paying fines and court fees, etc.)

In self-defense, the various relevant Associations (of motion picture producers, theater owners, adult movie producers, etc.) began running about Washington and the state capitols, trying to scrape together some consistency out of the shambles so that filmmakers would not have to deal with thousands of localities each with its own idiosyncracies. (The mayor of one town claimed on radio that he was trying to ban Ivory Soap advertisementsafter all, they show a baby's bottom!)

Dignified judges and censors started busily going to see all manner of "dirty" pictures.

The police began energetically raiding theaters across the country in the best-approved Prohibition style. (Maybe there's a chance "The Untouchables" will be updated on TV.)

The poor film exhibitor was put in a decidedly uncomfortable position. He could show a film, but could not know whether or not it was legally "obscene" until after he had been arrested and tried as a criminal. It was "obscene" only if the jury decided it was. To stack the odds a bit against the defendant, the Justice Department funded a $137,000 project to assist the prosecutor in his researches and keep him abreast of the latest rulings on obscenity.

If a film exhibitor should be brought to trial, he is likely to find himself partaking of a curious form of justice, as Vincent Miranda and Steve Hagen did in their trial in Beverly Hills, California. They were being tried as criminals for showing the allegedly obscene film Deep Throat. The proceedings went somewhat as follows:

  1. One of the prosecutor's chief witnesses was a clinical psychologist who expertly opined that the film had "no social value" and could be "destructive." "Sexuality," he assured the court, "is best expressed in meaningful, committed relationshipsto me, that means marriage."[18]
  2. Not to be outdone, the defense brought in its clinical psychologist who stated that Deep Throat gives sex "a different kind of mysterya mystery based on exploration." He further said he used similar films in his therapy sessions to educate bored married couples and give them sanction for exploring.[19]
  3. In proving that the community did not accept films such as Deep Throat, the prosecution then introduced a public opinion poll which claimed, among other things, that the majority of Californians disapproved of having male or female sex organs shown in public films.[20]
  4. The defense, naturally, countered with its survey: of 2,054 Pussycat Theatre patrons, 82.4 percent had remained unoffended by the film.[21]

As the prosecutor summed up the case, he conceded that "450,000 persons may have seen the film"; however, he deprecated that figure by adding that the figure represents only about 6.4 percent of the population of the Los Angeles area." (Emphasis added.)

Deep Throat may be a silly film viewed mainly by the curious and neurotic, but it was one of 1973's biggest money-earners in Los Angeles. It was the biggest all-time attractions-at-a-single-theater in the town. Yet, in the view of the prosecutor, the film did not meet "community standards." By his measurements, Gone With the Wind would probably have had to be banned!


The future remains uncertain. Films are terribly vulnerable at the box-office because they must recoup their enormous expenses through wide distribution. If censorship cuts distribution, then producers of non-Disneylike films will have to make lower-budget features on shorter shooting schedules.

As the risks and costs of showing sex-related films increase, so will the pressure from organized crime. A group of leading pornography filmmakers already is claiming that exhibitors are being pressured to show bootleg prints of films copied and distributed by criminal elements, and that the "quality" porno filmmakers are being urged to cooperate, with a "subtle implication of muscle" added to encourage cooperation.[22]

It is also likely that censorship will creep outward from its obscenity base. An indication that this is already happening occurred on October 15, 1973 when the Supreme Court refused to review a case that challenged a Federal Communications Commission ruling threatening "to hold radio stations accountable at license renewal time for failure to understand and evaluate songs that glorify the use of drugs."[23]

"Support your local pornographer!"

So, after a period of relative freedom from censorship, we are back where we once werewith the silly, the bigoted, the uneducated empowered to determine what we will see. (This statement is not to be mistaken as a desire to have the wise, liberal and well-educated in their stead!) Film exhibitors, again, are not allowed to show whatever films they decide will bring them satisfaction or profit.

The awful thing is that virtually no one appears to be offering the prosecuted exhibitor support and sympathy. After all, who wants to stand up and cheer publicly, "Long live pornography!" It's as bad as being for littering or against Mom and apple pie!

So this article is my cheera request that, even if you have no decided urge to go straight out and see Deep Throat before the local theater is closed and its owner jailed, you still pay attention to what is going on in the country relative to obscenity and censorship.

With the certain-to-increase costs for making, distributing and showing movies, censorship is vitally related to the pocketbooks of all movie fans. Also, since it is no different to censor movies for their ideas on morality than for their views on society or politics, censorship even of "obscenity" is antithetical and dangerous to freedom. We have got to tell "dear Uncle" that we don't need anyone protecting our moralsnot even with so gentle a thing as a fig-leaf!

Diane Alexander has recently begun an acting career after years as an applied anthropologist in the fields of public health and education. She has a B.A. and M.A. in anthropology and an M.P.H. in public health education.


[1] The ban against doublebeds was actually in England, but since American films played so profitably there, no producer could afford to run afoul of English censors.
[2] Murray Schumach, THE FACE ON THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR: The Story of Movie and Television Censorship (William Morrow & Co.), p. 16.
[3] Richard S. Randall, CENSORSHIP OF THE MOVIES: The Social and Political Control of a Mass Medium (University of Wisconsin Press), p. 13.
[4] Schumach, op. cit., p. 18.
[5] Randall, op. cit., p. 15.
[6] Schumach, op. cit., p. 21.
[7] Neville March Hunnings, FILM CENSORS AND THE LAW (George Allen & Unwin Ltd.), p. 164 states his belief that private pressure groups such as the Legion would not be "enough to enforce the self-censorship system alone."
[8] Schumach quotes Tolstoy on a front-leaf of his book: "You would not believe how, from the very commencement of my activity, that horrible Censor question has tormented me! I wanted to write what I felt; but all the time it occurred to me that what I wrote would not be permitted, and involuntarily I had to abandon the work. I abandoned, and went on abandoning, and meanwhile the years passed away."
[9] That is why Never on Sunday had to play in "art houses," it never received a seal because its leading character remained cheerfully unrepentent about being a prostitute.
[10] Foreign countries, too, have a host of regulations that movie-makers must take into consideration. Schumach, op. cit., p. 208, reports that scenes showing drinking alcoholic beverages were banned in India. Either a drinking scene would be cut from a film, or "a most unexpected scene was inserted before the drinking began. The insert showed a hand pouring milk into the glasses. This was supposed to create the impression that any merriment that followed the lifting of the glass to lip must be attributable to the innate good humor of the guests or to the milk."
[11] Ira Carmen, MOVIES, CENSORSHIP, AND THE LAW (University of Michigan Press), p. 122 quotes A.H. Weiler, "Movie Censorship Seen in New Light," THE NEW YORK TIMES, March 3, 1965, p. 35.
[12] Schumach, op. cit., p. 203.
[13] United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 U.S. 131 (1948)
[14] HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, June 22, 1973, p. 21.
[15] HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, July 2, 1973.
[16] HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, July 9, 1973.
[17] Schumach, op. cit., p. 200.
[18] VARIETY, October 9, 1973, p. 1.
[19] VARIETY, October 11, 1973, p. 2.
[20] VARIETY, September 20, 1973, p. 1. This claim was based upon 1,500 questionnaires which the pollsters received after sending out 5,000.
[21] VARIETY, September 21, 1973, p. 7.
[22] VARIETY, November 6, 1973, p. 1.
[23] VARIETY, October 16, 1973, p. 1.