For nearly a century, Hollywood has been at war with itself.
On one hand, the industry’s self-censorship system cuts objectionable messages out of movies; on the other, the simultaneously industry tries to thwart the censors and keep the messages in.
From the perspective of the suits, self-censorship is smart, bottom-line thinking. The Production Code Administration, AKA the Hays Office, developed rules in the 1930s to keep movies wholesome, and thereby keep government censors and pressure groups off Hollywood’s back. Movies that didn't get the code's seal of approval couldn’t get released to major theater chains. In the 1960s, the Motion Picture Association of America switched from the code to the letter-rating system — G, PG, R, X, NC-17 — which determined who was allowed in the audience.
From the creators’ perspective, recutting a film to avoid offending people often meant compromising on art — or losing the box office from keeping movies edgy. For as long as the MPAA has been censoring, producers and directors have found ways to outwit them. Outright scams. Lawsuits. Power (major studios seem to have more pull with MPAA than indies). Sleight-of-hand.
As a result of all that outwitting, here are some films that gave audiences objectionable messages, subtexts and themes despite the censors. Some of them look laughably inoffensive today. Others remain controversial. Read on for some examples of this never-ending battle.
Here are 16 Forbidden Movie Messages That Got Past The Censors.
16 Inside Out
Inside Out is the firmly PG-rated story of Riley, an 11-year-old tomboy whose family relocates from Minnesota to San Francisco.
It’s also the story of the avatars in Riley’s head, embodying her various emotions. Other female characters have female avatars, while male characters have male avatar, but interestingly, Riley’s are a mix of genders.
At one point, Riley’s emotions have a lively discussion about whether they saw a bear, whether it could have been a really hairy guy, whether you can find any bears in San Francisco - a historically LGBT-friendly city. The more adult interpretation of this joke, then, is that "bear" is slang for a hairy, gay man; a joke that sailed over the heads of kids, and the MPAA too.
15 Kill Bill Vol. 1
The MPAA is tougher on sex than violence, but it has its limits. With its severed heads, plucked-out eyeballs and other brutality, Kill Bill Vol. 1 was violent enough to be stepping into NC-17 territory. As many theaters won’t show NC-17 (and even if they do, nobody under 17 is allowed in) the rating can be the kiss of financial death, much like denying the MPAA seal used to be.
Tarantino’s solution was to shoot the most violent parts of the film in black and white, muting the effect of spattering and squirting blood. In the black-and-white trailer, for instance, the Bride’s blood-smeared yellow jumpsuit could as easily be covered with mud or paint. The film came out with an R so it could be shown anywhere, and the teenage audience could add to the box office.
There’s a long history of movie makers sneaking dirty jokes past the censors. It’s slightly riskier when the creators stick a joke into a G-rated movie such as Pixar's Cars.
There are lots of adult-targeting jokes in Cars such as a car saying “I have gas,” or a vehicle pseudo-swearing “for the love of Chrysler!” In one scene, star-struck vehicles Mia and Tia push to the front of a crowd around Lightning McQueen, declaring themselves his number one fans — and then flash their headlights, implying that if they were human they’d have “flashed” him.
Presumably the censors got the joke, but handed out the G rating confident that the underaged portion of the audience wouldn’t.
13 Requiem for a Dream
Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream dramatizes (or melodramatizes) the horrors of drug abuse by showing how getting hooked destroys characters played by Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Marlon Wayans, and Jennifer Connolly in different ways.
The MPAA had major problems with Connolly’s final scene in which she and another woman entertain a male audience by the creative use of an adult toy. The MPAA demanded Aronofsky cut the scene entirely.
Lots of filmmakers in that boat would make the cut to avoid NC-17, then release the original version on DVD. Aronofsky stood his ground and released the film unrated. It was a risky move for a rising director — it was only his second feature — but it paid off. The film got rave reviews for its dark, brutal vision, and Aronofsky’s star kept rising.
Sex was the issue for Kevin Smith’s debut feature Clerks. Not that there’s any shown on screen, but there is lots of talk about it, such as the lengthy argument between Dante and his girlfriend over how many men she's been with and what counts as sex -- only much more crudely (and humorously) worded.
The MPAA decided the dialog was too raunchy to get by with anything but an NC-17. Cutting the dirty talk would have cut out a lot of the movie’s appeal, not to mention its running time, so Miramax studio head Harvey Weinstein (now better known for his scandal) played hardball: he hired a major lawyer and filed suit over the film. The MPAA suddenly discovered the movie qualified for an R just the way it was.
11 Taxi Driver
There was plenty to horrify the MPAA censors in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver: teenage escort Jodie Foster, perverts and psychos running wild in the New York streets, and once again some intense violence. NC-17 didn’t exist then, but there was a risk of being slapped with a X rating, the closest equivalent.
Scorsese used a couple of tricks to slide into an R-rating instead. One was to use a desaturated palette in the gorier scenes, so that blood looked less red than brown. Another was to respond to the censors' reaction by resubmitting it without any changes. And then resubmit again.
The censors eventually handed down an R. One theory is that repeated reviews desensitized them to the level of violence. Another possibility is that they just got tired of rewatching it and threw in the towel.
10 Team America: World Police
When South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone decided to parody Jerry Bruckheimer action films, they did it by riffing on the 1960s puppet-adventure TV series Thunderbirds. But Team America: World Police had lots of stuff Thunderbirds couldn’t have gotten away with, most notably puppet-on-puppet sex.
The scene had to be cut multiple times to pass muster with the MPAA and escape an NC-17 rating. What really raised the red flag for MPAA review was that the scene includes one puppet giving another a golden shower. That part had to be excised, period end of statement. And it was.
It turned out that suited Parker and Stone fine. They’d filmed the urination scene knowing the MPAA would demand cuts and guessing that would let them keep the rest of the scene.
9 The Maltese Falcon
Because of the production code, lots of things didn’t exist in 1930s and 1940s movies — hookers, premarital sex, and homosexuality, for example. Moviemakers sometimes got around it by using visuals to imply things that weren’t written into the script. John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941) actually did write a gay man into the film.
The character of Joel Cairo is a perfect example of the homophobic, subtextual way gay men were represented at the time - he's effeminate and fusses over his clothing. Huston took things a step further with another character, however.
As PI Sam Spade, Humphrey Bogart repeatedly refers to Wilmer, the sniveling, unstable gunman played by Elisha Cook Jr., as a “gunsel.” To most movie-goers it sounded like slang for a gunman. In reality, the word comes from Yiddish, where it means a young male homosexual. Spade was identifying Wilmer as gay, but the implication flew past the censors.
Since then, “gunman” has become another meaning for the word — Huston’s film actually changed the language.
Disney’s reworking of the Snow Queen story, Frozen, once again includes a quasi-dirty joke aimed at adults that kid fans wouldn’t pick up on.
During a sleigh ride with Elsa’s sister Anna, Kristoff learns she’s engaged to marry Hans. When Anna admits she's only known Hans a day, Kristoff is completely gobsmacked — how can she love someone she only just met? Does she know anything about him? He rattles off a series of questions testing what she knows about Hans’ diet, eye color, last name, and shoe size. Anna does her best to answer but when he gets to shoe size she shrugs: “Shoe size doesn’t matter.”
Foot size, according to popular legend equates directly to penis size, so there’s definitely a suggestive subtext there. But it’s such a throw-away line, even adult viewers may have missed it.
Another based-on-truth movie, Casino (1995), is rife with violence in its story of conflict in a mob-run casino back in the 1970s. Intense, brutal violence is seen in the scene in which the Santoro brothers — unstable mob thugs — pay for crossing some higher-level mobsters. One Santoro is beaten to gory death by a baseball bat while the other watches - then the second brother gets pounded too. Scenes like that were brutal enough that Martin Scorsese knew an NC-17 rating was a serious threat.
The solution: let the MPAA demand cuts that wouldn’t affect the movie. Scorsese’s review copy of the film included some extra scenes with even more graphic violence, which the MPAA immediately demanded he cut to avoid NC-17. The rest of the stuff — the real film — looked innocuous by comparison. Scorsese made the cuts and preserved the film he wanted.
6 Last House on the Left
In the late Wes Craven’s first film, a gang of murderous, rape-minded psychos terrorize the family living in The Last House on the Left. The violence that results was so graphic and horrifying, the United Kingdom took more than thirty years to approve the 1972 film for release.
The MPAA was none too thrilled with it either, insisting it could only go out with an X certificate. Craven didn’t want that so he made cuts, and then more cuts, and still couldn’t change the MPAA’s mind.
Craven’s solution? He cheated. First he put back all the gory footage he’d edited out. Then he obtained an official MPAA R-rating seal via a friend of his, placed it on the film and proceeded to distribute it as an R movie. He got away with it.
5 Blue Valentine
The MPAA censorship process isn’t automatic: if producers don’t like the requirements to get an R or a PG-13 rating, they can appeal. Sometimes an appeal is all it takes to escape the cuts. At least if your producer is as powerful and influential as Weinstein once was.
Case in point: Blue Valentine, a drama depicting the relationship between Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. The MPAA balked at the scene where Gosling goes down on Williams, offering a cut-or-NC-17 decision. Unlike some films with questionable sequences, the director hadn’t shot a safer version of the footage he could switch to. Rather than accept NC-17, the studio appealed.
The MPAA backed down, deciding that rather than “explicit sex” — a term associated with NC-17 films — Blue Valentine could be safely classified as R-friendly “graphic sex.” No cuts needed!
4 The Moon is Blue
Even by 1953’s standards, the story of The Moon Is Blue — boy meets virgin, boy hits on virgin, boy falls in love and proposes marriage — was innocuous, but the Hays Office didn’t see it that way. The Code said seducing young virgins was never funny. Besides the whole tone of the movie implied that an adult female virgin was rare — what a shocking insult that was to American women! The office denied The Moon the seal.
Thuis wasn’t the deal breaker it had once been, so United Artists released the film anyway. As word spread that the Production Code Administration banned the film because of S-E-X, the film did some major box office. It was bad enough that UA ignored the code; having the film become a hit with the public was a major blow to the code's clout.
3 Gone With the Wind
To avoid cutting “I don’t give a damn” from Gone With the Wind, the Hays Office actually rewrote the production code.
The film’s struggle with the code takes up an entire chapter of the censorship history The Dame in the Kimono. “Damn” was a major issue: the Hays Office normally didn’t allow cussing, but producer David O. Selznick demanded they keep the line. The censors were torn. If they signed off on “damn,” everyone would try to use it; if they said no and hurt GWTS's box office, Hollywood might sour on the code.
After much debate, back-and-forthing and appeals, it all worked out. The Hays Office issued a rule that swearing was okay if the dialog was quoted from history or literature and wasn’t offensive or in poor taste — a rule that let them approve this line but still ban profanity when they wanted to.
2 The Hound of the Baskervilles
Unsurprisingly, drugs were forbidden in 1930s films. That makes the ending of 1939’s Sherlock Holmes film, The Hound of the Baskervilles a shock.
The movie removes several elements of the novel that wouldn’t have passed code muster, such as the villainous Stapleton’s adulterous relationships. At the end of the film, though, it throws in a line that wasn’t in the book: Holmes calling for Watson to bring him “the needle.” Meaning that with the case over, Holmes needs a cocaine injection to stimulate his mind.
This should have been a big red flag, but it apparently flew right by the censors. Possibly the thought of Holmes as a drug user didn’t occur to them. Sure, the cocaine use is in the books, but nobody treated it as central to Holmes’ character until the 1970s novel and movie The Seven Percent Solution.
1 Confessions of a Nazi Spy
1930s Hollywood ignored the rise of fascism in Europe, believing audiences wanted light entertainment, not current events. When a studio did propose an antifascist film, isolationists in the Production Code Administration shot them down. The code banned films targeting particular nationalities, which gave the censors grounds for rejecting anything critical of fascist Italy or Germany.
Warner Brothers, however, wanted to take a harder anti-Nazi line. When the FBI exposed a German spy network operating in the US, the studio had its chance. After all, it was hardly unfair to Germans to report on a verified case of Nazi espionage.
In 1939, Warner Brothers brought out the based-on-truth Confessions of a Nazi Spy, “the picture that dares to call a swastika a swastika!” The censors weren't pleased, but they had no grounds to deny the film a code seal.
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