Sex, Law, and Cinema: 1934-68

by Tony Comstock

In Ways of Showing/Ways of Seeing, Part 1, we took a look at the dawn of cinema and "actualities," and noted that in short order cinema developed rapidly: technologically, creatively, commercially--except for cinema dealing with sexuality. Explicit sexuality never became more than a primitive, underground form, and by 1934, with the official adoption of the Hays Code, sexually suggestive themes were self-regulated out of mainstream movies as well.

In the post Climax Ecology, I gave a brief overview of this ecological theory, and posited that the periods from 1968 to 1975 and 1999 to 2006 can be understood as "clearing events" during which it became possible to tackle sexual subjects impossible in the years prior, and which a few short years later would become impossible again as the underlying socioeconomic ecology began to reassert itself.

In this post I'm going to give a timeline of important court cases, movies, and MPAA decisions that led to the MPAA abandoning the Production Code (aka Hays Code) in 1968, and replacing it with a four-tier content advisory system that included an adults-only rating available to producers whether or not they were working within the MPAA system.

This decision--to make the new, quasi-official X-rating available to anyone who wishes to apply it to their film--would change the meaning of an "adult movie" forever.

Justice Woolsey rules that James Joyce's masterwork was not obscene because it was "emetic, not aphrodisiac." On appeal, Justice Augustus Hand writes, "We think that Ulysses is a book of originality and sincerity of treatment and that it has not the effect of promoting lust. Accordingly it does not fall within the statute, even though it justly may offend many."

In subsequent court cases this standard--"the intent to arouse"--will be replaced by more liberal standards, but even after "the intent to arouse" loses currency as a legal dictate, it will ultimately prove the most durable and important influence on the evolution of explicit sexuality in film.

The New York State Board of Regents suppresses the Italian film The Miracle on the grounds that it is "sacrilegious," and the case finds its way to the US Supreme Court. Excerpted from Justice Clark's decision:

It is urged that motion pictures do not fall within the First Amendment's aegis because their production, distribution, and exhibition is a large-scale business conducted for private profit. We cannot agree. That books, newspapers, and magazines are published and sold for profit does not prevent them from being a form of expression whose liberty is safeguarded by the First Amendment.

We fail to see why operation for profit should have any different effect in the case of motion pictures.

Burstyn v Wilson is generally recognized as the case which firmly places cinema under the umbrella of First Amendment protection. Prior to this, producers had no such assurances, and after, producers, distributors and exhibitors would more boldly explore the boundaries of just what this protection permitted. (56 years later the argument of profit motive will be employed to deny First Amendment protections in the case Dible v City of Chandler.)

1956 - ROTH v US, excerpt:

All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance -- unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion -- have the full protection of the guaranties, unless excludable because they encroach upon the limited area of more important interests; but implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance...

[But] sex and obscenity are not synonymous. Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest. The portrayal of sex, e.g., in art, literature and scientific works, is not itself sufficient reason to deny material the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and press. Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages; it is one of the vital problems of human interest and public concern.

After viewing Les Amants (The Lovers) the Supreme Court ruled (highly abridged):

The Lovers involves a woman bored with her life and marriage who abandons her husband and family for a young archaeologist with whom she has suddenly fallen in love. There is an explicit love scene in the last reel of the film, and the State's objections are based almost entirely upon that scene. The film was favorably reviewed in a number of national publications, although disparaged in others, and was rated by at least two critics of national stature among the best films of the year in which it was produced. It was shown in approximately 100 of the larger cities in the United States, including Columbus and Toledo, Ohio. We have viewed the film, in the light of the record made in the trial court, and we conclude that it is not obscene within the standards enunciated in Roth v. United States and Alberts v. California, which we reaffirm here.

Jacobellis also gave us some of the most famous words ever handed down by the high court. From Justice Potter Stewart's concurrence:

It is possible to read the Court's opinion in Roth v. United States and Alberts v. California in a variety of ways. In saying this, I imply no criticism of the Court, which in those cases was faced with the task of trying to define what may be indefinable. I have reached the conclusion, which I think is confirmed at least by negative implication in the Court's decisions since Roth and Alberts,1 that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography.2 I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. (emphasis added)

Initially denied a Production Code seal over a brief showing of a woman's bare breasts. The studio appealed and won. The Pawnbroker becomes the first film with female nudity of any sort to be released under the Production Code.

After script negotiation with the MPAA, the film is released with some alterations to Edward Albee's dialogue and with the Production Code seal, but still contains language never before heard in a Production Code film.

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1966 - BLOW-UP
The film was denied a Production Code seal. MGM turned its back on the MPAA and its fellow member studios and released the film without changes and without a Production Code seal. (This will be reprised in the VHS/DVD era when MPAA member studios will release R-rated cuts for theatrical distribution and then promote unrated versions as "uncensored" to the home video market.)

Faced with the prospect of mass defection by its member studios, the MPAA replaces the Production Code (a code of restrictions on language, imagery and themes) with a four-tier content advisory system that is the basis for the G, PG, PG13, R, NC-17 system we know today.


Let's take a moment to recall other events that happened in 1968, the year the MPAA abandoned the idea of content restriction and replaced it with parental advisory:

Prague Spring, the Battle of Khe Sanh, the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre, Martin Luther King assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy assassinated. Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing atop the winners podium at the Mexico City Olympics with their fists raised, the Zodiac Killer is on the loose in San Francisco, Apollo 8 orbits the moon, and a young James Fallows pens a letter to Harvard criticizing the banishment of the ROTC.

Exciting times!

There will also be a quirk in the MPAA's new system. The MPAA trademarks the G, PG, and R ratings, and producers seeking to carry these ratings must submit their films to the MPAA for review. But the MPAA leaves the Adults Only rating--the X-rating--as an untrademarked, self-applicable rating.  

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On the surface this appears perfectly sensible. The MPAA's new rating system is construed as advice to parents, and producers making films intended solely for an adult audience could simply label their films as such, with no MPAA review.

In modern parlance, the X-rating is "open-source."

G, PG, and R are indications of age-appropriateness for children as judged by the MPAA. X is simply a new name for a well-established concept; films tackling subject matter, language, and imagery not suitable for children. And by making their adults only rating, the X-rating, available to anyone to use, the MPAA is making it clear that they are no longer in the business of deciding what member studios may or may not include in their films, or regulating what adults can and cannot see.

But because it is not trademarked, and is available for use by anyone within or outside of the MPAA system, the X-rating will end up being applied (by the MPAA and others) to everything from Academy Award-winning films to peepshow masturbatory fare.

In the next post, we will look at films made between the years 1968 and 1975, an era regarded by many as both the high point for grown-up movie making in Hollywood, and the Golden Age of pornography, a time when people lined up outside theaters waiting to see sexually explicit films.

We'll take special note of how the X-rating is used to market those films, and see how the inability to satisfactorily define the X-rating as an indication of content will ultimately render the "X" a barren no man's land for filmmakers of all persuasions.

But before we go, here's a clip from The Owl and the Pussycat (1970). As you watch it, keep in mind that this is the same year that the producers of Midnight Cowboy will petition to have their R-rating restored, but a year later producers of A Clockwork Orange will release their film with an X-rating, and *two* years later Last Tango in Paris will be released with an X-rating. As I said, exciting, confusing times!


Tony Comstock is a documentary filmmaker whose company, Comstock Films, specializes in erotic documentaries. Follow him on Twitter at @TonyComstock.