Can Censorship be a GOOD Thing?


One of the most controversial topics I’ve ever discussed is in regards to film censorship. I have no idea why this is so controversial but it apparently is. It has resulted in people attacking me, calling me names, and has even gotten me banned from a few internet forums for even daring to ask such a question. The question goes like this; was film censorship necessarily a bad thing? Before you get all angry on limiting freedom and speech and how people can and should police themselves allow me to make my case.

First and foremost, I’m not about limiting freedom of speech and I have often said that in the arena of ideas the best ideas always in but this is a very different situation. In the case of film censorship we are talking, not about freedom of speech, but about working under limitations. It is an interesting fact that the best forms of art have produced under limitations and/or pressure whether they be time restraints, money constraints, or limits in the technological advances and the materials available at the time. I assert that film censorship falls into the same category and I’ll get into the reason why in a moment. Since I have an animation background I’ll use some animated titles for reference that prove my point in regards to time.

Pretty much everyone regards the best of the modern Disney animated features to be “The Little Mermaid“, “Aladdin”, “Beauty & the Beast”, and “The Lion King”. Although I don’t care for “The Lion King” I’ll include it here anyway since the vast majority of people do. What all of these films have in common is that the versions we saw up on the silver screen were produced in under two years time from start to finish. In the case of “The Lion King” it was a film treated like a “B” picture that was pretty much left alone but had a very low-budget because no one believed in it. “Beauty & the Beast” was done in 2 years and was the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and the first animated feature to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture. “Aladdin” was thrown together in a little over a year. “Little Mermaid” took about 3 years to do but it was limited by budget as well. “Oliver & Company” was the film the studio believed in because it was a “boy’s” movie and “everyone knows girl’s movies do worse than boy’s movies…” All of the so-called “girl’s movies” out grossed “Oliver” by tens of millions, in many cases in the hundreds of millions. Even the Pixar film “Toy Story 2” was done in under a year and many people list it among their favorite Pixar films.

After the success of the 4 hand drawn films I just cited animation, which had been regarded as a losing medium for decades, began to be seen as the most successful money-making medium out there due to a variety of factors. Because of that and the “Beauty & the Beast” Oscar and Golden Globes nomination and win animated features became animated epics hoping to claim the Oscar gold that “Beauty” could not. Suddenly time and expense were of no limitation. Most of these films had double the budgets and time that those four earlier efforts had but look at the results. Although some beautiful work was done, who remembers “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Hercules”, “Tarzan”, or “The Emperor’s New Groove”? (It is a myth that “Pocahontas” was a flop. It actually grossed more than “Mermaid”, “Aladdin”, and “Beauty & the Beast”. It just didn’t do the kind of money that “Lion King” did so people think it was a flop.) When time and money are no obstacle this often allows time to over think things and results in a watered down product. That is why I argue that limitations can sometimes result in a good thing because the creative powers that be are forced to make quick, instinctual, definite decisions. Once time and money are no longer a limitation the film maker has time to doubt their initial choices and sometimes destroy the statement they wish to make by over complicating things.

Now let’s return to classic films. Most people agree that older films are funnier, scarier, more action packed, and more romantic than modern films. The reason often cited is because they left a great deal more to the imagination. In many cases it was due to the limitations imposed from the times in which they were made. Many people look back fondly on old monster movies because they weren’t about blood and gore, there was always substance to them. In most cases you saw very little because when you did see everything the results were quite laughable with effects being what they were at the time. Because of this everything was restrained to being suggested.

You never see the Mummy walk around once in the entire movie. In a film like “The Invisible Ma” it’s what you don’t see that has the greatest effect. In a George Pal film the special effects were only saved for special moments and thusly had the greatest impact. (Compare that to the overuse of special effects a modern film has.) All of the trappings we associate to an old monster movie from the shadows and atmosphere to the black and white comes out of special effects limitations. The filmmakers got more bang for their buck through suggesting what you don’t see. The reason the films were shot in black and white was to keep costs down as many of these films were only seen as B pictures. This also resulted in a greater gross in profits. As a result of these limitations we now associate so much of these trappings with a Monster movie that we don’t realize how they came to be in the first place because we so completely take them for granted. The thriller film “Jaws” was a similar example in that the animatronic shark was such a problem that you rarely saw it in the film so the shark’s presence was always suggested through atmosphere, a fin, and John Williams’ anxious theme. The result was that when you did see the shark it carried the greatest seat jumping shock because it was always a surprise.

We must remember that films began in the penny arcades of the late 1800’s and not many Americans were sure about them yet. In the penny arcade a customer would place a coin into what was essentially a movieolla and watch a few minute long filmed scene carry out. Peep shows in a billiard parlor were quite popular among some audiences. It took until the 1920’s for theatrical exhibitions of films to gain enough popularity to become a viable business and even then adults never took their children to the theater. The movie theater came out of the vaudeville established venues and systems, an American institution that dated back to the mid 1800’s and ranged from musical hall and comedy to burlesque and stripteases. This is the industry that film piggybacked on until it eventually overtook vaudeville and replaced it. Because film has its roots in vaudeville in more ways than one it began to take on the flavors that that medium carried and pushing the envelope to stand out. By the time films advanced to sound they were becoming more commonplace and children were often spending entire afternoons in a theater. Like stage productions, early movie theaters allowed a customer, once admitted, to stay as long as they wanted and watch the entire venue over and over until they had had enough of it. I’ll cover these other entertainments another time but it is how everything from the animated cartoon to the sitcom to the late night news came into being; as filler on a theater program.

In the mid 1930’s because many groups deemed that Hollywood films were becoming too smutty and dirty, partly because of the envelope pushing Monster film and because of the nudity and sexual innuendo that began to creep into the films, there was an outcry for censorship boards to be created because Hollywood could not censor itself. What resulted was a series of different offices that had to approve screenplays and films before they could be completed. Because of this limitation filmmakers were often forced to get around the rules and codes by coming up with often ingenious solutions that they otherwise would have never thought of. The often cited train in the tunnel metaphor came from this limitation. Dialogue was often reworked and romance was never about sex and so it had a much deeper sensuality to it. Most people will cite “Gone with the Wind” or “Casablanca” as the most romantic films ever made and are they any less romantic because you DIDN’T see any nudity or sex in them? I’ve always found it strange when proponents against censorship will often cite older films as the best in whatever category without even realizing that they‘re proving my point that censorship forced filmmakers to make more intelligent films.

Citizen Kane, Copyright RKO Radio Pictures, All Rights Reserved.

Citizen Kane, Copyright RKO Radio Pictures, All Rights Reserved.

It is also a fact that in the past there were more evergreen film titles produced in any given year than we see done today. Out of all of the romantic comedies that have been released in the past decade how many of them have been treated like masterpieces and how many have been treated like throwaway fodder? Look through the $5.00 DVD bin at your local big box retailer and count how many recent films are to be found there. How many of them do you even remember came out or even seeing? The same holds true for TV programs too. Look at how many 1960’s programs are so fondly remembered. There are literally DOZENS of them. Now think of the 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s, and the 2000’s. Is it just me or do the titles become fewer and fewer with each passing decade? How can this be? The irony of ironies is that in the past all entertainment was seen as throw away entertainment to be seen one time then thrown away. No one ever thought that people would want to rewatch something they’d already seen before. Interestingly enough these entertainments designed to be thrown away outlast any modern effort meant to last forever.

The production codes were lifted in the late 1960’s when many of these groups decided it was more important to save a few thousand dollars each year from giving up the expensive Hollywood office space and soon the codes were no longer enforced. Within 3 years the first mainstream porn films were produced and exhibited. Filmmakers claim that the lifting of these restrictions were liberating but I say they made filmmakers lazy. Because there were no restraints filmmakers could now show anything they wanted just because they could and never asking if they should. As the 1970’s dawned films become more violent, more gory, more sexual, and more profanity filled. Filmmakers argued this made the films more real but was “Citizen Kane” or “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” any less real because no one in these films uttered any F-bombs or took a woman to bed on camera?

There was such a public outcry over the content found in the new films that, like the comic book industry in the 1950’s, a new ratings system was instituted that would give the public an idea of the age appropriate audience that each film was suitable for before they saw the film. The reason for this was up until that time a child could go and see ANY film ever made. For decades many children would spend their weekend afternoons watching the latest movies that came to their town. They could see the scary and the adventurous and the romantic. Whenever you watch documentaries on old films you often find old timers brought out who rave about how much they loved being scared by Dracula and Frankenstein or were thrilled by John Wayne movies and Jimmy Cagney gangster pictures. Even Alfred Hitchcock films could be viewed by all age audiences. As films became more violent, profanity packed, and included heightened sexual content children could no longer see the latest films as they could in previous generations. Ultimately isn’t this a tremendous disservice to today’s children that they are now missing out on the same experiences that their grandparents enjoyed?

As time went on the ratings system became more refined with the PG-13 rating being added so that more children could see “Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom” when it would have received an R rating under the original system and thusly strongly locking out a substantial portion of the “Indiana Jones” audience. The ratings system was further fine-tuned in the late 90’s to specifically list the reasons for each film’s rating in the judgment. Films continued to push the envelope of what was shown on the screen but an interesting pattern became more and more clear. The highest grossing films each year were always the films that audiences saw as a family. The reason why should be blatantly obvious; the more people who can see a film means that more people are likely to purchase a ticket to see that film. It is a fact that these types of films are higher grossing moneymakers than R or NC-17 rated ever are.

So why do film makers continue to make such films? Because they want to. And when nobody goes to see them they have to justify making them so what do they do? They nominate them for awards! Then such money losing productions become prestigious. Think about it. How many of the Best Picture nominees over the past decade are films mainstream America flocked to see? There was a time when the nominees reflected the popular tastes of America but Hollywood holds mainstream America with such disdain that they no longer care what America thinks of the films they make. By nominating the pictures that they want to make but nobody wants to see they are sending their message loud and clear; that America is too ignorant to know a great picture when they nominate their “art” for major awards. It is hard to imagine a film like “Mary Poppins” or “Oliver!” being made today let alone being nominated for Best Picture. The only Best Picture wins that I can think of over the past twenty years that reflected the tastes of the American public are “Forest Gump”, “Titanic”, and “Lord of the Rings”. I may be forgetting a couple but especially in the last few years we’ve seen films nominated that glorify sexual deviates, back alley abortionists, and gay cowboys.

When a film that not just America but the entire world came out to see in droves, “The Passion of the Christ”, was having its Academy screenings there was an open boycott from the Hollywood brass claiming the film was an exploitation picture and anti-Semitic and the screenings were nearly empty. Yet around the same time they nominated a film that humanized Hitler, several that made serial killers into heroes, glorified child molesters and rapists, and positively depicted violence and murder. Had “The Passion of the Christ” been about any other figure other than Jesus I’m sure it would have received a nomination but in Hollywood where the clergy are always depicted as being sinister this isn’t a surprise. Innocent Best Picture winners such as 1938’s “You Can’t Take It With You” and 1944’s “Going My Way” are a thing of the past in modern Hollywood.

Inevitably I also get told “Well, if people didn’t go to see these films then Hollywood wouldn’t make them!!” I’ve already deflated that bubble with my example of the highest grossing moneymakers. In the 2000’s PG-13 has become the new family rating. Films carrying that label from “Spiderman” to “Lord of the Rings” are all films Americans turned out to see as a family. “Brokeback Mountain” was a film that had barely cracked 30 million until it’s Best Picture nomination then it doubled that. Hollywood rewarded this film that depicted progressive values that they cherish but America had spoken and they rejected it. So why do they keep making these films when all age films turn a much larger profit? In part it could be because they hope to reshape the culture to accept values that it currently rejects. This sort of thing has been true from stage plays to books and several filmmakers have also stated as such that this is their intended goal. Jeffery Katzenberg and Thomas Schumacher have both famously stated that the films they’ve worked on are designed to create a new generation of people who adhere to the values they deem important. That is why I don’t find it to be a conspiracy theory when we have their own words to convict them. When America rejects these values it only makes Hollywood angry and they double down on them.

When “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” was such a huge success Hollywood was baffled by this. Having come out on the heals of “The Passion of The Christ”, the first “Narnia” film followed the same marketing campaign that “Christ” had successfully utilized. It not only had the traditional marketing campaign but it reached out to Christians and Catholics who revered the works of C.S. Lewis. Hollywood took note and immediately put a new series of films into production based on “The Golden Compass”. This series is the atheistic answer to Lewis’ Narnia to the point that in many places references to Lewis have been replaced at Oxford with references to this book and it’s author. When “The Golden Compass” came out it failed to do the business of “Narnia” or even “Harry Potter” and while the second book in the series was in development for a time it was eventually abandoned. “The Golden Compass” just didn’t reflect America’s tastes and values.

I have also noticed a degrading of American culture as time goes on. When I was a kid in the 1980’s I don’t recall ANYONE spouting off the F-word in public AT ALL. Sure, I was a kid but it is a fact that there used to be a public shame that kept the behavior of people and what was acceptable in check. There was a time where you never behaved poorly in front of women or children. Now when I frequently go shopping I will see people of all ages proudly peppering their language with colourful metaphors that would make a salt sailor blush. I see men and women saying it in front of kids and I even see kids saying it themselves. Are we really a better society for behaving in this manner? It is a fact that such language is used more widely in mainstream films and TV programs. Could people now be so desensitized to such words that now they have no qualms to say them whenever they feel like? And if this is the case what other behaviors will we see more openly flaunted in public as time goes on and people get desensitized to what’s socially acceptable even more.

Returning to my original point, I believe that film censorship worked much like our American government has a checks and balances; it kept the filmmakers in check. Because there were content limitations imposed upon them, filmmakers were forced to out-think the censorship boards and often came up with a better way to say the same thing or an even better thing to say altogether. Just because you CAN show something doesn’t mean you SHOULD show everything. As I’ve pointed out there’s a lot to be said about restraint. There’s no question that overall modern films and TV programs don’t hold a candle to those of the past and look at all of those who complain about the overdone CGI effects found in modern films. A big part of that is because CGI effects show way too much and look too fake as a result. CGI effects don’t have to look fake either. Look at how real the dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park” look or the CGI effects in “Independence Day”. The loss of this check that balanced the creativity of the filmmaker is what began Hollywood holding America in great contempt. I, for one, like intelligently written films and I just don’t see many of them made anymore.

When I get told excuses that censorship limits creativity I point to the films of the past and insist that it fuels creativity, it doesn‘t hinder it. It leads to creative solutions to get around the limitations that result in an improved product. If it were true that lifting limitations resulted in better films than the best films ever made should and would ALWAYS be those films made in the present. Why then do we continue to look back to the past to find the greatest films ever made? It’s not from nostalgia as many of these films I first saw as an adult and immediately recognized their high quality upon the first viewing. I’m not remotely suggesting that we re-institution the film censorship system but I do find it interesting that the opinion I have voiced is always left unsaid and never considered. All I’m saying is we should have an open and honest discussion on why the films of the past are universally better than current films and maybe we can retrain ourselves so we can recapture that magic found in old Hollywood.


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All content, unless otherwise noted, copyright Ed McCray, All Rights Reserved.
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