Movie audiences today are a pretty jaded bunch. The unholy trinity of drugs, sex, and violence still thrill but they rarely shock. We've seen it all (or so we think.) Some of the more famous horrors that have been committed to screen include ear slicing, dog poop eating, and classy Chianti cannibalism. Then there are the one million brutal rapes, at least one of which was accompanied by “Singin' in the Rain.” Not to mention the bloody murders that, to the discerning moviegoer, are pretty much par for the course these days. The envelope has been pushed, for better or for worse, so far to the edge that it takes something as unspeakable as female circumcision (shout out to Lars Von Trier) to whip up a controversy. And that's just the stuff that has been at least sort of OKed by the MPAA. Let's not even start listing the grotesque images and videos we can conjure up online in the blink of an eye.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Sure, plenty of the aforementioned violence is exploitative. But more often than you'd think, it serves a purpose. Sometimes it simply makes for a more effective film. To cite a facile example, what would Pulp Fiction be without brutal violence and gratuitous drug use? Beyond that, innumerable taboo-breaking films over the last fifty years have started or furthered essential dialogues on subjects that had been glossed over for too long. Our culture has benefited enormously from films that show the stark and honest realities of war, racism, drug addiction, and on and on. These films owe a great debt to the work of Otto Preminger, director of The Man With the Golden Arm.
Before Preminger pushed the first envelope, the Hollywood system was slave to a little thing called the Motion Picture Production Code. Commonly referred to as the Hays Code after one of Hollywood's most prominent censors, it was essentially a list of censorship rules that set out to promote primarily Catholic valuesi. There was nary a studio that would release a film that didn't bow to it. Among the things banned by the code were mixed-race relationships, rape, sympathetic criminals, and pre- or extra-marital sex. Curse words and homosexuality were such taboos at the time that they were not even explicitly mentioned in The Code.
The code was not a particularly radical concept. Hollywood filmmakers had, of course, been battling censorship boards for years. But the scope of the Hays Code and its enforcement was huge. Adaptations such as Howark Hawks' take on Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep had to change or gloss over important plot points in order to get the stamp of approval. While in The Big Sleep's case these changes were not necessarily detrimental to the film (it is rightfully considered an all-time classic. And can you imagine the relish with which modern filmmakers would pile on the sex in a modern adaptation?), the fact remains that censorship was rampant and its effect was significant. No films were released without adherence to the Hays Code for a long time.
All that changed with Otto Preminger, whose primary claim to fame may be directing Laura. The Big Sleep and many other films may have been able to get their point across while tiptoeing around the code, but Preminger was not interested in tiptoeing. The director's first brush with censorship occurred in 1947 with his film Forever Amber. The Archbishop of New York, who called the film “a glorification of immorality and licentiousness,” is quoted as saying “Catholics May not see this production with a safe conscience.ii” His remarks fueled the fire of the Catholic Legion of Decency, which successfully lobbied 20th Century Fox to have several changes made to the film, including a modification of the ending.
Compared to the films Preminger would make in the 1950s, though, Forever Amber was small potatoes. 1953's The Moon is Blue was charged by Joseph Breen's censorship office with “light and gay treatment of the subject of illicit sex and seductioniii” due to its portrayal of a virgin courting two men who are set on sex. When the script was rejected a seal of approval after another revision, Preminger set out to make the film anyway and was backed by his studio, United Artists. The Moon is Blue, despite not being shown at some theaters, was a great success. It was a symbolic victory, and Preminger was done with the code for good.
Preminger's adaptation of Nelson Algren's novel The Man with the Golden Arm is perhaps his most significant victory against Breen and the Hays Code. Narcotics addiction was a topic that the code made no allowance for – especially not the sympathetic portrayal of a heroin addict (as opposed to the typical despicable junkie character) we see here, which was one of the first of its kind (not to mention, proof that Frank Sinatra could act). Preminger from the get go decided to blatantly make the film he wanted to make, production code be damned. When the film was denied a seal of approval, United Artists again stood behind Preminger and released the film anyway to great critical and commercial success. And rightfully so: the film's jazzy soundtrack, great performances (including the dad from A Christmas Story as a drug dealer!), and dark tone all contribute to one of Preminger's best films.
Future Preminger films would continue to fight against censorship. 1959's Anatomy of a Murder featured graphic discussions of rape in flagrant rejection of the code and was granted the MPAA's seal of approval regardless. The code was crumbling. With Exodus in 1960, Preminger would buck the notorious Hollywood blacklist by openly hiring blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Of course, film of the 1960s, 70s, and beyond would take the doors that Preminger left ajar and break them wide open. In 1969, the antiquated Hays Code was replaced by the MPAA rating system -- a code which, in 2011, could use an upgrade itself. Without the strides he took to dismantle the production code and open up film to honest dialogs about taboo topics, our culture would be a lot different, and probably a lot less awesome.
iThe first draft of the code was, in fact, contributed to by a Jesuit priest.