An Idealistic view of film is ‘nature without check with original energy’ (Walt Whitman, 1860); it is a free wheeling machine expressing thoughts, ideas and personal identity. A form of art that can be easily viewed and be approachable to the masses. It can also be viewed as a way to waken souls and bring others to a reality that could be theirs. Yet if we look at history we see that this form of art has been cornered into a pen, bitten on its heels by rules and regulations and commented on by boards of censors.
Throughout this essay I intend to see the affects of censorship upon nudity through the pre-code era, Hays office and ending ‘over the pond’ in England with a film that caused controversy for the images not shown and the perspective of the camera, ‘Peeping tom’ (1959).
Film has always been seen as a way of communication between people and as a way of expressing an issue to crowds without too much difficulty. This has obviously caused issues in the past as to the impact film has upon people and to those who are more vulnerable to exposed ideals or ways of life.
Censorship covers many different aspects of film, from what is seen to the underlying subtext. Brought in to monitor the film industry in 1934 the Hays office was set on creating the Golden Age of film. This golden Age was set around ideas of a moral code, set on ‘re-conditioning’ society from the flappers and Jazz, which during the Pre-code years was censored by the MPPDA (Motion Picture producers and Distributors of America), although their censorship was considered lax.
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It was a strict code that every picture was expected to regulate itself to. Although The Hays office is the most known regulating office, unions were created by the people such as the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance union) and the DPPLA (Department for the promotion of purity in literature) to regulate what they saw. It is alongside these regulations that a coding system for age was created to allow a larger range of versatility in work although this was brought in 1968.
As a society we have always singled out people, whether due to their race, sexual orientation or political views. This is no different in film. Within the golden age, Mae West (1893-1980) was seen as a victim of censorship. Her sexual past made her a target and a risk to the Hay’s Office; making her ‘golden age’ turbulent.
(Mae West, 1893-1980)
‘A free wheeling sexual libertine victimized by a punitive censorship body staffed by a group of Victorian prudes’ – (Mae West, 1893 – 1980)
West’s history on Broadway caused her issues. She was known for Broadway Acts such as; ‘Sex – a tale of a prostitute’ (1927) and ‘The Drag’ (1927). Due to both of these plays she was sent to jail on the grounds of ‘obscenity’. She was also later arrested under the same charges for the production of ‘Diamond Lil’.
Yet images on stage were uncensored which gave West a chance Whereas in the film industry they were monitored with a close eye. The new problem they encountered with West was the way she still managed to make anything sexy. Clothe her up or down it didn’t, make a difference. Due to this they started to try and distil her sexual presence through the disguise of stupidity or comedy, disallowing the viewer from becoming succumbing to her charms. This method was often used through out the Golden Age allowing producers to keep such actresses as West and Monroe in the later years without having the original reel cut too heavily.
Thus Hollywood started to make the ‘documentary’ of the world unrealistic. Film wasn’t about the artistry of film making, but rather the way in which a head office could manipulate those watching to become and believe what they saw. Sexual liaisons were made undefined and ambiguous. Politics were close to unmentionable and ‘god forgive’ you if you wanted to portray a relationship with someone from another race.
King Kong (1933) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934) both bring up issues of racism and nudity within film. In king Kong we encounter tribal people. These tribes are witnessed to be wearing very little other than flowers around their necks and straw skirts. Although this sounds very Hawaiian it is a much more substandard way of dressing. The men are depicted with nothing upon their chests and the woman with bare legs, arms, shoulders etc. This in comparison to Ann who is fully clothed with the hint of an ankle and show of an arm is quite obvious.
The idea being, that a woman depending on her race could be allowed to have more skin showing than another. This was obvious in the ‘golden era’ where films disguised as documentaries, such as ‘The love life of a Gorilla’ and ‘Legong; Dance of the Virgins ‘ (1935) in order to be able to show images of nudity. Although this images were more shocking to the public for their obvious nakedness and did cause some uproar from the Hays office little was actually done to the editing to stop such ceremony of skin.
Tarzan and his Mate (1934) escaped the Hays Office just in time, as it was brought round into the industry the following year. Unlike King Kong it wasn’t nudity in the aboriginal race but rather that of the character brought into the wild environment. This was the step forward the industry had been trying to make. Allowing White woman the same expression through nudity as others.
‘ Occasionally a naked woman might be spied in part or whole. Inspired by expeditionary films that exposed native girls in a state nature, the studios sought to extend the custom to white women in exotic environments’
(Thomas Doherty 1999)
This is exactly what Tarzan accomplished. It had brought the naked white female form to the viewing audiences. Although a body double was used for the nude underwater scene, the scene was real and it was there. Nudity was coming onto the screen, or that’s what they thought. Within a few months of the picture being released it was brought back to be censored by the newly brought in hays office. The underwater scene and other certain shots were taken away and only brought back years later for the public view.
(Tarzan and His Mate, 1934)
Although the progression of nudity was relevant in the pre-code era such laws were brought in after, to stop these kind of steps forward from happening. The Idea of being naked and out of the house but in a natural environment is a step away from reality and probably a reason why such a transgression could have be made before the Hays Office and then evolved from then onwards in baby steps.
Duel in The sun (1946) poses us with the question of the morality of the main girl, pearl. From the beginning we see that her mother is a dancer who also gives in to other men’s needs other than her husband’s.
We see from the beginning that Pearl is dancing outside the club, mimicking her mother, it is even expressed by a man passing that she is becoming like her mother and smiles in approval.
We are led to believe that Pearl is a mixture of pure and evil as her parents are mixed. From this we gather a sense of a double identity that both excites others and causes them to also be protective these responses are split between the two brothers both possessing one.
Duel in The Sun (1946)
Within the film we are presented with a temptation of a nude figure in an interrupted swim scene, where pearl is being watched by one of the brothers. She hides in the reeds and asks him to go away, but to no avail, we do not see the ending but they end up coming home together. This is likely to be regulated by the Hay’s office, as making sexual liaisons and situations ambiguous was one of their ways at keeping some more ‘fruity’ pieces of work within films. Within this seen we are not able to imagine what they do when we leave but what is under the water, as before she is interrupted we get a glimpse of a figure with bare arms and legs. This natural display of the body is compared nicely to its surroundings creating an enticing view for the spectators as it has a youthful naive feel to it.
Duel in The Sun (1946)
Within this scene we are presented with a pearl covered in little other than a woven blanket. Although she exposes legs and is obviously naked underneath the overall out come is that of a scared and intimidated woman. It is also meant to be a comedy shot in which she is being taught about the sins of the flesh and not giving into temptation; a comical contrast to the way in which she is presented. This is the most likely reason for her being presented in such a way upon the screen.
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Although at a stretch it can be said that such unveiling of a Woman on screen could be down to her mixed race it was also a progression forward as it was seen in Hollywood that a different skin would entice less of a moral outburst in comparison to whether the Woman was Caucasian. Although this could be seen as a stretch the idea of confronting racism was still a way off with American society and racism was a part of everyday life. It was in fact noted that Hollywood in the pre-code era was trying to bring nudity to the Caucasian form.
“Some like it hot”, starring Marilyn Monroe was as much a comedy as a sexual spectacle. Her Costume was tight and flaunted her curvaceous figure with such precision that she was just contained within it. This is a leap forward in the contrast to duel in the sun as Pearl is dressed, although appealingly, in flowing garments that give a hint to curvature and progress in flaunting her asserts throughout the film getting more and more tight around her upper body.
(Some like it hot 1959)
As we can see above Monroe has been dressed in a very flaunting dress. Although covered over the breast the material is a lightweight and partially transparent mesh. Giving more whilst covering the important areas. We are also privileged to see from her knee downwards. Overall a lot of skin is revealed in contrast to Duel in The Sun, where pearl in everyday attire is covered. We also have to take in to consideration the job of Monroe’s for the role, which is that of a lead singer for a girls band group. In this group she is notorious for getting into trouble and falling for wayward men. This is easy to see in the way in which she dresses provocatively.
(Some like it hot 1959)
Her role is likely to be a driving factor in how she has been allowed to dress in this this film. It can also be seen that it has passed the Hays Office due to the comical side of the film, erasing all sexual presence as each ‘sexual’ moment is in fact comically dressed, even Monroe has been created as a figure to make fun of. Her character is dreamy and not ‘all there’, she drinks consistently throughout the film giving her the look of a lost cause hanging on waiting for her fairy tale dream to come true. In fact the dream also registers some homosexuality at the end where as they run off one of the cross dressing men reveals to the old man he’s led on (as a scape goat) that he is in fact a man. The man Winks and carries on driving the boat. This in itself would of caused some form of an uproar though the way this has been juxtaposed at the end and the comical twist allows it to be taken lightly and it becomes non-threating to the audience.
“Peeping Tom”(1959) when first shown caused outrage. It wasn’t necessarily because you saw anything particularly gruesome; in fact you saw nothing of the sort. It was the way in which you became to murderer, through his line of sight. You saw what he wanted you to see. The idea of being so close to the mentality of a man who isn’t mentally stable as he tries to capture what he calls the ‘soul’ of a person through the use of filming them and seeing their fear.
The film shows the uncomfortable reality of the addictiveness of catching a moment, questioning what is right to capture on film and what is not. The film not only creates a voyeuristic atmosphere but documents his movements his life and his strange behaviourisms. It is this closeness to the character, his thoughts laid out bare on film, that creates and uncomfortable viewing sensation to the viewer.
Nudity in the film is shown little, other then near the beginning when he goes to his second job as a pornography photographer. Here the girls are dressed in flimsy underwear and are shot in poses although not vulgarly. There is a quick shot in a restored version of the film allowing for a quick flash of one of the girls breasts, rumoured to be the first nude female scene in British feature film.
The society that first watched a viewing of this film was outraged and the film was banned. Yet it is the interest in the voyeurism of the piece that made the nudity (and other parts of the film) unacceptable. The feel of the sexual tension and the ability to feel like you were there was to high a risk for the censorship boards. Nudity in comedy or a way in which a character could be disconnected from the viewers could be worked upon but this came to close to reality and ‘endangered’ the audience.
It was only in 1968 that the MPPA also known as the Hay’s Office was by a movie classification. This system allowed Hollywood more range within their films as they could regulate who would be allowed to view the reels. The rating system went as: G, PG, Pg-13, R or NC-17. It would also cause less distress with parents, as they would know that their children would be unable to see films inappropriate for their age.
The reception of nudity in Hollywood has taken years to understand. To understand that it’s not something to be afraid of but to embrace and monitor as if you would a child. The naked body is a piece of art and should be accepted as such, yet with nudity in a motion picture the sexuality of the body is noticed. Yet other films industries, for example those in main land Europe have always managed to keep nudity harmless and natural Maybe it is the fantasy that is Hollywood that makes nudity so much more than what it is. It is the presentation of nudity that needs to be addressed not the harsh censorship of it.
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