Kissing, fighting, nudity and profanity are commonplace in American film today –but that wasn’t always the case.
Motion pictures are covered by the First Amendment today, but the 1915 Supreme Court Case Mutual Film Corporation vs. Industrial Commission of Ohio ruled the contrary.
American films have consistently pushed the envelope and inspired new legislation and tabloid journalism.“Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures,” looks at the complete history of film censorship and the prominent films that challenged the First Amendment.
“Deep Throat,” “Gone with the Wind” and actors including Mae West and Jane Russell pushed boundaries and helped established new ground for modern film.
Which is your favorite controversial film?
Jeremy Geltzer will discuss his book, "Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures," on Saturday, January 30 at 5 p.m. Click here for more information.
Jeremy Geltzer, author of the new book “Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures: Film and the First Amendment” (University of Texas, 2016) and entertainment and intellectual property attorney
Here are some of the films and moments in history that pushed the First Amendment the most, according to Geltzer.
Motion pictures were a new technology when Thomas Edison’s film lab produced an 18 second featurette that electrified peephole projectors across America. That film, The Kiss, was intended to promote a Broadway play called “The Widow Jones.” It captured the play’s climatic moment when John C. Rice planted his puckered lips on Ms. Irwin. At the time Victorian sensibilities of decency ruled, but audiences were mesmerized by the close up view of an intimate moment. The Kiss was a big hit and moved censors to monitor the new medium.
The same year The Birth of a Nation stampeded across screens, another revolutionary picture was unspooling behind closed doors. A Free Ride, the oldest existing hardcore porn film made in the U.S.A. became a stag party staple. Ride was not the first sex loop ever, Europe had been shooting f* films for over a decade, but Ride’s anonymous director contributed a distinctively American touch—by adding a narrative. In the film a man is seen driving through the country in his Model T. He picks up two girls and they head out for a pastoral pleasuring.
The guardians of Victorian values took a hit with May Irwin’s Kiss but the old ways crumbled when Theda Bara appeared on screen. This full-bodied femme fatale made her debut in A Fool There Was (1915) and quickly followed up with Siren of Hell (1915), The Devil’s Daughter (1915), and Sin (1915). She played an irresistible temptress that lured unwitting men to their ruin while delivering memorable lines like “Kiss me you fool!” Bara was a movie creation to be sure, transforming from Theodosia Goodman, a Jewish girl from Cleveland into the screen’s first vamp. She was far removed from the waif-like innocence of Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish as humanly possible.
Washington insider Will Hays was hired by Hollywood moguls to lobby Congress and hold off government regulations. By 1922 he established the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to monitor mainstream movies, but independent producers and foreign filmmakers were beyond his jurisdiction. When an Austrian-Hungarian starlet named Hedwig Kiesler appeared nude in a Czech film called Ecstasy she rocked the boat. While the film was butchered and banned throughout U.S. theaters, Louis B. Mayer set out on the first boat bound for Europe to sign the actress and remake her into Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr would become one of MGM’s great glamor girls of the 1940s.
A Production Code ruled Hollywood from the 1930s-50s. In 1915 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that movies were not protected by the First Amendment. State censors had the upper hand and racy content was cut from studio pictures. It wasn’t until Roberto Rossellini’s The Miracle was banned for blasphemy that the High Court reversed its position—in 1952. Indecent and obscene movies could still be banned but censoring sacrilege would not be allowed. The Miracle was the first thread that began to unravel regulators strict control in America.
In the late 1940s Hollywood released a wave of socially conscious films focusing on race. The Memphis censor banned a comedy named Curley (1947) because he disapproved of an integrated school setting. Texas censors were enraged by Pinky (1949), a movie that centered on a light skinned black girl who passed for white. When Sidney Poitier made his debut in No Way Out (1950), a more progressive era was on the horizon. But Island in the Sun shattered conventions by presenting an interracial romance between beautiful Dorothy Dandridge and John Justin. The mixed race lovers even kissed on screen—a full decade before Poitier was an unexpected guest in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
As regulations eased and dirty pictures became tolerated, porn sw a brief mainstream acceptance. In 1973 The New York Times gave the era a name: “Porno Chic.” Linda Lovelace emerged as a star after demonstrating her sword swallowing skills in Deep Throat (1972). Marilyn Chambers was the girl next door who went all the way in Behind the Green Door (1973). The Devil In Miss Jones (1973) featured Georgina Spelvin in a more artistic blue film. For a time, these sex films played in neighborhood theaters, celebrated by trendsetters and pop culture influencers. By the end of the decade, video appeared and laws tightened. The Porno Chic became a pop culture footnote.
As sex and violence in the movies became more widespread, Great Britain was moved to action. Driller Killer (1979), a splatter horror film, and Cannibal Holocaust (1980), shot in a shockumentary style, helped convince Parliament to pass the Video Recordings Act 1984. This Act required all film and video releases to obtain a government seal. Many of the pictures that were rejected or edited suddenly achieved a cult like status—including films now regarded as classics such as A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. By the year 2000 regulations were eased but Parliament expressed renewed concern in 2009 when it passed a law criminalizing extreme depictions of violence and pornography, citing images from Hostel: Part II.
In the past decade, countries have struggled with regulation and control over subversive media. The UK banned violent videos. The EU monitors hate speech. China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have the most restrictive policies. In the US, the First Amendment remains a powerful protection but there are limits. In 2008 when a video of a marine in Iraq throwing a puppy off a cliff went viral, it ignited a virtual lynch mob. In 2015, Innocence of Muslims, the video that may have triggered violence in Benghazi, was court-ordered down but then overturned. Free speech rights are championed for even the most unpopular viewpoints.
Jeremy Geltzer, author of "Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures," entertainment and intellectual property attorney who has worked for Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney and Lionsgate