Red hot in black & white
As Liam Neeson's new film is slammed as 'a porno farce', Susan Daly looks back at Hollywood's more innocent age -- or was it?
Published 10/04/2010 | 05:00
The opening of a movie starring Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore should be cause for celebration. So why the tightly pursed lips among film critics?
Chloe, a tale of sexual obsession in which a housewife hires a high-class prostitute to seduce her husband in order to test his fidelity, was the movie Neeson was shooting when his wife Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident last year. Despite the goodwill out there towards Neeson for this reason, Chloe was not well received when it opened in the US this past week.
The New Yorker called it a "porno farce"; the New York Post "a Skinemax movie cloaked in art house fancy dress".
When Chloe did the rounds here a few weeks earlier -- perhaps testing this side of the Atlantic first because we're, you know, European and supposedly more blasé about the kinky stuff -- it didn't do much better.
Chloe does, however, serve the purpose of showing how far we've moved from the censorious age of cinema.
Seventy years ago, at the height of the notorious Hays Code for films, married couples weren't even allowed to sleep in the same bed on screen, never mind indulge in a ménage à trois.
This has not been so much a gradual descent into a sexual free-for-all on screen, as the movies coming full circle.
The Victorian era, stereotyped as an age in which folk went around trussing their piano legs in frilly ankle-warmers, was quite libertarian about moving pictures. George Melies, a famous pioneer of cinema, was quick to churn out an "adult" film, After The Ball, in 1897, featuring a racy nude scene.
The new century then found itself enthralled to film's first sexpot, Theda Bara. It was the era of the silent movie but words were made redundant by Bara's transparent outfits, nipple tassels and sexually-voracious expressions.
But the excesses of Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties culminated in a series of scandals, the most notorious of which saw actor Fatty Arbuckle accused of raping and killing the starlet Virginia Rappe. The calls to clean up 'Sin City', as Los Angeles was being labelled, were getting louder.
Will Hays at the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) came up with a list of 'Don'ts and Be Carefuls' for movie-makers in 1927. No excessive (over 3 seconds) and lustful kissing -- and if it happened anywhere in the vicinity of a bed, at least one of the parties had to have a foot on the ground.
Hollywood studios, heading into the Depression of the 1930s and desperate to attract audiences, pretty much ignored the cautions. The response of the censors was to introduce an expanded Hays Code in 1930. Sex was for married people only, and where affairs had to be mentioned, they should not be "presented attractively".
Sex was not "the proper subject for comedy" (no Carry On . . . movies, then). Dance moves that encouraged "movement of the breasts" were regarded as pure filth. The new, iron-cast code was formulated by a Jesuit, Fr Daniel Lord.
The Hollywood Reporter asked in 1931: "Does any producer pay attention to the 'Hays Code'?", knowing no one did. At this time, Jean Harlow was still getting away with asking, "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" in Hell's Angel (1930), while Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane went skinny-dipping with Tarzan in the 1932 and 1934 loincloth-and-vine films.
Resistance to the censorious overlords was futile, however. By 1933, the powerful Catholic League of Decency had launched a 'down with this sort of thing' crusade on the movies. In 1939, Gone With The Wind producer David O Selznick was fined $5,000 for leaving the final word intact in what is now cinema's most quotable lines: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
Not everyone could afford to do a Selznick but, this being an industry of wheeler-dealers, creative ways were found to circumvent the code. Mae West films were jam-packed with double entendres, the brazen blonde firing off lines like "I feel like a million tonight -- but one at a time".
And where would Bogie and Bacall be without word play? "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together -- and blow." (To Have and Have Not, 1944).
West was particularly crafty. She used to write outrageous "decoy" scenes into risqué movies like I'm No Angel (1933) so that the moral guardians would focus on cutting those and let other, more subtly raunchy, material slip through.
A great deal of nod-nod, wink-wink was employed to keep the audience in on the joke. No one was under any illusion that Bette Davis's "nightclub hostess" in Marked Woman (1937) was a euphemism for prostitute. Similarly, Claire Trevor's woman of the night in Dead End (1937) is said to be suffering from consumption when it is clear from her implied occupation it was more likely to be syphilis.
Where the explicit was no longer allowed, the implicit became a loaded currency. Metaphors were everywhere, from Bela Lugosi's blood-sucking kisses in Dracula (1931) to the shared cigarettes that acted as a substitute for sex in Now, Voyager (1942).
By the 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock was the master at breaking the code. From James Stewart's phallic, voyeuristic telephoto lens in Rear Window (1954) to the provocative question, "Do you want a leg or a breast?" during a picnic in To Catch A Thief (1955), his films were seething with what the League of Decency would probably call ulterior motives.
He had been practising for some time -- the famous kiss between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in his 1946 film Notorious appears to ignore the three-second rule as they move through the apartment in a marathon snog. In fact, Hitchcock had Bergman and Grant kiss briefly but repeatedly while Grant took a phone call. The illusion is that the kiss goes on and on, but no actual rules were broken.
Others used more brazen tactics to titillate. The code enforcers were gentler on a film if it purported to purvey a moral message. This resulted in a sudden demand for films in the "sexual hygiene" genre, many of which were of dubious educational value.
Ultimately, as foreign films (not bound by the code) made inroads into US theatres and some distributors began to break links with the MPPDA, the code lost its grip and was scrapped in 1968. The new "golden age" of American cinema of the 1970s could not have flourished otherwise.
Even so, some of Hollywood's greatest movies were made within the confines of the code. Even the cartoonists were in on it. In Tweety Bird's first screen appearance in 1942, one cat trying to catch him says to another, "Give me the bird! Give me the bird!" The second cat replies: "If the Hays office would only let me, I'd give him the bird, alright!"
One imagines the reference to sticking up one's middle finger sailed over the heads of watching kiddies -- but hit Hays where it hurt.