Baby Doll (1956)

Baby Doll is a 1956 American film based on a pair of one-act Tennessee Williams plays. It’s a steamy love triangle between a young virginal wife, her husband, and his rival. Although passed by the Production Code, it was condemned as immoral by the US Roman Catholic Legion of Decency, and banned in several areas. Time magazine described it as “possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited” (December 24, 1956).

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, presumably a more moderate organization than the League of Decency, rated it L, for “problematic content many adults would find troubling.” It’s not clear when this rating was assigned. (The Catholic News Service still reviews movies for their artistic merit and moral suitability.)

With the exceptions of British Columbia and Alberta, there’s little information available about how Canadian film censors responded to the film. Most list a rating on their websites, but in some cases this appears to be the original rating, while in other cases it appears to be updated. Classification standards have changed over the past 60 years, and older films sometimes get new ratings. None of the online ratings show if the approved version was cut, though it likely was. Even today, most agencies do not indicate if a film has been cut for approval or for a specific age rating (the British Board of Film Classification is a happy exception). Dates of classification are often incorrect for older films.

The current ratings are:

  • Maritimes – Restricted (under 18 requires adult accompaniment) and 14A (under 14 requires adult accompaniment)
  • Quebec – G (all ages)
  • Ontario – Restricted (under 18 requires adult accompaniment)
  • Manitoba – PG
  • Alberta – A (under 16 requires adult accompaniment, a classification no longer used)

Alberta has records showing the cuts that were made. The cuts related to sexual imagery and dialogue, such as the line “Your husband sweats more than any man I know. Now I can understand why.” The print approved, in July of 1957, was publicly identified as cut. Advertising included “This motion picture was reconstructed and edited to meet the requirement of the Alberta Censor Board.” This open approach was very different from the practice in Ontario at the time, where the Chief Censor once wrote: “At all times the Department attempts to avoid censorship which is apparent to the patron, since it would defeat the purpose of censorship.”

British Columbia does not list ratings for older films on its website, but there is some correspondence from the period, which shows that the film was initially approved, then rejected, rejected again, and finally approved.

In January of 1957, the Chief Censor wrote to the distributor, and referred to earlier correspondence:

You will recall that when I granted approval for this picture I insisted upon very conservative advertising that would avoid any reference to the current controversy about it. In this you have most certainly cooperated.
At the same time, I pointed out that should I get a larger number of complaints…I would have to withdraw the approval. Unhappily the situation has developed where I feel I must take that action.

In October of 1957, a revised version of Baby Doll was submitted for approval. From looking at the dates, this may have been the version that had been approved in Alberta in July. (Keep in mind that at this time, there were usually only one or two prints of a film circulating in western Canada, landing in British Columbia after doing a circuit of theaters in Alberta.) The censor noted that the “eliminations that have been made have greatly changed the picture.” However:

If it were not for the enormous publicity which accompanied our decision when we first viewed it; especially here in Vancouver, and the publicity that is bound to recur in mounting intensity should it be shown, I would have been tempted to approve it. People who would now go to see Baby Doll would be seeing a picture which has a tradition of cheap sensationalism behind it. I feel very strongly that it is not in the public interest to show such a picture.

As always, the censor reminded the distributor of their right to appeal, and the film was passed by the Appeal Board in January of 1958.

The reviews were good, and the film was nominated for several American Academy Awards, American Golden Globe Awards, and British Academy Film Awards. Director Elia Kazan won a Golden Globe for best director, and actor Eli Wallach, playing against Karl Malden, won a British Academy Award for “Most Promising Newcomer to Film.” Box office receipts were modest, but the film popularized the existing name ‘baby doll’ for the short nightgown which was worn by Carroll Baker’s character.

In our less innocent age, these once shocking films are no longer disturbing. Wallach noted “People see it today and say, ‘What the hell was all the fuss about?’” The director made a similar comment in his autobiography: “If you were to look at the film now, you’d see a rather amusing comedy and wonder what all the fuss was about.”

Christmas Vacation (1989)

It’s almost December, it’s snowing, and I’m in the mood for a holiday film or two. The reviews for Bad Santa 2 are not encouraging (“Bad Santa 2” is vulgar, nasty and offensive, but it has flawed aspects also) so it’s time to look at the classics. My list of holiday classics includes the delightful Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Carol (1951, must be watched in black and white).

My list does not include It’s a Wonderful Life – it’s no more a Christmas movie than Die Hard, and there are many reasons to dislike it. It was panned when it opened, by both the New Yorker and the New York Times, though arguably neither publication appreciates small town life. Here’s a slightly more recent critical review, which focuses on the problematic Pottersville sequence.

Another personal holiday classic is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It’s sweeter and more sentimental (relatively) than the original Vacation film, as benefits a family holiday film. While Vacation is a mock heroic quest, Christmas Vacation is structured like a classical Greek old comedy, complete with all the rivals on stage for the big final number. Since the big final number is singing the American anthem, that probably would have been cut by Canadian censors in the 1920s and 1930, as they were sensitive to gratuitous displays of American patriotism. And what did the censors, now classifiers, think of this film in 1989? Can it be called a family holiday film?

Classification agencies usually have web sites that provide details about films’ ratings, but of course these sites did not exist in 1989, and while most agencies have put their old records online, they either did not capture additional details, or have not put those online. With the ability to post information about film ratings online, most agencies now provide a lot more information about the film, and how the rating was determined. However, the actual ratings for older films are available, and for most of Canada, Christmas Vacation is PG. Quebec, as usual, is  more liberal, giving a G rating, although there is no PG in Quebec. The Maritimes have the stricter 14A. The Americans are somewhere in the middle, at PG-13. That’s stricter than PG, but without the legal restriction of the 14A.  The few international ratings I found are similar, and the one noted concern is language. It’s worth noting that the ratings for Christmas Vacation are generally lower than the ratings for Vacation.

Most agencies do not state if ratings change, so it’s possible these are not the original ratings. Also, some agencies re-rate films when they come out on video, and some do not.

The British ratings are interesting case. In 1990, they gave the home video a PG rating. In 1998, a 2 second cut was required to keep that rating. This is the opposite of traditional ratings creep, a well documented tendency for the same classification to gradually allow more challenging material. A 2013 version, with additional material and commentary, is rated 12, meaning no one under 12 may rent or purchase. (BBFC does not use adult accompaniment ratings for home video, but if this was a theatrical release, the rating would be 12A, meaning adult accompaniment required for children under 12). Other agencies also request or suggest cuts to obtain a specific rating, but the information is rarely publicized. The distributor may also cut a film before rating, in which case the agency may not be aware of the cut.

Due to the lack of information available from official agencies, I checked a few other ratings sources. The experts who contribute to Common Sense Media and the surfers who contribute to OK.COM both agree this film is suitable for 13 and up. Finally, I checked the Catholic News Service. The influence of the Catholic church on the original MPAA production code is well known. Less well known is that since the early 1930s, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and later the Catholic News Service, have been providing their own classifications, rating films for  “artistic merit and moral suitability.” On the artist merit side, “Director Jeremiah S. Chechik keeps the gags moving quickly past the double entendres and gets some laughs from Clark’s bumbling attempts to enjoy Christmas.” On the moral suitability side, this film is suitable for Adults, on the following scale:

A-I:  general patronage;
A-II: adults and adolescents;
A-III: adults;
L: limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.
O: morally offensive.

Gather round, for some more or less inoffensive family fun.

Area Classification Advisory Additional Information
Maritimes 14a Suitable for viewing by persons 14 years of age and older. Persons under 14 must be accompanied by an adult.
Quebec generalq The film is appropriate for viewing, rental or purchase by persons of all ages.
Ontario pg Parental Guidance is advised. Theme or content may not be suitable for all children.
Manitoba pg
Theme and content may not be suitable for all children.
Language Warning
Alberta pg Language Warning
British Columbia pg Parental guidance advised. Theme or content may not be suitable for all children although there is no age restriction. Coarse language
MPAA (U.S.A.)  PG-13 Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
BBFC BBFC - PG General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children A PG film should not unsettle a child aged around eight or older. Unaccompanied children of any age may watch, but parents are advised to consider whether the content may upset younger, or more sensitive, children. Contains mild comic violence, sex references and language  2 second cut. See notes above.
Australia m-au Recommended for Mature Audiences Occasional Coarse Language
New Zealand  PG-L Coarse Language
Common Sense Media 13+  Minimum age for which the film is developmentally appropriate. Silly humor for the holidays; some iffy stuff.
OK.COM  13+  Crowd sourced minimum age.
Catholic News Service A-III  Adults Some rough language laced with vulgarities and sexual innuendoes.

Click the name of the jurisdiction for more details about the classification (if available).

Paint Drying

Paint drying on a brick wall.
Still (or possibly a screen capture) from Paint Drying, Charlie Lyne.

Paint Drying (2016) is a film created solely to annoy British film classifiers. This 607 minute epic shows paint drying on a wall. For ten hours and seven minutes. Nothing else. Fourteen hours of footage was shot, however the final cut depended on the funds available to cover the per minute cost of classification. The funds were raised through a Kickstarter project. The BBFC duly reviewed and classified the film as a documentary, suitable for all ages. It’s unclear if this film was also intended to be a reboot or sequel to Paint Drying: The Movie (2009), a 90 minute film available from Amazon.

The idea is amusing enough, and got social media support from people opposed to classification systems, but as a protest it’s not very effective. Film classifiers, depending on the country, are either working for the government or working for the film industry. Either way, they have no say in the laws or corporate agreements that require classification systems. In addition, classifiers in countries that require all films to be classified are used to watching enormous amounts of straight-to-video horror and porn (although, at least in Ontario, classifiers fast forward through porn films). They would probably find watching ten hours of paint drying a welcome break.

More significantly, opposition to classification systems tends to ignore the public demand and support for these systems. Democracies that run film classification and censorship systems do so because elected politicians brought in and maintain laws requiring these systems. In countries such as the United States, where classification is run by the film industry, the intention is to make it unnecessary for the government to respond to the public demand. These systems receive complaints for being too restrictive, particularly from artists and academics, but they also receive complaints for not being restrictive enough.

It’s not just overprotective parents who support classification systems. Theatre owners and video retailers support them. In Canada, distributors of exempt material, such as TV shows, obtain classifications to make it easier to sell their products. Possibly the businesses that support classification are still responding to the overprotective parents, and the rationale for classifications is often based on faulty assumptions, but regardless of the source and legitimacy of the demand for classification, it does exist. Film makers need to live with it.

A key concern of this project was the cost of film classification. The BBFC cost is £121.80 ($230) to submit, plus £8.51 ($16) per minute. This is much higher than in Canada, where rates are typically $2-$4 per minute. All agencies claim to be non-profit, though some Canadian agencies have been sources of income for the government. For major studios, classification costs are negligible, but for independent films they can be prohibitive. Classification agencies, and the lawmakers who control them, need to be more aware of the heavy costs classification can impose. This is where Paint Drying, which cost £5,936 ($11,175) to classify, may be able to draw some attention. Instead of trying to annoy the classifiers, or protest classification, film makers and film viewers need to ensure the government is not placing barriers in the way of independent productions or films with limited appeal. Canadian agencies offer some exemptions from classification or classification fees, but these vary from province to province and have limitations. For example, a festival film does not require classification in Ontario, however the viewers must be over eighteen.

This is not the first time artists have attempted to stymie classifiers. In the early 1980s, a group of artists submitted the anti-pornography documentary Not a Love Story (1981) to the Ontario Board of Censors (as it was then called). The Board refused to classify the film, leading to the claim that the Board had banned an anti-porn documentary. When the matter went to court, the judge noted that the artists had no legal right to exhibit the film, and that the Board was under no obligation to perform hypothetical reviews. The myth of the ban persists. Although the artists did score an anti-classification victory with another film, most films in much of Canada are still subject to prior restraint and bans. Rightly or wrongly, there is public support for this.