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.”

Defending the Courts against Self-Defense

Self-Defense is a 1932 western/melodrama from Monogram. Katy owns and runs a gambling bar in a small town in northern British Columbia, but has sent her teenage daughter, Nona, to a boarding school in California. Nona believes her mother runs a high-end hotel, and Katy doesn’t want Nona to learn the truth. A local trouble maker makes trouble for Katy, including arranging for Nona to come to town. This leads to a confrontation between the bad guy and Tim, a friend of Katy’s, where Tim shoots and kills him. At the trial, Tim pleads self-defense, but cannot give all the details, as that would reveal the truth about Katy’s establishment, and Nona is present. The trial concludes in an unorthodox manner. A full synopsis is available at Turner Classic Movies.

When the film arrived in British Columbia, provincial censors were concerned about the portrayal of the court system, and ordered the removal of all references to the province. This consisted mostly of mentions of going to Prince Rupert, as well as visible BC license plates on cars. It’s entirely possible that the story was set in BC in the first place, rather than a western state, in order to avoid problems with American censors. They were concerned with negative portrayals of the USA. For example, in the mid-1920’s the Pennsylvania Board of Censors ordered that a location title be changed from “Deep in the fastnesses of the great California forest” to “Deep in the fastnesses of the great Canadian forest,” suggesting that the lawlessness of that film’s characters was more appropriate to exotic Canada.

In addition to the cuts, a title disclaimer was added at the start of Self-Defense, for its showings in BC.

This picture is purely fiction and deals with a romantic story of the far North in the early days. It must be understood that no Courts in Canada under jurisdiction of British Law were ever conducted as depicted in this film.

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Negative portrayals of any institution, including colleges, the police, the church, and hospitals, were frowned upon, and could result in a film being banned. It’s not clear if this disclaimer was requested by the censor, or volunteered by the distributor, however the record of the addition was added to the file later. Disclaimers like this were not unusual at the time. As the film showed cars (with BC license plates), stating this was “the early days” may not have been effective, but anachronisms were common in period films, especially westerns. Now it’s anachronistic to be concerned about protecting the reputations of our institutions, and perhaps that’s a good thing.

Film Sound and Censorship

Censoring of silent films required removing scenes with offensive imagery, and removing or replacing title cards. This was easy to do, by physically cutting out the offending strip of film, and splicing the sections before and after the cut. When done well, a viewer would never even know a cut had been made. In some cases the censor office would make the cut, and advise the distributor, but in other cases the censor would request the cut, the distributor would make it, and sometimes send the censor office the offending section of film as proof that it had been removed. While cutting did require some work, keep in mind that there was often only one copy of a film circulating in a province. As late as the 1950s, censors would note if cuts had been made to a second or, rarely, third print. Although silent films often showed people talking, censors did not lip read films, and occasionally a film with mouthed  profanities did slip through, such as What Price Glory (1926).

The arrival of sound in the 1920s meant everything spoken was recorded, including double entendres and other objectionable dialogue. Cutting audible dialogue posed problems. The first commercially viable movie sound system was sound-on-disc, basically a large (16″) record that was played along with the film, one record per reel. A reel of film was about eleven minutes, and the technology of the time required the large record to store eleven minutes of sound. Not all censor offices could play the record, and even if they could, and did hear something objectionable, it could not be cut.

Vitagraph, the developer of sound-on-disc, tried to prevent the need to censor sound by claiming sound was not really part of a film, and therefore not subject to the film censorship requirements. The issue came to court in Pennsylvania, location of one of the more aggressive state censors, and the state supreme court ruled against Vitagraph. (Vitagraph was bought by Warner Brothers in 1925, which christened the sound-on-disc process VitaPhone. The term was later used for any sound film, and into the 1960s was used for shorts.)

Fox (which merged with Twentieth Century in 1935) also opposed censorship of sound, and also lost in court. In their case, Fox refused to submit written copies of the dialogue, an aid to censors. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that printed dialogue submission was required.

The film companies accepted that sound in films was subject to censorship, and supplied printed scripts to censors. Dialogue cuts were handled by instructing the projectionist to turn down the volume when necessary. For example, the 1931 comedy short Hello Russia includes the 1917 song “You’re in the Army Now” (one of many film appearances of this song). A line in the song starts “You’ll never get rich” and ends with either “you son of a bitch” or “digging a ditch.” It’s not clear which version was in the film, but according to archival records in British Columbia, the line had to go in order for the film to play in that province.* The local office of Canadian Universal replied to the censor’s request, confirming the arrangement:

Please be advised that owing to censor cut of dialogue in the two reel talking comedy, entitled HELLO RUSSIA, as follows,

“You’ll Never Get Rich – ”

whenever this subject plays a disc account a letter will accompany same, instructing the operator to pull the fader and thereby eliminate this dialogue.

Projectionists could lose their license for failure to observe censorship instructions.

Image of film showing soundtrack

In the early 1930s there was format war over film sound, and the less cumbersome sound-on-film system won. Sound-on-film is an optical process. A light shines through a small section at the edge of the film (the soundtrack), where there is a line that varies in thickness and shape. A sensor registers the light variations and they are converted to sound. With sound on film, cutting the film to remove an image would also remove the sound. However, sometimes only the dialogue needed to be removed. This could be done by obscuring the soundtrack. Censor records sometimes mention that dialogue was “zaponed.” It’s unclear exactly what this meant, but it probably refers to applying a coating to obscure the optical soundtrack. Zapon used to be a brand name for a cellulose nitrate varnish, a coating similar to nitrate film stock.

Analog optical soundtracks are still used for films, but usually supplemented by one or more digital optical soundtracks, resembling tiny barcodes. Sound on disc also made a comeback of sorts, in the form of a proprietary system that used CDs for film audio, synchronized with the film by (digital optical) codes on the film.

Actual film has become rare. Halifax has 45 commercial theatre screens, and only one can show films. Most movies are distributed to theatres as digital files, which are much larger than the files used for home viewing. Digital files make censoring easier, and have the potential to make it as invisible as it was in silent films. At home, ClearPlay allows viewers to stream or view their own discs, with dialogue and scene censoring on the fly, according to their own personal preferences. However, this has not happened (so far) with theatrical releases. Classification agencies no longer review scripts or demand dialogue cuts, and anything potentially objectionable is simply taken into account when assigning the rating.

A legacy of sound-on-disc is the frame rate of films. Silent films were projected at various speeds, usually between 20 and 26 frames per second. The projector operator might run the film faster or slower to enhance the comedy or drama of scenes. However, the need to synchronize the film and the record, and the greater sensitivity of the ear to variation in sound frequency than variation in image frequency, meant that sound films had to run at a constant fixed rate. Vitaphone set this at 24 frames per second. This is still the standard for film projection, and most digital projection, though higher frame rates are becoming more common.


*British Columbia was not necessarily stricter than other provinces, but they appear to be the only province that kept records of censorship requests.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

This review contains spoilers.

Rogue One is another disappointment in the Star Wars franchise.  It doesn’t have the excruciating moments of the prequels, it’s well made, and there is an assortment of cameos and references to other films, and not just Star Wars film. However, the referenced films include Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now, which are appropriate for this film’s dark tone. It’s not a fun film, and that makes the more humorous references and occasional jokes hard to enjoy.

The story emphasizes a series of battle scenes, and is not so much a glorification of war as a celebration of sacrifice. None of main characters survive: all of them have no regrets about their actions. This is a great propaganda film, showing beings of different species, races, ages, and genders all uniting to fight a common enemy.  It might be moving if the sacrifices had any value, but they don’t. The mission of our heroes is to advance a plot to destroy the Death Star. We know the plot works, from Part IV A New Hope. We also know it didn’t work that well, because the Death Star is back again in Part VI, Return of the Jedi. An even bigger Death Star is central to Part VII, The Force Awakens. Perhaps the message is you cannot stop evil?

We also know that our heroes are not necessarily good guys, and they admit as much in this film. Meanwhile, the anonymous and purely evil bad guys of the original film have, by now, been well established as individuals, who are not all bad. We’ve seen Darth Vader as a whiny child, moody adolescent, and redeemed father. We’ve seen a Storm Trooper reject his path in The Force Awakens, and a former Empire pilot and his robot join the rebels in this film. This film also shows us that the architect of the Death Star was coerced into designing the weapon.

Finally, after seeing eight films, I’m starting to wonder just how bad the Empire is. Sure, at the top, they are evil and power hungry, but power is usually a means to an end, and it’s not clear what that end is. The Empire is dedicated to wiping out the rebellion, and the rebellion is dedicated to bringing down the Empire, but apart from that I’m not sure what either side wants. Why do we fight? Given that both sides have vague goals, the individuals on both sides have moral complexity, and we know this is just one meaningless effort in a war lasting generations, it’s hard to find the long battle sequences anything but dreary.

To add to the unease, one sequence takes place in a vaguely middle eastern setting (some of the filming was in Jordan), and another sequence takes place on beaches and among palm trees, referencing both WWII and Vietnam. Thanks to the magic of CGI, the characters played decades ago by Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher appear to be performed by the same actors, as they appeared back then. This is a disturbing use of effects, and not necessary. It’s easier to accept different actors playing the same character  (such as James Bond), than it is to accept that an actor has not aged, or, in the case of Cushing, can appear in a film twenty-two years after death. Spaceships and monsters are products of the creative imagination, but re-animated actors are a denial of time and humanity.

Film classification agencies do not care about tone, or possible propaganda aspects of films. During and after World Wars I and II, these were important considerations. During the wars, films that humanized the enemy might be banned, but in the 1950s, war films that dwelt on past hatreds could also be banned. Until the 1960s, censors, for better or worse, tried to ensure films were good for society. That’s no longer part of the job. As per regulations, classification is based on objective measures such as how much violence or sex is shown.

Rogue One has no sex, though Ontario censors spotted a little cuddling. I was grateful the characters had that moment. What it does have is plenty of violence, of the more or less bloodless variety. Several classification agencies note “science fiction violence” because people being killed by lasers is somehow different than people being shot or blown up (which also happens a lot ).

The ratings are consistent across Canada and in most other jurisdictions. The consensus is that this is a film for the 12 and up set, though younger kids can go. In a couple of cases they can only go with their parents. Much of what is in the trailer is not in the film, which lets one wonder how much of that was deliberate misleading and how much was last minute editing. However, it’s a fair portrayal of the action scenes and other imagery.

Look up ratings.

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.

Look up ratings.

Suicide Squad

I confess that a) I have not seen Suicide Squad, b) the trailer left me with no desire to see it, and c) I still can’t remember which comic characters are Marvel and which are DC, let alone what they did in their last movie.  That said, I did find Deadpool a guilty pleasure, so maybe this would be fun. Meanwhile, let’s look at the ratings.

It’s PG across Canada, except Quebec, but there is no PG there, so this is as consistent as we can get. All agree it’s not for young children, and language and violence are the concerns. Both within and outside Canada, agencies aren’t sure whether there is any sexually suggestive content. South of the border the rating is up a notch, as usual.

Other agencies are split, with some recommending no children (Australia, Hong Kong, South Africa), some requiring adult accompaniment for younger children (Ireland, Brazil), and some prohibiting young children (United Kingdom, New Zealand). Hong Kong offers two versions, both with the same rating, but one apparently removes the coarse language.

Look up ratings by agency.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, is of course the sequel to Neighbors, with a sorority instead of a fraternity. As the classification advisories/presence of Seth Rogen make clear, there is the crude comedy, however this is a rare case of a sequel improving on the original film, not just echoing the story. The added complexity comes from addressing some of the sexism around greater restrictions on partying at sororities, the rapey nature of frat parties, and broader issues of consent. These ladies want to party on their own terms. There’s a fun montage of parties, including a historical feminist party (featuring several different versions of Hillary Clinton), and a party to celebrate the loss of a character’s virginity (where the presumed male is never seen). It might be a stretch to call this a feminist film, but it has been praised for its approach to gender issues.

The arc of reinforcing conservative attitudes remains even as the film embraces newer values. For example, a same sex relationship for a former frat brother is treated as a source of sentiment, not humour, but the men have a traditional proposal and wedding. The realism of a character’s inability to work, due to his criminal record, is happily overcome by entrepreneurship. The core of the plot is a growing family’s desire to move to the suburbs. However, as crude comedies go,  Neighbors 2 is relatively liberal and enlightened. Just as the original was also released as Bad Neighbours, this has been released as Bad Neighbours 2 in some areas. The trailer gives a poor sense of the film, and several of the gags shown are not in the film.

Across Canada, the classification agencies were consistent in their ratings and advisories. Quebec wasn’t particularly worried about the drug use or sexual content. BC was busy counting the swearing: “approximately 170 instances of coarse and/or sexual language” in a 92 minute film. Other countries were slightly more restrictive, with the Americans giving an R rating, and several agencies not permitting any viewing by younger teens. That’s unfortunate, because they’d love the crude humour, and need to hear the messages about acceptance, independence, and consent.

Look up ratings by agency.