Sex and Censorship: Wilder and Hollywood’s Production Code
The first Billy Wilder movie I ever saw was Sunset Boulevard (1950). A noir classic, dark and cynical, it’s equal parts funny, sad, nostalgic and creepy. It included fantastic cameos from early Hollywood royalty, and referenced its scandalous past. Naturally, I sought out Wilder’s other masterpieces – to my delight. And while I had an appreciation for Sunset Boulevard, I really didn’t have an appreciation for how groundbreaking and often controversial Wilder’s work was when released.
Let’s understand the climate of the time. It was the era of Hollywood’s Production Code, a strict set of moral censorship rules imposed on all studio films – from the early 1930s to 1968, when they were replaced by the rating system we’re more familiar with today. A steady stream of salatious Hollywood scandals had given Tinseltown a bad name, and with the coming of sound (and the increased opportunity for profanity and suggestive dialogue), film censorship became a reality.
Production Code no-nos and be-carefuls were extremely rigid by today’s standards. Some of the “nos” include:
- No profanity or taking the Lord’s name in vain – even words like “hell” and “damn” were prohibited.
- No reference to drug trafficking.
- No making fun of religion or the clergy.
- Interestingly, no white slavery. Apparently slavery of other races was okay…
- No nudity, even in silhouette. Even leering (letcherous notice of nudity) is a no-no. No reference to sexual perversion. No reference to sexually transmitted disease. No sexual relationships between whites and blacks. Basically – no sex.
Just as repressive, the list “be carefuls” required directors to tread very lightly around topics and actions such as firearms, theft, violence, murder, rape, arson, adultery, prostitution, seduction, drugs, etc. It wasn’t that they couldn’t be included, but rather, they had to be portrayed in a way that upheld a high moral standard. Crime couldn’t pay; sinners had to be punished. (Wouldn’t want the general public to get the wrong idea, would we.)
Right from his directorial debut, The Major and the Minor (1942), Billy Wilder tended to skirt around the edges of Hollywood’s repressive Code. Susan (played by Ginger Rogers who was 31 years old at the time) can’t afford to pay her full train fare home, so she dresses up as a 12-year-old girl (not very convincingly) to get a discount. The train conductors aren’t fooled, and when she ducks into Ray Milland’s train compartment to hide out, he (straining the bonds of credibility) takes her for a young girl and lets her stay the night.
Pretty creepy, right? To Wilder’s and the actors’ credit, the film manages to be funny and relatively harmless, and was a pretty big commercial success at the time. On the face of it, it meets all the Code’s requirements, but the sexual tension, situations and dialogue – the source of the film’s humour – are extremely suggestive.
Most of Wilder’s film topics were more risqué than other movies of the time. Take The Seven Year Itch (1955) for example, a film about temptation and marital infidelity. Richard’s (Tom Ewell) family is out of town for the summer, and a gorgeous blonde bombshell (Marilyn Monroe) moves in upstairs. They strike up a friendship, and it’s clear he’s attracted. The specter of adultery rears its ugly head, but since much of the film is told through Richard’s fantasies – not actual infidelity – and is resolved with him joining his wife and family on holiday, Wilder’s suggestive and titillating film fully complies with the Production Code.
In Wilder’s slapstick comedy Some Like it Hot (1959) Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis play down and out Chicago musicians. On the run from gangsters, they dress up in drag to join an all-female band on tour. Both enamoured of the band’s lead singer (Marilyn Monroe), the two men compete for her affections. Hijinks ensue.
By the late 1950s, many directors were getting more daring, and audiences were looking for a loosening of the Code’s standards. Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959) was an enormous popular and critical success, but received a “Condemned” rating from the National Legion of Decency. It was released anyway, without Code approval, and its success helped spur on the eventual demise of the Code in 1968.
In The Apartment (1960), Wilder again explores the controversial topics of adultery and suicide. Jack Lemmon plays Baxter, an insurance administrator who lends out his bachelor apartment to executives for extramarital affairs, in exchange for the fast track to middle management. Fran (Shirley MacLaine) is having an affair with the boss (Fred MacMurray), and when it becomes clear he’s not leaving his wife, she attempts suicide (another Code “be careful”) at Baxter’s apartment.
A sort of sweet, dark, and relatively frank look at its subject matter, The Apartment was also a huge commercial success (it won 5 Oscars, including Best Picture). Full of suggestive material, and more importantly, the shocking premise that adultery was commonplace, it was clear that the American public was more than ready for it despite its contravention of the Code. Interestingly, Wilder first got the idea for the film in the 1940s, but could never have made it past the censors at the time.
Despite a body of film work that courted controversy, and eventually helped to bring about the end of Hollywood’s repressive Production Code, Wilder wasn’t making films just to push and provoke the censors. Straddling the fence between a Classic Hollywood Cinema visual style but a more progressive approach to subject matter, Wilder’s films hold up better than most with today’s audiences.
As Wilder said, he wanted to make films that entertained his audience (“I just made pictures I would’ve liked to see.”) In my humble opinion, he succeeded.