We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,033,951-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This week’s entry: List of films banned in the U.S.
What it’s about: Movies you couldn’t watch even when the movie theaters were still open. Over the years, cries of “won’t someone think of the children!” have kept some movies off the silver screen, for fear of warping our fragile little minds. At least for a while, as most—but certainly not all—bans have ended up being short-lived.
Biggest controversy: Sex and violence aren’t the only reasons to ban a film. The longest-running ban on the list was Luchino Visconti’s 1943 Obsessione. The adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, was filmed in Italy while WWII was going on. The Fascist government banned it after only a few screenings, and also destroyed the original print. Fortunately, Visconti kept a copy (which all existing prints are themselves copies of), but when he tried to show the film outside Italy, he came up against a more brutal and powerful force than fascism: copyright law. He had never secured the rights to the novel on which the film was based. MGM had, and their Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, was a huge hit and is widely considered a classic.
Strangest fact: Films have been banned for being too racist and not racist enough. D.W. Griffith’s pioneering The Birth Of A Nation is now considered an important piece of film history on technical merits (it’s widely considered the first full-length motion picture, and Griffith effectively invented the close-up and fade-out), but also an appalling artifact of our racist history, as it glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. Filmgoers in 1915 recognized the movie for what it was. There were widespread protests in the black community; the NAACP led a boycott of the film, and was instrumental in getting the movie banned in three states and several cities.
Memphis, Tennessee wasn’t one of those cities. Thirty years later, the city banned that year’s remake of Brewster’s Millions (the fifth of six movies of that title, including a 1921 version with Fatty Arbuckle, and the Richard Pryor version from 1985). The objection? Brewster treated his African-American servant too well. Eddie Anderson, already famous for playing Rochester van Jones on The Jack Benny Program, was arguably the biggest name in the film. Brewster was played by Dennis O’Keefe, a versatile B-movie actor.
Thing we were happiest to learn: While we can’t celebrate censorship, we suspect that John Waters would likely feel some perverse pride knowing two of his movies have the longest bans on the list. The master of trash cinema’s two trashiest works, 1972’s Pink Flamingos and 1974’s Female Trouble were each, according to Wikipedia, banned for 25 years. Flamingos was screened widely on the arthouse and midnight movie circuits in the U.S., but Switzerland and Australia banned the film outright, as it contains, “exhibitionism, voyeurism, sodomy, masturbation, gluttony, vomiting, rape, incest, murder, cannibalism, castration, foot fetishism,” and a notorious scene in which Divine (the drag queen who starred in both films) eats dog shit, which both she and Waters assure the public was not simulated. It wasn’t until 1997 that Australia finally allowed the film with some cuts after refusing to give a rating to a re-release. The film has been judiciously edited depending on the year and country of release, but the U.S. 25th Anniversary DVD seems to be complete.
Female Trouble follows Divine’s Dawn Davenport from rebellious teen to unfit mother to murderous criminal who, in the movie’s final scene, dies in the electric chair. While the Banned Films page says it was banned for 25 years, it gives no details, and Trouble’s page makes no mention of a ban.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: We have a movie ban to thank for one of the biggest cracks in the foundation of our rapidly eroding democracy. The notorious Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which effectively allowed unlimited corporate money to influence our elections, started off as a lawsuit over Hillary: The Movie. (Not to be confused with convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza’s deranged polemic Hillary’s America, which got a rare F from The A.V. Club.) Hillary was a documentary produced by Citizens United, a conservative PAC, which was set to air on cable and streaming right before the 2008 Democratic primaries. The Federal Election Commission ruled that there was “no reasonable interpretation” of Hillary, which breathlessly recounted scandal after scandal, real and imagined, “other than as an appeal to vote against Senator Clinton,” and that the movie therefore was an “electioneering communication,” which was illegal under the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act. Oddly, the Supreme Court upheld the ban of the film, but still largely nullified McCain-Feingold and ruled that, in general, corporations could not be banned from “electioneering communication.”
Also noteworthy: Banning one film may have cost lives. Titicut Follies is Frederick Wiseman’s award-winning 1967 documentary on the abusive conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital, a Massachusetts mental facility. A Superior Court judge in that state ordered the film destroyed, citing concerns about the patients’ privacy. The problem was, the violations of privacy—the film shows patients being stripped naked publicly, force-fed, and otherwise humiliated by hospital staff—involved the abuse Wiseman was trying to call attention to. Wiseman appealed to the Supreme Court, who refused to hear the case. Twenty years after the film’s release, families of seven inmates who died in Bridgewater’s custody sued. One lawyer argued, “There is a direct connection between the decision not to show that film publicly and my client dying 20 years later, and a whole host of other people dying in between,” and that giving the film widespread release may have led to Bridgewater reforming or closing. Finally, in 1991, a different Superior Court ruled that enough time had passed that the filmmaker’s First Amendment rights superseded the subjects’ privacy rights. It aired on PBS the following year, and was released on DVD in 2007.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: There’s surely a much longer list somewhere of landmarks in queer cinema that have been banned at one time or another. There are two listed here; the first is Victim, Basil Dearden’s 1961 British drama in which a married man is blackmailed over an affair he has with a younger man. It’s believed to be the first English-language film to use the word “homosexual.” The U.K. gave the film an X rating, and the U.S. (in the last year of the Hayes Code) banned it entirely, not because the film was explicit (the romance seems to be fairly chaste, based on the film’s description), but because it portrayed a gay character in a sympathetic light. The second is Flaming Creatures, Jack Smith’s 1963 surrealist experimental film, which features drag performers, and intersex or “sexually ambiguous” characters. Several people were arrested for screening the (very explicit) film, although the New York Supreme Court reversed the convictions after hearing testimony from Shirley Clarke, Allen Ginsberg, and Susan Sontag.
Further Down the Wormhole: In the strict Production Code era of Hollywood, a film could be banned simply for bucking the notion that crime doesn’t pay. Fritz Lang’s 1945 noir Scarlet Street was banned in New York, Atlanta, and Milwaukee for “the sordid life it portrayed,” and “the failure of the characters to receive orthodox punishment from the law.” The film’s producer, Walter Wanger, had a long career stretching from the 1921 Rudolph Valentino silent picture The Sheik to 1963’s infamous Cleopatra. Along the way, he produced Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in which alien pods create emotionless identical duplicates of humans. This plays into a very real psychological fear known as Capgras Delusion, the irrational fear that someone close to the sufferer has been replaced by an impostor. We—or a very convincing facsimile—will delve into this strange malady next week.