3 Films of the Fifties – Perversion, Subversion or Progression?

Looking back, it seems astonishing that in 1956 New York’s Cardinal Spellman would be moved to publically denounce a movie about a sexy but naive young bride in baby doll pyjamas as ‘grievously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and Decency’ and forbid parishioners to see it under ‘pain of sin’. Or that a St Louis publication would describe Island In the Sun, as an ‘open portrayal of mongrelisation’, yet these are fairly representative examples of how public bodies such as the church and cause-based groups such as anti-communists and segregationists sought to control filmic aspects of popular culture in 1950s America.

Since the beginning of the motion picture era there has been an indelible link between film content and perceived standards of morality.   There are three films released in the 1950s that illustrate this link, as witnessed through the controversy that surrounded their production and release.  The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), Baby Doll (1956) and Island In The Sun (1957) all came into conflict with the Motion Picture Production Code and with those groups who believed certain films to be socially, politically or morally unsuitable. The films broke new ground in terms of problematic themes (drug use, interracial marriage and sexuality) but far from being transgressive simply for ‘arts’ sake, in retrospect we can see that they actually reflected historical, cultural changes that were occurring in Fifties society.  We can use these films to understand that  Fifties attitudes were not as strict and entrenched as we might imagine.

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 There is no doubt that images of Frank Sinatra shooting up heroin in Man With The Golden Arm were confronting. Early treatments of the film had been rejected numerous times by the Production Code Administration due to restrictions governing drug trafficking and consumption. When it finally went ahead the Federal Bureau of Narcotics tried to influence the film’s tone and ending, surprisingly, to no avail. Despite the strict anti-drugs rules for movies, exposure to helpful pharmaceuticals (antibiotics, painkillers, anti-psychotics) and realistic ideas of addiction that emerged during the Fifties meant that society had a more pragmatic view of drugs than we might expect. How can we quantify this? Well, despite the film being refused a Production Code seal, moviegoers still went to see it, with the movie breaking non-holiday box office records in New York and strong openings in Chicago and LA. Bosley Crowther who reviewed movies for the New York Times really couldn’t understand what all the objections had been about, stating that the denial of a seal was a ‘puzzlement’.  Even the morally vociferous Catholic Legion of Decency conceded that strong, early viewings of the film indicated it was pointless to try and condemn it.

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 Where the Catholic Legion of Decency had been lenient on The Man With The Golden Arm, they showed no such indulgence to Baby Doll and through their own classification system, gave it the harshest rating of [C]ondemned.  The film made vague insinuations to an ‘orgiastic’ response by the Baby Doll character to a man that was not her husband.  In an era where the moral guardians believed that the solid family unit was the front line defence against Communist infiltration, Baby Doll was a moral aberration.   Despite their objections, the sales of bobby socks fell and the baby doll pyjamas rose as women and girls sought to emulate Baby Doll’s overtly sexy look.  The film received four Academy Award nominations, four BAFTAs (which Eli Wallach won his category), five Hollywood Foreign Press Awards (which Kazan won Best Director) and a Writer’s Guild nomination.  Again we can look to attendance to demonstrate that patrons also endorsed the controversial nature of the film with box office receipts of three million dollars. In the words of Entertainment Weekly, history shows that Baker’s performance fired the ‘first carnal shots in a sexual revolution that soon came to envelope all aspects of the American cultural landscape.

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It was the anti-miscegenation and anti-communist supporters that took exception to Island In The Sun, boycotting theatres, publishing articles and sending hate mail to Joan Fontaine over anxieties about mixed race relationships and racial friction. However, despite documented resistance in areas like Memphis, St Louis, New Orleans and South Carolina this was a very successful film in a commercial sense.  If we assume that the 16 States that still held anti-miscegenation laws boycotted the film, we can argue that there were 34 other states progressive enough to commercially compensate for that resistance.  The film made triple its budget ($8M) and finished as the 6th highest grossing movie in the US that year and eighth highest in the UK.  As censorship historians Leonard Leff and Jerold Simmons stated, in the twenty years since the introduction of the Code, American attitudes toward a wide range of social and cultural norms had shifted dramatically.  Values attached to ‘sins’ such as ‘divorce, infidelity, premarital sex, prostitution,’ drugs, interracial marriage and representations of feminine forms of sexuality were changing. As the Fifties transitioned into the next decade, the days of the Motion Picture Production Code, and those groups who sought to use the MPCC to enforce their own brand of cultural conformity on American society, were numbered.

To see what all the fuss was about:

The Man With The Golden Arm:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GDJ9y2BIT4 (skip to 0:38:00 – 0:40:15)

Island In The Sun:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aqpCjPGero (1:21:00 – 1:24:00 and 1:54:25 – 1:58:00) (and yes, that really is what the fuss was about).

Baby Doll:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gBX1znpd3k (3:20-4:38)

Further Reading.

Leff, Leonard.J, and Jerrold Simmons. The dame in the kimono : Hollywood, censorship, and the production code from the 1920s to the 1960s. 1st. (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990). Print.

Jowett, Garth.S. “Moral Responsibility and Commercial Entertainment: social control in the United States film industry, 1907-1968.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 10.1 (1990): 3-31. Print.


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2 comments on “3 Films of the Fifties – Perversion, Subversion or Progression?

  1. Julie this was a brilliant idea.The 1950s is a particularly interesting decade when you think about what they wanted us to see (the family unit and a Golden Age) versus what was actually going on. I like your detail in the post and it feels like you really know what you’re talking about. One thing however: I’d be interested to know what indicators other than box office numbers show the discrepancy between what the standards were, and what people actually wanted to see. It is arguable that people go to see controversial movies simply for the controversy rather then because they support the content. I’m sure you went into this further in the essay! But see? I’m interested already! A point I’d like to make from reading your post too, is that I reckon the Church was more ok with drug scenes then they were with scenes of female sexuality because the Church is big on controlling sexuality generally. The Church really shows their hand when they react publicly and further, this kind of research reveals how constructed ‘collective national identity’ was (i.e. were Golden Age perfect families a state creation rather than what people idealised?) Anyway. My comment is getting long! So good work 🙂

    – Sydney

    • juliedwoods says:

      Thanks Sydney. Whilst I mainly looked at attendances I also included some other indicators including newspaper reviews, fashion trends, industry awards, that sort of thing. Being the ‘lite’ version of the essay, supporting factors were only touched on briefly here. It was hard to cover it all (perhaps choosing 3 social aspects – racism, drugs and sexuality – was ambitious!) in four thousand words, let alone 800. You identified two really important things. People did go to see Baby Doll [in particular] for its controversial content. The way I addressed this in the essay was that I suggested that they didn’t have to like it afterwards, but they did have to make the conscious decision to attend, knowing full well what it was about as there was an enormous amount of pre-release controversy and the fact that it was based on a well known Tennessee Williams play. The other thing you mentioned was the response of the Catholic Church. Their decision to ignore Man With The Golden Arm and boycott Baby Doll really speaks to the values that they were seeking to reinforce and there was more in the essay with regard to conflicting messages of female sexuality in the period (June Cleaver vs Marilyn Monroe sort of thing). There was also a huge amount of back room manoeuvring going on within the industry, including the Production Code Office (that I didn’t go into here) to get the production code changed during this decade to reflect the fact that society as a whole were relaxing their views on a lot of things. This was particularly connected to The Man With The Golden Arm.

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