Before it became one of the most profitable films of all time, the Civil War opus “Gone With the Wind” was the subject of extensive backroom negotiations between Hollywood censors and its producers. The filmmakers were told to soften the story’s war violence and racist overtones (all references to the Ku Klux Klan were cut), and they agreed to tread lightly when shooting the famous childbirth scene. Nevertheless, they refused to budge on Rhett Butler’s iconic line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Producer David O. Selznick fought tooth and nail to keep the salty language in the film, arguing that the censors should permit the use of a “dramatic word in its rightfully dramatic place.” The Hays Office eventually granted “Gone With the Wind” a special dispensation to use the word “damn,” but not before Selznick and his story editor had drafted an emergency list of alternate lines. Among the many absurd variations were “I don’t give a straw” and “The devil may care—I don’t!”
The Outlaw (1943)
In 1941, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and the Hays Office went to war over “The Outlaw,” a western Hughes had directed based on the life of Billy the Kid. At issue were star actress Jane Russell’s breasts, on which Hughes’ camera seemed to linger for much of the film’s two-hour running time. Hughes didn’t deny that he had a preoccupation with Russell’s cleavage—he’d even personally designed a bra for her—but he was furious when the Hayes Office denied his film their official seal of approval on the grounds that her body was “shockingly emphasized.” He appealed the ruling, and after engaging in a well-publicized war of words with the censors, grudgingly agreed to cut a few seconds of footage in exchange for a passing grade. Following several years in limbo and a few false starts, “The Outlaw” finally got an extended run in theaters in 1946. The film was a critical flop, but the hubbub generated by its delayed release was enough to make it a box office smash.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
With its overt sexuality and references to suicide and rape, Tennessee Williams’ classic play “A Streetcar Named Desire” was destined to have a difficult transition from stage to screen. Director Elia Kazan was forced to tone down main character Blanche DuBois’ illicit past, and references to her deceased husband’s homosexuality were axed from the script. The biggest dispute centered on a famous scene in which Stanley Kowalski, played by Marlon Brando, forces himself on Blanche during a physical altercation. Kazan was able to convince the Hays Office that the rape scene was essential to the story, but after the Catholic Legion of Decency branded the film with its dreaded “Condemned” rating, the studio lost its nerve and trimmed three minutes from the finished product. Kazan was dismayed, and later fumed that, “My picture [was] cut to fit a code that is not my code…” Despite its director’s protests, the neutered version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” performed well in theaters and later garnered 12 Academy Award nominations.
The Moon is Blue (1953)
Although it seems positively tame by modern standards, Director Otto Preminger’s “The Moon is Blue” ignited a firestorm of controversy upon its release in 1953. The Hays Office bristled at the film’s casual approach to sex, in particular its emphasis on seduction and it use of the forbidden words “virgin,” “pregnant” and “mistress.” The risqué content led the censors to withhold their seal of approval, but rather than editing the film, Preminger’s studio United Artists elected to resign from the Motion Picture Association of America and release it anyway. Much to the Hays Office’s chagrin, “The Moon is Blue” only profited from its naughty reputation. Audiences flocked to theaters to see what all the fuss was about, and the film ended up as one of the year’s highest-grossing releases.
The Wild One (1954)
“The Wild One” stars Marlon Brando as Johnny, the leader of a motorcycle gang that wreaks havoc on a small California town. The movie produced a classic line of dialogue—when asked what he’s rebelling against, Johnny responds, “Whaddya got?”—but it also drew the ire of the Hays Office for its unflinching depiction of juvenile delinquency. Upon reviewing an early version of the script, Production Code Administration chief Joe Breen wrote a letter expressing his concern that the film might encourage younger viewers to participate in “hoodlumism.” In response, the filmmakers trimmed some of the more violent scenes, inserted a disclaimer during the opening credits and added a speech near the end in which a sheriff excoriates Johnny for being immature and stupid. “The Wild One” eventually got Breen’s blessing, but its release was anything but smooth. Many critics denounced the film as a celebration of mob violence, and it was banned in Britain on the grounds that it was a “deliberate outrage of all law and order.”
The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)
Having already defied the censors with 1953’s “The Moon is Blue,” director Otto Preminger returned in 1955 with “The Man With the Golden Arm,” a grim story about a heroin addict struggling to get clean. The film was based on a respected book and boasted a mainstream star in crooner Frank Sinatra, but its content flew in the face the Hays Code’s ban on depictions of drug use or addiction. When the PCA stubbornly refused to pass the film, Preminger and his producers once again bucked the system by unleashing it in theaters without a seal of approval. “The Man With the Golden Arm” went on to clean up at the box office and earn Sinatra an Oscar nomination, and its success helped inspire a major reevaluation of the Hollywood production code. By 1956, the Hayes Office had instituted new rules regarding film content, including loosening the restrictions on drug use in the movies.
Some Like it Hot (1959)
If the Production Code’s influence had waned by the late-1950s, films like “Some Like it Hot” helped deal it a deathblow. Featuring a cross-dressing Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as its central gag, director Billy Wilder’s raucous comedy also boasted a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe, thinly veiled references to homosexuality and heaps of innuendo and double entendres. Since the film was sure to cause a ruckus, Wilder intentionally neglected to submit copies of the shooting script to the Hays Office, and held off on showing it to the censors until it had already been screened to members of the press. By then, the film had won widespread acceptance from critics, and the Hays Office reluctantly granted it a seal of approval to avoid a public dispute. Despite the Catholic Legion of Decency’s subsequent assertion that the film was “outright smut,” “Some Like it Hot” became a box office juggernaut and was later nominated for six Academy Awards.
Suspense master Alfred Hitchcock spent most of his career tangling with the Hays Office, but his penchant for envelope pushing reached its zenith with 1960’s “Psycho.” Censors were particularly disturbed by actress Janet Leigh’s death in the film’s notorious shower stabbing sequence, and they also cried foul at an early scene that showed her in her underwear. Hitchcock had planned for just such a reaction. Knowing the censors were bound to object the film’s content, he had deliberately inserted overly graphic violence and nudity into his rough cut to give himself bargaining power. After pretending to fight for the more extreme material, the director agreed to “settle” for the very shots he had wanted all along. As part of another ruse, Hitchcock volunteered to reshoot the underwear scene on the condition that the Hays officials join him on set to give advice. When the censors didn’t show up, the sequence stayed.