Wednesday, November 7, 2007

What the f...?

V. Profanity, Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ - unless used reverently - Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd), or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.

That's article five of the 1930 Production Code. The full code is located here for the curious. Article V makes it clear that profanity is off-limits. Unless it's used in a big production by a powerful studio in which case the code doesn't really apply. Such was the fickle state of things in the Production Code Era. Before the Production Code profanity had been seen in intertitles in silent films with many films using the words "damn" and "hell." In other cases much harsher language was used. In 1924 Maxwell Anderson penned his play What Price Glory, a war drama. When it was made into a film in 1926 by Raoul Walsh it contained a scene in which Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe get into a shouting match. During this argument they spew profanity at each other, and not just "damn" and "hell." That rarely used, kindly and genteel word beginning with an "F" also got thrown about. None of it was put in the intertitles of course, but plenty of people could read the lips (and let's face it, it's a pretty easy word to lip read). The result was a deluge of letters from furious moviegoers shocked - SHOCKED(!) - that such language would be used in a movie.

The March 5, 1927 issue of The Literary Digest reported on the film and here are reproduced some of the article's most entertaining highlights:

The British censor ruled out the play for London; but the screen version of this drama, it appears, says quite as much in the way of rough talk, and every theater in London, we are told, is clamoring to secure it.

"In 'What Price Glory?' McLaglen and the others have been made carefully to articulate and emphasize the full vocabulary of the profession of arms, especially that of the American soldier, which is rather richer and rounder than the rest, and this aspect of the film is affording censors much anxious thought.

'"They who see this picture,' says Variety, 'are going to start tipping off on the cuss words used, words that can only be gotten by lip-reading, but the bunch that goes to see the picture will watch for that rough stuff.' "

'Victor McLaglen takes the honors in acting and unbridled profanity,' says the San Francisco Herald, 'and the film leaves no doubt as to what words are being used.' "'Wherein does it profit us,' asks the Hollywood Spectator, 'to photograph a man's lips so that the audience knows that he is uttering profanity not uttered in the presence of women?'

You read it here first: The vocabulary of the American soldier is "rather richer and rounder than the rest." I suspected as much.

Silent profanity spewing tirades aside, the film world didn't say much more than damn and hell after that for quite a few years. In 1935, Fred Stone as Mr. Adams said "Damn you!" in Alice Adams (1935) and a few British productions used the word as well. Pygmalion (1938) even used the word "bloody" and from a female character no less. And of course in 1939 Rhett Butler showed his tender side in Gone With the Wind, letting Scarlett know just how much he cared.

By the fifties the "damns" and "hells" were becoming more common with censors even allowing the character of Terry Malloy to tell a priest to "go to hell" in On the Waterfront (1954). By the mid-sixties the profanity really starting ramping up. In Cold Blood (1965) contained the line, "On what? $43 and a smile and bullshit." Even more notably in 1965 critic Kenneth Tynan remarked on the television show BBC3, "I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word 'fuck' would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden." It was the first time the word "fuck" had been uttered on television or film (who would've guessed television would get there first?). The date was November 13, 1965 (but you're not really surprised to find that out are you?). The movies would be next. For years an old outtake from Design for Living (1933) had circulated in which Miriam Hopkins utters, "Oh, those fucking Egelbauers", referring to the stuffy guests her character entertains. It was clearly ad-libbed and not intended for printing and inclusion in the finished film, which it wasn't. But in 1967, the last year of the Production Code, the "F" word finally made it's way into a film intentionally when in I'll Never Forget What's'isname Marianne Faithful yelled, "Get out of here, you fucking bastard!"

From that moment on there was no going back. The Production Code was dead.

The ratings system officially kicked off in November of 1968 and assigned ratings to films dependant upon their content. It took a couple of years for screenwriters to get used to the idea that they were now allowed to write any words they wanted into a screenplay. In films like M.A.S.H. (1970) the "F" word was used only once while in the gritty crime drama The French Connection (1971) it was used many times. By the early seventies profanity was becoming commonplace in movies but there remained one last hurdle: Titles. In 1976 Australian Bert Deling released his comedy Pure Shit but was forced to change it to Pure S in order to get distribution. And in 2005 Steve Anderson released his documentary Fuck, finally breaking the ultimate title taboo, although for ads and posters the "u" was replaced by a star (that way no one could possibly figure out what the title was. Really, do you have any idea what this word is: F*ck? I didn't think so).

And so the language barrier has been obliterated. From the silents to sound every possible permutation of profanity has been used, re-used and abused from top to bottom. They've even been used in titles. At this point the only debate left is whether profanity should be used as often as it is in post-code films and how many times certain words must be used before affecting their rating. I could go into that in this space now. I could.

But frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.