by James Christian
Movie fans have it easy here in the States. While many countries censor and ban flicks willy-nilly, Americans can strut into a video shop (online or offline) and obtain the roughest, most controversial films, uncut and without legal hassle. Sure, it’s not exactly the Wild West. Two films, to my knowledge, are still banned here: the unlicensed biopic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and The Profit, a Scientology satire. Filmmakers must appease the MPAA or jeopardize their marketing and theater prospects. There are still isolated obscenity crackdowns—a pornographer jailed here, a comic shop busted there—but the feds usually keeps their hands off of our movies, so long as we don’t torrent them.
Of course, we didn’t always have it so good…
Ever since motion pictures started moving, culture-nannies have singled out films as objectionable, either banning or editing them to death. These objections came from the government’s Hays Office, the Catholic Church and from the film industry itself. Whether condemned as pornographic or blasphemous, race-baiting or Communist, these flicks were guaranteed—in their day—to rot your morals and destroy your mind.
It’s not your civic duty to watch these films. If something isn’t to your taste, you’re not obligated to suffer through it. These examples are presented not to typify the quality of banned films (these range from total duds to untouchable classics), but rather to display our society’s fluctuating moral standards. Not so long ago, even the tamer films on this list were regarded as corrupting, soul-endangering smut. Nowadays they’re in your school library, right out in the open. Enjoy—and if you choose not to, at least be glad you can. If you’re curious, don’t forget to borrow Banned Films by Edward de Grazia and Roger K. Newman. It’s an invaluable resource and an entertaining read to boot. Call Number=344.730531 D364b
The Salt of the Earth: In 1954, the McCarthy witch hunts were in full swing, finding Communists under every rock and shrub. So when Herbert J. Biberman made a film of the New Mexico zinc miners’ strike— complete with labor riots, unsafe work conditions and a heady whiff of feminism—you can bet the Bureau’s commie-sniffers were all over it. Union projectionists refused to screen it. The FBI investigated it. The American Legion called for a boycott. Many in the film’s crew were blacklisted, making them unemployable within the studio system. Call Number=PN1997 .S25 2004, 6163
I Am Curious (Yellow): By blending non-explicit sex and beard-stroking scholar bait, this Swedish art flick scored a specific audience: folks eager for onscreen raunch, but too squeamish to visit actual porno theaters. Yellow sold more tickets than a subtitled b+w art-drama logically should, bolstered by media hype and civilian handwringing. At the height of its public attention, an arsonist in Houston even tried to torch the theater showing it. Viewed in 2013, one wonders what all the fuss was about. As an art flick, it’s fairly energetic and cerebral, but as a skin flick, it’ll bore modern smut-hounds to death. For vast chunks of the film, young activists quiz various Swedes on their views on social class, non-violent protest and Spanish despot Francisco Franco. Sexy, right? Still, there’s no way this film could be shown in a modern multiplex, let alone a “legitimate” cinema in the 1969. The film isn’t the most riveting, but its technical values earned it a place in the esteemed Criterion Collection. Banned in: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, 1968-1971. Call Number=PN1995.9.F67 J337 2003
Titicut Follies: Now heralded as a classic of the “direct cinema” documentary style, Frederick Weisman’s Titicut Follies is still an uneasy sit. The film documents the shocking conditions of an institution for the criminally insane. Some considered the doc exploitative, since the broken-minded inmates couldn’t give consent to be filmed. Others believed it portrayed the mental hospital in an unfair light. Banned in Massachusetts, 1968. Call Number=HV8742.U52 T59 2007
Birth of a Nation: (1915) The granddaddy of all controversial classics, Birth of a Nation has two claims to fame. First, it innovated multiple cinematic techniques still in use today. Second, it’s a 190-minute love song to the KKK. Its politics are problematic, not only to today’s sensitive minds, but to audiences of its day. The newly formed NAACP decried the flick for its bald bias against African Americans, while President Woodrow Wilson loved the film. It was banned in several major cities, but not before inciting spates of anti-black violence. Banned in: Minneapolis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, Denver, St. Louis, and Ohio, 1915. Call Number=PN1997 .B549 1998
Within Our Gates: Five years after Birth of a Nation, black America told its side of the story. People today often think black cinema started sometime in the ‘70s, as blacks began flexing their creative muscles behind the camera. But before Spike Lee, John Singleton, Gordon Parks or even Melvin Van Peebles—indeed, way back in 1920—there was Oscar Micheaux, perhaps America’s first great black filmmaker. Within Our Gates follows a biracial schoolteacher on her quest to secure funding for a poverty-stricken Southern school. The film contains a lynching scene and the sexual assault of a black woman by a white man. Censors found the film’s content too incendiary, particularly in light of the recent Chicago race riots, which left 38 dead. Within Our Gates was forbidden to play in Chicago, Omaha, and New Orleans. Call Number=VHS 3298
Last Temptation of the Christ: One of the most devisive films of the ‘70s, Last Temptation retells the timeless Jesus story, with a twist. What if, in his final moments, Jesus abandoned his holy mission, came down from the cross, and lived out his life as a mortal? For the head honchos of the Catholic Church, the idea was too blasphemous to contemplate. Widespread pickets caused several theater chains to drop the film. Okay, this one wasn’t technically banned, but its extreme controversy did make it difficult to see. As directed by Martin Scorsese, it’s not in the league of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas, but still well worth a watch. Willem Dafoe plays Jesus, with Harvey Keitel as Judas. The Vatican has since abandoned the practice of condemning movies, depriving said films of valuable free publicity. Call Number=VHS 6167
The Moon is Blue: Here’s a film whose reputation is based solely on the controversy it generated. This middling 1953 rom-com was condemned for its suggestive whiffs of moral looseness and pre-marital making of whoopee. According to Hollywood legend, Hays Code enforcers banned the film over the specific words “virgin” and “pregnant.” That legend has since been debunked, but its persistence bears testament to just how high-strung the era’s morality squad really was. Banned in Kansas, 1953; also banned in Maryland, Ohio, Jersey City, and Milwaukee. Call Number=PN1997 .M69 1994
The Tin Drum: This Palme d’Or-winning black comedy hit legal snags for a scene of underage sex. The characters were both 16, but the actors were aged 11 and 24. The sex was simulated, of course, but Tin Drum was banned in Oklahoma County, OK on a child pornography charge. Nowadays, Okies can legally enjoy the flick on DVD. Call Number=PT2613.R338 B552 2004
Scarface: Before Al Pacino, there was Paul Muni. Sure, you won’t hear him quoted in rap lyrics or see him on frat boys’ t-shirts, but Muni was Hollywood’s original Scarface. While the explosively entertaining ’81 remake earned a rotten reputation upon release, the 1932 original generated even more controversy. The remake only bombed. The original was banned from 1931 to 1932. Scarface was accused of glorifying and inciting violence, even if—as in pretty much every gangster film ever—our antihero is dead by the end credits. Call Number=6168
The Outlaw: In 1946, Jane Russell’s cleavage wasn’t just eye-popping and delightful. It was illegal. Thanks for protecting our eyes, NY censors! Banned in: New York City, 1946 Call Number=PN1995.9.W4 O974 1999
The Last Picture Show: This slow-paced but gorgeously-framed downer drama chronicles the coming-of-age of Texan teens in a soon-to-be ghost town. Contemplative and downbeat, it’s far removed from the rambunctious nostalgia of American Graffiti (also in our collection). While lacking that film’s good will, it more properly captures the anger, sexual awkwardness and general confusion of teens in any era. It also features early roles by Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepard and Timothy Bottoms and a nifty Hank Williams soundtrack. A nude pool party scene raised eyebrows in Phoenix, Arizona, with censors particularly objecting to a four-second shot of female frontal physique. In court, the argument boiled down to an anatomy debate: what exactly is a woman’s “exterior genitalia?” A medical dictionary was consulted and the film resumed showing. Banned in Phoenix, 1973 Call Number: PN1997 .L377 1999