I told you I'd be returning to that August 1932 Motion Picture Magazine for material. Well, this post is one of those falling somewhere between coincidence and confluence of events, as I had just read the letter I reproduce below--and had already decided that I was going to share it on the site--and then the idea was further massaged when in reading John Stangeland's new Warren William biography the author made mention of the censors not being totally neutered during the pre-Code era.
Is there a better example of this than the notorious Scarface (1932)? Probably not.
Remember while Joe Breen didn't carry his big PCA stick til '34, Will Hays and MPPDA had been on the scene since 1922, so there were guidelines to be followed and rules that were sometimes enforced. It's just the screws hadn't fully tightened yet.
Motion Picture Magazine knew how to get reader participation: Pay 'em! And so each month they awarded a $20, $10, and $5 prize to the best letters they received for publication. The one that follows from a J.W. Smith of Fort Stanton, New Mexico was the $20 winner, and thus the first thing I read when opening up my copy of Motion Picture!
That $20.00 letter:
FORT STANTON, N.M. - Before you finish reading this epistle you will perhaps gather that I dislike movie censors and wish them all exiled to the island of Yap. You will be right.
The latest stupidity of these self-appointed guardians of public morals was the barring of Howard Hughes's crime picture "Scarface," later renamed "The Shame of a Nation." Had the picture been permitted a showing with its original title and scenes, it would have done more to help us rid ourselves of gangsters than ten thousand Crime and Law-Enforcement Commissions. But the stupid censors made Howard Hughes change the title, cut the picture, and dress it up in lace drawers, so that it would be dainty enough for an old women's sewing circle, or lukewarm enough for a fourth-rate policeman. Even then after the picture was emasculated, it was barred in a number of cities.
Here was a chance for the censors to help their country and honestly earn their pay. But those boys and girls seem incapable of doing anything intelligent or decent. They have a racket and they are making suckers out of all of us. They tell us one hundred twenty million Americans what we can and cannot see in the cinema. They degrade pictures and insult our intelligence. But no matter how stupid the censors are, we, the theatregoers, are ten times more stupid for tolerating them.
Written in 1932, it sounds like it could have come from a studio head airing complaints just a few years later when Breen was huffing and puffing over every script. I'm not familiar with the Isle of Yap (Oh, I get it now!), but I love the mention of "lace drawers" and "an old women's sewing circle" plus the phrase "making suckers out of all of us," which yes, sometimes I'll still use myself in some of my more paranoid offline conversation. If the letter doesn't impress you just picture Jimmy Cagney reading it to you, for some reason that's the voice these words keep taking in my mind, and perhaps you can understand my appreciation (Read it fast!).
Check out TCM's page about Scarface if you're interested in learning more about that film's specific troubles with the censors.
Jenny the nipper says
Cliff, I love this letter. I wonder if the magazine editors didn’t make it up, though? How’s that for paranoid, cynical or both?
Cliff Aliperti says
You’re not along with your paranoia, Jenny–I tweeted the same suspicion to a Twitter friend right after I posted this. It’s just TOO good!