Features and Columns

Precedents for ‘The Interview’: A Brief History of Hollywood’s Political Self-Censorship

By  · Published on December 23rd, 2014

Sony Pictures

“For some, theaters were a place to shelter from the troubles of the world, but they were also where most Americans were confronted by vivid images of the troubles themselves, brought home in footage that was more immediate and overwhelming than newspapers or radio broadcasts could ever be.”

The above quote, excerpted from Mark Harris’ “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War,” is made in specific reference to theatrical newsreels in 1940, which exposed Americans to stark images of WWII while the Hollywood features that they introduced were prevented from acknowledging the war in such a direct fashion. The gap that this pre-intervention limbo period produced between fiction and non-fiction speaks to a greater paradox that has overtly and covertly determined the American experience of commercial moviegoing: the fact that, as I argued two years ago, Hollywood regularly “eschews reality just as it borrows from it.”

As far as we know, never before has a foreign power infiltrated a movie studio and directly threatened the prospective audiences of one of its properties. The specific situation around the current debacle that is The Interview is largely unprecedented. But Sony’s reaction is not, for it has deep roots in Hollywood’s treatment of relevant political topics. The Interview’s abandoned release simply brings to light what has been intrinsic to Hollywood’s self-governance: censorship as a defining practice, justified by the possibility of threat.

The original 1930 Motion Picture Production Code (the set of rules and gatekeepers through which Hollywood regulated its content and thereby avoided governmental regulation) held as one of its stipulations for film production that films should not depict other nations, their institutions, or their prominent people “in an unfavorable light.” Much of the Code was supposedly organized by invoking conservative traditions of moral decency and a firm belief that films are meant to unobtrusively entertain rather than, y’know, say anything.

But this particular stipulation stands out as an explicit example that betrays the Code’s organization around the maximization of profits ‐ namely, foreign sales. Depicting all the world’s actions as favorable ‐ a world in which power has been regularly achieved through injustice beset upon others and inevitably births discord ‐ is not only contradictory on its face, but also comes into conflict with the Code’s own stated assumption that films bear any sort of moral responsibility.

These contradictions played out soon after the PCA’s establishment and after Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party’s rise to power in 1933. Warner Bros attempted to make a film later that decade titled Concentration Camp, which sought to “educate the Western world about Nazi atrocities,” but its concept was found to be in violation with this aspect of the Code. Nazis were never explicitly referenced in Hollywood cinema until 1938, when Warners’ Confessions of a Nazi Spy went into production.

But even after 1938, Hollywood endured significant difficulties in representing Nazi Germany. RKO’s 1940 film Foreign Correspondent depicts an apolitical foreign reporter who becomes a proponent for American interventionism in “the situation in Europe” after witnessing German espionage firsthand. Its director, Alfred Hitchcock, sought to avoid the growing danger of impending war in his native England, and thus moved to Hollywood, making this as his second film in his new home. But even with the growing threat of Nazi Germany, and with a director who saw its ruthless, encroaching imperialism firsthand, Foreign Correspondent could not depict Nazis explicitly identified as such without fear of reprimand from Hollywood’s self-appointed censors. Thus, German Nazis are vaguely represented in the film, speaking a German-sounding form of foreign gibberish and evoking fascist chic in their garb.

United Artists

Another 1940 film that has received substantial mention in the wake of the controversy over The Interview is Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which lampooned a thinly disguised Hitler-type as inspired by his mustachioed resemblance to Chaplin as well as the filmmaker’s restless desire to use cinema as a platform to accessibly communicate about injustice. Chaplin only brought the film to completion as a result of several intersecting and timely factors, including Chaplin’s own unique economic power as an independent producer and the growing pro-interventionist sentiment in the US. As Bilge Ebiri recently wrote about the film,

“United Artists, the studio [Chaplin] had co-founded, was nervous and worried that the film could not be shown in England, for fear of offending the Germans. Chaplin was fearless, but he still had his worries. There were fears that American non-interventionists and pro-Nazi groups would get the film banned in the U.S.”

While often thought of as an ideal example of Hollywood using its collective powers of industry and artistry to criticize a threatening dictator, The Great Dictator had to navigate well-founded speculation of pushback and censorship towards a release that only occurred out of a shift in national sentiment since the film first went into production.

After the United States entered the war, Hollywood looked at itself as an extension of the war effort, with many of its actors and directors tasked with making wartime propaganda. And in the realm of studio-based, for-entertainment filmmaking, depicting the war as a setting and Nazis as an evil that must be vanquished was quickly standardized, if not implicitly required, as common practice. Comic representation of the Nazis was discouraged but did not attract the controversy represented by The Great Dictator. Ernst Lubitch’s direct mention and depiction of Hitler in To Be or Not to Be garnered comparatively little resistance two years after Chaplin’s film.

However, presumptive censorship was still active in Hollywood, but with principal concern over rather different content. During the early 1940s, the newly formed Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures urged Hollywood studios to avoid making screwball comedies for fear of their potential to make Americans appear to be indulgent buffoons. For example, according to Frank Krutnik’s “In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity,” the BMP was particularly irked by Preston Sturges’ 1942 film The Palm Beach Story, which BMP reviewer Marjorie Thorson stated as “a fine example of what should not be made in the way of motion pictures.” Connecting the film’s economic exportability and its political representation, Thorson expounds upon her reasoning by asking, “Do we want Europeans and Latin Americans to believe this is typical of American ideals?”

These Production Code-era wartime examples are specific demonstrations of how Hollywood has censored itself based upon presumption of a threat or controversy. This practice continued to resonate through filmmaking well past the Code’s demise, and has motivated numerous seen and unseen decisions for decades, including changing the setting of Robert Altman’s MASH to the Korean War in place of Vietnam or bringing Sony’s adaptation of Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies to a stalemate.

It would seem that The Interview represents a different scenario entirely, as the pressure of a foreign power to not release of film has seemed to produce innumerable repercussions on the ability of Hollywood filmmakers to engage in free expression. As Amy Nicholson puts it, “What scripts will nervous execs veto in fear of their own cyber assault? What films will never exist?” before arriving at the inevitable, preexisting conclusion that “America’s commitment to free speech is dwarfed by our commitment to capitalism.”

This commitment explains Hollywood’s storied practice of self-censorship as a means of avoiding potential controversy. In terms of the historical norms and conventions of Hollywood, The Interview is best understood not as an outlier, but an extension of standard practice realized at a much later stage in a film’s lifetime, in which a film is not censored during pre-production or production, but during exhibition. The particular circumstances are notably unique, but whether or not censorship occurs in response to a presumed, feared, or existing threat, the result is almost always the same, and has already determined the content, not to mention the very existence, of numerous movies.

The Interview debacle is not an instance of Hollywood suddenly eroding an assumed commitment to “free expression” unconvincingly given lip treatment by Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton. Compromised expression, not free expression, has been the lifeblood of the industry.

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