The Dame in the Kimono” is a twofold wonder: It is an excellent resource and a highly entertaining read. This revision of the 1991 first edition chronicles the 33-year battle over Hollywood’s internal and external battles over what could be portrayed on the screen. The new version adds a light examination of additional changes in movie censorship over the past three-plus decades, most important the toppling of the Production Code in 1967. From that turning point came the establishment and evolution of the movie rating system we know today.
The Motion Picture Production Code was established in 1930, but was often ignored until Joe Breen became supervising director of the West Coast Hays Office.
Over the decades to follow, Hollywood struggled to uphold the morality of everyman while pleasing the entertainment tastes of the general moviegoing public. As one astute screenwriter noted, the Code “forced writers not only to be cleaner but also to be cleverer.”
To tell that story, “The Dame in the Kimono” examines 11 important films that helped set the stage for both the Hays Office’s dominance over Hollywood film production and its eventual demise. The films (“Dead End,” “Gone With the Wind,” “The Outlaw,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “The Bicycle Thief,” “Detective Story,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Moon Is Blue,” “The French Line,” “Lolita” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) provide a chronological diary of America’s evolving perceptions of taste and morality, reality and make-believe, entertainment and titillation.
Along the way, we are treated to hundreds of “inside” stories, all insightful and integral to the answer of how we got from then to now.
“Then” was the time of the taut dictum that “no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it,” while “now” gives us the gentler recommendation that movies “keep in closer harmony with the mores, the culture, the moral sense and the expectations of our society.”
Somewhere in between (let’s say the ’60s) came along pictures where the stars, the writers and the directors held greater sway than ever before over what could be said or shown.
In 1966 came a major crack in the Code. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” seemed like it could never pass the Code, yet was a sure bet for Oscar contention. As Leff and Simmons so smartly note, “Association board members could read the implications: they must confer the Code Seal on ‘Virginia Woolf’; to have an American Oscar contender become an Oscar winner without the Code Seal could tumble the house of cards.”