Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films, and the Benefits of Censorship

Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films, and the Benefits of Censorship

by Nora Gilbert


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Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films, and the Benefits of Censorship by Nora Gilbert

Better Left Unsaid is in the unseemly position of defending censorship from the central allegations that are traditionally leveled against it. Taking two genres generally presumed to have been stymied by the censor's knife—the Victorian novel and classical Hollywood film—this book reveals the varied ways in which censorship, for all its blustery self-righteousness, can actually be good for sex, politics, feminism, and art.
As much as Victorianism is equated with such cultural impulses as repression and prudery, few scholars have explored the Victorian novel as a "censored" commodity—thanks, in large part, to the indirectness and intangibility of England's literary censorship process. This indirection stands in sharp contrast to the explicit, detailed formality of Hollywood's infamous Production Code of 1930. In comparing these two versions of censorship, Nora Gilbert explores the paradoxical effects of prohibitive practices. Rather than being ruined by censorship, Victorian novels and Hays Code films were stirred and stimulated by the very forces meant to restrain them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804795319
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2015
Series: Cultural Lives of Law Series
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Nora Gilbert is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Texas.

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Better Left Unsaid

Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films, and the Benefits of Censorship
By Nora Gilbert

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-8420-7

Chapter One

The Sounds of Silence W. M. Thackeray and Preston Sturges

Here I am smothering dear old Mrs. Grundy's objections, before she has opened her mouth. —W. M. Thackeray

It was actually the enormous risks I took with my pictures, skating right up to the edge of non-acceptance, that paid off so handsomely. —Preston Sturges

IN THE COURSE OF REJECTING the modern world's repressive hypothesis, Michel Foucault nominates the anonymous author of the Victorian pornographic confessional My Secret Life to replace Queen Victoria as the "central figure" of nineteenth-century Western sexuality. The reason for this striking substitution, Foucault explains, is that "[r]ather than seeing in this singular man a courageous fugitive from a 'Victorianism' that would have compelled him to silence, I am inclined to think that, in an epoch dominated by (highly prolix) directives enjoining discretion and modesty, he was the most direct and in a way the most naïve representative of a plurisecular injunction to talk about sex." Yet as deliciously perverse as it may be to strip a sovereign queen of her iconic status in favor of a nameless pornographer, I believe we can learn more about the ways in which the Victorian era's "directives enjoining discretion" both collided and intersected with its "injunction to talk about sex" if we focus our attention on less naïve, less directly marginalized material. To that end, the following chapter will nominate a very different nineteenth-century writer to stand in as his culture's discursive representative: William Makepeace Thackeray.

One reason that Thackeray's novels serve as a particularly good point of departure for my discussion of Victorian censorship is that so many of them point out and bemoan the kinds of social and marketplace limitations that were implicitly placed upon writers in his day. Thackeray was, of course, very much invested in the market success of his fictional works; having lost the majority of his patrimony to gambling debts that he accrued during college and having already failed in several other vocational endeavors, he entered the novel-writing profession more for financial than aesthetic reasons. But he was also able to view the hypocrisies of the English way of life with the skepticism of an outsider's perspective, having spent his early childhood in India, and he specifically chose to make those hypocrisies one of the central thematic concerns of his fiction. Thackeray was, in fact, responsible for coining one of the key terms used to describe the "tyranny of the prevailing opinion" that was so powerful within the Victorian era: Grundyism. Mrs. Grundy was originally a character in Thomas Morton's 1798 play, Speed the Plough, who never appears on stage but whose moral judgment is of extreme importance to her neighbors; "What will Mrs. Grundy think?" is their perennial refrain. But it was thanks to Thackeray's repeated use of her name in his personal and fictional writing (see, for example, this chapter's epigraph) that "Mrs. Grundy" came to signify "an unseen censoring element" on a broader level. By constructing a disembodied, hypothetical figure to symbolize his culture's priggishness and conservatism, Thackeray was able to mock and critique such impulses without attacking any of his moral censors personally. His writing managed, in other words, to be ostentatiously vocal about its inability to vocalize the forbidden truth.

Perhaps the best example of this noisy silence on Thackeray's part can be found in the middle of his best-known work, regarding his best-known character. The sixty-fourth chapter of Vanity Fair (1848) opens with the narrator's bluff announcement that he is about to censor himself: "We must pass over a part of Mrs. Rebecca Crawley's biography with that lightness and delicacy which the world demands—the moral world, that has, perhaps, no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name." What follows this promise of delicate avoidance, however, turns out to be an overt and uncompromising attack on the hypocrisy of Victorian "modesty," followed by an articulation of the strategy that Thackeray has chosen to employ in response to such hypocrisy:

[I]t has been the wish of the present writer, all through this story, deferentially to submit to the fashion at present prevailing, and only to hint at the existence of wickedness in a light, easy, and agreeable manner, so that nobody's fine feelings may be offended. I defy any one to say that our Becky, who has certainly some vices, has not been presented to the public in a perfectly genteel and inoffensive manner. In describing this syren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water? No! Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling round corpses; but above the water line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish immoralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie? (637–38)

Thackeray's description of the politely bifurcated style of storytelling demanded of him by the Moral World in which he lives bears a striking resemblance to the cinematic style that would be encouraged by Code administrators almost a century later—a style that, as one such administrator explicitly put it, would be able to "please the sophisticated, without causing the unsophisticated to blush, which allows everybody in the audience to draw the inference he wishes." Victorian moralists and Code censors were not, in other words, enjoining the artists working under their purview to be silent; they were enjoining them to be coy.

The filmmaker I have chosen to pair with Thackeray in order to explore this coyness is Preston Sturges, another highly popular artist whose works are not generally thought to be shocking, obscene, or particularly censorable. Sturges began his artistic career writing Broadway plays and Hollywood screenplays, some of which were successful and some of which were not. But it was his 1940 foray into directing—and, more specifically, into directing what he himself had written—that turned Sturges (at age forty-two) into the new Hollywood "boy wonder." The string of critical and financial hits that were to follow within a time span of only a few short years, including The Great McGinty (1940), Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944), and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), was unprecedented. By the end of this series, Sturges was the most touted director in the country, and he had the paycheck to prove it. But his success was also unprecedentedly short-lived, for it was soon after the filming of Hero that Sturges got into a contract dispute with his home studio at Paramount and decided to set off to become his own boss. To that end, he joined forces with the equally eccentric and entrepreneurial Howard Hughes to create the California Pictures Corporation, which Hughes was to finance and Sturges was to run. The venture was, however, an unmitigated failure, and the two parted ways after only two years without releasing a single film. Sturges's next move was to Twentieth Century Fox, where he was given an enormous salary and creative carte blanche. But his good fortune seemed to have run out, as the first two films he made there were both box-office disasters and Fox decided to let him go. And that was pretty much it for Sturges. He spent the rest of his life living in Paris, where he wrote a play here, a screenplay there, but never made enough money to pay for his expensive habits or the alimony he owed to the four ex-wives that he had accumulated over the years.

Sturges may not share Thackeray's habit of conspicuously raising the issue of moral censorship throughout the course of his storytelling, but he does share a similar authorial tone of sly irreverence that is seen by many contemporary critics as a form of rebellion against his culture's restrictive, conservative values. The two artists were not always considered to be such rebels, however. In Sturges's case, the earliest wave of serious criticism of his work found it to be too "hollow" and "frothy" to be an effective mouthpiece for social change. James Agee reproached Sturges for "his exaggerated respect for plain success," which led him to "produc[e] some of the most intoxicating bits of nihilism the screen has known, but always at the expense of a larger excellence"; Manny Farber and W. S. Poster observed that his "Barnum-and-Bailey showmanship and dislike of fixed purposes often make the typical Sturges movie seem like a uniquely irritating pastiche"; and Siegfried Kracauer accused him of possessing "a conformist attitude" and of "us[ing] the tools of social criticism, only to destroy its constructive power." But this dissatisfied view of Sturges—as a talented showman who failed to live up to his own artistic and political potential—has been slowly eroded over the years by a string of more appreciative French film theorists, including André Bazin, who feels that Sturges "restores to American film a sense of social satire that I find equaled only ... in Chaplin's films," and François Truffaut, who finds in Sturges's work a pleasingly "subversive way of thinking." Sturges now retains the peculiar status of a sort of cult mainstream figure: in spite of the fact that so many of his films are considered, as Turner Classic Movies would put it, "the essentials," his name is much less recognizable to the contemporary public than are the names of other classical Hollywood auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, or Billy Wilder. Those who do discuss him today, however, almost always agree with the French theorists' complimentary appraisal of his works; he is considered "radical" and "visionary," when considered at all.

Thackeray's image, too, has undergone a series of transformations over the past century and a half. By his contemporaries, he was widely regarded to be a shrewd, often scathing social satirist; Charlotte Brontë even went so far as to see him "as the first social regenerator of the day, as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things." After his death, however, more and more critics began to complain of the lack of continuity and unity in Thackeray's novels. Like Sturges, Thackeray's "showmanship" and "dislike of fixed purposes" made many critics accuse his works of feeling like mere "pastiche," or worse—N. N. Feltes, for one, has condemningly labeled Henry Esmond (1852) "a commodity-book, of which bourgeois moralism is a distinctively intrusive ideological determination." The problem, according to biographer Catherine Peters, was that Thackeray posthumously came to be "revered as the typical exponent of Victorian middle-class values," so that when those values came to be seen as stuffy and outdated, "Thackeray's reputation suffered a decline from which it has never really recovered." Although Thackeray's reputation may not be now what it once was, Foucault's reassessment of Victorian values has inspired recent critics to reassess Thackeray's political and moral emphasis; indeed, the vast majority of post-Foucauldian analysis of Thackeray's work tends to focus its energy on demonstrating how very much that work was able to get away with. Nina Auerbach has, for instance, professed that she "can think of no mid-Victorian novel more incisively outspoken" on the subject of "the dispossession of actual women" than Thackeray's Henry Esmond; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has seen in the same text a "radical and ahistorical critique of patriarchy"; and Peter Shillingsburg has found Thackeray's "psychological realism" to be "profoundly subversive to the establishment." According to all of this critical imagery, Thackeray is positioned on one side of the ideological battle line, with the conservative moral censor positioned antagonistically on the other.

In looking at the way Thackeray and Sturges spoke about the subject of censorship in their personal writing, however, we find something a bit more complex than mere animosity. Consider, for example, Sturges's remarks about his most controversial and, perhaps not coincidentally, most financially successful film, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Although Sturges was forced by the PCA to make some "moral changes" to his story about accidental pregnancy, contemplated suicide, and attempted bigamy in order to get it released, the slightly censored version that made its way into theaters over a year after production wrapped still caused right-wing Catholics to call for a boycott and multiple reviewers to comment on the "miracle" of its having gotten past the Hays Office at all—see Bosley Crowther's comments in the New York Times ("The watchmen for the usually prim Hays office certainly permitted themselves a Jovian nod when confronted with the irrepressible impudence of Preston Sturges's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek"), or, more graphically, James Agee's in the Nation ("the Hays office has either been hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep"). Reflecting on the religious and parental protests against his film in his posthumously published "semi-autobiography," Sturges laments the fact that "[e]fforts to make all motion picture plays suitable to all ages from the cradle to the grave have so emasculated, Comstocked and bowdlerized this wonderful form of theatre that many adults have been driven away from it entirely." Yet he also maintains that anyone who was offended by Morgan's Creek must have been reading it incorrectly, since his "intention" in telling the story was simply "to show what happens to young girls who disregard their parents' advice and who confuse patriotism with promiscuity. As I do not work in a church, I tried to adorn my sermon with laughter so that people would go to see the picture instead of staying away from it." Sturges had, in fact, attempted to put a clergyman character in the movie to "preach" that point for him. For a scene that was, ironically, "removed at the request of the studio because it was felt that it could be interpreted as showing a clergyman in a humorous light," Sturges had written a lengthy sermon that was to conclude with the rector imploring his wartime congregation: "Beware of the spell cast by jingling spurs ... of the hasty act repented at leisure ... of confusing patriotism with promiscuity ... of interpreting loyalty as laxity. Beware, young women!" And "that," insists Sturges, "was my moral. I am sorry that it was left out."

Along similar lines, reading through Thackeray's letters gives one the mixed impression that he was both a staunch opponent of censorship's judgmental self-righteousness ("And it seems to me hence almost blasphemous: that any blind prejudiced sinful mortal being should dare to be unhappy about the belief of another; should dare to say Lo I am right and my brothers must go to damnation—I Know God and my brother doesn't") and a pious moralizer in his own right ("And indeed, a solemn prayer to God Almighty was in my thoughts that we [novelists] may never forget truth & Justice and kindness as the great ends of our profession ... [which] seems to me to be as serious as the Parson's own"). This apparent ideological ambivalence is also prevalent between the covers of Thackeray's fictional works. In the preface to Pendennis (1850), for example, Thackeray lodges one of Victorian literature's most biting complaints against censorship when he proclaims that "[s]ince the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN." In particular, Thackeray addresses the "many ladies" who have been boycotting his novel "because, in the course of the story, I described a young man ... affected by temptation." What these ladies have failed to appreciate, he explains, is that his perfectly innocent "object" in depicting such a character is "to say that he had the passions to feel, and the manliness and generosity to overcome them." Or, when discussing his exceptionally salacious take on the Newgate school of crime fiction, Catherine: A Story (1840), Thackeray avers that his primary goal in writing such an off-color work has been "to make readers so horribly horrified as to cause them to give up or rather throw up the book and all of it's [sic] kind." The problem with Newgate novels, he moralistically contends, is that they portrayed their criminal heroes in a dangerously appealing way. To the genre's best-known practitioners (Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton, etc.), Catherine's narrator offers some specific moral advice: "[L]et your rogues in novels act like rogues, and your honest men like honest men; don't let us have any juggling or thimblerigging with virtue and vice, so that, at the end of three volumes, the bewildered reader shall not know which is which." In these and other reflexive remarks, Thackeray and Sturges are claiming that the illicit content of their works serves as a necessary set-up for the moral lessons they are trying to impart. The reason, they insist, that they describe so many depraved and dissolute acts is to caution their readers and viewers against engaging in such activity themselves.


Excerpted from Better Left Unsaid by Nora Gilbert Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Joy of Censorship 1

1 The Sounds of Silence: W. M. Thackeray and Preston Sturges 15

2 For Sophisticated Eyes Only: Jane Austen and George Cukor 45

3 Beyond Censorship: Charles Dickens and Frank Capra 80

4 The Thrill of the Fight: Charlotte Brontë and Elia Kazan 115

Postscript: Oscar Wilde and Mae West 145

Notes 151

Bibliography 167

Index 175

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