A couple years ago, Turner Classic Movies aired on their “Silent Sunday Nights” the 1925 film Ben-Hur. I had seen the 1959 version many times, and my husband decided to buy it when it first came out on dvd. I decided to dvr this silent version and then settled in one afternoon to watch it. […]
A couple years ago, Turner Classic Movies aired on their “Silent Sunday Nights” the 1925 film Ben-Hur. I had seen the 1959 version many times, and my husband decided to buy it when it first came out on dvd. I decided to dvr this silent version and then settled in one afternoon to watch it. For a silent film, it was fast-paced and told the story of a Jewish man providentially meeting Jesus during pivotal moments in his life quite well. However, during one crowd scene, I was shocked when Roman soldiers were jostling the people in the crowd and some of the women's toga tops fell to their waists! Here, in a silent film was nudity which led to my mind harboring comments and questions: Naked women in Ben-Hur! That didn't happen in the Charleton Heston version! Why weren't the women given costumes that would stay in their proper places? Were silent era films more risque?
I decided to do a bit of research on this aspect of American film. When did censorship in the movies begin and why did it begin? One needs to look at the sport of baseball for the inspiration of starting up a wing of the motion picture industry who's goal it was to make sure films shown to American audiences wouldn't be offensive. In 1919, The Black Sox Scandal rocked the sporting world in the US when it was revealed that 8 members of the Chicago White Sox purposely lost the World Series in order to gain money from a gambling ring. To soothe away this awful stain on baseball, Major League Baseball hired Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to be the new league commissioner to help restore the image of baseball to the American public. In 1922, Hollywood was facing lower box office numbers due to some movies labeled too risque for the public's taste and due to various stars' scandals and others in the industry. The major movie studios hired their own “commissioner”, Will Hays, to enforce a production code. The Hays Code, as it came to be known, didn't become truly enforced until 1934, so there are movies made before 1934 known as Pre-Code, which contain plots that were shocking for the times in which they were made and shown to audiences.
Helping Hays to enforce this code was Joseph Breen, hence the title of this blogathon. When a request for a film under production to make a change in the plot, script, etc., the request was usually made by Breen. Breen successfully enforced the Production Code from 1934-1954, then he retired. His assistant, Geoffrey Shurlock, took over for Breen but under Shurlock's watch, the Code was phased away, and eventually replaced with the ratings system for films.
I still wondered as to why there was nudity allowed in the silent film version of Ben-Hur. I did some research on that film's director, Fred Niblo. Born in Nebraska to immigrant parents who divorced, I really couldn't find much about the director that would point to any controversies in his life. For more on Niblo, here is a link to an interesting bio written about him by one of his sons. Over at the blog, Movies Silently, a wonderful resource is there comparing and contrasting the two versions of Ben-Hur, plus more background about the novel the films were based upon as well as it's history when Ben-Hur played on Broadway. I wonder how those chariot races were shown on stage??
For more blog posts about Joseph Breen and why or how a film got the Breening treatment, be sure to visit Pure Entertainment Preservation Society's site for the “Great Breening Blogathon”, and learn about American film-making history along the way!