For 25 years the Code — the Motion Picture Association of America’s Production Code — kept moviemakers in line. A precursor of today’s ratings system, the Code made sure moviegoers weren’t subjected to ”lustful kissing,” ”miscegenation,” or — heavens — ”suggestive poses.” Violators were denied a seal of approval, and that spelled box office death.
All that changed on Dec. 6, 1955, when Code administrators flunked Otto Preminger’s gritty adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel The Man With the Golden Arm, in which ex-con Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) is hooked by a drug dealer (Darren McGavin). Although Machine finally kicks the habit (with moral support from Kim Novak), that wasn’t good enough for the Code, which forbade any depiction of drug addiction. The day after its ruling, United Artists withdrew from the MPAA and vowed to release the movie anyway.
Never mind that many found 1945’s The Lost Weekend, with Ray Milland as an alcoholic, a much better look at substance abuse. Far from dying, Arm thrived at the box office, and the Code was beaten. Within a year, its bans on showing drug use, prostitution, abortion, and kidnapping were lifted. Even scenes of childbirth could be shown if treated ”within the careful limits of good taste,” according to the revamped Code.
By 1968, after years of wasting away, the Code at last expired. It was replaced by the MPAA ratings still used today, offering the moviegoer the chance to choose (provided the moviegoer likes fine print). If Arm were released now, it would probably receive nothing racier than a PG-13. Just like The Addams Family.
Dec. 6, 1955
Moviegoers saw the late James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar topped the best-seller lists. Tennessee Ernie Ford wailed about those ”16 Tons.”