powered by AFI
Few of the films that challenged the Hollywood Production Code seem as innocuous today as the 1953 romantic comedy, The Moon Is Blue...at least on the surface. Publicity at the time hinted that the main bone of contention was the inclusion of such then-forbidden words as "virgin," "mistress" and "seduce," which were enough to get the picture banned in Boston. But later scholars have discovered within the Production Code files objections to the film's entire moral tone. When United Artist defied the Production Code and released the picture without changes -- the first time a major Hollywood studio had done so -- the controversy was enough to make The Moon Is Blue a box-office winner.
Writer F. Hugh Herbert had enjoyed a successful career both in Hollywood and on Broadway, bringing the prissy efficiency expert Mr. Belvedere (Clifton Webb) to the screen in Sitting Pretty (1948) and scoring a stage hit with the enterprising teenager Corliss Archer in Kiss and Tell, filmed with Shirley Temple in 1945. He took a more adult turn with The Moon Is Blue, which opened on Broadway in 1951. Charming audiences with its tale of Patty O'Neill, an aspiring actress who will gladly discuss sex but refuses to take part in it until after marriage, the play ran for over two years and established leading lady Barbara Bel Geddes as a light comedienne.
Having directed the stage version, Otto Preminger secured the film rights to The Moon Is Blue and cut a very advantageous deal with United Artists. He deferred his salary for producing and directing in return for 75 percent of the profits and total artistic control. The only limitation on him was the traditional clause requiring that the finished film pass Production Code scrutiny. He flexed his muscle immediately by insisting on casting David Niven in the second male lead, an aging rou intent on seducing Patty first. Studio executives thought Niven's career was fading, but Preminger fought for the actor, then put him in the play's West Coast company so he could craft and perfect his performance. For box-office insurance, he cast William Holden to star as the architect who develops more conventionally romantic feelings for Patty, offering the actor 20 percent of the profits. Although there were several up-and-coming film stars who would have been perfect for the female lead, Preminger opted for newcomer Maggie McNamara, who had played Patty in the play's Chicago company but had never made a film before.
The film was completed in a mere 24 days, despite the fact that Preminger simultaneously shot a version in German starting Hardy Kruger and Johanna Matz, who appeared in the English-language version as tourists. Holden and McNamara played the tourists in the German version. Preminger also played a small role in that version and dubbed Gregory Ratoff's lines as the taxi driver into German. In later years, he would state his preference for the English-language film, claiming the material had not translated well.
The censorship problems started long before the film began shooting. In fact, before Preminger had even bought the rights, Joe Breen, head of the Production Code Administration (PCA) had advised Warner Bros. and Paramount against acquiring the property. His objection was not just to the use of such hitherto forbidden words as "virgin," mistress" and "seduce," which he considered merely vulgar, but to the film's overall questionable tone. He felt the comic treatment of seduction created insurmountable problems for even though the leading man eventually proposes to the still-virginal leading lady, he soundly criticizes her moral pose, dubbing her a "professional virgin" and suggesting that "those who advertise usually have something to sell." In Breen's opinion, this violated the Code's prohibition against inferences that "low forms of sex relationships are accepted as common things."
Preminger knew of Breen's objections, of course, and decided to make The Moon Is Blue a test case. At first he refused to submit the script at all, but a copy got to Breen, who wrote objecting to the subject matter and insisting that there needed to be some condemnation of the Niven character's womanizing. Preminger agreed only to the latter, then set out to make the film in his own way. When it was finished, Breen denied it the Production Code's official Seal of Approval. Preminger appealed, but by that time the film had been condemned by the Legion of Decency (some have suggested they only did so in support of Breen). When the appeal was denied, UA dropped the contract clause requiring that Preminger deliver a film capable of passing the Production Code, quit the PCA's parent organization, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and distributed the film without the Code Seal. This was a landmark in the battle against censorship; no other major studio had ever dared release a film without the PCA Seal. Under the initial agreement with the MPAA, theatres owned by the studios were forbidden from showing films that did not bear the Seal. But with the court-mandated sale of the studio's theatre chains, the Code's hold on them had been weakened. Although some chains canceled their bookings of The Moon Is Blue, others picked it up, hoping the controversy would pay off at the box office.
It did. The film brought in $4 million domestically, suggesting that audiences were a mite more mature (or as gullible) than the censors had suspected. By year's end, The Moon Is Blue was the nation's 15th highest-grossing film. The advertising campaign, alluding to the film as "The picture everyone is talking about" and "Sensationally Funny -- For Adults Only," helped draw attention to the controversy. When it was banned in Boston and Memphis, patrons drove to theatres just outside of town to see what the fuss was all about. Bans in Maryland and Kansas were overturned by the courts. Ultimately, the controversy made the censors look bad. Many critics noted that for all the discussion of sex, nothing really happened. By the end, traditional values, although lightly satirized, had been upheld. When Birmingham, AL, censors tried to cut the film and restrict viewing to those over 21, local women's club members complained that the film provided "a good moral lesson to teenagers." Preminger seized the opportunity to lead a campaign for some kind of system for labeling mature but respectable films as "adults only" (the actual ratings system that replaced the PCA was still 15 years away), with even conservative commentators jumping on the bandwagon.
Hollywood showed its own support of the film. David Niven won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy, and Oscar® nominations went to Maggie McNamara, the editing and the title song. As a result, the move to liberalize the Production Code began gathering steam. By 1961, times had changed so much that a reissue of the film won the PCA Seal with no problems. It also became a lingering embarrassment for Breen, particularly since most coverage of the controversy charged him with banning the film simply because of its language. When asked about The Moon Is Blue in later years, all he could say was, "Well, we're entitled to one mistake every few years, aren't we?".
The Moon Is Blue's position as a part of U.S. cultural history was underlined in the '70s, when it became the subject of an episode of the popular sitcom M*A*S*H. After hearing the picture was banned in Boston, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) spends most of the episode trying to secure a print for screening to the 4077 (the film had also been banned by the military), only to find, when he finally sees it, that the movie is surprisingly tame. They had to use the word "virgin," he reasons, because "everyone in the movie was!"
Producer-Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: F. Hugh Herbert
Based on his play
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Score: Herschel Burke Gilbert
Art Direction: Nicolai Remisoff
Cast: William Holden (Donald Gresham), David Niven (David Slater), Maggie McNamara (Patty O'Neill), Tom Tully (Michael O'Neill), Dawn Addams (Cynthia Slater) Fortunio Bonanova (Television Performer), Gregory Ratoff (Taxi Driver), Hardy Kruger (Tourist).
by Frank Miller
Cleveland Plain Dealer