A Brief History of the Film Rating System


When you were a kid sneaking into an R-rated movie was a big deal. Everyone had their own tips, but this author was buying a ticket to a Disney G-rated movie, say, Mulan; when the bailiff turned his back on me, I came across a film rated R like, for example American history x. But it wasn’t always that way – not kids sneaking into adult-only movies, but rather the movie rating system. There was a time when movies didn’t have ratings. So how did we get from there to the current system?

Thomas Edison is credited with building the first film production studio near his home and laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey in 1893. He was called Black Maria, or the “Doghouse” by Edison himself. This is where he shot the short film Kinetoscopic recording of Edison’s sneeze (otherwise known as Fred Ott’s Sneeze) in January 1894, which became the first film to be registered for copyright. Two months later, Edison’s employee William KL Dickson filmed Carmencita, a Spanish dancer and perhaps the first woman to appear in the cinema. In some places, her projection was not allowed as it revealed her legs and underwear as she twirled. Perhaps the first case of film censorship.

In March 1897, James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons faced off in Carson City, Nevada. It was watched live by thousands of fans, but it was soon to be seen by many more. Encoh Rector had filmed it on 11,000 feet of film, and two months later the film premiered in New York. With a running time of over one hundred minutes, The Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight was the first documentary and feature film ever to be made. It will eventually be broadcast in ten different cities over a period of eleven months. Now, prize fights were illegal in every state across the country except Nevada at the time, but SHOWing prize fights was not necessarily illegal, hence the film’s popularity. In response to this new rule-bending technology, seven states (including New York) all passed legislation fining those who screened the film. Although most of the fines were ignored, this was one of the first instances where governing bodies monitored what people watched on film.

Ten years later, Chicago became the first city to regulate and censor movies. With more than 115 nickelodeons across the city and the Chicago Tribune announcing that they had “utterly vicious influence,” censorship rules were enacted in 1907. City council gave the chief of police the power to to issue – or not to issue – permits for the exhibition of moving images. If a film did not meet its standards (or someone it also delegated the task to), a permit would be denied. The United States Supreme Court has upheld Chicago’s right to do so. Additionally, Chicago has created a separate pink license to mark “adult only” movies. It backfired when the pink permits acted more as advertisements than as a deterrent.

In 1909, New York City, by order of Mayor George B. McClellan, closed 550 theaters because the chief of police claimed that “most films were objectionable.” In response to this, the National Board of Censorship was formed as “the film industry’s first formal attempt to stave off legal censorship of films through quasi-self-regulation.” For a small fee, the Council would recommend cuts.

A landmark 1915 United States Supreme Court ruling firmly established that censorship could be applied to cinema. Mutual Film Corporation was a news company that was annoyed by the fees and slow turnaround times of what it could and couldn’t show. They insisted that the film should be protected by the First Amendment, free speech, and should not be subject to censorship. The Supreme Court disagreed. In Mutual c. Ohio Industrial Commission, wrote Chief Justice Edward White, “The moving picture exhibition is an outright business, created and conducted for profit like other shows, and should not be viewed as part of the press of the countries or as organs of public opinion within the meaning of freedom of expression and publication. “

Since films were not protected by the First Amendment, the industry had to protect itself from government censorship. In 1922, The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was formed. They hired former Postmaster General and Republican National Committee leader William Hays as the head. While his job was simply to lobby Washington on behalf of the film industry, he also helped put together a list of commonly rejected themes / topics / occurrences that he asked film studios to consider, called the “Don’t and Be Careful” list. Some of the “don’ts” included “illegal drug trafficking”, “white slavery” and “clergy ridicule”. The “Be careful” list (in this “good taste can be emphasized”) included “smuggling methods”, “use of the (American) flag” and “men and women in bed together”.

In 1930, the MPPDA implemented the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code). He did not exercise any real power until he partnered with the Legion of Decency, an organization created by the Catholic Church (as well as other religious organizations) dedicated to combating “objectionable material. “. From that point on, the MPPDA would only approve films bearing the Catholic Church seal of approval. The Legion of Decency would also give ratings to approved films. For example, the original 1947 Miracle on 34th Street received the dreaded “B” rating by the Catholic Legion due to the divorce from the film’s mother. If you’re unfamiliar, a “B” rating announced that the Legion found it “morally wrong in part”. Later, the “B’s” and “C’s” (condemned by the Legion of Decency) were merged to form a single rating: “O” for “morally offensive”.

A few notable cases threatened this status quo. The MPPDA would not approve the Howard Hughes film The outlaw as it was judged that there were too many shots that put stress on Jane Russell’s chest. Hughes insisted that the film and Russell’s chest had to be seen, so in 1946 (five years after the film was made) he signed a distribution agreement with a non-MPAA signatory (the name changed to Motion Picture Association of America in 1945), United Artist (a studio originally founded by actors Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks). It started to erode the power of the MPAA.

Additionally, the 1948 Hollywood antitrust case ruled that it was illegal for studios to own theaters as well, further opening the door for exhibitors to choose which movies they wanted to show (regardless if they had MPAA approval or not). Then, in 1952, the Supreme Court overturned its 1915 ruling, declaring that “expression through films is included in the guarantee of freedom of speech and free press” of the First Amendment. This, combined with a series of films (1955s The man with the golden arm, 1956 Doll, and the British 1960 film Explode) who openly defied the MPAA censorship decision, but were exposed and performed quite well financially, paved the way for a complete overhaul of the MPAA surveillance system.

Jack Valenti worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House as a “special press assistant” before becoming president of the MPAA in 1968. Thanks to his experience and his closeness to one of the greatest Negotiators of our time, Valenti knew how to work with groups to reach a compromise. In 1968 he instituted a voluntary film classification system because, as Valenti says, the Hays code had “the odious smell of censorship.” From 1968 to 1970, the ratings were G (general public), M (for adults), R (restricted – under 17 admitted if accompanied) and X (not admitted if under 17). In 1970, “M” was changed to “PG” (parental guidance) due to the confusing nature of the term “mature audiences”.

As for the X rating, it wasn’t synonymous with pornography until the 1970s. In the beginning, that just meant that no one under the age of 17 would be allowed into the movie, but the MPAA never filed a. X-rated mark (unlike other ratings) and it was hijacked by the porn industry as a way of upping their material, often adding multiple X’s to imply that their movie was much riskier and obscene than others . In fact, several mainstream and well-regarded films were given an X rating when they were first released before they became heavily associated with pornography, including A clockwork orange, Devilish death, and Midnight Cowboy. In 1990, this association “pornography” finally resulted in the MPAA abandoning the X rating in favor of a new NC-17 rating for films where children under 17 were not admitted. Six years later, that was changed for anyone 17 and under, making 18 the new age requirement for these films.

As for PG-13, it was Steven Spielberg who helped inaugurate this note. When Jaws came out in 1977, he was rated PG, despite being too violent for young children, but of course deemed insufficient to require an R rating. In 1984 he directed Iniana jones and the temple of doom and was the executive producer of Gremlins, and both received a PG rating. He felt that the PG rating was too large and suggested a PG-14 rating. The following year, the MPAA, following Spielberg’s suggestion, instituted the PG-13 rating and Red Dawn was the first movie with this rating. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Matt Blitz writes for the hugely popular Interesting Facts website TodayIFoundOut.com. To subscribe to the Today I Found Out “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, Click here or like them on Facebook here. You can also Check them out on YouTube here.

This post has been republished with permission from TodayIFoundOut.com.


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