In the last post we learned how the MPAA began to be both a watchdog, on behalf of the industry in Washington, and on the industry itself, at least in the field of on-screen morality. Now let's take the next step in this saga.
World War 2 saw the ascension of the United States of America as a military, economic, and cultural superpower. The MPPDA, reformed as the MPAA that we know and love today, started a new mission of promoting American movies to the world. Initially it was really successful, because competition was really thin.
World War 2 had thoroughly destroyed Europe and Asia’s movie-making infrastructure, Axis censorship meant that the major studios had a backlog of hundreds of films European and Asian audiences hadn't seen, and the glorious escapism of American movies were just what the war weary populace was craving. The new-fangled MPAA’s job was to make sure the studios got paid by the exhibitors in these exploding foreign markets and that their governments didn’t get uppity and try to regulate the flow of Hollywood’s product to boost their domestic movies.
Breen eventually retired after two decades of overseeing the morals of the nation, but the stringent enforcement of the production code continued well past its “sell by” date. The entertainment world was changing radically in the 1950s. Television exploded across the Western world, the film industries of Europe, inspired by Hollywood, began to recover and find their own voices. These films weren’t restricted by the Production Code and were thus free to be more daring and risqué in style and subject matter.
Hollywood filmmakers began to seriously chafe under the Code’s restrictions, especially now that television had taken the place as the centre of family entertainment. Since every movie no longer had to be all things to all ages they begged for more freedom.
In 1966 Universal mogul Lew Wasserman ended the search for a new MPAA boss after several headless years by bringing in Washington spin-doctor Jack Valenti. Valenti was a divisive figure with many people’s disliking and actively loathing him and the way he operated. However, love him or loathe him, Jack Valenti was extremely effective at his job.
In 1968 Jack Valenti tossed the Production Code and replaced it with the new ratings system that is still in use, more or less, today.
“G” for movies that were made for all audiences including children.
“PG” films that require some “parental guidance” which meant that parents had to decide whether or not kids could attend.
“PG-13” was introduced in the 1980s and means that parental guidance was suggested for kids under the age of 13.
“R” means that entrance is “Restricted” to those over the age of 17 unless the attendee has a parent or guardian with them to cover their eyes at the naughty bits.
“X” originally meant that the film contained graphic material that no one under the age of 18 could be allowed to see, no way, no how. The MPAA had neglected to register “X” as a trademark and ended being used by porn producers to promote their product, making more mainstream mature-audience only fare to get unjustly labeled as porn. In the 1980s the MPAA finally got around to fixing it by dropping the “X” rating and creating the “NC-17” rating.
The ratings system began to not so much evolve, but mutate, over time, and problems started to develop, which I will get to in a later post. For now let’s get back to Jack Valenti.
Jack Valenti’s real talent was at being a highly effective lobbyist. Getting his clients a lot of what they wanted out of Washington when it came to copyright enforcement, anti-piracy legislation, and the promotion of Hollywood productions. I’m not saying that he didn’t make any missteps. In fact, Valenti’s militancy against any potential piracy made him blind to the profit potential in home video, and a failed attempt to ban the VCR.
But this somewhat uneven Golden Age for the MPAA wasn’t going to last and the company began to falter at its two main missions, which are actually two more stories…
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