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Why Be Good? Sexuality & Censorship in Early Cinema (2007)

An overview of the portrayal and influence of sexuality on film, from the silent era until the administration of the Hays Code in 1934.

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Jeanine Basinger ...
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Bob Mitchell ...
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Barry Paris ...
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Michael Schlesinger ...
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Kevin Thomas ...
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Marc Wanamaker ...
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An overview of the portrayal and influence of sexuality on film, from the silent era until the administration of the Hays Code in 1934.

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23 May 2007 (USA)  »

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While not the best documentary of its type, it's pretty good.
8 June 2011 | by (Bradenton, Florida) – See all my reviews

Although this is a very recent documentary and only came to DVD in the last few years, I was surprised that it had no captions of any sort. While I can't get mad only at this film, it sure is annoying when you don't have this option if you need it or want it.

I noticed when the film began that it was produced by Hugh Hefner. This seems like a logical choice but also colored the focus of the film a bit--but more about that later.

The film is about the early days of films at the turn of the 19th century up until the implementation of the strengthened Production Code in 1934. However, the bulk of the film really was on the period from 1920-1934. So, early sexuality in films is really glossed over and is given in a very abbreviated fashion. For example, although a brief clip is shown of the very important "May Irwin Kiss", the reason for its importance and the sort of films that immediately followed it really aren't explained. This really is not one of the more educational or exhaustive documentaries on this period and I suggest you look elsewhere for discussions on early sexuality as well as sex in foreign films (where there was often a lot more). Also, the film manages to make broad sweeping comments about the Flappers and sexuality of the 1920s and gives the impression that sex was rampant in the 20s (if only), though this actually represented a small portion of the public and not the US in general. The 20s was not as sexually charged as the documentary alleges nor the mid-late 1930s as prudish as is implied (I am sure people DID manage to still have sex following the implementation of the Production Code).

Another problem I noticed is that the reasons for the Production Code were not given a balanced discussion. Unlike the film's contention that is was mostly about sexual repression and a bit about the violence in films, there was much more to the story. First, as there was no ratings system (and wouldn't be until the late 1960s), movies were for general audiences. So, families might see a wholesome film during the early 1930s, but they could also see a film where topics like abortion and adultery (mostly promoting it) were common and they might see and hear cursing, violence and sex. So, there really needed to be SOMETHING done about films as I assume most parents wouldn't want Junior seeing this content. I would agree that the intrusive Code was a bit extreme and a rating system would have been best. But the film never really explains that SOMETHING needed to be done--considering some of the most egregious examples of inappropriate film content came from family films ("Tarzan and His Mate" had a very length and very sexy nude swimming scene) and religious films (DeMille managed to include bestiality, lesbianism, nudity and VERY graphic violence in "The Sign of the Cross"--a film about the early Church!!).

While this sounds like I hated the documentary, I didn't. But I am also a history teacher and film nut--and this film really isn't the best when it comes to the topic. Such documentaries as "Complicated Women" are better, but frankly I still recommend "Why Be Good" as there really aren't many documentaries that address this topic! A nice BALANCED and THOROUGH discussion of the topic of sexuality in Pre- and Post-Code films would be great. In fact, if you find one, let me know.


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