The 100+ Most Controversial
Films of All-Time

1940s-1950s


The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
Film Title/Year, Director
Screenshots

Citizen Kane (1941)
D. Orson Welles

Critics loved it, but media mogul W. R. Hearst -- the inspiration for Kane -- used his influence to discredit Orson Welles' groundbreaking movie.

This widely-acclaimed film from debut film director/actor Orson Welles (24 years old) is usually regarded as the greatest film ever made. The film, budgeted at $800,000, received unanimous critical praise even at the time of its release, although it was not a commercial success (partly due to its limited distribution and delayed release by RKO due to pressure exerted by famous publisher W.R. Hearst) - until it was re-released after World War II, found well-deserved (but delayed) recognition in Europe, and then played on television.

The film engendered controversy (and efforts at suppression in early 1941 through intimidation, blackmail, newspaper smears, discrediting and FBI investigations) before it premiered in New York City on May 1, 1941, because it appeared to fictionalize and caricaturize certain events and individuals in the life of William Randolph Hearst - a powerful newspaper magnate and publisher.

The film was accused of drawing remarkable, unflattering, and uncomplimentary parallels (especially in regards to the Susan Alexander Kane character) to real-life. The notorious battle was detailed in Thomas Lennon's and Michael Epstein's Oscar-nominated documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996), and it was retold in HBO's cable-TV film RKO 281 (1999) (the film's title referred to the project numbering for the film by the studio, before the film was formally titled).

The gossip columnist Louella Parsons persuaded her newspaper boss Hearst that he was being slandered by RKO and Orson Welles' film when it was first previewed, so the Hearst-owned newspapers (and other media outlets) pressured theatres to boycott the film and also threatened libel lawsuits. Hearst also ordered his publications to completely ignore the film, and not accept advertising for other RKO projects.

The discovery and revelation of the mystery of the life of the multi-millionaire publishing tycoon was determined through a reporter's search for the meaning of his single, cryptic dying word: "Rosebud" - in part, the film's plot enabling device - or McGuffin (MacGuffin). However, no-one was present to hear Kane utter the elusive last word. The reporter looked for clues to the word's identity by researching the newspaper publisher's life, through interviews with several of Kane's former friends and colleagues. Was it a favorite pet or nickname of a lost love? Or the name of a racehorse? At film's end, the identity of "Rosebud" was revealed, but only to the film audience. [One source, Gore Vidal - a close friend of Hearst, wildly claimed in 1989 in a short memoir in the New York Review of Books that "Rosebud" was a euphemism for the most intimate part of his long-time mistress Marion Davies' female anatomy.]



The Outlaw (1943)
D. Howard Hughes

Busty starlet Jane Russell's breasts cast a long shadow over this erotically-charged Western, outraging guardians of public decency.

This infamous adult-oriented sex-western was obsessed millionaire director/producer Howard Hughes' B-grade pet project. The B-grade western featured busty starlet Jane Russell in a breakthrough role. It was marketed salaciously for full effect - such as with this tasteless, salacious slogan: "What are the two great reasons for Jane Russell's rise to stardom?", angering the MPAA for its unapproved ad campaign. Hughes defied the Hayes Production Code (reportedly this was the first US film to do so), and sued the MPAA organization, but eventually backed down.

Hughes' picture was notorious for leering camera views of statuesque and formidable Jane Russell's ample, buxom cleavage - displayed to the fullest and greatest effect to anger Hays Code censors. She was often pictured with an oft-unbuttoned, low-cut peasant blouse. The film was denied a Production Code Administration seal of approval for the exploitative use of young star Jane Russell's prominent, bulging breasts and cleavage.

It faced close scrutiny by the Hays Office (and Joseph Breen), due to its exploitation of star Jane Russell's prominently-uncovered 36D" chest in her debut film by Hollywood huckster Russell Birdwell. Salacious advertising added to the lurid sensationalism and kept the film from being widely circulated. In addition, pin-up shots of big-busted Russell rolling around in the hay had the desired effect at the box office (especially among WWII GIs). One of the film's most vulgar stunts, also orchestrated by Birdwell, was to have skywriting planes fly over San Francisco where they spelled the film's title followed by two giant circles -- each dotted in the center.

One local judge in Baltimore, Maryland was quoted as saying that Russell's breasts "hang over the picture like a summer thunderstorm spread out over a landscape." However, it appeared that the publicity pin-up shots were much more revealing, sultry and suggestive than the film itself.

The storyline -- the pursuit of Billy the Kid by Sheriff Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell), with Jane Russell as Doc Holliday's (Walter Huston) sexy, half-breed mistress Rio -- was considered too racy for contemporary audiences in 1941 when it was screened for the Hays Office. Its original release had to be postponed until 1943 - and then only in very limited release to theatres. After a one-week run at that time, Hughes decided to withdraw and shelve the film for three years after which it was finally placed in general release in 1946 (in a cut version) without a seal of approval, and then again in 1947. The eventual release of the mediocre, fictional film ended up as an example of triumphant ballyhooing and film marketing.





Song of the South (1946)
D. Harve Foster (live action), Wilfred Jackson (animation)

Never available on video or DVD in the US, Disney's charming animated take on Southern folklore was tainted by its live-action sequences depicting happy slaves.

This remarkable Disney film was based on the "Uncle Remus" stories in the late 1800s of Joel Chandler Harris (first published as columns in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper), and was presented as one of their earliest, innovative live-action and animation mixtures. The film's song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" won the Academy Award for Best Song.

Set after the Civil War at a time when slavery was abolished during the Reconstruction Era in Georgia, its animated sequences featured Uncle Remus characters (i.e., Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear) accompanied by live-action portions with handyman and folk story-teller Uncle Remus (Special Oscar-winning James Baskett) telling the tales of Running Away - The Briar Patch, the Tar Baby, and Br'er Rabbit's Laughing Place.

The animated sequences told how Br'er Rabbit outtricked the fox and bear, and were designed as life lessons to help young Johnny (Bobby Driscoll), who was planning on running away, deal with the threatened divorce of his plantation-owning parents, and the bullying of two boys regarding Johnny's runt dog. Johnny also preferred to spend time with poor ('white-trash') blonde playmate Ginny Favors (Luana Patten) and black boy Toby (Glen Leedy) rather than his own peers.

Remarkably, it has never been released for home video consumption in the US (although it has been available in European and Asian markets). After this film's last theatrical release in 1986, it has simply vanished and been unavailable for purchase. Recently, a Disney spokesman reiterated the fact that the film may continue to be unavailable due to "the sensitivity that exists in our culture" and fears of political-correctness repercussions.

Although it has been rumored that the NAACP banned this Disney movie, that was untrue -- they simply expressed their disapproval of the portrayal of African-Americans in the film, and their concern about its potential to present an image of an idyllic master-slave relationship.

The main objection was its stereotypical depiction of blacks in the live-action sequences, although others have mistakenly thought that the movie actually depicted slavery and tacit approval of the master-slave relationship.





The Moon is Blue (1953)
D. Otto Preminger

Well-bred people in the 1950s didn't use words like "virgin," "seduce" and "mistress" in public, but this mild sex farce did and became a cause celebre.

This daring sex farce and romantic comedy was the first major studio-produced film from Hollywood that was released without an approved code seal from the Production Code Administration (PCA). It was deliberately made as a test case by its producer/director Otto Preminger. Despite its lack of a seal of approval and the controversy, it proved to be a major hit film (grossing $6 million).

The PCA's Joseph Breen complained about the film's unacceptable, comedic "light and gay treatment of the subject of illicit sex and seduction." It was subsequently rated condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for vulgarity, in part because of its offensive use of prohibited words such as "virgin," "seduce," "pregnant," and "mistress" in the dialogue.

Following the Kansas Board of Review of Motion Picture's decision to ban the film, the Kansas State Supreme Court upheld the decision. (Three states, Maryland, Ohio, and Kansas had banned the film.) The state's censorship board had used current state censorship laws to ban the film and release it without a seal of approval. In the case of Holmby Productions v. Vaughn brought up in a Maryland court in 1953, the blocking of the film's release by the Maryland and Kansas state censor boards was contested. In 1955, the US Supreme Court unanimously overturned the ruling of the Kansas Supreme Court to uphold the film's banning, declaring it unconstitutional. The film's court victory was one more indication that the influence of the Production Code was weakening. A PCA seal of approval was granted to two of Preminger's films in 1961, The Moon is Blue (1953) and The Man With the Golden Arm (1955).

The film's philosophical theme was about the prospect of remaining a virgin, in order to remain respectable, and the efforts of two aging playboys attempting to score in a love triangle with an attractive young virgin - wholesome (or virtuous) and chatty 22 year-old heroine and struggling beer-commercial actress Patty O'Neill (Maggie McNamara in her film debut). The two lotharios were successful 30 year-old architect and wolfish bachelor Donald Gresham (William Holden), and 41 year-old divorced, martini-drinking, charming David Slater (David Niven), the father of Cynthia Slater (Dawn Addams).

After meeting Donald on the top of the Empire State Building (where he impulsively kissed her), they shared a taxi ride to his Madison Avenue apartment for drinks before dinner. She warily asked: "Would you try to seduce me?" When he vowed he wouldn't ("I won't make a single pass at you"), but confessed that he might kiss her, she responded: "Kissing's fine. I have no objection to that." She then added: "Look, let's face it. Going to a man's apartment almost always ends in one of two ways. Either a girl is willing to lose her virtue or she fights for it. Well, I don't want to lose mine, and I think it's vulgar to fight for it, so I always put my cards on the table. Don't you think that's sensible?" They shook hands when she agreed with him on how to appropriately behave: "Affection but no passion." When they arrived at his place, she gratefully claimed: "I'm so glad you don't mind...Men are usually so bored with virgins. I'm so glad you're not."

However, Donald noted that Patty seemed very preoccupied with sex ("you are always asking if people plan seduction or they're bored with virgins or they have a mistress"). She replied: "But don't you think it's better for a girl to be preoccupied with sex than occupied?" In the meantime, Donald's ex-fiancee Cynthia was fuming over recently being dumped by him. She had also called Patty a "professional virgin." Competing with Don for Patty's affection, David spoke about maintaining one's virginity, stating: "Suspicion, my child, suspicion. The lurking doubt. Is she or isn't she? Does she or doesn't she? Will she or won't she? Suspicion, the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world." He made a $600 bet with her to wait 15 weeks before seeing another man. She held out and kept her virginity, and eventually Donald fell in love with her and proposed - again at the top of the Empire State Building.





Baby Doll (1956)
D. Elia Kazan

The Catholic Legion of Decency condemned Tennessee Williams' lurid tale of a thumb-sucking child bride and the men who lusted for her.

Elia Kazan's film (based on Tennessee Williams' play) told about a thumb-sucking, white-trash, 19 year-old virginal 'baby doll' child bride (Carroll Baker) who was married (but unconsummated) to Mississippi cotton gin operator Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden), and seduced by a competing vengeful Sicilian cotton-gin owner Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach in his film debut). In the opening scenes, Baby Doll was crib-bound in nursery furniture, spied upon through a wall by her 'peeping tom' husband, and given no privacy while taking a bath.

The defiant film was a pot-boiling, condemned, and censored drama (by the Catholic Legion of Decency) - it was viciously condemned for, among other things, a notorious, highly-sexual seduction scene on a swing, of the young 'baby doll' nymphet by Vacarro to get her to sign a letter about Archie's guilt, their game of hide-and-seek in the upstairs (and attic), and later their kissing scene under a turned-off bare bulb in an adjoining room while Baby Doll's sexually-frustrated husband Archie was speaking on the phone nearby.

The Oscar-nominated film (with four nominations, but no wins, including Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay) was called notorious, salacious, revolting, dirty, steamy, lewd, suggestive, morally repellent and provocative. Time Magazine was noted as stating: "Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited..." New York's Cardinal Spellman declared the film "evil in concept... certain to exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it."

The stark, controversial, black and white film was so viciously denounced by the Legion of Decency upon its release with a "C" (or condemned) rating that many theaters were forced to cancel their showings, but it still did moderately well at the box office despite the uproar.





The 100+ Most Controversial Films of All-Time
(chronologically, by film title)
Intro | Silents-1930s | 1940s-1950s | 1960-1961 | 1962-1967 | 1968-1969
1970-1971 | 1972 | 1973-1974 | 1975 | 1976-1977 | 1978 | 1979
1980-1982 | 1983-1986 | 1987-1989 | 1990-1992 | 1993-1995 | 1996-1999
2000-2002 | 2003-2005 | 2006-Present


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