The voluntary self-censorship applied by the film industry says a lot about the moral and ideological order of power of an era. A remake from 1953 of a film from the time before Hollywood introduced the so-called production code reflects the development of society in the 20th century USA.
It has been ten years since the Swedish Parliament, on December 2, 2010, decided that Swedish film censorship should be abolished. The decision was made under broad political consensus. The technical development meant that film was no longer mainly seen in cinemas and the State Cinema Agency (Statens Biografbyrå) had not felt compelled to cut any film since 1995. Swedish film censorship was established as early as 1911, and then partly on the cinema owners' initiative. The cinema owners were tired of the local regulations that regulated the screening, they wanted clarity and predictability.
It was not only in Sweden that the film industry itself took the lead in creating rules for what was possible to show on film. In the summer of 1934, the American film industry began to seriously apply the production code for self-censorship, which had already been established in 1930 by the trade association Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.
The production code was a voluntary initiative from the film industry in order to prevent the introduction of a state-regulated pre-censorship of film. The period from the introduction of sound film in the late 1920s to the implementation of the production code in 1934 is called the "pre-code" era in Hollywood. The films of this era are perceived as more challenging to morality than the films produced after 1934. The production code stipulated that a film was not allowed to "lower the audience's moral standard". Instead, a "correct way of life" would be encouraged and the "natural or human law" should not be questioned.
In the book "Pre-code Hollywood: Sex, immorality,and insurrection in American cinema 1930-1934" (1999), Thomas Doherty has described how the implementation of the code embodies different ideological expressions in the power order and the spirit of the time that characterized the United States between "the happy 20s” and “the great depression”. Concerns about social order manifested itself in demands that movies, with its impact, would not contribute to the resolution of norms but instead strengthen unifying national values.
The films "Red Dust" (1932, directed by Victor Fleming) and "Mogambo" (1953, directed by John Ford) enable a comparative analysis of the code's concrete ideological forms of expression. "Mogambo" is namely a remake of the "pre-code" movie "Red Dust". The intrigues are similar and Clark Gable plays the male protagonist in both films.
The plot of the films makes it possible to compare the ideological representation of sexuality, gender roles, family and marriage. In both films, the male protagonist is far from civilization - in "Red Dust" he runs a rubber plantation in French Indochina, in "Mogambo" he is a kind of wildlife hunter somewhere in deepest Africa. The protagonist is unexpectedly and involuntarily visited by a lonely young woman (Jean Harlow in "Red Dust", Ava Gardner in "Mogambo") and feelings arises. A married couple joins in, where the man - above the hardships of the wilderness - is to carry out surveying work on the plantation (Gene Raymond in "Red Dust") or record noises from wild animals on tape (Donald Sinden in "Mogambo"). The wives (Mary Astor in "Red Dust", Grace Kelly in "Mogambo") are meanwhile left alone with the male protagonist. The character of Clark Gable, who was previously attracted to the lone female visitor, now falls deeply in love with the married woman, and the love is answered. But when he has to tell the married man about the new circumstances, he does not cope. The married man says that he wants to leave the wilderness to take his wife to the city instead, start a real family and have children. The protagonist realizes that the only right thing is to give up his love for the married woman. He gets drunk with the young visitor (Harlow/Gardner). In a dramatic scene, he confronts the married woman, denies that he loved her and claims that he only exploited her. She gets desperate and shoots him in the arm. Then her husband rushes in and wonders what's going on. The young visitor pretends that Gables' character tried to rape his wife, who shot him in self-defense. The married couple falls into each other's arms and happily go away together. The male protagonist and the young visitor stay and become a couple.
The choice of actor is important for the film's narrative. At the time of both films, Clark Gable is an established film charmer. During the filming of "Mogambo" he has reached the age of 52, which gives an age difference to Ava Gardner of 21 years and to Grace Kelly of 28 years. Clark Gable becomes a patriarchal caring man here, almost like a father figure.
At the time of filming "Red Dust", Gable is only 31 years old, ten years older than Jean Harlow and five years older than Mary Astor. In “Red Dust”, Gable is equally patriarchal and caring, but here he does not become a father figure but an erotic-sexual partner. The sexual framing of "Red Dust" is reinforced by the fact that Jean Harlow was one of the great sex symbols of this time, corresponding to Marilyn Monroe in the 50s and 60s. Ava Gardner's profile as an actress was more restrained and less lively.
In "Red Dust", Harlow plays a prostitute who stays away from the police in Saigon. In "Mogambo", Gardner plays an adventurer, a playgirl on her way to a safari that never happened. In "Red Dust", the male protagonist wants to give the young visitor money after they have spent the night together in his bedroom. She is disappointed, and says, "It was not like that." There is no corresponding scene in "Mogambo".
In "Red Dust", the boundaries of sexuality are freer. In a classic scene in "Red Dust", Jean Harlow's young visitors bathe in a rainwater barrel on the veranda. She apparently sits naked in the barrel and teases the male protagonist, splashes water on him and pretends to go down the Niagara Falls. He gets annoyed, goes to the barrel and pushes her head into the water. In the corresponding scene in "Mogambo", Ava Gardner's character takes a good shower behind a bamboo fence. Clark Gable has to keep her distance, throw her a bathrobe and turn around when she leaves the shower.
In both films there is a scene where the male protagonist carries the married woman after they are surprised by a rainstorm in the jungle. In "Red Dust" he carries her into her bedroom where they kiss each other intensely. In "Mogambo" he carries her into the house, where he lets her down, and the scene does not even ends with a kiss.
An important difference is that in "Red Dust" the male protagonist has sex with both women. Sexuality is generally more open and more lively in "Red Dust" than in "Mogambo", through facial expressions, music, images of half-naked bodies. The films are united in family views and gender roles. The traditional nuclear family ideal is challenged, but wins in the end. In "Red Dust", the husband formulates his dream of the nuclear family so beautifully and convincingly that the main character renounces his wife, even though he loves her. Similarly, the male protagonist in "Mogambo" decides not to ruin the couple's marriage, but instead to let them leave the jungle to start a family together and have children.
The difference in the films' family view is embodied in each final scene. In "Mogambo", Gable's character asks the young visitor (Gardner) to marry him. First she answers no, and gets in a boat to go from there. But at the last minute she changes, jumps out of the boat into the water and rushes straight into the arms of the happy protagonist. In "Red Dust", the two lie instead and cuddle together on a double bed. She cares for his gunshot wounds and teases them lovingly by reading him fairy tales. The camera zooms out and the audience suspects that they will live happily together. But probably not as a married couple.
Both films depict a patriarchal order - in "Red Dust" with the man as protector and conqueror, in "Mogambo" with the man as protector and father figure. But in the midst of the patriarchal structure, there is also room for independent women (the "frivolous" Jean Harlow or the adventurer Ava Gardner).
It is interesting that none of the people who break the established moral rules receive any punishment. On the contrary, both films have a "happy ending". In a "pre code" movie like "Red Dust" it is expected. But it is more unexpected in "Mogambo". Maybe it's because it was recorded as late as 1953, when compliance with the production code had begun to loosen up. Some years earlier, the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled that the film medium should be included in the constitutionally protected freedom of expression. At that time, there was no longer any threat of state prior censorship. And in the same way that technological development contributed to the abolition of film censorship in Sweden, the emergence of television meant that the code no longer became possible to maintain.
And in the same way that technological development contributed to the abolition of film censorship in Sweden, the emergence of television meant that the code no longer became possible to maintain. The Hollywood films "Red Dust" and "Mogambo" reflect their time, both in terms of power structures and national values. "Red Dust" is a child of the spirit of the 1920s, when everything was perceived as possible and everything was in motion. "Mogambo" is shaped by the post-war era, when American national values that strengthened its position during World War II were still prevalent. Although the 1950s were marked by stability, the development of society foreshadowed the revolt of authority of the 1960s and the beginning of globalization knocked on the door. The outside world reminded itself and wanted in - and no production code could shut it out.
The production code entailed voluntary self-censorship on the part of the film industry. Even today, the spirit of the times sets limits for what the film industry considers possible to portray - in the USA as well as in Sweden. Let us use the tenth anniversary of the abolition of Swedish film censorship to discuss what these boundaries are. Knowledge of borders provides insight into the ideological expressions that are embedded in society's order of power, and also makes it possible, if desired, to challenge this order.
Published in Svenska Dagbladet 2020-11-28