In 1934 the publisher Alfred A. Knopf released Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. It was Hammett’s fifth work of real substance in as many years and it topped the charts almost instantly. Whilst Hammett would continue to write, this was actually his last published novel. Upon release, it caused outrage in certain circles for an exchange between the two main characters Nick and Nora Charles. On page 192 Nora famously asks Nick this question, Tell me something, Nick. Tell me the truth, when you were wrestling with Mimi, didn’t you have an erection?
Post-depression America was ready for many things. Talk of erections, it seems, was not among them. The publisher took out the advert posted above on the front page of The New York Times. I think it is really rather brilliant and, at a time when people seem increasingly afraid to print anything that might offend, it is a reminder to us all that you really can’t please all of the people all of the time, but you can sell a lot of books in the process. Last week’s post on the Hays Code got me thinking more broadly about censorship and today I’d like to explore this further.
Hammett’s book was banned in Canada and a number of US fiction magazines refused to serialise it, fearful of the backlash it might provoke. The film version of The Thin Man came out in the same year and whilst nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture it lost out to It Happened One Night. If you are going to lose, then this is the way to do it. It Happened One Night was the first film in history to win all five major awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay). With Clarke Gable as the leading man and Frank Capra in the Director’s chair, it was always going to be tough to beat. In fact, the feat that It Happened One Night achieved in winning all five awards would not be matched until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 (a bonus point if you can name the third film to do so). As a book, The Thin Man is outstanding. As a film, it suffered from Mr Hays and his attempts to shackle the silver screen. The character of Nick is much nicer and less edgy than Hammett imagined him and the whole story lacks the bite of the original. There is one attempt, however, to give Mr Hays a coded message of his own. The Hays Code prohibited the use of many things and there is one scene which involves three characters walking down the street with a dog discussing the case. The characters stop several times, not for directorial purposes, but for canine-call-of-nature purposes. Just because the dog wasn’t allowed to do its business on camera, doesn’t mean the team couldn’t use it to make a subtle point to Mr Hays. It makes you wonder though if things really have changed that much. Civil liberties, it is argued, are under increasing threat. The big privacy story of the moment concerns internet search engines and the right to be forgotten ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union. I like the term right to be forgotten a great deal. The potential for it to be misused is extraordinary.
Last week we touched on the Hollywood Babylon: Early Talkies Before the Censors season at the British Film Institute. Both the films featured in a double bill last Friday had the audience gasping in horror at the sheer ferocity and undiluted nature of some of the violence. There was a good deal of watching behind hands or not actually watching at all at some scenes. The films were a retort to Hays’ code and everything it stood for and are deliberate in their inclusion of everything Hays wished to abolish. However, if you watch them as pieces of film making, without the political context clouding your judgement, they are also very well crafted works in terms of structure, character and the triumph of good over evil. They are also genuinely terrifying, which given the era in which they were made is to the immense credit of all involved.
I am neither an apologist nor an opponent of censorship as a concept. Sometimes its use is understandable and the very best example I can give you in relation to crime fiction is Agatha Christie’s 1939 masterpiece, Ten Little Niggers, which was first published by the Collins Crime Club. Since its release, it has sold over 100 million copies (her best seller in fact) but has also had several title changes. Over the years it has been sold as Ten Little Niggers, Ten Little Indians, Ten Little Solders and more latterly And Then There Were None. Words can and do change in meaning and acceptability, and none perhaps more so than that which Christie first used in the title. In this case, a change of word is well-considered although it might surprise you to learn that the original title held in the UK for 50 years before being finally changed in 1985.
Interestingly Christie’s work continues to attract the attention of the censors long after her death. Perhaps one of the realities of being the world’s best selling novelist with sales of over 4 billion books is that your work is never far from a bookshelf, or television schedule. Sadly, and for reasons which whilst I understand on paper, still cause me problems, in 2012 the film version of Death on the Nile was cut by the UK censors. The classic, iconic production starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot has had the scene in which the character Jacqueline de Bellefort kills herself, cut. In the UK, forevermore, each time this 1978 masterpiece is shown before 9pm this scene will be removed. That is a terrible shame, not to mention a terrible ending.
It may also interest you to know that the very first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1897) has been banned from Virginia schools after it was alleged to contain anti-Mormon sentiments. If you have read the book you’ll recall that a father and daughter are rescued by Mormons on condition of adopting the faith. The book was banned after a parent recently complained that this gave children a misleading introduction to religion. No mention of Holmes’ habitual use of drugs, or the fact that this was commonplace in Victorian society. No, the book is banned because it allegedly misrepresents the Mormon faith. I bet Arthur Conan Doyle never expected that, but then again he, like Christie, was no stranger to the censor. When his wife died at the turn of the 20th century, quickly followed by several male family members including his son and brother in the Great War, Conan Doyle sought solace in spiritualism. His obsession with finding proof of life after death got his work into serious trouble. The Soviet Union banned his 1892 short story collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes because it feared the stories glamorised the occult. Incredible really.
If you approached a publisher or studio today with an idea for a teetotal, clean-living, church-going detective who always followed the rules, you’d firstly be laughed at and second, would inevitably offend someone despite your attempts not to do so. Used deftly, censorship is a powerful and much-needed tool. As a blunt instrument, it is totally flawed. Further down page 192 of The Thin Man, Nick’s answer to Nora’s question is as follows, “Oh a little.” She laughed and got up from the floor. “If you aren’t a disgusting old lecher,” she said. Given this was 1934 I think that is much more shocking than the question that got the book into so much trouble. I usually try and keep under 1000 words but given the topic today I didn’t bother censoring myself. Thanks for reading to the end.
By the way, that bonus point…Silence of the Lambs.