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Better Left Unsaid

Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films, and the Benefits of Censorship


Nora Gilbert


Stanford: University Press, 2013

Hardcover. xii+181 pages. ISBN 978-0804784207. $45.00


Reviewed by Ellen Moody

The Victorian Web



The sophistries repeatedly on display in the course of Gilbert's monograph's argument that censorship not only improves texts and films but has been the very basis of their greatness may be catching on. Several of her specific intriguing collocations of mostly Victorian texts with early- to mid-century movies are found in Joseph Litvak's difficult Strange Gourmets : Sophistication, Theory and the Novel (she cites his book three times); her obfuscating assumptions about (hidden) polemic motives of film-makers and hermeneutically sophisticated audiences from the mid-19th to mid-20th century are grounded in what John Kucich and Dianne F. Sadoff have analysed as a new misleading Afterlife of Victorianism in films; and her theory that her chosen works are somehow more sexually compelling or ground-breaking, not simply marred by erasures of original content altogether has now appeared – with titillating large photos and shots of violent encounters – in popularly-aimed more serious journals. (1) 

Gilbert begins by briefly surveying the history of self- and imposed censorship in the Hollywood film industry. She suggests parallels with what she takes to be an analogous outbreak of “smuthounds” [5] in a repressive reaction to plays in the later 17th century in England, and the activities of “prudish” editors in influential Victorian periodicals. She then posits a “logic of scandal” she thinks recurs in her chosen terrain whereby “discourse is increased by feelings like shock and moral indignation rather than silenced by them” [11]. She quotes as exemplary a story Patrick Bronte told to Elizabeth Gaskell about how he forced his children to stand and to wear masks over their faces while they spoke to him and one another to coerce boldness [14]. She aims to show the goals of “the censor are not necessarily at odds with the goals of the artist” [1], that these differing groups collude in creating a subversive form of play.

The “discursively resonant” [29] films chosen for her first chapter, “The Sounds of Silence,” typify Gilbert's method: she unerringly chooses to analyse once enormously popular films or film-makers whose compromises have in film criticism and reviews been castigated and/or said to be unfortunate failures; these citations are her strawmen. These critics are rarely argued with, but appear in her notes as in effect “your usual suspects.” She cites and discusses Thackeray's early ironic Newgate novel, Catherine : A Story by Ikey Solomons, Esq. Junior (1837) and then compares passages from Thackeray's Vanity Fair and his own (often not reprinted or dismissed as poor) illustrations for his novel with Preston Sturges's Miracle of Morgan's Creek and The Lady Eve. Thackeray's drawings, especially of himself as jester, have an appealing melancholy charm; but a reading of Catherine today confirms that Thackeray's discomfort with his audience's amoral enjoyment of his text has led to a jagged awkward text, and the compellingly realised criminal nature of Becky Sharp is an effect that Thackeray seeks, not a moralisation imposed on him.

Tellingly, Gilbert mentions only in passing in a parenthetical phrase the central actuating event of Miracle of Morgan's Creek, a rape of the heroine after she has become drunk and is semi-conscious. Thus in her own later chapters where she deals with more but still famous, many now highly respected, even iconic screwball comedies, a repeatedly climactic (or threatened) rape or simply sexual intercourse while the divorced or separated woman has partly passed out is lost from view. In Chapter Two, “For Sophisticated Eyes Only”, Gilbert concentrates on those screwball comedies treated by Stanley Cavell as about remarriage. We are shown what is said to be valuable about The Philadelphia Story: that the heroine, Katherine Grant as Tracey, has been “deviant” [69-71]. Our attention is then directed to the heroine's “indignation” at a hero for “exposing her beloved sister to the ignominy of a public disgrace”; it is true the movie makes explicit and itself enacts a code of “social suppression in the wake of a sexual scandal” (in the movie, divorce, a father's continued adultery which he is permitted, the ambiguous sexual act at its climax). But the veneer of protection that assists the heroine's reputation (among audience members too) is elevated into a “never-ending circuit of moral slips and fumbles” as “necessarily belonging to a life worth living” [76-79].

Gilbert has ignored what is at stake; a woman's liberty to choose her life. The comparison she makes of Dinah with Austen's Emma invites us to see that Mr Knightley has (like Cary Grant as Dexter) not robbed Emma of “her most dominant and domineering attributes” but rather is a man “who can and will appreciate them properly” [78] ignores a long-standing accurate consensus that Mr Knightley will also control Emma on behalf of the patriarchy now that she has been properly humbled. (2)

This is no feminist book. We are invited to revel in the “lewd” (symbolic) scenes of orgasm in The Lady Eve and not to examine why the overbearing father is presented through self-deprecating slapstick (a specialty of William Demarest) and the heroes either emasculated or presented as comically impossibly innocent (Eddie Bracken and Henry Fonda repeated this role several times [35-40]). Chapter Four, “The Thrill of the Fight”, focuses on Bronte's Villette and Elia Kazan's Streetcar Named Desire. Central to Gilbert's comparison is the idea that Blanche wants Stanley to inflict his brand of (thrilling?) masculine sex on her. We are reminded of how Vivien Leigh as Blanche is intensely sexually allured by the young boy who comes to the apartment and Kazan's actual words (his interpretation of Williams's text) that Blanche's behaviour is fuelled by a genuine wish for suicide is turned (Freudian-style) into an assertion and that we and she experience sexual pleasure because the rape is not presented with its full brutality [125, 136-139].

Analogously Bronte's Lucy Snowe derives pleasure and power because she struggles with inhibition and prohibition [135-136]. Southey's harsh rejection as an editor of a journal of Bronte's Jane Eyre did Bronte good by increasing the “ferocity” of her ”passion” [122]. Gubar and Gilbert's argument that M. Paul represents an “indictment” of “patriarchal demands and conventions” is rejected. Gilbert asserts we enjoy with Lucy M. Paul's “prurient” looking at her [13] and find the novel's final thwarting (we are never told whether M Paul dies or Lucy and he finally get together) “inadvertently stimulating, perversely arousing”. The whole issue of Kazan's conservative biases and his testimony before the HUAC is explicitly slid by [120] and Gilbert concentrates on how Kazan's famous powerful shots have been “creatively energized by the challenge of his having to communicate so many of his important ideas through his camera” [144].

Gilbert's use of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams is emphatic in the chapter on Bronte and Kazan, and her final few pages on Oscar Wilde and Mae West [Postscript]. In these latter in order to argue again how enjoyable and better are censored works of art as such, and that neither Wilde nor West should be perceived as iconic “victims” (a term Gilbert dislikes), Gilbert grounds the appeal of their works on the narrow basis of what played in the theatres in Wilde's lifetime, and his and West's early popularity, fame, and entertainment value. She never tells of Wilde's final wretched end and West's actual experience of life; while not impoverished and not imprisoned for a long time under harsh conditions, West's last acts in public climaxed a pathetically mocked movie of herself again playing a prurient stereotype when she was physically too old for this. (3)  

Social and biographical history plays a part, though, in her book and her strongest chapters. In Chapter Two Gilbert also chooses to compare a relationship she perceives between Wilberforce's Society for the Suppression of Vice and Jane Austen's “evangelicalism” and hidden sexual agendas in her novels with the Production Code's effect on George Cukor's films. She wants us to appreciate that Austen went “outside of her comfort zone” in a didactic open treatment of religious issues in Mansfield Park [59-63], a novel not much appreciated by many of Austen's readers recently; here she shows us how Cukor was criticised and driven from Gone with the Wind because Selznick did not want to make a restrained movie [60]. Cukor's Gaslight is only mentioned a few pages earlier as part of an oeuvre of “womens' films” (made for, pleasing to women [49]); this is one of the book's lost opportunities. Like Mansfield Park, Gaslight is meant to be serious and grave; it is a gothic (Mansfield Park has some gothic elements), with a virtuous heroine at its centre. Unlike Mansfield Park its power is choked off at its close because what is censored out is how vulnerable the heroine is, helpless against the authority of her husband. The fact is that in Gaslight the evil is overcome and redemption for good characters achieved all too easily, before we return to the effective comic character with which we began the movie (Dame May Whitty as a neighbourly-noisy well-meaning lady). Although Gilbert's discussion includes the suppression of harsh violence, this would have been a good instance of a non-sexual censorship in a film, although in the case of Gaslight not so much in favour of censorship as showing its effects.

Gilbert's comparison of Dickens's A Christmas Carol with Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life is her one extended analysis where Gilbert's perspective fully brings out the genuine strength of a book and film and some of the issues at stake. Gilbert attributes the two artists' choice of secular content to the demands of Victorian periodicals and the Hays Code presented as watchdogs preventing any deviation from the explicit Christian myth were anyone daring enough to dramatise it. This enabled them both to make unjust economic arrangements central. There is no reason to believe either commercially-driven man would have chosen such matter. Victorian Christmas stories avoided this and were often semi-realistic ghost stories; no other of Capra's films was Biblically based.

Entitled “Beyond Censorship” [Chapter Three], Gilbert's discussion is a strong defence of Dickens's and Capra's usually uncensored sentimentality and wild excesses [106]; her context includes perspectives like that of James Chandler in his long section in defence and praise of Capra in his The Archeaology of Sympathy : The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema (University of Chicago, 2013) and James Harvey in his Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges (New York: Knopf, 1987). Chandler's book is also made up of comparisons of earlier novels (mostly 18th century) and the earlier- and mid-century popular movies that Gilbert focuses on (screwball, romantic, sentimental). In the case of It's a Wonderful Life, Gilbert does not to accept Harvey's idea the movie has become such a part of American mythology because it expresses deep ideas in American culture. She points out that the counter-factual basis of both tales allows audience to accept their “unrelenting bleakness” [104-107]. She tells the familiar history of how at first audience reaction was tepid if not hostile; it was not until the unexpected consequences of copyright law made It's a Wonderful Life a cheaply available time-filler for repeated TV viewing that the movie reached an audience that at last responded deeply to its hammered-in questioning of the value of George Bailey's exemplary self-sacrifices which she deconstructs.

The value of Gilbert's book is that of Strange Gourmets or (another book she cites), John Maynard's Charlotte Bronte and Sexuality [122]. She brings out however indirectly some of the central issues at stake in the great works of art her book discusses. Arrestingly, she also exposes some intimate tastes and distastes in her particular conservative pushback's uses of the methods of sophisticated criticism. We can watch her re-formulate older arguments, such as John Kucich in Repression in Victorian Fiction where he exposes a “dialectic of repression and expression” [118] in such fiction. In Gilbert's book this is used on behalf of “censoring and distorting” as legitimate “cultural decisions” [118]. She denies that what has been silenced is silenced. My reply is the traditional one that if there has not been silencing this is not because but in spite of censorship. The interest of her book for this reader was to follow the stories of the silencing of her texts in themselves and in her analyses.


(1) E.g., Stanley, Tim . “Speaking in Code”. History Today 64-10 (October 2014) :10-25.


(2) See Sulloway, Alison. “Emma Woodhouse and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”. The Wordsworth Circle 2 (1976) : 320-332.


(3) See Pullen, Kirsten. “Prostitution, Performance and Mae West”. Actresses and Whores : On Stage and in Society. Cambridge: University Press, 2005 :16-21.


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