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Projections Movie Blog


‘Better Left Unsaid’ finds creative benefits in two eras’ censorship codes

Dennis King Published: June 3, 2013

What does William Makepeace Thackeray’s satirical Victorian-era novel “Vanity Fair” have in common with writer-director Preston Sturges’ 1941 screwball comedy “The Lady Eve?”

In the seemingly counter-intuitive thesis presented in “Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films, and the Benefits of Censorship” (Stanford University Press, $60), author Nora Gilbert argues that both works were made better by the restrictions of their era’s censorship codes.

It’s a fascinating premise that Gilbert presents with insightful scholarship, some sharply startling insights and a lucid, engaging writing style. Indeed, hers is that rare scholarly book that’s also quite entertaining to read.

While most criticism of Victorian literature equates England’s censorship process with fostering an atmosphere of prudery and repression, the strictures imposed on novelists paradoxically encouraged a deeper, richer if more slyly tangential examination of issues relating to sex, feminism, politics and other taboo topics.

So too, Hollywood’s puritanical Production Code of 1930, aimed a cleaning up the movies of a rampant sexual frankness in previous years and making cinema safe for family viewing, helped spawn a slyly subversive impulse in filmmakers that led to the flowering of genres such as screwball comedies and film noir. If filmmakers couldn’t be explicit in their depictions of the battle of the sexes or the deadly demons in men’s souls, then they would find a way around the censor’s knife with innuendo, double entendre and other fairly sophisticated tactics.

Gilbert takes a shrewd and imaginative path in pairing the two unlikely eras and comparing and contrasting the resulting reactions to censorship restrictions. In both corseted Victorian England and in libertine Hollywood, the author finds wellsprings of artistic freedom that allowed artists to co-opt the very forces that were put in place to restrain them and to use censorship to turn our notions of repression and expression upside down.

Gilbert, an Assistant Professor of English at North Texas State University, has produced a smart, witty and irreverent work of off-track scholarship here that should fire the imaginations of film buffs and avid lit fans alike. And artists – those natural-born subversives always pushing the bounds of society’s rules – should applaud this book.

- Dennis King