I just saw a new documentary called Thou Shalt Not on Turner Classic Movies. It's an account of the "pre-code" era in Hollywood, roughly from 1929-34, when movies expressed a frankness about sexual matters that wouldn't be heard again for another 30 years. That doesn't mean nudity (though there were bare-breasted maidens in the silent Ben-Hur) or profanity (though a Warner Bros. cartoon character appears to throw an F-bomb in a black-&-white short). It does mean frankness in acknowledging sex as a factor in everyday life, and admitting that sex could be used for social climbing and other unwholesome purposes. It means acknowledging the existence of homosexuals, even if they were mostly figures for ridicule.
This type of moviemaking flourished as the Great Depression set in, and the documentary suggests that it faded out once the New Deal got going and gave people a feeling of optimism. That got me thinking that you could see a similar pattern in the 1970s. The '70s were also a period of widespread pessimism and, in the latter part of the decade, economic decline. In both periods, you see a franker exploration of sexual issues, albeit more explicit in the '70s. I think this is because audiences were more interested in seeing how other people survived, with sex often becoming a survival strategy. In circumstances like those, people seemed more tolerant of truth than they would be later.
Thou Shalt Not notes the decisive role of American Catholics in suppressing the sex impulse in 1930s cinema. I don't think the Moral Majority played the same role in the 1980s, but you do see a decline in sexual frankness in Reagan-era cinema, so that a film that might have earned a PG rating in the '70s would probably get an R today. While there wasn't a moral crusade that I can recall (that arguably came later when Blockbuster Video refused to carry more explicit films), we should recall that the Reagan era was defined by its alleged optimism. If the documentary is right, it seems that audiences have a greater appetite for escapism under more optimistic conditions than under harder times. We shouldn't draw a sharp distinction here, since there was plenty of escapist content in pre-code or '70s cinema, but there are clear differences in the way the content is presented. Compare the stupendous woman-piles of the Busby Berkeley musicals, for instance, with The Wizard of Oz.
I note the Catholic influence in passing as another bad mark on the faith's record during the 1930s. Catholicism seems to have been a malevolent force in that decade, counting the influence of Father Coughlin, the anti-semitic radio priest, and widespread Catholic support for Franco's fascism in Spain. You could understand why Rev. Hagee might fear Catholics, if only he appealed to history instead of theology. Even today, you get the feeling that William Donohue of the Catholic League, currently directing his fury at Hagee, would like to exercise the same censorious power over movies that his co-religionist Joseph Breen did back in the '30s and '40s.
We shouldn't dismiss the movies made between 1934 and 1968 as somehow neutered. Genius and talent will achieve expression under almost any constraint, and these were the years that gave us Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, the whole film noir canon, and much more besides. But something clearly went wrong, and something clearly was lost. What happened was the imposition of ideology on American movies, just like the enforcement of "socialist realism" on Russian cinema and Nazi strictures on German films. Breen and other hardcore Catholics, as well as their Protestant allies, wanted Hollywood to reject realism in favor of an idealized worldview in which evil was always punished, sexual deviancy was always condemned if it couldn't be ignored, and traditional authority was nearly always confirmed. This development is worth emphasizing. If we agree that part of the problem with the country today is that too many people have an ideological way of seeing things, and an almost reflexive denial of certain realities, we might also agree that many of them learned that way of thinking from the movies they saw -- on the big screen or on TV, a medium that succumbed to the same ideology in its early decades. Who knows if America might be a different nation today if our movies hadn't been subverted by moralistic ideologues over seventy years ago?