Time for a lesson in Film History. I know you all must be dying to hear about it, but, well, here you go. Its another article I wrote for the Rambler.
Rating Films: A History
By Matthew Rose
When one goes to the movies, one of the first things looked at is the movie’s rating, not merely the star rating (scaled 1 to 4), but rather the MPAA, the Motion Picture Association of America, and its rating system. You are all familiar with it: G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. What many people do not know is that the current rating system is a recent development. The history of movie ratings, however, traces back to the early years of film.
The first major films, appearing in the early twentieth century, were different than the movies we watch today. For one thing they lacked sound. The technology for recording sound, such as music and dialogue, along with picture would not come about until later. There was also a difference in content. Many of the old silent films are rather racy, and graphic nudity is frequent. It was not until the 1920s or so that the movie industry cracked down on film content. Scattered protests of particularly immoral films were often held, but nothing universal.
Then came the Legion of Decency. The Legion was founded in 1933, when “talkies,” the name given to talking movies, had already become popular. It was a Catholic response to immorality found in movies, as well as an organized support for the recently founded Production Code (aka the Hays Code) put out by Hollywood in response to complaints of the immorality in movies. These two reactions led to the original rating system. Movies were labeled A) “Morally unobjectionable,” B) “Morally objectionable in part”, or C) “Condemned” by the Legion of Decency. During the ‘30s and ‘40s, many films that received a C rating were either not released or, if they were released, did poorly in theaters.
Then came the 1960s. Looking at a list of movies condemned by the Legion of Decency in the ‘60s, one recognizes several titles: Kiss Me Stupid; From Russia With Love; Torn Curtain; and others. Movies were not passing the Legion of Decency, yet were popular at the box office. The rating system was about to undergo another change, separating itself from the Legion. The Legion, however, did not disappear; it became the USCCB movie rating office.
The year was 1968. The head honchos at the MPAA decided a new rating system should be created. They created the following four-pronged rating system: G (general audiences); M (mature audiences, parental guidance suggested for children); R (children under 16, later 17, not admitted without an adult); and X (no one under 17 admitted). These ratings soon changed slightly when the M became GP (later PG). The ratings remained unchanged until the 1980s, when the PG-13 rating appeared, courtesy of Steven Spielberg, his film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and another film, Gremlins. Spielberg pushed for a separate rating for films like Gremlins which were too intense for little children, but not bad for older ones. Because of this, the PG-13 rating is nicknamed the “Spielberg rating.”
The ratings would undergo another change in 1990. To quote the MPAA website, “the X rating over the years appeared to have taken on a surly meaning in the minds of many people, something that was never intended when the system was created.” In order to distinguish their rating of X from certain other “surly” films, the MPAA created the NC-17 rating.
The rating system has come a long way from its early beginnings. As we proceed into the new millennium, one wonders what could be in store for cinema and the film rating system. Whatever comes, at least we will know the rating system’s history.