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By Patrick Mondout
  Facts and Figures
1970 MPAA Ratings Guide

G for General Audiences, all ages admitted

M for mature audiences - parental guidance suggested, but all ages admitted*

R for Restricted, children under 16 would not be admitted without an accompanying parent or adult guardian; (later raised to under 17 years of age, (and varies in some jurisdictions))

X for no one under 17 admitted*

* No longer used

The movie ratings systems have always been controversial. How much sex or violence is too much? When is it art and when is it trash? And who decides? A understanding of how the MPAA ratings systems came about requires a little pre-70s history.

The Early Days

In the first two decades of the movie industry, films were largely self-regulated. And as depicted in Titanic, actors and other film people were not viewed in the most positive light. This wild-west atmosphere led to, among other things, a movie being legal in one state but banned in another.

By the early 1920s, several Hollywood scandals led to an outcry for the government to do something about the "declining moral standards." Among these scandals was the 1921 trial of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, a silent movie star. When an actress died at a party attended by him, Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter. Rumors circulated that overweight actor killed accidentally killed her while raping her. The first two trials ended with deadlocked juries but the third acquitted Arbuckle.

With the potential for legislation that would regulate the industry on the horizon, the movie moguls did what they always do: They formed a group to self-regulate the industry then make contributions to various politicians to get them lined up behind it. As usual it worked. The studios hired respected Postmaster General Will Hays to run the Motion Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (which later became the MPAA).

It soon became clear that it was little more than a public relations ploy as all the gangster movies of the period attest. The new code was both ignored and not enforced. Catholic groups in particular were outraged by the lack of enforcement. This led to a new and improved Hays: In 1930 the Hays Office adopted the Motion Picture Production Code, a detailed description of what was morally acceptable on the screen. This too was rarely enforced. Finally, the continued tide of sensationalistic movies and the sultry comedies of Mae West in particular let to changes at the Hays office that at last allowed it to sanction the studios when it saw fit. Now there was a $25,000 fine waiting for anyone showing a film without the group's seal of approval. Movies changed overnight from the jazzy, earthy movies that typified the early 30s to the genteel, wholesome movies that were the rule until the mid 60s. What subjects were off-limits? Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or silhouette, ridicule of the clergy (ridicule of scientists was allowed), miscegenation, white slavery (showing non-whites as slaves was allowed), homosexuality, adultery, and childbirth. In short, the vast majority of the most memorable parts of life were off-limits.

The Radical 60s

By the 1960s, it was clear that the code was hopelessly outdated and out of step with the sexual mores of the time. This coupled with the fact that movies - which had long had little real competition - were now forced to compete with that great 20th century invention television, caused the industry to back off its self-imposed code.

In 1966, director Mike Nichols faced the challenge of bringing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the big screen. Writers and directors had always had difficulty converting great works of literature into films and staying within the code's guidelines but doing so with this work rendering the work meaningless seemed an impossible task. So Nichols filmed the work as he saw fit and released it with the now familiar caution: "No one under 18 admitted without parent."

At the same time, Jack Valenti, a former adviser to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, took over at the MPAA and began dismantling the code which he said was pure censorship. (He has been a mouthpiece for the industry every since. Every time some extremist group screams that Hollywood has gone too far and that the government should do something about it (it is interesting to note that these are almost always right-wing groups who generally believe in less government regulation), Mr. Valenti goes to Washington to convince his fellow millionaires that Hollywood can self-regulate. After a few million in campaign donations are dished out by lobbyists, Valenti is sent back home to a hero's welcome in Hollywood.)

The horse was out of the barn when Sam Peckinpah's blood-thirsty western The Wild Bunch was released along with films like Bonnie and Clyde and A Clockwork Orange. Americans saw in movies what they had never been allowed to see before. (In England citizens were not legally allowed to see A Clockwork Orange until 1999 - 28 years after its release!)

Under increasing pressure from the studios - who wanted to get younger kids in to see many of what were then 'R' rated films - the MPAA split the PG category into two groupings, PG and PG-13 effective July 1, 1984.

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