Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Postman Always Rings Twice - Notes

Here is a sneak peek at the program notes for the last film in our Noir Series this year, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE:

The Postman Always Rings Twice caused a furor when it was originally published in 1934. It was tried for obscenity in Boston and was reviled as having “several disgusting scenes, and the characters are scum,” but Cain was also celebrated as having “developed the hard-boiled manner as a perfect instrument of narration.” It was rumored that this book would be included as part of a “black list” of projects deemed unworthy for the screen, as determined by the Hays Office. The film’s path through censorship is succinctly summarized in the catalog of the American Film Institute:

Material contained in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library provides the following information about the film: In early Feb 1934, before James M. Cain's novel was published, a synopsis of his story was submitted to the PCA by RKO executive Merian C. Cooper. After reviewing the synopsis, the PCA persuaded RKO to abandon its plans to film Cain's story, calling it "definitely unsuitable for motion picture production." Columbia and Warner Bros. also expressed interest in the property, but Warner Bros. quickly rejected the story, "fearful that any attempt to get a screen story out of it would end in disaster." An internal memorandum of the Hays Office dated 9 Mar 1934 indicates that M-G-M production executive Eddie Mannix purchased the rights to the story only "two hours" after the PCA convinced Columbia studio executives to kill their plans to acquire the rights. In the memo, Joseph I. Breen, the Director of the PCA, noted that Columbia and RKO were likely to "set up a squawk the minute they hear Metro has purchased this story, which we persuaded them not to purchase."

The Breen Office made several impassioned pleas to M-G-M to drop their planned film, warning of the dangers of filming a novel that it called "unwholesome and thoroughly objectionable" in its general theme. Breen later elaborated on his objections, stating that many of the story's elements, including "numerous sexual irregularities," the explicit treatment of criminal acts and the "emphasis upon the dishonesty of the lawyers and representatives of the insurance companies," would prevent the film from gaining the PCA's approval. By Apr 1934, M-G-M agreed to abandon the property, and it was shelved for six years. In 1939, a short time after the release of a French version of Cain's story, entitled Le Dernier Tournant , Breen stated in a letter to MPPA treasurer Col. Frederick L. Herron that "you will be glad to know that the film is a fairly complete flop. Very few of the critics liked it and I understand that the public hisses it from time to time. Some of this material might be used in defense of our industry when people over there claim that we make mistakes in refusing to permit certain stories to be filmed."

In early 1940, M-G-M submitted to the PCA a proposed treatment of Cain's novel as outlined by Czechoslovakian director Gustav Machaty and Albert F. Joseph. As indicated in a letter from Breen to Louis B. Mayer, the new treatment did not contain the novel's "adultery or illicit sex," and it would "not be a story about murder." The treatment deviated from the novel in many respects, namely in that no attempt would be made to murder "Nick," that the bathtub scene would be treated as an accident, and that "Frank" and "Cora" would have no guilt in Nick's drunk driving accident. Despite M-G-M's willingness to alter much of Cain's story, Breen wrote Mayer that the material "still continues to be pretty sordid stuff, and questionable from the standpoint of popular entertainment." Machaty and Joseph were not mentioned in conjunction with subsequent versions of the script or story, and the extent of their contribution to the final film has not been determined.

Various treatments and scripts were submitted by M-G-M to the PCA between 1940 and 1945, and in May 1945, the PCA approved a revised temporary script. In an Apr 1946 NYT article, Cain notes that while some "details about sex were omitted," nothing else was changed in the story's adaptation to the screen to win the approval of the PCA. Regional censorship reports contained in the MPAA/PCA file indicate that the film was banned in Indonesia, Switzerland and Spain, and that deletions to the picture were made in other countries.

By the time the film hit the screen, there was little interference from the Hays Office, and the film was not even censured by the Legion of Decency.

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