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How the Hays Code Brought Us the Sensational Screen Kiss

Public Domain

William F. Greene - published on 04/16/16

Sometimes restrictions serve to bring out our creativity in startling and memorable ways

There was a time in the early years of motion pictures when a kiss was the ultimate expression of love. Anything beyond a brush of the lips was left to the imagination, and love scenes were actually more potent because of it.

In the 1930s a strict code dictated to directors and writers the lines of demarcation between what was permissible, not only for lovemaking, but also for vulgarity and other delicate themes. Though marked in part by what was considered backward in the era [i.e., miscegenation – ed], there is something to be said for some elements of the Hays Code. Its strictness forced producers to use their imaginations.

No one was better at the use of imagination than the Catholic director Alfred Hitchcock. In Notorious Hitchcock wanted to film an extended kissing scene between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. According to the code, kisses could only last three seconds. Hitchcock came up with an ingenious idea: have the lovers kiss, stop, say a few words, kiss again, walk a little bit and then kiss again until they get on the other side of the room. It was one of the sexiest that Hitchcock ever directed.

enter lisa

In Hitchcock’s masterpiece Rear Window there is a breathtaking where James Stewart is lying down on his balcony seemingly alone, and we see a shadow, and then we see the glorious face of Grace Kelly twice. Then in slow motion Grace Kelly’s face appears in the frame and gently kisses him on the mouth. I saw this film in rerelease 15 years ago, and I can remember it as if I saw it yesterday.

Ten years later Hitchcock made another masterpiece called Marnie. This film has one of the most sensual kisses ever . In her boss’ office, Marni (Tippi Hedren) is typing a document. Suddenly a thunderstorm erupts. She is deathly afraid of thunderstorms. She gets up from her desk and cowers in a corner, saying, “Stop the colors.” Sean Connery playing her boss comes to her and says, “What colors?” Already deeply in love with her and seeing her fear, he goes to her and holds her, and a tree crashes through the window on the other side of the room. She runs to the wall, and as the camera crops to just their faces, he kisses her tenderly. Hedren later remarked the camera was literally a foot and a half away.

The greatest tribute to the beauty of the kiss is undoubtedly Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, released in 1988 and the Academy Award-winner for best foreign language feature. It is a touching story taking place in a small town in Italy about a movie projectionist in the town’s only theater who takes a liking to a small boy who is enchanted with the magic of movies. He teaches the boy all the ins and outs of how to be a projectionist, and as he gets older grooms him for a career in the movies.

The town priest had made a rule that all the kissing scenes in the movies had to be excised. Years later, when the boy is a famous movie director living in Rome, he gets word that their projectionist has died. Not having been in his hometown for many years he goes back and is told that the projectionist had left him a can of film. When he gets back to Rome he runs the film and to his astonishment, his mentor had edited all the excised kissing scenes together into one gloriously beautiful montage. As he watches this film unfold he begins slowly to get tears in his eyes he is so moved. And I have to admit so was I.

[Editor’s Note: Cinema Paradiso MPAA rating: R, PG]

William Greenehas been working as a nurse for 25  years, with 15 of those years in the field of psychiatric nursing. On Sunday, April 3, he experienced the biggest joy of his life — he became Catholic. He writes from Atlanta, Georgia.
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