Hawkeye: I’m outraged! It’s a disgrace. I’ve never seen a cleaner movie in my life.
B.J.: There was more filth and dirt in this morning’s breakfast.
Father Mulcahy: Well, one of the actors did say “virgin.”
Hawkeye: That’s because everyone was.
–M*A*S*H, Season 11, Episode 8: “The Moon is Not Blue”
William Holden has become my favorite actor since I binged seven of his movies for the Marathon Stars Blogathon this past March. I can’t get enough of the guy, so I was thrilled to have an opportunity to participate in this Golden Boy Blogathon dedicated to him. This time, I decided to tackle one of his lesser-known films, and a rather notorious one at that.
I was introduced to The Moon is Blue in March during TCM’s Condemned series, which showcased movies found objectionable by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Condemned by the Legion and released without a Production Code Administration (PCA) seal of approval, The Moon is Blue was the first post-Code movie to use—get your smelling salts ready—the words “virgin,” “mistress,” “seduce,” and “pregnant.” The hoopla the film caused in 1953 is understandable for an era in which onscreen married couples slept in separate twin beds. Still, M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye is right: even with the blunt discussion of sex, the film is rather tame by contemporary standards.
The story begins with successful architect Don Gresham (Holden) and young actress Patty O’Neill (Maggie McNamara) flirting on top of the Empire State Building, where Don works. They’re attracted to each other, and she accepts his invitation to dinner with a stop at his apartment on the way. Don is a playboy, and his intentions are obvious as he tries to get Patty alone with him. But Patty is intent on remaining virtuous until marriage. She makes it clear to Don that she expects “affection but no passion” from him, and he is taken aback by her incessant straightforward talk about male-female relationships and sexuality.
To complicate matters further, while Don slips out to buy groceries, Patty is briefly visited by his ex-fiancée and upstairs neighbor Cynthia Slater (Dawn Addams), who departs in a huff, and Cynthia’s debauched lush of a father, David (David Niven), whom Patty asks to stay for dinner. David is also immediately attracted to Patty, and wants the same things from her as Don, and his manipulative charm just might do the trick (so he thinks). While Don is away appeasing the jealous Cynthia, who broke up with him the night before because he didn’t seduce her, David loses no time in offering Patty a proposal of marriage and a six hundred dollar gift. She rejects his proposal but accepts the money on the condition that she doesn’t see another man for 15 weeks and after ensuring he has no other expectations from her. She gratefully kisses David, shocking Cynthia and Don upon their return. Though Patty tries to explain that she was only thanking David, the upset Don (who meanwhile has rejected Cynthia’s advances) brings up Cynthia’s judgment of Patty as a “professional virgin.” As Patty is getting ready to leave, her policeman father shows up outraged to find his daughter in a bachelor’s apartment. He gives Don a nasty black eye and takes Patty home.
Patty returns to Don’s apartment later that night and demands he explain the meaning of Cynthia’s insult. He angrily tells her that a “professional virgin” is a woman who flaunts her virginity in order to get something. David arrives, Patty returns his six hundred dollars. Though he has fallen in love with her, Don insults her one last time and goes to bed. The next morning, Patty finds Don at the top of the Empire State Building. They kiss and make up, and Patty demands an old-fashioned proposal that includes the word “love.” Don complies, and they kiss again. The End.
The plot may be goofy and contain dated sensibilities, but for a movie made in the early 1950s, it has sharp takes on the double standards when it comes to relationships and sex. Patty bluntly asks Don if he will try to seduce her, presents the notion that men are bored with virgins and aren’t monogamous, and is frank about how it’s ridiculous to assume that women aren’t sexual beings. Don asks Patty, “Why are you so preoccupied with sex?” Patty replies, “Don’t you think it’s better for a girl to be preoccupied with sex than occupied?” Later, David drops another truth bomb when he says of Don, “Now there’s a man who’s hard to please. He gripes when you’re trying to be pure and he gripes when you’re trying to be wanton.”
The lack of inhibition with which sex is discussed is what made the film fall into disfavor with the Legion and the PCA. Not only were taboo words (virgin, mistress, etc.) used casually, but the film’s overall tone was considered questionable. Joseph Breen, head of the PCA, didn’t like that the film inferred that “low forms of sex relationships are accepted as common things.” Plus, a father– a womanizer in his own right– expresses indifference to his own daughter’s moral integrity. To the Legion and the PCA, it didn’t matter that virtue triumphed in the end.
But director Otto Preminger and United Artists had the last laugh. With full knowledge of Breen’s objections Preminger made The Moon is Blue his own way. He appealed Breen’s denial of the Production Code Seal of Approval, but by that time the film had been condemned by the Legion. When the appeal was denied, United Artists quit the PCA’s parent organization, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and distributed the film without the PCA seal, the first time a major studio had done so.
The controversy payed off at the box office: the movie made $4 million domestically and by the end of the year it was the nation’s 15th highest grossing film. The advertising campaign (“The picture everyone is talking about,” “Sensationally Funny — For Adults Only”) helped draw people away from their televisions and into cinemas. In my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, infamous censor Lloyd T. Binford banned the film, but thousands of Memphians simply drove across the Mississippi River into West Memphis, Arkansas to see it.
Although The Moon is Blue is best remembered for the controversy surrounding it, it’s still an amusing film. It’s light and entertaining with smart, snappy dialogue, and the three leads are solid. Maggie McNamara (Patty) is a street-smart Audrey Hepburn. David Niven steals the show with his “weird charm;” his standout scene is a story he tells about his Southern belle ex-wife’s popovers.
And of course, William Holden gives a good performance and sets the right tone for Don with his enticing, yet affable nature. Besides the shared first name, his character reminds me of a less broody version of Mad Men‘s Don Draper. I most enjoyed his scenes with Niven, who, come to think of it, would have made a great Roger Sterling on Mad Men. Holden and Niven play off of each other well and their banter creates some of the funniest moments in the movie. It’s a shame they didn’t make another film together.
The Moon is Blue may not be Holden’s greatest movie, but it’s worth a watch at least once, especially if you’re a fan of his. You can catch it on TCM every once in a while, and it’s also available on DVD.
I wrote this post for The Wonderful World of Cinema’s Golden Boy Blogathon, honoring what would have been William Holden’s 98th birthday (April 17). Click the banner below to read all the entries.
Black, Gregory D. The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940-1975. 1998.
Leff, Leonard J. and Simmons, Jerold L. The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code. 2001.