Censorship, The Gangster Genre and Film Noir in Hollywood & American Film

Co-authored by: Christie Bednarz, Megan Banning & Scott Ceurvels


Throughout American history, genre has played a crucial role in the progression of the film industry. The gangster genre grew in popularity throughout the 1930’s.  Due to genre’s alarming popularity, many censorship boards felt the pressure to regulate the content broadcasted in the gangster style.  Outside social influences such as the Great Depression and the Post-Prohibition era caused community unrest with new values and morals.  The bitter honesty associated with the gangster genre instilled fear among many of the censorship boards, which caused the dire need for stricter and more unified censorship fronts.  As time continued and the gangster film faced harsher regulations, other sub genres inspired by the gangster film, such as film noir, budded in the film industry. Film noir in particular incorporated similar components of displaced feelings regarding the societal aftermath following World War II, as well as other opinions about social commentary, and both exhibit similar visual styles. The gangster film had already gained a foothold in society; however, due to the increasing censorship, was forced to branch out, ultimately creating and popularizing film noir. This paper will explore the disorganization and chaos of pre code Hollywood, situating and explaining the problems within the popular 1932 film, Scarface. Following this, there will be an analysis of how the gangster film transitioned into film noir, which will be done first by understanding the post code era. Once this era has been explained, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) will be used to further demonstrate the transition from gangster to noir, and how censorship caused this alteration. The final goal of this paper is to connect all of the information presented in order to show the censorship of the gangster genre ultimately led to the short lived popularity of film noir.


From 1930 to 1934, Hollywood was largely recognized to be in what is known as the pre-code era. As the transition to sound cinema was made, the content of films quickly became more sophisticated. There were no limitations on what could be produced, distributed, or exhibited, so studios largely did whatever it was they wanted (Doherty 400). With the combination of a heightened depth in content and lack of censorship within these films, cinema quickly became more complex and often very suggestive. Scandals became common in the industry, making the once glamorous Hollywood seem to stoop below it’s standard. The impact of these scandals, as well as the negative ideas being formed surrounding Hollywood, made it clear there needed to be more attention paid to the content being released for the public to view.

During the early 1930’s, it became apparent censorship in film was going to be necessary, however, there was no organized form of censorship in existence. Local censorship boards started to pop up around the country, but these boards proved problematic for many studios. As a film was released, some of these local boards would allow the film to be shown, and many others would not. This often depended on where in the world they were, as some of the boards were more conservative, while some were very liberal. The rules and regulations each of these boards set forth varied vastly, which is why it was difficult for a film to be approved and released around the country. This struggle, and enormous variety in censorship rules, emphasized the need for one universal code.

As an attempt to alleviate the stress of having many codes, one overarching code was created. This first attempt at a wide form of censorship was known as William Hay’s Do’s and Don’ts. This was a list of things, for lack of better words, describing what you could and could not do or show in a film. Also called the Hays Code, the Do’s and Dont’s was a universal form of censorship, though it lacked any official backing. Due to the lack of support, the studios would very rarely follow these rules, and would do anything possible to maneuver around them. Forms of self censorship were adopted by many studios. Though this form of censorship was often more uniform and reliable, it also provided a number of loopholes in which the studios would take advantage of. Since the studios themselves were responsible for deciding whether or not a film fit the criteria needed to pass the regulations put in place, they would often do so based on personal connections rather than actual content. This means studios would approve one another’s films despite their content, as they knew they would get the same treatment in return. To combat this behavior, censorship had to continue to evolve. The form of regulation in place made it very difficult for a fair form of censorship to be enforced. Due to the practices of the current system being unfair, and ultimately failing to follow any code, further action was taken.

Following the failure of the Hays Code, the MPPDA (now Motion Picture Association of America) already had rules in place. These rules were created in hopes of cleaning up Hollywood, and making it look better in the public eye (Lewis 117). Though these rules had been in place since 1930, in 1934 it became clear they needed to be more strict, and more regularly enforced. At this point, the MPPDA formed the Production Code Administration, and assigned them to oversee the production of movies in Hollywood. Joseph Breen took control and transitioned the code into the PCA, or the Production Code Administration. With the introduction of the PCA, there was a hope to avoid government censorship, and to keep control within the industry. At this point, the code began to become effective, as it was required for films to receive a PCA stamp of approval before it was allowed to be exhibited. Now, with the existence of a universal code enforcing regulation in the industry, it was much more difficult to work around the rules set in place. Since there was no longer a worry of whether or not a film followed the regulations, since they more or less had to, local censorship boards became insignificant.

As censorship became more and more apparent, genre also continued to evolve. The gangster film became very popular in modern North American culture, and it also challenged the rules the PCA had set forth. The government and censorship boards held the concern these films were “demonstrating the fear of mass culture provoking delinquent behavior” (Springhall 1998). Although not the direct reason for forming or enforcing censorship, this was a concern responsible for considerations of further censorship. The influence film had on people’s actions became a major topic of concern, especially when violence became commonplace in cinema. The gangster genre was a step toward a darker thematic inclusion within the entertainment world, which called for more attention to be brought to the little details within the new media.

In the midst of the transition toward a more censored film industry, Scarface (1932) was created. The film fell under the category of a gangster, which at the time was a widely popular genre in Hollywood. The film was shot over a three month period, during the same time the famous film The Public Enemy (1931) was being shot. Though the production of the film went smoothly, problems began to emerge in post-production and beyond. With a rapidly changing censorship code, the film had to adapt quickly in order to meet the industry standards, as they were becoming less and less malleable.



In 1932, after a long struggle with the Hays code, Scarface was released. Recognized as one of the most notorious gangster films of it’s era, Scarface is a film with heavy significance. The Hays code, however, had not yet transitioned into the PCA, meaning it had not been made mandatory by the industry. Although the film’s audience may have been smaller than if it had received a stamp of approval from Hays, there was nothing requiring it to do so. Scarface was filmed and edited at the same time as the famous noir film The Public Enemy (1931), but due to the extensive battle over censorship, it was not released until a full year after the aforementioned. With no one particular board being in control of censorship, there was a considerable variety of local censorship occurring around the country. With the controversial material discussed in Scarface, censorship boards in both New York and Chicago refused to show the film until a list of changes were made.

Following the murder of a gang leader in the south side of Chicago, Scarface shows Johnny taking over and takes lead of one of Chicago’s most notorious gangs. Having hired Tony to commit this crime, Johnny quickly took him under his arm as second in command. Tony quickly gets caught up in his position of power, and spirals out of control. As he goes on an extreme and violent crime spree, Tony finds himself dragging himself down to his own demise, eventually leading to his death. Although the film focuses on the actions of these two gangsters, the ending makes the modern day (1932) thoughts on these individuals very clear. There is only false success associated with the two men, and it is shown how poorly the lives they’d lived affected them.

Though the presence, and even use of guns is undeniable throughout the film, they are also somewhat delicate around the subject. One major focus of censorship was guns and violence, and Scarface was not shy to heavily invite controversy surrounding these subjects, potentially provoking further censorship, but also forcing the public to deal with otherwise hidden issues. For the majority of the film, guns are not seen being fired. The action is implied through off-screen sound, however, it is not until some of the film’s later scenes when the firing of the guns is actually seen. At the time, censorship laws required murder of another human being be kept to a minimum on screen, so when possible, death was alluded to rather than shown (Prince 302). Scarface exhibited a total of 28 deaths, and also was the first film demonstrating the use of a machine gun. Though the film eventually did alter its content in order to gain approval to be screened in New York and Chicago, it still pushed the envelope when it came to violence.

The initial version of Scarface was first completed in September of 1931; however, the film was accused of glorifying the ‘gangster’ persona. This was a fatal moment for the film, and a turning point for the genre. With this issue being presented, many denied the film from being shown. After the failure to achieve censorship approval, the film’s ending was reworked. The initial ending showed Tony, one of the gangsters, escaping from the police. This was an essential fragment of the narrative; however, it was deemed inappropriate as it showed success and glorification of a lifestyle widely disapproved of in American society. The directors then proceeded to create a couple of additional alternate endings in which Tony is caught and ends up dying, however, even these versions failed to pass the censorship rules. In 1932, the first version of the film was released with a warning at the beginning of the film. Though several scenes, and a lot of vulgarity had been removed from the film, the initial ending stood firm.

The gangster genre is a clear step in the direction towards darker, more psychologically driven films. With criminals being presented as a form of entertainment, there is an undeniable correlation between the content of the gangster genre and the content the up and coming film noir genre held. Due to the increasingly strict censorship of films, however, “studios cut back significantly on the production of films that fit the popular Scarface formula” (Lewis 123). Scarface had very dark themes, both psychologically (in content) and aesthetically (in appearance). These themes are very much the basis of film noir, which appears to be an extension of the gangster genre as a reaction to the modernized code.

Although Scarface was released almost 10 years before the US’ involvement in World War II, it contained elements very much inspired by German Expressionism. Such elements, such as chiaroscuro lighting, were introduced through this film, and worked to further inspire the emergence of film noir as a separate genre. Not only were the thematic elements, such as greed, lust and murder, very similar to the two genres, but the aesthetic relationship also furthered their connection. Film noir gained popularity in the early 1940’s and was marked by elements of the gangster genre, however, often held more complexity within its narrative (Lev 382). The influence of each type film was different, though only due to the time at which each genre was popular. The gangster genre faced many obstacles in the mid to late 30’s, which caused the emergence of film noir in it’s place, which would prove to later have preserved the gangster genre.

Scarface worked as a catalyst for censorship laws, as it presented many controversial themes and issues. However, Scarface also helps to show how malleable the industry can be, and how quickly these laws can change. Looking forward as far as 1983, Scarface has been remade. The new version of the film is an entire hour longer, contains a substantial amount of vulgarity (both in language and in actions), as well as the three scenes originally required to be deleted in its preceder. With such extensive changes, it is clear no single code can be timeless. The censorship emerging from the pre code era, particularly surrounding Scarface, shows censorship must be altered frequently, as social ideas and constructs do not remain the same for long.



The Production Code Administration’s power could not last. From the moment it was created, filmmakers across America began challenging it and fighting its restrictions. Both politically and creatively, protests were made to express more complex and edgy topics in movies. Writers would water down scripts, leaving out information about a promiscuous character’s description, or omitting details about a sketchy situation, only to play it out on screen as the writer intended – with the PCA’s unknowing approval. Filmmakers’ daring decisions, partnered with the general downfall of the studio system, led to the decline of the code.

By 1950, Hollywood hit a wall. The movie industry had, up to this point, been under the dominance of the studio system. The design of the system allowed for pumping out as many films as possible in a short span of time in order to meet audience demands. However, multiple facets created hurdles for the industry. One complication was the Paramount Decree of 1948, which ended the vertical integration set up of the studio system in order to break up the monopolies consisting of the major studios. This was a blow financially to the Hollywood studio system.

Seeing the complications with the code, as well as the outside forces causing decline in movie goers, a group of new filmmakers such as Otto Preminger, Edward Dmytryk, and Fritz Lang appear on the scene, prepared to challenge the status quo. In 1953, Preminger challenged the production code by using daring diction, such as ‘virgin’ and ‘seduce,’ (Mayer 314). His film was denied by the PCA, so he turned to the independent studio, United Artists. Rather than paying a fine to allow for the release of his film, United Artists separated themselves from the MPAA and released it themselves. This was a huge turning point in film history because of the blatant disregard for the code. When the dominating factor is questioned or ignored, its power is weakened. Later, in 1956, additional studios were inspired to raise problems with the PCA and fight the code placed against them and their art, further demeaning the organization in power. Also during this time, a series of court cases undermining the authority of the local censorship boards began to sprout. Another victory for the filmmakers arrived in 1957 with the ban of on screen nudity, spawning an explicit wave of various films.

Another complication was the general decline of movie goers. Beginning in the late 1940’s, the United States saw a population shift from cities to suburbs. At the same time, the invention of the television allowed American families to watch an average of five hours from the comfort of their homes. Less people were attending theaters, and the industry saw a 78% decline of cinema goers over a span of seventeen years. Viewers found the new material created specifically for television more engaging than the films in theaters, which were beginning to feel stale in comparison. Televisions could also show the ‘second run’ of films previously shown in theaters, and also had made-for-TV movies by 1956, resulting in more Americans viewing films in the alternative medium.

To attempt to draw viewers back to theaters, filmmakers in the 1950’s began to push for films designed for specific demographics. Thus, the exploitation genre was born. Films such as “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) were aimed towards young adult audiences, attempting to explore topics related to youth and adolescence. New technological advances were additionally employed, such as technicolor and widescreen technology, which offered more information than a small, black and white television could. This became a device to bribe audiences to see the film in theaters rather than on their televisions.

In 1966, MPAA saw a new president, Jack Valenti, who was hired to attempt to draw audiences back to the theaters, as well as modernize the PCA. He attempted to employ self regulation of production companies to enable more mature content on screen by giving them a different rating. Films during the Postcode Era explored more explicit themes and concepts than Precode films ever did. Open sexuality, violence, civil disobedience, drug use, mental illness, and other daringly dark themes were present in almost every film beginning in the 1950’s. American society saw a shift in what is taboo and what is not during the 40’s and 50’s, and what were once considered raunchy themes were now things to be explored. Adult-oriented dramas began to play out on screens with more mature content than ever before.  By 1968, 60% of films were made with mature audiences in mind.



The gangster genre, also known as the crime drama, was extremely popular in the 1930’s. The genre explores instabilities of characters as a direct product of the Great Depression and World War II. Gangster films were a way of appealing to the lower and middle classes in the United States by showing the underdog succeeding – the gangster earns his way from rags to riches. Upward class mobility appeals to every American past and present, so the gangster film is a hit with every audience. However, because of the strict censorship rules, the gangster must return to rags at the end of the film, so not to suggest a life of crime is a good life.

Although the film follows the life of the gangster, the gangster is the ‘bad guy,’ while law enforcement is glamorized to portray the ‘good guy.’ Again, due to the Hays Production code, the gangster film must show the audience a life of crime is ultimately not a successful life, while following the law and obeying the governing forces will allow you to prosper. The cop will always win in a gangster film. Violent or sexually suggestive actions are never shown on screen. An example of this can be seen in The Public Enemy (1931) when the viewer hears the gunshot off screen, then sees the hand of the officer on the ground. These two juxtaposed images suggest the officer has been murdered by the gangster, who is ultimately punished at the end of the film through the death of his brother. The gangster must always fall.

The role of the woman in the gangster drama is to be a passive supporter of the lead character, the gangster. She tends not to have many lines and is seen as an object belonging to the gangster. The woman appears as a mother, a sister, or a lover, but not a friend to the gangster. Any woman who acts as a friend towards the gangster will fall in love with him by the end of the movie, due to his excretion of pure masculinity and success, despite his inevitable downfall.

Comparatively, film noir consists mostly of commentaries or character studies. They tend to focus less on violence for the sake of violence, and more on the transition of a character. The character evolves from one state to another by the end of the film. Violence may be a part of their transition, but it is not the main focus. The main character is presented as a victim of war, whether it be a real war or a traumatic event in their life. Its visual style is influenced by German Expressionism, so chiaroscuro lighting is often used for dramatic effect and narrative implications. Film noir tends to explore dark themes such as entrapment, psychopathology, greed, lust, and betrayal, which is another ideological aspect borrowed from German Expressionism.

In film noir, women are more than objects. They are given agency as the lead role, and even as a supporting character, often have multiple layers. They can play the sister, the mother, the neighbor, or the friend, and be key to the narrative at the same time. Film noir births the idea of the femme fatale, who is a representative of a goal oriented, beautiful, and deadly woman with agency.

Due to restrictions from censorship codes, the gangster film was forced to evolve from its state in the 1930’s. In order to continue exploring dark themes, filmmakers had to find a way to use metaphors or allusions and skirt around the censorship codes. Audiences after World War II were also beginning to become more educated, with many men going to college and women also pursuing higher education. Gangster films offered intense action and an underdog to root for, which is exciting, but film noir offered psychological engagement and complex characters audiences could relate to.  

The shift in American mood across the country to anxieties preceding and following World War II called for a psychological shift in the films produced. Mental illness, domestic abuse, and other themes previously considered taboo were explored through film, albeit not always directly due to continued censorship. Allusions to psychological states of mind can be examined through set design, lighting, cinematography, sound, and editing. Filmmakers and writers in the film noir period were able to experiment with visual elements, creating a stir amongst audiences. The key element of film noir is the encapturement of the values and anxieties of America in the 1950s and 60s- audiences were seeing struggles they were also experiencing and characters who looked and sounded like them.

Today, film noir is no longer as prevalent as it once was. Several scholars have argued film noir captures the essence of the 1950’s in America. The cumulation of the ideas portrayed in the films and the creativity employed to skirt around the censorship laws allow the gangster genre to live on through film noir.  However, film noir died out by the end of the 1950’s because of yet another shift in censorship regulations. When the new rating system replaced the PCA, the gangster genre reemerged as a popular genre in American society.


Tennessee Williams’ original play, A Streetcar Named Desire, explores dark, intense themes such as domestic violence, mental illness, and rape. Elia Kazan brought Williams’ play to the screens in 1951 after a long a long struggle with the PCA. Because of the dark themes explored, the PCA was reluctant to approve a screenplay until the majority of the key moments had been rewritten, despite their relevance to the plot and character development.

The film A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) examines the mentally ill, anxious character Blanche as she visits her sister, Stella, in Louisiana. Stella’s husband, Stanley, hates Blanche and her ticks, and this becomes a conflict in the film. It is revealed in the play Blanche began experiencing her mental decline after the suicide of her late husband, after she found him with his male lover. However, in the film, the viewer only knows her husband committed suicide, not the reason why. Blanche’s short lived relationship with Mitch reveals she has been searching for her husband in every man she has been with, leading the viewer to learn she has been sexually promiscuous. Stanley later learns Blanche has been lying about several aspects of her life, which leads to him assaulting her. In the play, Stanley rapes Blanche. In the film, he physically assaults her, but it is only Blanche’s allusion.

Although the film does make reference to Blanche’s promiscuity during her stay at the Flamingo Hotel, it holds back during the scene where Blanche kisses the paperboy. The film makes it seem like an innocent kiss, but in the play, Williams uses the kiss to portray Blanche’s history of sexual promiscuity. In the play, Blanche makes a comment about needing to keep her hands off of children, which implies she has been with younger men before this moment. This line is key to defining Blanche’s character and efforts to find love in the arms of younger men, but it is cut from the film due to censorship regulations. Any mention of promiscuity is forbidden from films under these regulations because of the United States’ obsession with purity, and the PCA worried discussing promiscuity would in fact encourage it. Instead of admitting her sexuality, the film merely portrays her as a whimsical romantic.

When Blanche tells Mitch about her late husband in the film, she completely avoids his homosexuality and implies the reason for his suicide was his unhappiness in the marriage. In the play, she tells Mitch she found him to be a tender, soft, effeminate man, but in the film the ‘soft, effeminate’ descriptions are cut out due to implications of homosexuality. Williams’ play tells the story of Blanche finding him with his male lover, and he shoots himself because she calls him disgusting for it. However in the film, she implies when he was crying at night, it was due to his unhappiness being married to her. His suicide, according to the film, is due to her calling him weak for crying. Again, the regulations did not allow this conversation to be replicated exactly from the play due to the explicit implication of homosexuality. Losing this line completely alters Blanche’s backstory and why she feels the need to validate her worth in the arms of other men, since she felt she was not good enough for her husband, whose sexuality made her unattractive to him. His death is the start of her mental decline, and understanding the real reason he committed suicide changes how Blanche feels about herself and how the viewer understands her.

Lastly, Stanley’s raping of Blanche is completely ommitted from the film. Although the lines are followed almost exactly to the play, there is one line cut, “We’ve had this date from the start,” (Williams) which was cut so not to imply Blanche brought the rape upon herself or wanted the rape to happen. Additionally, at the end of the scene in the play, Stanley carries Blanche to the bed to imply the rape is happening. However in the film, the rape is made out to be an assault, and an illusion in Blanche’s mind. The slightest suggestion of rape is completely lost.

Blanche’s mental illness is explored through her eccentric clothing, low-key lighting, and through stylized acting. There is never an explicit mention of Blanche’s struggle with her mental illnesses, but it is implied through her jerky, spastic motions during her anxiety attacks, and the shadows covering her face throughout the scenes also allude to her attempting to hide her illness from Stella and Stanley. Despite no real dialogue discussing Blanche’s mental state due to the censorship regulations, the viewer can pick up she is ill through these cues. Even at the end of the film when Blanche is taken away to the mental institution, the doctor who comes to take her is never introduced as a doctor at all. It is simply implied through his dress and demeanor because censorship regulations do not allow for the suggestion of mental illness.

Several important facts about Blanche’s character in Williams’ play are still featured in Kazan’s film through chiaroscuro lighting, set design, cinematography, or acting. However, much is lost regarding the real reason behind Blanche’s declining mental state, the domestic abuse in Stella and Stanley’s relationship, and the rape Blanche endures due to the censorship laws in place. Had there not been censorship on this film, the viewer would learn more about Blanche and the reason she is in her current state, as well as gain more information about Stella and Stanley. The true adult nature of A Streetcar Named Desire had to be watered down, which ultimately resulted in a much less powerful film.



The gangster genre, one of the most popular genres of the 1930’s, follows the rise and fall of the gangster. This genre fares well with lower and middle class Americans during the 30’s because the American Dream implies upward mobility is in reach. The viewers of the gangster films watch because they enjoy seeing the underdog come out on top. However, at the end of the film, the gangster must fall again due to the intense censorship regulations in place during this time. The Hays Code did not allow for any negative paintings of law enforcement, so the gangster always returns to rags so not to encourage any wrongdoing in the communities the viewers live in.

A prime example of this is in the film Scarface (1932). The ending of the film initially shows the lead character escaping from the police, a rebellious push for the genre at the time. This ending was originally denied and forced to be reworked, and the lead character died. This ending was not allowed either, so the original ending was kept, but a warning was played at the start of the film to remind the audience not to attempt to follow the character’s lead. Additionally, the use of guns was hidden for the majority of the film, despite their constant use. Through sound design, it is implied the guns were in use, but because the Hays Code regulates the use of guns and does not allow for the murder of another human being, the audience may not see the guns in use. It is not until much later in the film until the audience actually sees a gun fire.

Due to such strict regulations, it became increasingly difficult to create gangster films. The genre needed to be altered in order to pass the Hays Code and other regulations created over time. Thus, film noir emerged to allow the gangster genre to live on. Film noir is inspired by German Expressionism, which can be seen through the low-key lighting and stylized acting, as well as the darker, psychologically driven themes explored.

The film A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is film noir and features themes regarding mental illness, domestic abuse, and rape. However, due to censorship restrictions, the themes are portrayed through ways other than dialogue, such as mise-en-scene, editing, and cinematography. Because the film is based off an original play by Tennessee Williams, where there are no restrictions, much of the original implications become lost in translation due to the strict censorship. Much of the mature content in the film is not as powerful as presented in the play, and the backstory of the lead character is completely altered so not to imply homosexuality, which is forbidden by the PCA. By the end of the 1960’s, the strict censorship laws were lifted and the gangster film returned as a popular genre once more. As a result, film noir faded in popularity, but is remembered as the essence of the 1950’s, a time when filmmakers had to be creative to work with the limitations set forth by the censorship codes.




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