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10 Old Movies That Changed Laws and Regulations

I enjoy educating others about film history and the early years of cinema.

Films have always inspired new laws, legislations, and policies. So while a medium of entertainment, film was also a tool for change.

Films have always inspired new laws, legislations, and policies. So while a medium of entertainment, film was also a tool for change.

10. Victim (1962)

Back when homosexual activity was illegal in Britain, the movie Victim (1961) came out, which centered around a lawyer named Melville Farr who blackmails gay men by threatening to expose them. But Farr is secretly in love with another man. When that man commits suicide due to threat of exposure by another lawyer, Farr bravely steps up to avenge him, exposing his own sexuality in the process.

Victim is believed to have played a part in shifting public opinion, which eventually led to homosexuality being decriminalized in 1967. It was the first English-language film to use the word “homosexual.”

Though many actors turned down the leading role, Dirk Bogarde was willing to stake his career on it — a bold move considering that he himself was gay. He took about twenty-five years after the film’s release to publicly acknowledge his long-term relationship with his manager, Anthony Forwood.

Luckily, Bogarde’s performance was well-received and even earned him a BAFTA Film Award nomination.


9. Street of Shame (1956)

Street of Shame (1956) was a Japanese film about five prostitutes living in a brothel. There’s Hanae, who has to support her child and unemployed husband; Yumeko, who sends her earnings to her adult son; Yorie, who longs for romance; Yasumi, who’s paying off a debt; and Mickey, who has fled an abusive home.

Though these women are backed into prostitution by socioeconomic conditions, the film takes a balanced approach and doesn’t advocate for or against the industry. For example, Yorie eventually gets married and realizes she’s lost her independence, whereas at the brothel she was earning and managing her own finances. Nonetheless, just a few months after the film’s release, prostitution was made illegal in Japan.

Many say that was not a coincidence, as Street of Shame was a box-office success and reached a wide audience. The director, Kenji Mizoguchi, was already an acclaimed filmmaker known for taking on social issues like gender inequality, class, poverty, and World War II. Yet oddly, this is the only one of his film to inspire a change in law.


8. The Seven-Year Itch (1955)

Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, actors were at the mercy of the studio system. They were required under contract to let film studios control their personal lives, their professional image, and the roles they’d be constantly typecast in. Actors weren’t allowed to expand their horizons with independent films or TV guest appearances or even stage productions.

Marilyn Monroe, who was typecast as a dumb blonde, resented this. After the success of The Seven Year Itch (1955), 20th Century Fox realized she was their biggest box-office draw. Monroe used this to her advantage when the time came to renew her contract.

Her demands for the new contract were unprecedented. Along with a $100,000 salary boost per film, Monroe wanted the freedom to choose which filmmakers to work with. She wanted to make films with different studios and with independent producers. The studio didn’t want to lose her, so they agreed.

After that, more and more actors started negotiating their contracts to gain more creative control. This eventually led to the dissolution of the studio system. And it all started with a “dumb blonde” who knew she deserved better.


7. The Snake Pit (1948)

The Snake Pit (1948) was based on a semi-autobiographical novel about a woman’s struggle with psychosis, and the horrifying conditions of mental institutions in that era. It was one of Hollywood’s first serious portrayals of the mentally ill, as they were most often portrayed as either violent or comedic.

The protagonist, Virginia, goes through drug treatment, hydrotherapy, and electroshock therapy, with varying results. She’s abused by nurses and even straightjacketed and placed in a padded cell at one point. Eventually Virginia recovers with the help of a kind doctor and even reaches out to a violent patient who becomes her friend. The movie ends with her returning home to her loving husband.

Soon after the movie came out in the United States, 26 states passed legislation to provide better treatment and upgrade living conditions for mental patients. This is believed to have been a direct influence of The Snake Pit.

For the sake of authenticity, the director, cast, and crew spent three months visiting mental institutions and attending psychiatric lectures prior to filming. The lead actress, Olivia de Havilland, even sat in on therapy sessions and attended social events at the institutions.

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6. The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) / 5. Jesse James (1939)

You may be familiar with the disclaimer “No Animals Were Harmed or Injured in the Production of this Film.” Jesse James (1939) inspired the law granting films that disclaimer — a victory that began three years earlier with The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), directed by Michael Curtiz.

Though he’s now best known for directing Casablanca (1942), Curtiz became notorious for having 125 horses trip-wired for the film’s climactic battle scene. Twenty-five of those horses were either killed on the spot or euthanized due to severe injuries.

The film’s lead, Errol Flynn, contacted the ASPCA and had them come to the film set. The resulting public awareness of this cruel treatment led to an outcry, which got the attention of Congress.

Audiences and lawmakers were already speaking out against animal cruelty in films by the time Jesse James was being filmed. For that movie, two horses were blindfolded and thrown off a cliff, resulting in new rules being enforced by The Humane Society of America.

It became a requirement for film sets involving animals to be supervised by a Humane Society representative. If the film meets the Humane Society’s standards, the end credits will include “No Animals Were Harmed or Injured in the Production of this Film."


4. Noah’s Ark (1928)

Not only did Michael Curtiz have no problem killing horses on a film set; he also allowed movie extras to drown while filming Noah’s Ark (1928).

There were few safety regulations protecting actors and movie extras at the time. When the time came to film the flood scene, cameraman Hal Mohr refused to be a part of it, as he told both Curtiz and the executives it was too dangerous. When they disregarded his concerns, he quit the film.

Sure enough, three people drowned, one had his leg amputated, and almost a dozen others had broken bones and other injuries. Thirty-five ambulances were called in to treat the survivors — one of whom was a young John Wayne.

Curtiz suffered no consequences for his negligent actions, nor did he provide compensation for any of those people or their next of kin. Thankfully, within a year, stunt safety regulations were written and implemented to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.


3. Blow Up (1966)

For years the Motion Picture Production Code censored Hollywood films to prevent the movie-going public from being exposed to “morally questionable” content. This included sex, nudity, profanity, suggestive dance numbers, and footage filmed inside bedrooms. Not only that, good had to triumph over evil. Audiences could not sympathize with villains, nor with illegal actions done for good reason.

Then came along a British-Italian film called Blow-Up (1966). The protagonist, Thomas, is a freewheeling fashion photographer who leads a life of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll in 1960s London.

Foreign films needed the Production Code seal of approval to be released in the United States. But instead of censoring the film, MGM created a subsidiary company called Premier Productions, which had no affiliation with the Production Code. Blow-Up was released with all its full-frontal nudity and sexually explicit scenes intact.

As a result, Blow-Up was both a commercial and critical success, which led to the end of the Production Code that same year. Less than two years later, the MPAA system was created.


2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Though it was controversial among politicians and military personnel when first released, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is now considered a classic comedy and a timeless political satire. Not only did it strike a nerve with the U.S. government; it also led to real changes in international policy.

The government initially dismissed Kubrick’s idea of an accidental nuclear war, declaring it far-fetched. But the film proved thought-provoking to the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles. In one scene, Group Captain Mandrake tries to contact the Pentagon during an emergency to provide them with access codes, but doesn’t have enough change for the pay phone. This results in the Doomsday Machine going off and causing nuclear annihilation.

This pivotal scene was screened for Congress and discussed by members who thought it raised legitimate concerns about communication blocks during a crisis. It was determined that knowledge of access codes to nuclear weapons should not be limited to just one government official. By the 70s, the Air Force was using coded switches to prohibit the unauthorized instigation of nuclear arms.


1. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

One of the most influential films of all time, The Battle of Algiers (1966) depicts the Algerian War (1954-1962), specifically the uprising of guerilla warfare against the French government.

The film soon gained a reputation for inspiring political violence. The year it came out, journalist Jimmy Breslin declared “The Battle of Algiers is a training film for urban guerrillas.” France has banned the film, and so has South Africa, Brazil, and Iran, out of fear that it would incite rebellion.

In 2003, soon after the U.S. invaded Iraq, the Pentagon invited the military to a screening of The Battle of Algiers, with a teaser that read: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. […] Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."

The Pentagon was hardly the first organization to use this film as a training tool. In the 70s, military juntas in South Africa used it to train soldiers. The British military used it to help strengthen their control of Northern Ireland. Even groups like the Black Panther Party, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Irish Republican Army have used it, either as a how-to guide or a source of inspiration.

In short, The Battle of Algiers has spurred many a movement and change in political conditions, even transcending country borders. It's a testament to the wide-ranging influence that a work of art can have.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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