The Moon Is Blue (Warner Archive) Review
Otto Preminger's 1953 light comedy-drama The Moon Is Blue, when remembered at all, is usually recognized as being the first post-Code Hollywood film where the word "virgin" is uttered and there may be some vague association with other censorship battles beyond that single word (which is said several times). Dig deeper to find out that "seduce" and "mistress," in the sexual sense, also drew great ire from the cinematic censors. Further still, and you'll realize that The Moon Is Blue was a landmark both on the way to the films over a decade later which effectively toned down Hollywood censorship and the rise of creative freedom for the director. Not only did Preminger's production find commercial success without attaining the seemingly requisite approval of the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency, but it also made the filmmaker quite a wealthy man, after he contracted for a large percentage of the profits. Preminger caught on quickly and kept challenging the established standards of what could and could not be said and portrayed in his films later in the decade like The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder. There are those who enjoy reducing much of Otto Preminger's work in the fifties to just being controversial and having little interest to modern audiences who've presumably outgrown Eisenhower-era titillation, but I'm not quite sure they fully appreciate the director.
The Moon Is Blue is unfortunately easy to dismiss in a time when you see and hear much more provocative things on American television commercials than anything that would have been considered so indecent as to be unacceptable for the ticket-buying masses of the fifties. Viewers new to the film probably won't find it very shocking, but I think this might actually be in Preminger's favor since it takes away much of the distraction. The movie is ultimately one about a young woman (Maggie McNamara) who's a chatty little creature and has no problem telling William Holden's architect character that she's a virgin and intends to stay that way. Based on a hit Broadway play and remaining true to that inherent theatricality without ever feeling too enclosed due to Preminger's typically fluid camera movements, The Moon Is Blue wittily explores the idea of a woman's virtue beyond mere abstinence. Its level of daring is far more considerable than how we might now single out the first utterance of a word or two or the lack of a watchdog's seal of approval. Those things are external factors which ideally shouldn't affect how the content of the film is perceived today. You can watch an important film merely because of its notoriety or you can experience it as a living, breathing thing forever in flux to the changing moods and standards of society (yet still intriguing as an artifact of its time).
From an historical standpoint, the basically comprehensive control Preminger had over the production seems to be far more interesting and important than the smaller barriers broken by its content. Prior to John Cassavetes, it was Otto Preminger who was laying the foundation for independent cinema in America, even if he probably didn't realize it at the time. Otto had been essentially beholden to the whims of Zanuck and company at Fox for his whole career so his time away from that lot on, first, Angel Face (an involuntary loan out to Howard Hughes at RKO) and then this film, which was distributed by United Artists, must have been incredibly freeing. He still had some commitments at Fox, but The Moon Is Blue was a true breath of independence and control for the director. The film, with its obvious debts to the play's stagebound interactions on just a couple of sets and heavy amount of dialogue, might not immediately reveal itself as a vehicle for a newly unleashed Preminger, but if you look closer I think there's a bit more here than just a few surprising words and an interesting romantic triangle. The director's remarkable ability to explore elegant and sophisticated relationships among adults (and he'd done it so effectively at Fox in films like Daisy Kenyon, The Fan, and Laura) is completely on target in this film. His insinuation of false ideals through a society riddled with decrepit imperfection was perhaps never stronger.
Bringing to mind an odd cross between Jean Simmons and Audrey Hepburn with maybe just a touch of Jennifer Jones, McNamara gives her chatty Patty a sense of poignancy and realism rarely found in other films of this time and sort. The Moon Is Blue could easily slip into screwball territory but it doesn't in Preminger's hands. His determination to keep things grounded is one of the tipping points in the film's favor. We see Patty as being somewhat kooky but still with a real heart. Later in the film when Holden's Donald Gresham confronts her with the criticism that she's a "professional virgin" and the added emphasis that those who advertise do so because they have something to sell, it's at least a quasi-profound moment. McNamara has the lightness aspect of her character down but scenes like this one show she also imbued Patty with something a touch more serious. The film overall is definitely in a lighter vein, mixing drama and comedy seamlessly and almost as a precursor to a picture like Billy Wilder's The Apartment, but the darker aspects slip up on the viewer. Patty's agreeable demeanor in dealing with both Donald and upstairs neighbor David Slater, played by David Niven, subtly reveals a desire for happiness and the way she's assigned this lifetime's worth of hope to her own virginity. Surely the sadness in that theory is obvious.
It isn't that Patty seems to outright reject sex. But she does view it more as a necessary evil, a means to an end, than the frequently romanticized reading you'll otherwise find in Hollywood movies. To give Preminger some credit, I think he's knowingly presenting chastity as a point of impossible compromise. Patty, without provocation, tells men she doesn't want sex from them as a means of preventing complication, but the conversation then turns almost exclusively to sex, and some of that steering is even done directly by her. She's, again, unintentionally embracing the role of the "professional virgin." Her flirtation with and ultimate rejection of Slater's marriage proposal is done with a sweetness that belies any considerations of sex beyond being a necessity for survival. She doesn't dismiss Slater because of the idea that he'd be the one with whom she'd lie beside in bed at night so much as because she knows he'd treat her like an accessory or, even worse, a piece of property. Slater's comment referencing the seemingly well-intentioned gift of $600 near the film's end seals it for Patty. She'd previously idealized her virginity as a bargaining tool for gaining a rich husband, but now when actually faced with that exact situation Patty seems to realize the hollowness of the whole thing.
That Preminger and writer F. Hugh Herbert cloak such ponderous and sober ideas on sexual politics into a light, jaunty movie may come as a surprise to those looking for, well, something else - either a more risque affair or a jokier one in the Lubitsch mold. (And this might be the closest Preminger ever came to attaining Lubitsch's tonal lightness mixed with heavily adult themes.) The dialogue in The Moon Is Blue is really where much of the energy is placed, making for a verbal onslaught chaining the film to its stage origins but also, with the aid of strong acting, reminding the audience of how satisfying good conversation can be to hear and watch. There's so much talking that it's not surprising some of it does fall flat, with little of the wit you might get in a Lubitsch picture, but I found it far more charming than pretentious. Having a genuine affection for the time and place seen in The Moon Is Blue probably helps. Maybe the film has come full cycle from being daring before it was harmless and now it's powered by a nostalgia for something that might have only existed in the movies in the first place. Regardless, I enjoyed it a great deal.
Preminger's film was originally released by United Artists in cinemas, and I didn't realize that Warner Bros. even controlled the rights until it popped up one day as a title in the burn-on-demand Warner Archive. (The film is still unreleased on DVD in the UK.) I've weighed a few of the positives and negatives of the Warner Archive in previous reviews, but, just to quickly reiterate, the short of it is that a few hundred movies otherwise not available on R1 DVD can be had on the DVD-R format for $19.95 plus shipping (less with coupons) from the official Warner Archive site, if you live in the U.S. Most titles can also be obtained through Amazon.com and Movies Unlimited.
This single-layered DVD-R contains the film, progressively transferred, in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The absolute lack of any digital restoration or even modest improvement to a print filled with dirt, scratches, and reel change markers every twenty minutes is obvious. It's frustrating to see how little care was put into the way this film looks. On the bright side, those wishing to pursue this release are probably lucky that the materials were in acceptable condition. When you get past the constant speckles flashing around the picture and some softness in the image, it doesn't look too bad. Grain is present but not ridiculously heavy. I do think it's worth complaining louder about the general griminess, which probably could've been made better with the sort of restoration work Warner Bros. does (or did) for its pressed DVD releases, when the price tag is taken into consideration. Don't charge full price for an inferior product. It makes for a poor value to the consumer.
Audio presented no significant issues that I could hear. The English mono track has a very low hiss but nothing that should prove distracting. Dialogue is generally easy to make out and at a consistent volume. The indefensible practice of omitting both subtitles and closed captioning on Warner Archive titles continues here.
An original theatrical trailer (2:58) can be accessed upon inserting the disc (with the other option being to watch the film). Even if you don't usually watch old trailers, this might be worth your time. It's narrated by William Holden and includes an odd, funny sequence of a woman buying a ticket at a theater, entering at what seems to be the end and sitting beside a bear. I won't ruin the punchline.
Interestingly, Preminger also filmed a German version of The Moon Is Blue, called Die Jungfrau auf dem Dach, with the actors Hardy Krüger and Johanna Matz in the leads. The two pictures were made in the same twenty-one day time period. Krüger and Matz can be seen in the American film playing the tourists at the Empire State Building while William Holden and Maggie McNamara have similar cameos in the German version. The ideal edition of The Moon Is Blue would include its German cousin as well, but with no primer on the censorship battles or analysis of any kind, much less a thimble's worth of restoration work or a simple pressed disc, this is far from the ideal edition. I'm glad it's available; I wish the film had been given more respect.
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