Originally released 8 Jul 1953
Written by F. Hugh Herbert
Directed by Otto Preminger
Starring Maggie McNamara, William Holden, and David Niven
My rating: ★★★ stars
Once considered shocking, this romantic comedy is charmingly old-fashioned today.
Back in 1953 when The Moon Is Blue came out, my mother, then a teenager, had to stand up in church and make a vow never to see it. She says that she thought the church was being ridiculous but she didn’t want to embarrass her family, so she stood up but never said the words. Nevertheless, over 60 years later, she still hasn’t seen the film. For decades, she believed that movie was so controversial because it contained “the f-word.”
Actually, the language in the film (which doesn’t not contain “the f-word”) was not the reason the Production Code Administration found it objectionable, despite the fallacious rumors that the words “virgin,” “seduce,” “pregnant,” and “mistress” were singled out as problematic. The PCA challenged The Moon Is Blue on the basis of the movie’s preoccupation with sex. Yet, in the words of the main character Patty O’Neill (Maggie McNamara), “Don’t you think it’s better…to be preoccupied with sex than occupied?” Despite the controversy and the fact that the discussion of sexual mores pervades the film, the story is surprisingly conservative. Plucky Patty wins the heart of and a marriage proposal from architect Don Gresham (William Holden) by keeping the lid on the cookie jar.
Today, the film seems quaint. Our attitudes toward sex have changed so radically that the film can seem like an artifact from an ancient, foreign culture with viewers taking the role of historical anthropologists trying to learn about its strange inhabitants. That this movie was objectionable would likely be mystifying to modern audiences.
Its reputation as a controversial film may prevent classic film fans from appreciating it. Movie buffs will likely know before they view it that the film was the first major film released without a Production Code Administration seal of approval in nearly two decades and that it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Upon seeing it, these viewers may be disappointed at how tame it is—“That’s it?” being their most likely reaction. The movie is surprisingly traditional in its perspective. It upholds the notion that marriage to a successful man is the ultimate achievement for women and presents a patriarchal view of the world where the role of the father is to police his daughter’s sexuality. The movie’s background fits in with director Otto Preminger’s reputation for making controversial films with adult-oriented material, but the film itself is conventional.
The film’s narrative is simple. Not much happens. Don picks up Patty at the Empire State Building and brings her to his apartment for dinner. His neighbor, aging roué David Slater (David Niven), inveigles an invitation to join them. During the course of the evening, the three discuss the roles of sex and marriage in male-female relations. The film blatantly reflects its origin as a stage production. Only the beginning and ending scenes in the Empire State Building (an obvious set) break the film away from Don’s and Slater’s apartments. This lack of variety in locations isn’t a problem. Some great films have been chamber pieces (many of the works of Hitchcock and Bergman, for example), and Preminger is a capable enough director to give the movie a sense of momentum and movement.
The nature of the film makes the performances particularly important. All the action of the film is driven by the interactions of the characters. McNamara was nominated for an Oscar for this role, her film debut. She lost to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. McNamara is pleasantly engaging, but I can’t help but think that Hepburn would have been vastly superior in the role. She projected beguiling innocence and had an indefinable “It” factor that McNamara lacked.
William Holden seems misdirected in his role. Throughout the movie, Don functions as a straight man for Patty’s quirkiness and Slater’s wit; a lesser actor could probably play this part with ease. Holden projects a complex cynicism, as do many actors in Preminger films, that doesn’t fit the character (yet served him well in his Oscar-winning performance in Stalag 17, which came out a month after The Moon Is Blue). The boyishness he showed the next year in Sabrina would have been more appropriate here.
Niven’s performance, on the other hand, is flawless. No other actor could possibly have played the role as well. George Sanders, perhaps, would have come the closest, but he lacks the playfulness that Niven brings to the role. The Moon Is Blue is arguably the finest performance of Niven’s career. Yes, his Oscar-winning performance in Separate Tables is undeniably excellent and revelatory of unexplored depth in his ability, but this role makes use of Niven’s talent for empathy and light comedy. It seems written for him—even though it was originated by Donald Cook on the stage.
Viewers unable to relinquish a modern cultural perspective may find The Moon Is Blue antiquated and tedious. On the other hand, viewers willing to embrace the movie’s old-fashioned notions about sexual morals will find The Moon Is Blue charmingly humorous, if inconsequential.