Back in the days of silent films, packed picture houses enjoyed the latest offerings of Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd to the accompaniment of suitable piano music. At one screening, a stereotypical villain, dressed in top hat and cape, strokes his moustache and then points a finger skyward as though a thought has struck him. The audience are told what this thought is in the form of a caption which reads: “I’m gonna nail that motherf—“. Cut.
Of course, this never really happened, because, for one thing I’m not sure how popular the ‘melon farmer’ word was back in those days (although it is said that the word can be lip-read, drowned out by a honking horn in the 1936 Fred Astaire film, Swing Time), and for another there was to be no mainstream on-screen swearing for many years to come.
The spoken voice came to film with the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927, but the pushing back of the bucket mouth boundaries was a long slow process. James Cagney was one of the toughest stars of those early talkies, often playing a ruthless hoodlum who robbed and shot his way through life without showing a shred of remorse – or uttering a single profanity. His characters, and those of others like him, were often brought up in the most impoverished slums, and yet they embarked on a life of crime without using any stronger terms than “Dirty no-good yellow-bellied stool”, “Say your prayers, mug”, and “Ah, nuts” (but never “You dirty rat”).
The disallowing of bad language created a credibility headache for screenwriters. How could they create believable characters without being allowed to give those characters one of the very traits that would make them believable? For the makers of gangster films (and westerns: whoever heard of a cowboy that didn’t cuss?) the problem was partially overcome by making tough guys more visually menacing via great scriptwriting and characterisation. And it must have worked, because films such as Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) are still hailed as classics today, even though the air never once turns blue (not that it ever could in monochrome).
In The Public Enemy, Cagney’s character, Tom Powers, exudes an air of menace throughout the film, even without swear words. The famous scene in which he rams half a grapefruit into the face of a lover he’s become bored with (played by Mae Clarke), shows him as a highly volatile character with a short fuse. Similarly, when he discovers that a speakeasy bar is not selling his gang’s beer, he spits a mouthful of it into the face of the terrified barman with full force. Such visual menace demonstrates that a picture is worth a thousand swear words.
So while this formula was used quite successfully for years, the laws on lingo were gradually relaxed. Milder expletives were allowed past the censor, although not without opposition, and in the late 1960s the UK finally got its first f-word, which, as far as my research shows, was uttered by Marianne Faithfull in the 1967 film, I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname. (although Ulysses, which was released the same year is also a contender). As soon as the rules were relaxed the floodgates opened, for a string of more believable films to be released with credible characters talking in real language of the street. Well, that’s not quite how it happened.
Some screenwriters handled this new freedom like a greedy kid with an Easter egg – they ate it all in one go. The result was that in some films of the early seventies, characters who swear a lot are clearly only doing so because they can get away with it. For example, in The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) the Mayor of New York, no less, utters a triplet of profanities from his sick bed. Laboured gratuitous oaths, included only to celebrate a new found freedom, made their characters even less convincing than the “Ah nuts” gangsters of the thirties.
The dialogue of movies today is often peppered with expletives that would have had the blue-pencil sharpener smoking back in Cagney’s day, but which pass almost unnoticed by cinemagoers who have become inured to the shock value that expletives once held.
Some of the biggest box-office hits of the past twenty years have also been some of the most profane. Big hitters of the f-bomb include Nil by Mouth (1997), in which it features 428 times. Casino (1995) clocks in at 398. closely followed by Alpha Dog (2007), which has 367 utterances of the word. Another Martin Scorsese effort, Goodfellas, once ruled the f-word roost, with 300, while Quentin Tarantino maintains a level of consistency with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), which pass the line almost neck and neck at 269 and 265 respectively.
And so, a solitary drowned out oath that crawled from the swamp in 1936 evolved into the thriving mass of cuss-rich movies we have today. As frequency of use constantly diminishes the shock value of these once taboo words, their use may decline also. If this happens, it’ll be interesting to see if new, even more shocking expletives are conjured up take their place.