Shifting Depictions of Mental Illness in Film

Mental illness is an underlying force in a variety of films dating back to the 1940s. Illnesses such as mental disorders, drug, and alcohol addiction are referenced, yet because of the censorship laws, these ideas were either ridiculed or dismissed. In order to call action to these issues, the film industry had to adjust their mode of attack to relay the messages to audiences efficiently. Throughout the 1940s-1960s the censorship laws changed drastically.[1] In 1930, the Hays office implemented a new code to maintain moral values. This code required studios to submit their work for approval prior to filming. Only with this seal of approval, could production begin. The Hays office requested edits and changes of the script until it met their guidelines. The anxiety about the booming film industry stemmed from how the messages shown would affect the youth and society as a whole.  Led by Catholic advocate Joseph Breen, the Production Code Administration (PCA) was formed in July of 1934. Films were heavily censored under Breen’s leadership as he worked with the Catholic Legion of Decency. In 1952 the Supreme Court ruled that films were protected by the First Amendment, loosening the reins the PCA once had on the film industry.

Films containing themes of mental illness were laboriously reviewed by the PCA, with concern these topics would negatively impact the public. Open discussion of mental illness and addiction was still discouraged in society. Mental illness, alcohol addiction, drug dependence were frowned upon or ignored. This blocked those suffering from these diseases out of society, unable to receive the right help. Treatment options were available but limited. Alcoholic Anonymous began in 1939, as the need for treatment was apparent. This approach put recovery in the hands of those who needed it and created a new system for people to support one another. By 1950, Alcoholics Anonymous had 100,000 members and continued to grow. However, society still did not accept recovering alcoholics and drug addicts as fully functional members of society.[2] A fear surrounded those who spoke out about their disease, as others worried it might affect their own loved ones. Support groups began to speak out against the chief of the New York Headquarters, begging to be a voice of reason to explain the group. The film industry quickly followed as they worked to create ‘social problem’ films urging audiences for a call to action.  John Cogley’s Report on Blacklisting discusses the creation and demise of social problem films.[3] The post-war period was a time of great conversations. Soldiers were welcomed home but still struggled with PTSD and mental illness that had not yet been addressed. It was time for film to tell these stories. Audiences wanted to see mature movies that they could relate to. Social problem films presented social dilemmas in a new way that was easier for audiences to relate to. It sparked conversation amongst the public. Some notorious social problem films of the late 1940s were The Snake Pit[4] and The Country Girl,[5] one tackling mental illness and the other with alcoholism. Though the storylines focused on the struggle of one character in particular, the bigger themes paralleled societal problems. The Country Girl was intended to be a warning to audiences about the dangers of alcoholism. Margaret Basic’s The Sociological Quarterly reviews The Country Girl as a film that “does not appear to intend to define alcoholism… Drinking remains an act for which the drinker should be held responsible.”[6] The consequences of alcoholism and mental illness were placed on the person suffering and let the public excuse responsibility. John Cogley brings up that by the 1950s, social problem films were less common. They lost popularity as audiences were drawn to entertainment films instead. However, the film industry still featured these problems within films but to a smaller scale. Messages were relayed in a much more sophisticated, less dramatic fashion. A greater trust was placed upon the audience to understand these messages and make opinions of their own.

The Hays Office and Production Code Administration were formed out of concern for the public and for the messages being sent to audiences through the films. Maltby says that the system’s main principle was that “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it”.[7] This principle enforced that each film must teach a moral lesson. It was assumed that audiences would subconsciously internalize messages of criminal activity and mimic it themselves. These new requirements put a heavy strain on writers and producers as they scrambled to edit their new scripts. Art censorship was not uncommon worldwide, but it became an unquestionable aspect of film at this time. It was not something to be argued, it just was.

Bringing attention to social problems and topics became an issue. These social problems were allowed to be featured, yet with restraint. Social problem films were becoming the new norm for raising social awareness. Social problem films bring social concerns to life on screen and urge audiences to acknowledge these messages.

Films also began to play a part in education and curriculum. The educational benefits of film were being explored and utilized for the first time. Godfrey Elliot’s Film and Education instructs educators to use films as an example of proper behavior.[8] He instructs educators to show students films of bad character, or character’s acting immorally to help guide them down the right path. It was suggested that educators “may point out it is not the characters presenting the topic but rather the topic being presented with which they are concerned.”

The late 1940s and early 1950s was a developing time worldwide, but especially in the United States. With the civil rights movement catching steam, an uneasy feeling sat with the public. Mental illness, depression, anxiety, and drug dependence were not acknowledged. What caused this disapproval was a sense of fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what is not being spoken about. Artists searched for a way to portray these stories in a way the audience would feel comfortable with. Call to action, and ‘social problem’ films sparked intrigue but left viewers with a clear message of warning. Into the 1950s films and audiences matured looking for new outlets of artistic expression. Viewers were given greater trust to receive these messages on their own, in a more subtle manner. Topics of alcoholism and drug addiction could be presented in a picture, but it was assumed an audience would understand this was wrong behavior. Not only would audiences be reminded of what was morally right, but they would also have more information on the illnesses themselves. The movies The Man with the Golden Arm[9] and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?[10] are strong examples of the two different ways the film industry approached these problems. The primary reason that alcohol and drug abuse is prevalent in these films is to help acknowledge this part of society. Dark subject matter in films brings out the truth and helps to accept the severity of these diseases. When big-name stars portray characters with these illnesses, the audience gains a sense of comfortability with them. This subconsciously assists the audience to sympathize and connect with the character because of their previous familiarity with that particular star. In order to educate the public, film industries had to change their tactics for embodying these topics throughout their stories. Finding new ways to reach audiences and speak out against social unrest is what will keep film thriving. Film has the ability to bring voices to those with mental illness and hardship. The representation of drugs and alcoholism problems in the film industry shifted from a direct call to action to a sophisticated representation leaving audiences to create opinions for themselves.

The Production Code Administration was not happy with the proposal for a film surrounding narcotics addiction. When Roberts Productions proposed the making of The Man with The Golden Arm with Frank Sinatra as the lead, the PCA did not know how to respond. Frank Sinatra was already well-known and widely famous. The thought of him stepping into the role of a drug addict suffering from opioid withdrawal worried the PCA. In March of 1950, Joseph Breen wrote to Mr. Roberts denying the production of the film.[11] He expressed that none of the material from the script could be accepted because of the topic of drug addiction. It was strictly prohibited by the PCA that drugs be even shown in films as it may spark curiosity among the audience. It was a slow moving process to advocate for the importance of the film. On March 23, 1950, the producers and writers of The Man with the Golden Arm met with Mr. Van Schmus and Mr. Dougherty of the PCA to discuss possible edits.[12] The PCA would only agree to production if all the details of drug usage, withdrawal, and sickness were discarded. The driving force behind the film’s purpose was to depict the true disease that accompanies drug addiction. With all scenes and mention of it erased, the film would lose impact. In order to preserve the “social problem” aspects of the film, there would have to be a strong moral conclusion. Morrill Cody served as the Public Affairs Officer and argued that the film did not apply to a majority of the public, only a limited group.[13] Cody made it a point to say this film would only satisfy those suffering from addiction and that it could not benefit the public as a whole. Despite backlash, production continued. Some aspects of drug addiction and withdrawal were edited to less graphic imagery, yet the premise still remained. The driving force behind the film was a warning, but to spread awareness. If only limited groups had access to viewing the film, the message would not be able to travel. Over the course of the negotiations over content in the film, Joseph Breen retired from the PCA and was replaced by Geoffrey Shurlock. Shurlock provided a fresh pair of eyes to the situation and was in support of The Man With the Golden Arm as long as its intention was as a public service.[14] In June of 1955, he expressed that it could be done with respect and convey a message that would profit its viewers. Shurlock’s approval put production on a fast track. Surprisingly, reviewers were receptive to the film and storyline. The 1955 December issue of The Showmen’s Trade Review contains a particularly positive review.[15] The review praised the film for being realistic and portraying a lower class. Frank Sinatra was praised for his work on the project as well as the production team. The review praises The Man with The Golden Arm for calling attention to the ugliness of the real world that was commonly avoided in Hollywood at that time. The film directly focused on the topic of drug addiction and disease. These primary social problem films laid the groundwork for films to come. This was one of the first films to set a standard for addressing these issues within a film. When done with the right amount of responsibility, these films would urge change.

The next ten years brought a variety of new techniques, stars, and business to the film industry. Audiences yearned for mature films that they could relate to. Social problem films were fading away, but the topics they surrounded remained in the films. A newfound sense of acceptance with the discussion of mental health issues assisted this tactic. It was clear that whether the film was a social problem film or not, audiences would pick up these themes and internally judge them as right or wrong. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? brought a show-stopping drama filled dark comedy to the screen. The film surrounds a husband and wife as they hurt one another verbally, physically and emotionally. As the couple consumes more alcohol they become increasingly violent towards one another. Any viewer would notice from the beginning that alcoholism is a problem for the couple in the film. The same messages were being sent to audiences but were being executed in a different manner. In the review process, the PCA was not as concerned with the alcohol as they were with the profanity and sexual behavior. In March of 1963, Geoffrey Shurlock wrote to Warner Bros. requesting the removal of curse words and violence.[16] Because of the language, an age limit was set on who was able to view the film. The concerns about alcoholism would appear later from reviewers. This proved, however, that the tactic and nature of the PCA and audiences had changed. The PCA would become more lenient with their exceptions, but the audiences would pick up these topics and choose to speak on them themselves. The impact Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had on audiences was as effective as the tactics used in The Man with the Golden Arm, or other social problem films. The Code review evolved with the film industry yet still loomed over Hollywood. In some reviews, the film was said to only have featured “drunken persons”.[17] The film shocked some, yet others appreciated the raw story. Another reviewer commends the film for the powerful impact the film left. They write of the drinking spell upon the couple igniting the anger and violence between them.[18] This film sent a message.

The need to continually keep improving the representation of mental illness in film has paved the way for the film industry to have a stronger voice. Film has the opportunities to create social awareness and to educate, even if subconsciously. The vital need to adapt to new strategies to represent these issues creates a responsibility. It is a chance for every audience to glimpse into a different world, and to sympathize with others. Sending these messages in a sophisticated manner builds a stronger trust with the audience. In earlier films, like The Man With the Golden Arm, some details were cut creating what could be an inaccurate description of the social problems in the time period. If audiences want an accurate depiction of history they need the truth. When messages are sent in an honest way, viewers will sense this. The audience takes the responsibility to make their own opinions. Some may argue that these messages should not be as accessible to the public, yet each individual makes that choice themselves. Film has and will be a driving force in talking about mental illness and addiction. The industry must constantly find new ways to represent mental health to give an equal voice to what is happening in society now.


[1] Hayes, David P. “The Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry (1930-1967).” The Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry (1930-1967). 2000. Accessed December 4, 2018.

[2] “Historical Data:.” Alcoholics Anonymous : A.A. Around the World. Accessed December 10, 2018.

[3] Cogley, John. Movies. Pg 218-219. Fund for the Republic, 1956. Accessed 2018.

[4] The Snake Pit. Directed by Anatole Litvak. Performed by Olivia De Havilland and Mark Stevens. USA: Twentieth Century Fox, 1948. DVD.

[5] The Country Girl. Directed by George Seaton. Performed by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. USA: Paramount Pictures, 1954. DVD.

[6] Margaret M. Basic. “Reading the Alcoholic Film: Analysis of “The Country Girl”.” The Sociological Quarterly 33, no. 2 (1992): 211-27.

[7] Balio, Tino. Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, (40).

[8] Elliott, Godfrey Monroe. Film and Education: A Symposium on the Role of the Film in the Field of Education. S. L.: Forgotten Books, 2012. Accessed December 5, 2018.

[9] The Man with the Golden Arm. Directed by Otto Preminger. Performed by Frank Sinatra. USA: Otto Preminger Films, 1955. DVD.

[10] Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Directed by Mike Nichols. Performed by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. USA: Warner Bros, 1966. DVD.

[11] Joseph Breen to R.B. Roberts, March 7, 1950, microfilm, Kresge Library, Oakland University, reel P-29.

[12] E.G.D. Memo for Files, Roberts Productions, March 23, 1950, microfilm, Kresge Library, Oakland University, reel P-29.

[13] Morrill Cody Public Affairs Officer Unclassified, microfilm, Kresge Library, Oakland University, reel P-29.

[14] Letter from Otto Preminger to Geoffrey Shurlock, Carlyle Productions, June 27, 1955, microfilm, Kresge Library, Oakland University, reel P-29.

[15] Showmen’s Trade Review, Reviews of Current and Forthcoming Features, December 17, 1955, microfilm, Kresge Library, Oakland University, reel P-29.

[16] Letter from Geoffrey Shurlock to Mr Warner, March 20, 1963, microfilm, Kresge Library, Oakland University, reel P-33.

[17] Virginia Woolf ad, A Yes for Virginia but ‘with reservations’, microfilm, Kresge Library, Oakland University, reel P-33.

[18] Virginia Woolf review, ‘Virginia Woolf boils with venom and power’, microfilm, Kresge Library, Oakland University, reel P-33.