Bright Lights Film Journal

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby: Revisiting Preminger’s <em>The Moon Is Blue</em>

Mixing it up with Otto and Alfred (Kinsey, that is)

Dr. Alfred Kinsey dropped a bomb on the USA in 1948. Best-seller, exposé, cultural phenomenon in the purest sense, and still by far the largest study conducted on human sexuality, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male laid bare to ridicule the American sexual code of the fifties. The trumped-up morality and faux-naiveté of the fifties could now be officially viewed as ridiculous.

In 1953 Kinsey (right) lobbed another cultural grenade, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, also hugely popular and based on a similar study. Enter filmic provocateur Otto Preminger and his criminally underappreciated The Moon Is Blue. As classy as he was controversial, evidence lies within Preminger’s moon, which is blue — a statement of romance as fact in the director’s attempt to bring back to movies a more provocative, stimulating “six reels of vice for one reel of virtue” pre-Code moral footing. Restraint and defiance don’t often meet, but meet they do — and beautifully so — in The Moon Is Blue, the director’s subtle take on sexual mores.

Preminger’s refusal to homogenize his straight adaptation of F. Hugh Herbert’s sharply biting play caused great controversy. An enjoyable, if less clinical, societal reflection than Kinsey’s, the Hays office threatened to refuse approval if he did not remove words such as “seduce,” “virgin,” and “mistress.” Preminger balked; the film came out without approval . . . and was a smash hit as a result.

This uncanny meeting of subject and history is the wellspring, what helps to make The Moon Is Blue so unique; a feeling, an undercurrent of unease runs through, adds texture, motivation, and a giddy tension to every scene. Without the sparkling language and superior direction, The Moon Is Blue would simply be a very good fifties sexual comedy of manners. Because of this artist’s unwillingness to compromise, though, the viewer is treated to a rampaging, virginal Kinsey report come to life (Patty O’Neill in her debut as Maggie MacNamara) thrashing her honest intellectual sexual curiosity against first, a swinging architect (William Holden as Don Gresham) on his way toward the societal norm of marriage and summer home, and second, a charmingly sleazy David (Niven) Slater, aged father to Gresham’s ex, Cynthia (Dawn Addams), a screeching cat-woman, wisely used sparingly.

Don lives in a cavernously modern, garbage-disposal equipped, bachelor pad; early on, Patty casually notes her “roommate says she’d marry any man sight unseen if his kitchen had a garbage disposal.” Later on, she mentions that she hates the apartment’s “lovely garbage disposal going to waste.” Even historical advantagism aside, this may be nauseating were it not alternated with questions asked apropos of nothing like, “Do you have a mistress?” Every one of these jabs is answered with a bold close-up on stunned silence — here is this ideal Audrey Hepburn-styled doe-eyed fantasy of kitchen adoration (who even cooks a good meal at one point in the film!) come to life except with one circuit miswired from that pretty lil’ head straight to the Kinsey Report.

As The Moon is Blue rolls on, Don and Patty each accuse the other of being obsessed with sex, trade quips, and refer to things in super-modern ways, such as their relationship being at one point “purely platonic.” This last sophisticated parry turns out to be muttered in the wrong company, for David, a self-described playboy louse, has feelings for Patty. Niven is in top form. The tight close-up on his reaction shot after Patty innocently states that she “likes to be kissed” could easily stand as one of film history’s funniest frames.

Oddly-angled set-ups follow the unanimously twisted, tilted, and confusing relationships of the principles. These mise-en-scene cookers move to engaging two-shots, smoothly flowing to boost the conversation. As David knocks off the fact that he lives for “steaks, liquor, and sex,” we can tell he’s putting Patty (and the viewer) on. Shortly thereafter, he proposes to her. When she replies that he hasn’t said a word about love, he parries, “far too many words have been said about love,” an old-fashioned swinger relegating love to commonplace in Kinsey’s bold, new America.

Cinematic restraint provides the sustaining tension to this sexual farce. A dialogue-heavy film, with a tight, punchy script — kind of a far less cruel Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — Preminger’s subtle brushstrokes make for expressive yet subtly unobtrusive storytelling. Ernest Laszlo’s camera glides absolutely transfixed by the actions and dialogue, often leading to motivated yet rough and ultimately disquieting frames at shot’s end.

Disconcerting deep focus adds heavy meaning to an already pivotal scene. Through the kitchen doorframe, Patty irons her dress while closer in the mise-en-scene, Don overdramatizes sniffles caught fighting with Cynthia in the rain (a seemingly tedious scene thankfully left out). Both wear Don’s robes, he in classic-cold flannel and she dwarfed by bulk, having lost her dress to a stain during an especially charged dinner scene involving David’s catsup ejaculation. Don mentions that Cynthia referred to her as a “professional virgin,” something he now regrets to have argued. Shocked, she stops, gathers her robe and advances just a bit, to be framed perfectly in the doorway. He gets up to argue his point. The camera follows so subtly as to be unnoticeable until the scene ends with harmfully disquieting mise-en-scene of Don at top three-fourths and in steely, unsympathetic profile with Patty’s horrified disbelief taking center frame. Neither looks at the other, but due to the power of suggestive framing, we know that Preminger sides with Patty, offering her side of the argument that dominant, normative position.

Cecil B. DeMille was famous for championing and popularizing the “six reels of sin then one reel of virtue” ethic of filmmaking in cinema’s early days. The Moon is Blue revels, from an appreciative yet purely observational distance, through ninety minutes of glorious sin and must also end like a pre-Code film. But Preminger’s not satisfied with even this and speaks his disdain filmically. In blatant mise-en-scene symbolism near the end, Patty is framed in the far lower right — a human relic minimized amidst this perversely giant and modern bachelor pad. Finally getting up to leave, the viewer feels vicarious rapture with her escape, as she finally drives home the strong personality and free will she has peppered throughout the film. Of course, escape was as difficult as individualism in the fifties, and in an unbelievably small portion of the film (perhaps less than two percent of the running time), poor little Patty is finally authenticated as a citizen and sucked into the mainstream. In this superbly shot (cinematically: brilliantly told) elliptical masterpiece, the regression lasts but a moment, suggesting a reversal of societal mores and a real contempt for Hollywood standards (and by extension mainstream culture), by virtue of the tokenism and lack of realistic development granted this backpedaling — a shift from this hypersexual film that simply isn’t believable.