The Moon Is Blue

The Moon Is Blue is a 1953 American romantic comedy film produced and directed by Otto Preminger and starring William Holden, David Niven, and Maggie McNamara. Written by F. Hugh Herbert and based on his 1951 play of the same title, the film is about a young woman who meets an architect on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and quickly turns his life upside down. Herbert's play had also been a huge success in Germany, and Preminger decided to simultaneously film multiple-language versions in English and German, using the same sets but different casts. The German film version is Die Jungfrau auf dem Dach.

The Moon Is Blue
Theatrical release poster
Directed byOtto Preminger
Produced byOtto Preminger
Screenplay byF. Hugh Herbert
Based onThe Moon Is Blue
by F. Hugh Herbert
Music byHerschel Burke Gilbert
CinematographyErnest Laszlo
Edited byOtto Ludwig
Otto Preminger Films (uncredited)
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • June 22, 1953 (1953-06-22) (Woods Theatre, Chicago)[1]
  • July 8, 1953 (1953-07-08) (USA)
Running time
99 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3.5 million (US and Canada rentals)[3]


A comedy of manners, the film centers on virtuous actress Patty O'Neill, who meets playboy architect Donald Gresham on the top of the Empire State Building and accepts his invitation to join him for drinks and dinner in his apartment. There she meets Donald's upstairs neighbors, his ex-fiancée Cynthia and her father, roguish David Slater.

Both men are determined to seduce the young woman, but they quickly discover Patty is more interested in engaging in spirited discussions about the pressing moral and sexual issues of the day than surrendering her virginity to either one of them. After resisting their amorous advances throughout the night, Patty leaves. The next day she returns to the Empire State Building, where she finds Donald who has missed her and worried all night about her. Donald declares his love for her and proposes marriage to her.


Johannes Heesters, Hardy Krüger and Johanna Matz, the stars of the German version Die Jungfrau auf dem Dach, briefly appear in the English-language version as tourists. Krüger and Matz appear as the young couple waiting to use the coin-operated telescope at the top of the Empire State Building, cameo roles which Holden and McNamara played in the German version.

Production and controversy

Otto Preminger had directed the 1951 Broadway production of F. Hugh Herbert's play with Barbara Bel Geddes, Donald Cook, and Barry Nelson in the lead roles. Its successful run of 924 performances prompted him to contract with United Artists to finance and distribute a screen adaptation over which he would have complete control. He deferred his producer's and director's salaries in exchange for 75% of the film's profits.[4]

Preminger cast David Niven over the objection of studio executives, who felt the actor's career was in decline. The director cast him in a West Coast production of the play to prepare him for the film.[5] Last of the leads to be cast was Maggie McNamara, making her screen debut in a role she had played on stage in Chicago and briefly in New York.[5][6]

Herbert's play had been a huge success in Germany, and Preminger decided to simultaneously film multiple-language versions of the film in English and German, using the same sets but different casts. The director estimated this method would increase the filming schedule by only eight to ten days and production costs by only 10 to 15 percent. The budget for both films was $373,445.[7] It is estimated that deferred costs came to nearly $500,000 but in return United Artists gave the producers Herbert and Preminger 75% of the profits, 20% of which they gave to William Holden.[2]

On July 13, 1951, the office of MPAA censor Joseph Breen contacted Herbert and advised him his screenplay was in violation of the Motion Picture Production Code because of its "light and gay treatment of the subject of illicit sex and seduction." On December 26, Preminger submitted a revised draft of the script which, due to numerous lines of dialogue exhibiting "an unacceptably light attitude towards seduction, illicit sex, chastity, and virginity," was rejected on January 2, 1952. Contrary to later legend, the words "virgin," "mistress," and "pregnant," all of which had been in the original play's dialogue, were not singled out as objectionable. On January 6, Preminger and Herbert advised the Breen office they disagreed with its decision and would film the screenplay without further changes.[8]

In a display of solidarity, United Artist heads Arthur B. Krim and Robert S. Benjamin amended their contract and deleted the clause requiring Preminger to deliver a film that would be granted a Production Code seal of approval. After ten days of rehearsals for each of his casts, Preminger began principal photography of both films on January 21, filming an English language scene and then its German equivalent in quick succession. Preminger later stated he much preferred The Moon is Blue to Die Jungfrau auf dem Dach because he felt the psychology of the plot did not translate well. Filming was completed in twenty-four days and it previewed in Pasadena on April 8. Two days later, Breen notified Preminger the film would not be approved. Outraged at Breen's "unwarranted and unjustified attack" on "a harmless story," the director joined forces with UA executives to appeal the decision with the Motion Picture Association of America board of directors, who ruled against them.[9]

United Artists decided to release the film without the seal of approval, initially in major urban markets where they hoped its success would encourage exhibitors in rural areas to book the film. The film premiered for an "adults only" audience at the Woods Theatre in Chicago on June 22 and opened in one theater in San Francisco on June 25. One small mid-western town only showed the movie to men and women separately. On June 30, Variety reported three major nationwide theater chains were willing to exhibit the film, and it went into general release on July 8. (In its year-end report, Variety said the film had ranked #15 at the box office with a gross of $3.5 million.)[10][3]

Theaters in many small towns in the United States would not show the film to men and women together, restricting audiences to men only or to women only. It was banned in Jersey City, New Jersey as "indecent and obscene".[11][12] Kansas, Ohio, and Maryland also banned the film, and Preminger and United Artists decided to bring suit in a Maryland court. On December 7, 1953, Judge Herman Moser reversed the State Censor Board. In his ruling, he called the film "a light comedy telling a tale of wide-eyed, brash, puppy-like innocence." Preminger and UA then appealed in Kansas, but the Supreme Court of Kansas upheld the state board of review's decision to ban the film. Determined to win, the director and studio took their case to the Supreme Court of the United States, which overturned the finding of the Kansas Supreme Court on October 24, 1955 (Holmby v. Vaughn).[13]

The success of the film was instrumental in weakening the influence of the Production Code. On June 27, 1961, the PCA granted both The Moon is Blue and The Man with the Golden Arm, Preminger's similarly controversial 1955 release, the seals of approval they initially withheld.[14]

In later years, the film was the focus of the M*A*S*H episode, "The Moon Is Not Blue", in which the characters, having heard about the controversy surrounding it, attempt to get a copy shipped to their mobile hospital in Korea. When they finally acquire a copy, Hawkeye is outraged and declares that he's never seen a cleaner movie in his life. The film actually was released in the closing days of the Korean War.[15]

Critical reception

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times observed it "is not outstanding, either as a romance or as film. The wit of Mr. Herbert . . . is turned almost wholly on his freeness with the startling idea or phrase, as glibly tossed off (for the most part) by a young lady who appears a wide-eyed child. And Otto Preminger's lifting of the play from the stage to the screen is much too rigidly respectful of its conversational form. As a consequence, the movement is restricted and the talk is exceedingly long. At times, it gets awfully tedious, considering its limited range."[16] Variety called it "an entertaining adult comedy," which "constantly reminds of its origin, being more a filmed play than a motion picture. But it's still entertaining theatre, whether behind the footlights or on celluloid."[17] Harrison's Reports called it "vastly amusing adult entertainment," adding that "even though the material is spicy and has its delicate moments, it has been handled so adroitly that it is always amusing without ever becoming offensive."[18] Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post called it "Flip, frolicsome fun," adding, "Otto Preminger's direction of Herbert's own screen play follows the stage action fairly closely, resulting in occasionally static splotches but the feel of flip sophistication is achieved."[19] Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "this film is likely to induce a goodly share of laughter and have a special appeal to feminine audiences," but thought it "talks too much for complete satisfaction as a picture."[20] The Chicago Tribune wrote that the film was "deftly constructed and moves along at a bright, brisk pace, peppered with some remarkably funny dialog, which sends audiences into such guffaws that some of the best lines are drowned in a sea of laughter."[21] John McCarten of The New Yorker faulted the film for "all sorts of slowdowns ... to permit the principals to give out with their views on life, love and so on. However, as the photograph of a pleasant little comedy, the picture has some merit."[22] The Monthly Film Bulletin called it "quite pleasant entertainment;"[23] Time magazine also found the film to be pleasant.[24]

The Catholic Legion of Decency gave the movie a "C", "Condemned" rating, despite giving the original play a milder "B", "Unobjectionable for adults" rating.[24]

In his review of the DVD release of the film, Tim Purtell of Entertainment Weekly called the film a "trifle" that "seems overly talky and slight".[25]

Awards and nominations

David Niven won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.

Maggie McNamara was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress but lost to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Otto Ludwig was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Film Editing but lost to William A. Lyon for From Here to Eternity. Herschel Burke Gilbert and Sylvia Fine were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the title tune but lost to Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster for "Secret Love" from Calamity Jane.

F. Hugh Herbert was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written Comedy but lost to Ian McLellan Hunter, Dalton Trumbo, and John Dighton for Roman Holiday.[26]


The Academy Film Archive preserved The Moon Is Blue in 2006.[27]


  1. "'Moon Is Blue,' Here June 22, Filmed in 2 Languages". Chicago Sunday Tribune. Part 7, p. 2. June 14, 1953.
  2. Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987 p. 65
  3. "Top Grossers of 1953". Variety. November 13, 1954. p. 10.
  4. Fujiwara, Chris, The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger. New York: Macmillan Publishers 2009. ISBN 0-86547-995-X, pp. 140–142
  5. The World and Its Double, p. 142
  6. "Miss McNamara to Sub For Miss Bel Geddes". Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc.: 48 April 26, 1952. ISSN 0006-2510.
  7. The World and Its Double, p. 143
  8. The World and Its Double, pp. 143–144
  9. The World and Its Double, p. 145
  10. The World and Its Double, p. 146
  11. ["JERSEY JUDGE SEES 'THE MOON IS BLUE'; Superior Court Jurist Says He Will Give Decision Today on Film Seized as 'Indecent'". The New York Times. October 16, 1953. p. 33.]
  12. Special to The New York Times (January 1, 1954). "'MOON' CHARGES TO JURY / Elizabeth Theatre Manager Released Pending Action". The New York Times. Retrieved February 17, 2019.
  13. Hirsch, Foster, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2007. ISBN 978-0-375-41373-5, p. 197
  14. The World and Its Double, p. 147
  15. M*A*S*H episode recap at
  16. New York Times review
  17. "The Moon Is Blue". Variety: 6. June 3, 1953.
  18. "'The Moon is Blue' with William Holden, David Niven and Maggie McNamara". Harrison's Reports: 90. June 6, 1953.
  19. Coe, Richard L. (July 16, 1953). "'The Moon Is Blue' As Breezy as Play". The Washington Post: 29.
  20. Schallert, Edwin (July 2, 1953). "Stage Quips Still Life Of 'Moon Film'". Los Angeles Times. Part III, p. 9.
  21. "'The Moon Is Blue' Makes a Merry Movie". Chicago Daily Tribune: Part 2, p2. June 23, 1953.
  22. McCarten, John (July 18, 1953). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker: 62.
  23. "The Moon Is Blue". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 21 (241): 21. February 1954.
  24. "Cinema: The New Pictures, July 6, 1953"
  25. Entertainment Weekly review
  26. "Writers Guild of America archives". Archived from the original on 2010-11-30.
  27. "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.

Further reading

  • Lev, Peter, The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, 1950–1959. University of California Press, 2006. ISBN 0-520-24966-6. pp. 89–90.
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