No Orchids For Miss Blandish was originally a 1939 novel by James Hadley Chase that in 1942 was adapted into a stage play which ran in London. The narrative is set in Kansas City in 1936, where wealthy heiress Miss Blandish is attacked by a gang who want the diamonds she has received for her 21st birthday. Her fiancé is killed and, after she is kidnapped, a rival gang (led by the knife-wielding Slim Grisson) hear about the abduction, kidnap the hapless heiress for themselves, and several murders ensue as the gang fall out.
In July 1944 a slightly different version of the stage play script (which had itself previously been censored by the Lord Chamberlain before being performed) was submitted to the BBFC for consideration. One Examiner thought the script could be made acceptable through modifications, while another was more sceptical about this, describing the script as one "of unrelieved crime and brutality from start to finish", with no redeeming features. However, the Board did agree to look at a revised version, after suggesting some possible changes, such as cuts to remove some dialogue, the "suggestion that Slim is a lunatic" and to scenes where he used his knife to kill.
A revised script was resubmitted in October 1944. Again, one Examiner did not detect "very extensive alteration" and so retained his original view that it was unsuitable for production. However, subject to the removal of one line of dialogue, the second Examiner thought the film viable, as the story was now significantly different: instead of being drugged into submission, Miss Blandish now fell in love with Slim in a story which was now a doomed romance rather than a "sordid type of gangster story".
In 1948, a film made in England, with a British cast adopting American accents and containing material from both the previous scenarios, was submitted to the BBFC. Both the original Examiners had left the Board "where a more liberal policy had emerged towards gangster films and violence as crime flourished in immediate post-war Britain" and where a "landmark" decision had also been taken to pass Brighton Rock with an A certificate uncut the previous year (James Robertson, The Hidden Cinema, London: Routledge) .
In the film, Miss Blandish is kidnapped by a gang during a hold-up and, after they violently fall out, she is subsequently abducted by another gang led by Slim Grisson. Slim and Miss Blandish warm to each other and, instead of demanding a ransom, Slim finds himself in conflict with his gang as the police close in and tragedy beckons.
The BBFC required cuts totalling 114 feet to two of the reels before an A certificate was awarded (‘No admission to persons under 16 unless accompanied by an adult’), although the cuts details are unknown.
However, in the weeks prior to the film opening in London, parliament voted to suspend capital punishment for five years following concern in the press; although this vote was subsequently overturned by the House of Lords. With violent crime and delinquency exercising the minds of legislators and the media, the film opened to predominantly negative reviews; many of them hostile to the point of vilification.
The April 1948 version of the Monthly Film Bulletin described the film as "The most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen", claiming that the BBFC had seriously erred in judging the film suitable for exhibition.
The Daily Express critic claimed that "the film sets out to appeal to the prurient-minded, the twisted, the unbalanced" (16 April 1948) whilst Dilys Powell wrote her Sunday Times review on 18 April 1948 as a letter to the censor, claiming she was surprised he had found the film fit for exhibition and that she was so stunned by it that she was "momentarily … incapable of movement".
Dr. Edith Summerskill, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food in the Labour government, subsequently made a presidential address to the Association of Married Women claiming that the film would pervert the minds of the British people and urging the members to protest. Labour MP Tom Driberg also tabled a parliamentary question asking whether a Royal Commission could be appointed to examine the BBFC’s working methods. Although he did not mention No Orchids For Miss Blandish in his question, it was clear that this was the film he believed was a disgrace to the British film industry.
Amidst this mounting pressure, the BBFC claimed in the 25 April 1948 edition of News Chronicle to be puzzled about the "excitement" generated by the film, as significant cuts had been required and what remained was "a normal gangster film, no more brutal than many made in Hollywood".
The public control committee of the London County Council (LCC) subsequently viewed the BBFC sanctioned version of the film and gave its distributors a few days to cut almost two additional minutes of violence, dialogue and all details concerning an affair between the film’s crusading journalist and a nightclub singer. These further cuts were made overnight during the successful premiere release. Widespread inconsistencies then followed with the handling of the film across the UK, as some local authorities – such as Surrey County Council - rejected the film outright, whilst others permitted the cut LCC version, and still others supported the release of the version as originally cut by the BBFC. As a result, the BBFC’s President Sir Sidney Harris made an unprecedented apology to the Home Secretary for having "failed to protect the public" from No Orchids For Miss Blandish.
The context within which the film was originally released explained much of the critical and political controversy and it rarely screened again until it was submitted to the BBFC for video release in 2006, this time with a request from the film distributor for a classification of U. Almost sixty years on, the BBFC’s view was that the violence lacked detail and – whilst not suitable for very young viewers at U – the film was now a straightforward PG uncut under Guidelines, for ‘mild violence and threat’.