Saturday, November 22, 2014

Dirty Business Movie Censorship in the Early Days

Early movie censorship 1900s-1920s
Coverups, Arrests, Ballots and Scorecards, States and Cities

Notice! No Movie May
Show the following....
NY Judge slams system, cops spending more time w/censors on raids instead of fighting crime
"'The policy of the Police Department under the present administration,' said Magistrate Hylan, 'is to make raids without evidence, to coerce and overwhelm, to make demonstrations of power.

"In short to pervert their authority to unlawful purposes and then appear in court before a magistrate without evidence of a violation of the law as far as the person in custody is concerned and thereupon criticize the magistrate because the latter is obliged for want of evidence to discharge the accused. ....

"Under the rule of a demoralized and disorganized police force this borough is rapidly becoming the paradise and favorite hunting grounds of burglars, pickpockets, highwaymen and thugs. 

"Instead of protecting people from criminals so that they may go to bed at night with a feeling of security that they will at least have the opportunity of awakening again, the public is in a state of constant jeopardy both as to their life, limb and property."

A New York City police captain would be tried on a charge of oppression, the complainants being several moving picture show proprietors in his district. 

Those police who'd raided them swore their theaters were badly crowded. The magistrate complained that while police officers were being called out to movie theaters, other crime was running rampant. Were these early versions of panty raids? Some parts of film history could hardly be taken seriously by audiences were they made into movies.

Quotes above from December 26, 1908 published issue of Moving Picture World. The trade periodical did its best to keep up with not only the ever changing issues in the motion picture industry. Many countries were already dealing with censorship issues. In America, states were trying to regulate censorship with different groups springing up in cities and counties as well as state-wide. 

-- Please see video documentary at end of article -- 

Georges Lafosse’s Censure (Anastasie)

NY Mayor revokes all movie theater licenses
The following completely unexpected present was handed out to every exhibitor [establishment showing motion pictures] in Greater New York on Christmas Eve, December 23, 1908, from George B. McClellan, Mayor and son of the famed Civil War general. 

The mayor cited simultaneous issues with fire safety as well as the morality of the movies being shown and his not wanting theaters to be open at all on Sundays. Exhibitors had no chance to make a case for themselves individually or collectively.

"Because of the serious opposition presented by the rectors and pastors of practically all the Christian denominations in the city, and because of the further objections of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children and the Society for the Prevention of Crime, I have decided that licenses for moving picture shows shall only be issued hereafter on the written agreement that the licensee will not operate on Sundays. 

"And I do further declare that I will revoke any of these moving picture show licenses on evidence that pictures have been exhibited by the license which tend
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to degrade or injure the morals of the community." 

"As these licenses for moving picture shows are issued by me personally I feel responsible for the safety and lives of the patrons and take this action on personal knowledge of existing conditions and the firm conviction that I am averting a public calamity.  I do therefore order each and every license issued by me for a moving picture show be and the same hereby is annulled."
-- New York Times, December 24, 1908 

His decision was reversed in court but exhibitors got a strong message about censorship and what they should show, how they should behave including "a few dollars planted here and there would bring them ample protection." Similar situations would happen in small and large towns across America.

Film production companies loudly heralded the educational and scientific achievements of motion pictures. There were films of medical procedures. You could film tiny insects, different weather conditions. How do you fix a car, bake bread or escape a fire? In 1910 The Elgin State Hospital in Illinois announced they would begin showing motion pictures regularly for their mentally ill patients.

By 1917 Anti-Censorship Slides were sold to be shown in movie theaters between films. 

"Keep the pictures clean and keep them out of politics. We do not believe the American people want censorship. We will not show objectionable films at this theatre."

Arrested for showing free movies to WWI soldiers 
In 1918 the proprietor of a movie theatre along with his collaborator the editor of the local paper were arrested for showing free movies to soldiers. 

Since Camp Shelby was near Hattiesburg "the question of furnishing wholesome entertainment for the soldiers who periodically visit the city has been one of importance."

"I believe either educational or religious pictures which tend to foster patriotism or to show the gigantic task the country has before it and clean vaudeville of motion pictures, concerts, etc will assist in promoting the moral welfare of the men. 

"With the greater part of 25,000 or 30,000 soldiers idle on Sunday it is too much to expect men of red blood not to seek some form of recreation on Sunday the only day they have wholly to themselves." 

Chicago Censor Under Arrest 

Chicago Censor is found Guilty and Ousted

Also in 1918, Major LC Funkhouser, a censor in Chicago was deposed. He was said to have retained 'cadets, thieves, pick-pockets, former convicts, shakedown artists and others of ill repute and character as inspectors of moral conditions. 

'He allowed large sums of money to be expended in shadowing well-known men and women of unimpeachable character for purposes unconnected with the duties of his office.' 

He was charged with waste of funds such as failure to report gasoline and tire consumption, payment to persons who did no work, failure to check on subordinates' padded expense accounts. There was money extortion, accepting or demanding money from civilians to prevent police raids or to allow the showing of certain films. This is just a partial list which contained things more and less severe.

During his trial it was proved that he'd ordered his men to follow at least one of the women. The Chicago censor denied that his purpose was to lure her into some questionable place, insisting that it was for the purpose of enlarging the scope of his own investigations.

His attorneys admitted the charges but said they could present evidence that in two instances while it was not part of any morals inspection work there were causes justifying his actions. As was a problem across the country the full scope of the censors' duties (from what I've read) were vague, often changing and secret.

"The removal of Major Funkhouser is not hailed as a victory by the Chicago film men. His successor, William H. Luthardt has shown a tendency to follow the same lines of censoring as that used under the former regime. In fact he has already issued a notice that he will revoke the licenses of theaters showing films from which cutouts ordered by the censor board have not been made following conviction in court." 

Former Postmaster General,
Will Hays puts OK stamps on Bathing Beauties
He arrives 1922
Will H. Hays became president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in 1922. He worked with individual state censor boards and studios who made the movies.

National Board of Review
The Ballots, National Board of Review of Motion Pictures...
The People's Institute was based in New York. The Institute would change its name to National Board of Review of Motion Pictures to avoid sounding as though they were associated with censorship. In 1909, the Institute talked about the need for a national censorship board. 

National Board of Review 1927
They noted that their representatives were from the following organizations: The City Vigilance League, the Ethical-Social League for Education, the Public Schools, The Society for the Prevention of Crime, the Women's Municipal League, Association of Moving Picture Exhibitors New York State. 

All of the members of all of these groups, regardless of their motivation at the start or throughout were given ballots, forms and in some cases, phone numbers. They were on a mission to report and evaluate what they saw and felt. So they'd better see and feel and report something. 

National Board of Review Ballot 1920

Did you ever notice "Passed by the National Board of Review" in on the screen when watching your favorite films (1916 into the 1950s)?

Here's some content of their film review ballot, circa 1920:
Name of picture, maker, number of reels

Choose One:
  • Passed without change
  • Passed subject to elimination (note eliminations on the reverse of ballot)
  • Condemned in toto (note reasons on the reverse of ballot)
If a member is disqualified with the verdict of the majority and believes that the picture should receive consideration, the ballot may be marked as follows
Referred to a second review committee
Appealed to the Grand Committee

Type of Picture
Percentage value

For the following mark: Excellent, Good, Fair or Poor
Instructional Value
Art of production
Entertainment value
Moral effect

Fill in the blank/Check one or more
  • This picture is satisfactory for audiences: (age groups)
    This picture is recommended for use by: institutions: colleges, schools, ethical and religions, libraries
    This picture is valuable for: civic work, social work ...
  • Current information about:
  • Propaganda for:
  • Americanization as it teaches:
"Please mark ballot in full."

There was a National Board of Review Magazine for many years.  In 1926 an editorial about Gross Exaggerations discussed how movie characters lived in homes like palaces. It also talked about the technology of film vs the human eye. The extreme close up and how fast things could move on film, how did that register in the mind of the viewer? The writer was happy to see that filmmakers were beginning to slow down and have fewer close-ups, etc.  

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Comments from Film Producers:

"Some thoughts on decent pictures by the men who make them"

"The right of free speech has cost untold agonies and rivers of blood. It is not to be thrown away. And after all, pictures have a very effective censorship in the persons Pa and Ma who will soon regulate any person who offends decencies." -- David Wark Griffith, World Famous Director

"The best commercial word in our slogan is the word Clean" -- Adolph Zukor, President Paramount-Artcraft

"The Pennsylvania censor board, one of the strictest in the Unites States, has not turned down one Metro picture in three years." -- Richard A. Rowland, President Metro Pictures Corporation

"We kow-tow only to Public Opinion - the one infallible censor." -- Carl Laemmle, President Universal Film Manufacturing Company

"First National was organized to encourage great artists to give their very best in wholesome and inspiring amusement." -- J.D. Williams, President First National Exhibitors' Circuit

"I pledge myself to make clean pictures just as naturally as I would pledge myself not to drink Prussic acid, leap into a blast furnace or throw myself in front of a railroad train." -- -- Lewis J. Selznick, President Select Pictures

"Motion Pictures in general have done more to improve the morals of American cities than any other factor in ten years." -- Samuel Goldwyn, President Goldwyn Pictures
-- Photoplay 1919

Score card Federal Motion Picture Council, 1926. "One of Canon Chase's motion picture score cards by which the canon's followers are able to make up their minds about the morality or immorality of a photoplay." Specific breeches of morality are offered to look out for. The cards are sold at forty cents for a hundred. This organization did not believe that Hays and the National Board of Review were going far enough.

If film contained any of the following mark with a cross: (examples)
  • Gun play or hold ups
  • Vulgar display of figure, indecent dress
  • Tense nerve-racking scenes
  • Sensual leering looks, suggestive bed or bathroom scenes
  • Ridicule of clergy, police, the law
Does the picture not only entertain but teach important moral truths and inspire moral ideals?
Is it propaganda? 
Does it promote business interests of securing divorces? 
Commercial attempt to break the American holy day, the Sabbath? 

There were more jokes and cartoons such as If I were Will Hays, which thought up other things that Hays might do with his time.

"I would force stars to write every word
of their travels and memoirs themselves"

The Production Code was adopted in 1930. It spelled out acceptable and unacceptable content for motion pictures in the US. The Code was enforced in 1934. It is also called also called the Hays Code after Will H. Hays, President of The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) as of 1922. Pre-Code cinema is the era before 1930 in Hollywood.

There is so much talked about, documentaries, college courses, books have been devoted the topic or portions of it. Sadly this sort of thing does repeat itself. 

Other Events, Media of the Era
Loose Talk Can Cost Lives T Shirt
It was noted that what could be read in books, including in so-called juvenile novels was very salacious and rarely censored. Things could be heard on the radio and read and seen on stage. 

The big radio networks came into existence beginning in the 1920s. The Jazz Age is frequently referred to as being the Roaring Twenties. It was ushered in thanks to radio, the images seen in movies and music heard on phonograph records and in clubs.

World War One, also called the Great War is having its centenary in 2014. WW1 lasted July 1914-November 1918. In 1920 women earned the right to vote.

Action Comics would introduce a Superman comic book in 1938 but they weren't the first comics. The Comics Code Authority wasn't formed until 1954. Television would arrive in the late 1940s, early 1950s.

For some reason the movies with their scary new environment, technology and availability to the masses seemed to make it all worse.

Maybe it can help put things in context. Evaluating a movie, a producer, writer, actor's behavior helps by putting it into context.

Why Be Good? aka That's a Bad Girl is a First National Pictures silent comedy film from 1929. It starred Colleen Moore and Neil Hamilton.

Why Be Good? Sexuality and Censorship in Early Cinema is an interesting documentary. Some parts, about Mary Pickford for instance are curious.

This is not meant to be a thorough chronology or history of film censorship. It has been researched to the best of my ability but I'm not an expert and welcome input. These are just some of the interesting events that are pre-1930s, the era of movie censorship that we hear the most about.

Yes, there's more to come. 
  • What if they censored Shakespeare's plays?!
  • What did Ed Sullivan say?
  • What were the stars' own taboos, No-Nos that were written into their contracts, self-censorship?

Related Books, Pages of Interest:
Most of the books are available in paper of digital ebook/Kindle formats

Rudolph Valentino: When I Come Back, Valentino was called the male vamp by some censors. He gave women fantasies, ideas that they could experience things, overtaken by desire for such a man and their actions would not be their fault.

What did the censors cut out? Scenes removed by censors, subtitles/intertitles changed, removed 

Censorship around the world, Japan 1920s, France/United States 1950s what do Cary Grant and Monty Python have to say?

Early 20th Century Movie Theater Owners

Defending the First: Commentary on First Amendment Issues and Cases  available in paper of digital/Kindle formats. Not surprisingly it's said that for Canon William Chase, "Cecil B. De Mille's orgiastic biblical epics were a particular target."

Purifying America: Women, Cultural Reform and Pro-Censorship Activism, 1873-1933 (Women in American History) "Debates that continue to divide women."  

Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films, and the Benefits of Censorship  "Rather than being ruined by censorship, Victorian novels and Hays Code films were stirred and stimulated by the very forces meant to restrain them."

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Sources not cited above
Exhibitor's Herald 1909, 1918
Exhibitors' Trade Review 1922  
Motion Picture Magazine 1916, 1922, 1923
Motography 1915
Movie Picture World 1908, 1909, 1918
Nickelodeon 1909 
Pantomime 1922
Picturegoer 1916 
Screenland 1922
St. Petersburg Times April 1926

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