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  • From Censors to CriticsRepresenting “the People”
  • Stephen Weinberger

“There is no real reason for censors. Neither is there for cockroaches. But we have them just the same. They enjoy themselves at our expense.”1

Censorship and Civil Rights

In 1923, when director and writer Tamar Lane made these comments, there was every reason to believe that it was only a matter of time before most, if not all, states would have film censorship boards. Although the earliest of these began in cities, with Chicago leading the way in 1907, very quickly it was state boards that began to proliferate. The first of these appeared in Pennsylvania in 1911, followed by Ohio in 1913, Kansas in 1914, Maryland in 1916, and New York and Virginia in 1933. By the winter of 1921/1922, censorship bills were being discussed in over thirty other states.2

This development is certainly not surprising. While film, almost from its very beginning, was hailed as the ideal democratic and affordable entertainment, it was these very same qualities that caused conservative moralists to have deep misgivings about its antisocial effects. Live theater might present similar stories of crime and illicit romance, but it did not generate the same concerns. Not only was a stage play less lifelike (in mise en scène, vocal projection, blocking, etc.) than what appeared on film, but those who attended plays were considered among the better educated and materially well off and, therefore, responsible enough not to act out in real life what they had just seen. The same could not be said for movie audiences. Coming largely from the lower classes, many of whom were immigrants, such people were seen as highly impressionable. To expose them to lifelike scenes of crime, violence, and lust was to put society at risk.3 [End Page 5]

For conservative moralists, the natural and proper solution to this situation was censorship—that is, to require the removal of scenes that might arouse antisocial behavior and to encourage the introduction of scenes that might instill healthy American values. For more liberal groups, however, the solution was not so clear. As advocates of free speech, they could not easily come to terms with censorship. Moreover, since many of these groups felt a strong affinity with the lower classes, especially the urban poor, they regarded film as having the potential to elevate its audience by exposing them to new ideas and situations. At the very same time, however, they also agreed with their more conservative counterparts that, because movies had a unique power to influence their viewers, there should be no gratuitous or graphic violence or obscenity on the screen.4

The purpose of this study is to consider how liberals from the early days of film up to the introduction of the Rating System in 1968 sought to balance their opposition both to censorship and to gratuitous and graphic violence and sexuality. Could enlightened, well-intentioned authorities require the removal of certain scenes without being branded as censors? How did liberals regard their relationship with the common people? What allowed them to believe that they had both the authority and the obligation to speak for and look after the moral welfare of these people?

With regard to the film industry, it perhaps goes without saying that the studio heads unequivocally opposed censorship and regularly invoked the ideals of free speech. This position, however, had little to do with high-minded principles and everything to do with economics. For them, having to satisfy the often idiosyncratic and irrational regulations of each city and state board made the cost of doing business far more complicated and expensive than it needed to be. And yet censorship was an established fact of life. Although filmmakers might argue that censorship was un-American and unconstitutional, such appeals to lofty principle had little practical value. And these men were nothing if not practical. Seeking to make the best of a bad situation, some came out publicly in favor of federal censorship. At the 1916 Congressional hearings to consider establishing federal censorship, Arthur Friend, representing Jesse Lasky’s Famous Players, Equitable Film, World Film, and Metro Pictures, declared that while his clients opposed...


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