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The National Board of Censorship

industry film motion picture

Trade-press coverage was quite comprehensive in providing assessments of the economic value of particular releases and background information on industry activities. But the first critics seriously to regard the motion picture as a cultural force were not inside the industry, nor were they enlightened tastemakers seeking a place for film within the larger realm of the arts. Rather, the first serious consideration of motion pictures as a medium of unique expressive power came from social reformers of the nickelodeon era, who sought to control or suppress it (as did Canon William Chase of the Society for the Prevention of Crime) or to guide and liberate its positive energies (as did Charles Sprague Smith and the People’s Institute). 12

In 1909 the National Board of Censorship was established as “the first formal attempt by the film industry to ward off legal film censorship through quasi selfregulation.” Responding to the storm surrounding Mayor McClellan’s abortive closing of New York’s nickelodeons in December 1908, industry figures turned to the People’s Institute, which earlier that year had produced a lengthy study of motion-picture-theater conditions in New York, not entirely unfavorable to the industry. The Institute took the lead in establishing a Board of Censorship of Motion Picture Shows, whose members represented such groups as the Women’s Municipal League, the Public Education Association, the Federation of Churches, and the League for Political Education, as well as representatives of the Association of Motion Picture Exhibitors of New York State. 13

The Board would view films, recommending cuts or possibly suppressing entire subjects. The New York exhibitors agreed to abide by its decisions, and since they represented so large a percentage of the domestic market, the Board’s influence was soon being felt by producers nationwide. Within a few months, the Board became a national organization, operating out of offices in New York, with a bureaucracy funded by per-reel charges for each subject reviewed.

For several years the industry was able to use the Board to help ward off calls for legalized censorship in most jurisdictions, although Pennsylvania (1911), Ohio (1913), and Kansas (1913) had already established official state censorship boards before a nationwide storm over film censorship broke in 1914–1915. On 18 March 1914 Senator Hoke Smith of Georgia introduced national legislation calling for the establishment of a federal motion picture commission. Its commissioners would have licensing powers over all films in interstate commerce, with the ability to suppress prizefight and bullfight films, and other films of an indecent, immoral, or obscene character. 14 Increasing agitation over fight films, as well as a recent cycle of white-slavery and birth-control films, enabled Canon William Chase and the Reverend Wilbur Crafts of the International Reform Association to generate considerable public support for the bill.

Their real target was not the motion-picture industry but the National Board of Censorship itself, which Chase thought a corrupt tool of the film interests. In the hearings that followed, Chase and his allies attacked the Board for failing to deal with all films in distribution (submission was voluntary), for being in the pay of the industry, and for applying relatively liberal New York standards to films that were being exhibited nationwide.

The Board and its supporters testified against the bill, which they saw as a violation of First Amendment guarantees of free expression. They defended the notion of voluntary censorship (or “review,” as they now began to call it) and insisted that members of their reviewing committees were unpaid volunteers whose decisions were financially insulated from any film-industry contributions. In addition, they attacked the idea of a federal motion-picture commission as a potential hotbed of nepotism and graft, an argument also taken up by the industry. 15

On 16 February 1915, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education voted unanimously in favor of the bill, a serious blow but one that was overshadowed a week later by the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Mutual Film Corporation v. Ohio Industrial Commission. 16 This landmark decision, involving the prior restraint of D. W. Griffith’s film THE BIRTH OF A NATION in the state of Ohio, would ground all federal policy on motion-picture censorship until the 1950s. Speaking for a unanimous court, Justice McKenna completely undercut the Board’s main argument in opposition to film censorship:

The exhibition of motion pictures is a business pure and simple, organized and conducted for profit, … not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion. They are mere representations of events, of ideas and sentiments published or known; vivid, useful, and entertaining no doubt, but …. capable of evil, having power for it, the greater because of their attractiveness and manner of exhibition (236 U.S. 230 1915, quoted in Richard Randall, Censorship of the Movies, p. 19).

As Richard Randall points out, the logic of this decision overstated the differences between film and print, even in 1915. Books and newspapers were also published for profit, after all, and no conclusive evidence of the film’s special power for evil had been submitted. 17 The notion that film was a mere show or spectacle not conducive to the play of ideas was an outdated concept clearly belied by the controversy surrounding the film in question.

At this point the industry moved to disassociate itself from the Board, which had become a lightning rod for Chase, Craft, and all the other pro-censorship forces. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in the Mutual case, the Board continued to base its anti-censorship campaign on First Amendment grounds. The industry saw this as a dead issue, and, with their product now firmly categorized as interstate baggage, hoped to develop some other form of defense, perhaps along the line of property rights. Assessing their options, some in the industry felt that national censorship would be preferable to a spate of state and local boards scattered across the country, each demanding registration fees, and each applying a different set of standards. 18

Soon after the Mutual decision, the New York Dramatic Mirror admitted that the industry was badly in need of strong and effective censorship:

We place before the eyes of our children comedies made of ingredients that composed the burlesque of a decade ago; we give our daughters in their teens the harrowing Nigger; we turn half-baked directors loose upon erotic themes that have spelled failure for genius. And then we tell the world we do not need censorship (24 March 1915, p. 22). 19

But the Dramatic Mirror muted its call by supporting restraint, good taste, and the same sort of unofficial censorship already being dispensed by the Board.

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