Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Censorship

Arbuckle and Rappe, 100 Years Later

On Labor Day weekend, 1921, at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, California, a party took place that caused the death of a woman, the end of a man’s career, and ultimately the implementation of the Motion Picture Code that changed how the movie business operated in Hollywood. Myths about that party abound, and in fact these myths constitute some of the earliest awareness many people have about the silent era. Not surprisingly, silent film buffs have long been dedicated to correcting these myths, but in doing so, some have swung equally far in presenting “disinformation from the other side.” In honor of this strange centenary, I have spent time reading up on this event and have come to some conclusions – some of which may challenge received wisdom on the topic.

Rappe

Virginia Rappe

So, what really happened? Well, some facts everyone can agree on. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle went up to San Francisco on Labor Day weekend, having just wrapped a grueling shooting schedule to produce three features at once, and, along with two friends checked in to three rooms on the twelfth floor of the St. Francis hotel. A party started early on the next day, with people stopping in, drifting out, and sometimes returning later. There was bootleg booze (Prohibition was on already), a phonograph playing current hits, a mixed crowd, and the big man presided in his pajamas. Several young actresses and models were among the guests, and at some point, a young woman named Virginia Rappe went into the bathroom, passing through Arbuckle’s bedroom. Somewhat later, Arbuckle went into that bedroom and the door was closed for at least a few minutes. When Arbuckle emerged, Rappe was lying on his bed in pain, and various guests went into the room to attempt to comfort her or suggest home remedies – the consensus was that she had had too much to drink. Eventually, a doctor was called, the party ended, and several days later, Rappe died from a ruptured bladder.

Roscoe_Arbuckle

Roscoe Arbuckle

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Censorship in 1916

There is a lot of confusion today over what “censorship” means, much of which I think is because the word itself has fallen out of fashion and become an accusation rather than a useful description of anything. One hundred years ago, people who felt that they had the ability to judge what other people should read, watch, or experience were far less shy about calling openly for censorship, and this kept things more honest. Today they call for “ratings systems” and laws for the “protection of children” (how could anyone be against protecting children?), which makes it all much more slippery.

CensoredNo industry wants to be restricted from doing business as freely as possible, and in a capitalist society censorship ultimately means placing restrictions of some kind on the ability of cultural industries to sell their wares. Whereas the publishing industry was an established force in the early twentieth century, the embryonic motion picture industry had less power, prestige, and legal protection. As a new technology, it was ripe for criticism from all quarters. People really weren’t sure what the long-term results of exposure to moving images would be (any more than they are today about the long-term effects of texting or the internet). Would children’s eyesight be damaged? Would their literacy suffer? Would they lose respect for parental authority? Would they all become criminals? No one knew, but some were willing to suggest the most dire of possible consequences.

Of course the motion picture industry didn’t take all this lying down, small and new though it was at the time. Motion picture exhibitors, distributors, and producers were making money hand over fist and they used some of that money to protect their own interests by forming associations and leagues dedicated to fighting motion picture censorship. One of their strongest allies was the magazine Moving Picture World, which I frequently cite in my reviews. The Moving Picture World was created as a news magazine for exhibitors, the owners of nickelodeons and movie palaces (and chains of such venues), so that they could keep up with trends in the industry, hot new titles, and technical advances. It also became a strong advocate against censorship, as we can see from this editorial page from the first issue of 1916 (click on it to blow it up so you can read it), where it talks about censorship at the local, State, and federal levels:

MPW EditorialIt opens with concerns about local censorship in Oregon, my state of residence. I regret that it doesn’t specify the towns it mentions: one in which local exhibitors called for censorship to forestall worse censorship and one in which “young girls” comprised the censor board. Still, it exemplifies the frustration distributors had to feel when faced with different standards of censorship for each town where they wanted to sell their product. This also led to multiple different re-edited and re-cut versions of each film being distributed, infuriating the creators and confusing historians to this day. In a later paragraph, news about an exhibitors’ convention in New York is an entry to a call for visible opposition to State-wide censorship bills soon to be introduced in Albany. One of these bills would close all movie theaters on Sunday, one of the most profitable days for exhibitors, but also a contested day because of its association with church-going. In speaking about the “modern Sunday,” the editor means the secularization of leisure time, still an important issue at the time. The editorial ends with a petition against Federal Censorship, and by encouraging readers to find “citizens who are not in any way connected with the motion picture industry” to sign it. While dealing with local and State censorship is egregious, the MPW claims that Federal Censorship would “drive not hundreds, but thousands of exhibitors out of business.”

What they aren’t mentioning in all of this is the critical Supreme Court decision of the previous year. On February 23, 1915, the case Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio was resolved in the State of Ohio’s favor. Ohio had set up a State Censorship Board in 1913, and Mutual, sick of having to re-cut films for each and every state they sold to, took them to court. In the decision, the Court stated, “the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated 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.”

SCOTUS-oldsenateThis is really important: so far as the highest court in the land was concerned, motion pictures had no free speech protections. This remained the case until the decision was overturned in 1952. So, during pretty much the whole “studio era” or what is now often called the “Classic” or “Golden Age” of Hollywood, movies could be legally censored by governmental organs. Which has a lot to do with what was produced and why, but we can get into more of that history as this project continues. For now, I want to look at some aspects of the court’s decision.

The biggest distinction they’re making is that films are businesses, and not therefore “part of the press…or organs of public opinion.” This is at least as bizarre to me (but also the reverse) as the Citizen’s United decision that spending money is the same thing as free speech. For some reason, the fact that newspapers are profitable businesses is completely ignored. They are elevated to a public good, treated as something apart from the business interests, as if they were publically-funded institutions like libraries or the post office, which by this interpretation would also presumably qualify for free speech protection. It’s unclear how the Court found this distinction between “press” and “business” in the Constitution in the first place, but the implications are staggering. Apart from this, they are ignoring (probably because Mutual’s lawyers never brought it up) the existence of documentaries and newsreels, which would become an important “organ of public opinion” within a few years, and had also been seen as the major purpose of motion pictures by many (including the Lumière Brothers and J.P. Chalmers, the author of the article for Moving Picture World) just a few years before.

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medThere’s another aspect to all of this, which is the question of “movies as an art form.” While directors, actors, and others were arguing fervently that cinema should be taken seriously as a new art form, this doesn’t seem to have even entered into the conversation. Again, I believe this is because the lawyers for Mutual didn’t broach it. It says something about how the industry’s leaders saw themselves: they presented themselves to the Court as a business, and the Court responded in kind. Talk about “art” was all very well for the rubes, but they didn’t expect the idea to be taken seriously at a higher level, is how I read this.

A different decision by the Court a year earlier would have meant a very different editorial for January, 1916. Instead of calling for greater organization to fight hundreds of local censorship ordinances, the focus would have been on clarifying the constitutional limits of government interest in free expression and in local cases that still had not been resolved. The question of film as an “organ of public opinion” or an art form could have been taken more seriously, becoming a matter for serious, high-level discussion, rather than semi-serious ad copy. And, I would say, the growing dominance of the United States film industry would have been a more positive thing, as more creative and innovative product might have become available to inspire artists all over the world. But, history is the study of what did happen, not what didn’t, and from here we study an era in which censorship was an accepted fact of movie making life in the United States.

The Birth of a Nation, Part VIII

Birth_of_a_Nation_Poster_-_SeattleWhen I started this year, it was my intention to map out a series of 12 articles on the release of D.W. Griffith’s nationalist epic, “The Birth of a Nation.” Each would cover a different aspect of the film and the whole would be a cohesive essay on the movie. Because of the claimed importance of the movie, it seemed like dedicating the whole year to its study was justified

Having reached August, however, I don’t find that I have all that much more to say about it. Here’s a quick summary of what I learned so far this year:

  • I don’t much care for the movie, either in terms of content or artistry.
  • It was a runaway smash hit and was praised to the sky at the time, by filmgoers, by critics, and by other directors.
  • Film historians have credited it with all kinds of amazing innovations, most of which had been developed much earlier, and will bend over backward to defend its content, ignoring flagrant racism with lame excuses like “that’s how things were then,” or, perhaps worse, will deliberately cover up its actual message.
  • Its release and distribution is directly linked to the rise of the second Klan in America.
  • D.W. Griffith agreed with its message and either couldn’t understand or refused to believe that it promoted divisiveness and hate in the country.

GriffithDWAnd while we’re on the subject of Griffith, here’s what I’m seeing:

  • He was a good, perhaps great director, but not the superhero he gets made out to be.
  • He is consistently credited with innovations (like the close-up, the fade-out, etc) that others did first and he appears to have accepted that credit while alive, either deliberately or mistakenly muddying the historical record.
  • His best work, and certainly his most innovative/original, was done while working in short format at Biograph. He never seems to have learned how to tell longer stories well, even though he desperately wanted to the whole time.
  • His most important contributions seem to have been in the field of editing, specifically in terms of showing simultaneous action across space. He was not the first to do this, either, however he did develop techniques that made it far more effective. In the best examples, such as “An Unseen Enemy,” cross-cutting makes the whole story work.

AlalogosmallThere’s just one more piece to all of this I want to talk about, and it’s the hardest one for me to approach: the question of censorship. I’m a librarian, and I’m therefore professionally dedicated to combating censorship in all forms. Even apart from that, I’ve always been one to fall on the side of “freedom of speech at any cost.” Certainly I would not want to see it become illegal or impossible for people to see “The Birth of a Nation” today – there’s too much to be learned from it. Honestly, I think if more people saw it, we’d have a better chance of getting a re-evaluation of its historical significance and meaning.

NaacplogoBut, what about back then? The NAACP fought hard battles to keep the movie from opening in various cities, and I’m very grateful to them for doing so. If they hadn’t spoken up, there would be no evidence that, yes, in fact people at that time did find this movie offensive, and their wishes were conveniently ignored. The “it was just that way back then” narrative would succeed. How else could they have made their point known except by trying to censor it? They could have (and did) try the route of “counter-speech,” making their own movies to show the value and worth of African Americans, or correcting the record on the Civil War. But, none of them even came close to capturing the popular imagination the way “Birth of a Nation” did. It’s easy to talk about counter-speech being the best way to fight hate speech, but the reality is that you don’t just make a blockbuster because you happen have the moral high ground or the truth on your side. It takes money, professional connections, artistic skills and distribution infrastructure, which are not easy to come by. In the end, the NAACP lost most of its battles, or won them technically, but still were unable to enforce their wins. “Birth of a Nation” was released all over the country, but not without a fight, and that fight remains part of the historical record.

Birth of a Nation7Am I saying that the world would be a better place if “Birth of a Nation” had not been released, or had been restricted to a clandestine release? I don’t think so. It would have been nice if the 20s KKK had not had access to such a powerful recruiting tool, but there probably wasn’t any way to stop that. The fact that the movie was released, and that it became such a runaway hit that nearly everyone in film agreed it was brilliant for generations is, in fact, an important reflection of the times. I’m grateful to the NAACP, not because they wanted to suppress speech, but because they used their campaign to remind Americans then and now that there was more than one side to the story. Even a campaign for censorship is itself a form of speech, and deserves to be listened to as much for what it says as for what it tries to stop others from saying.

Birth of a NationWhat disappoints me about modern historians and classic film fans is that they simply shrug off these complexities and accept the dominant narrative as the only one. “Classic” movies in America are generally defined as being those made during the period when the fewest non-white people were on the screen, and those that were there had the most stereotyped roles. This is something that needs to be challenged. Enjoying or studying old movies shouldn’t entail accepting the ideology of the period in which they were made without question. It’s possible for Griffith to have been both an innovator and a racist. The world is a complicated place, and understanding it requires a willingness to be honest about your evidence, and keep asking new questions, and, most of all, being ready to change your mind.

That’s all I have to say about this movie for now. The last question, how I’m going to handle it in terms of the “Century Awards,” I leave for next month.

The Birth of a Nation, Part V

For this entry in my series on D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, I want to speak about the contemporary reception to the movie. Up to now, I’ve been arguing that the importance of the movie has been over-rated, often at the expense of an honest assessment of its content and what it says about the history of cinema. It wasn’t as big a technical breakthrough as has often been claimed, nor was it the “first feature film” (it wasn’t even Griffith’s first feature film), nor the “first blockbuster” or really much of the first anything. So, why do so many historians and filmmakers seem to regard it as such a big deal?

MPP Birth Sale

Well, part of that answer starts with the media campaign and critical response in 1915. To confirm just how big a deal it was at the time, I went and looked at the Moving Picture World issues for the end of 1915 and searched for its name. The movie actually had its first screenings in January, and officially premiered in LA in February, and movies at this time usually ran for a week or two at most, so just finding mentions of it being held over in New York week after week in October, November, and December was already an indicator of just how big a smash it was. There were still cities where it was opening for the first time as well, and these would list prices from 50 cents to $2 for seats (a lot of money in 1915) and packed houses of 2000 people or more. Many of these people, it was presumed, had already seen the picture in neighboring cities, or when traveling to larger urban centers. It broke records for screenings and attendance in various places during this time. In October, a story broke about a distributor paying $250,000 for the rights to it in 16 states, which was reported as “the largest transaction ever conducted for the rights to a traveling attraction in the history of the American theater” (later stories suggest that this may have been exaggerated).

MPP Simplex ad

Beyond the box office, I found that “The Birth of a Nation” was also treated as a major artistic achievement. Even passing mentions of the film frequently referred to it as “the big Griffith spectacle,” “this wonderful feature,” a “masterpiece,” or “an immense picture creation.” Studios compared their new releases to it, claiming them as “second only to The Birth of a Nation” or a movie with action that “outdoes ‘The Birth of a Nation’ in thrills.” One film was released as “a Birth of a Nation among children’s films,” and a new Mutual comedy was touted as “The Mirth of a Nation.” The Simplex projector company proudly stated that its machines were “used exclusively” for screenings of “The Birth of a Nation,” which were referred to as “the greatest production in the world.” The movie appealed to people who didn’t usually praise film at the time: the Minneapolis Superintendent of Schools is quoted as saying that “all children should see such pictures” and a Wisconsin pastor “thanks God” he lives in an age when he can see it.

MPP Thank God

All of this despite the fact that the movie met with resistance from the NAACP everywhere it opened, and that African Americans tried to get it banned anywhere they had a voice. The Moving Picture World, of course, was strongly opposed to censorship, and it’s even possible that to some degree their support of the film was a statement in favor of freedom of expression. But, the word “censorship” didn’t have the stigma then that it does today, a great many people did feel that there should be some kind of state control over what could be presented to audiences in theaters. Yet, again and again, and in spite of some strident arguments for the potential harm that could be caused by the racist material in the movie, white city counselors, official censor boards, and higher government officials passed the film, allowing its performance despite the objections of a part of their constituency.

MPP Mirth

The other aspect of all this that seems puzzling is that, when I look at the film now, it really isn’t all that impressive; least of all by comparison to other movies coming out in the US at the end of 1915. Maybe in February and March of that year there wasn’t much to beat it, but by the last months you’ve got “Carmen,” “The Cheat,” “The Italian,” and “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” all much more technically advanced, visually sophisticated, and narratively complex movies. Yet people at the time were still holding it up as the measure of cinematic greatness, and apparently being taken seriously, to judge again by box office success.

I may need several more essays to discuss usefully why this should be the case, but it begins with two points: white middle class audiences at the time lived in an environment where there was “nothing wrong” with the racial views the movie espoused, and Griffith successfully exploited the desire of white Americans everywhere to celebrate their national and racial pride. Reports of the record-breaking screenings in Portland, Oregon make much of “a score of horsemen clad in Ku Klux regalia [who] were a common sight on the streets” during the run (it will be recalled that Oregon had the highest per capital Klan membership in the nation only a few years later). The movie was shown at elaborate “movie palaces” or high-class dramatic theaters, with a full orchestra and uniformed ushers, not in second-rate nickelodeons. Moreover, it was one of the most explicitly nationalist features to come out of the US in that year. Other nations, especially Italy and Russia, had gotten in ahead in terms of making nationalist epics, and the Italian ones, at least, had been released in the US to the amazement of viewers. But they were the stories of foreigners, and I think Americans wanted to feel that their history was as important as the Punic Wars. Griffith gave them that, and whether his telling of it was true or not, it did conform with the historical myths that many believed, or wanted to believe, about their country. That this meant trampling on the dignity of a minority was far less important at a time in American history when African American enfranchisement was still tenuous, at best.