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.
No 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:
It 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.”
This 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.
There’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.