The First Wave

by Chris A. Blair

The first moving picture was presented in the United States in 1895, and controversy over film content soon followed. Protests over the film Dolorita in the Passion Dance led the owners of the kinetoscope parlor to pull the film to avoid interference from the local authorities. Some historians have stated that the early crusade against the movies reflects the struggle between the growing immigrant population and the “urban, bourgeois Progressivism” movement at the turn of the twentieth century (Cripps, 1997, p. 73). However, a look at some of the arguments from that era reveals a different motivation. While some later expressed their concern over such a powerful medium as motion pictures in the hands of Jewish immigrants, the industry was primarily under the control of east coast Catholics at the beginning of the century. And though the tension over the cultural control of the nation divided Catholics and Protestants throughout the first half of the century, early arguments against motion pictures reveal a unified message.

The first movie censorship law was enacted in Chicago in 1907, and from 1907 to 1909 the powerful Chicago Tribune waged an editorial campaign against motion pictures. One editorial from early 1907 argued that the “Five Cent Theatre” tended to the “lowest passions of children” and said, “[It is] proper to suppress them at once. They cannot be defended. They are hopelessly bad” (Cook, D. A., 1990, p. 35). Another editorial criticized the content of motion pictures, saying:

One’s regret for such exhibitions is deepened by the reflection that just as much time and effort have been spent in preparing the films for these pictures, as would have been in producing others of a more desirable character. . . . And all the thought, time and energy have been expended for the portrayal of the realism of bloodshed, crime and brutality.

There are, of course, many exhibitions in the moving picture line that give praiseworthy entertainments; but there are very many more that pander to low passions and have nothing but the film that will draw the biggest crowd without actually pulling the house into the policecourt. (Jowett, 1976, p. 44)

New York Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. shared the sentiments in these editorials and shut down all movie theaters in New York on Christmas in 1908, in response to numerous complaints of indecent material on the screen (Couvares, 1996a; Cripps, 1997).

National Board of CensorshipThe initial protests of indecency in movies, combined with the growing political pressures, prompted the industry to form the National Board of Censorship (later the National Board of Review), a private reform organization committed to influencing the filmmaking process, yet with no legal authority over the movie industry. This lack of power over the movie industry, along with the fact that they were being payrolled by the motion picture industry, eventually led to its downfall. The regulatory board reviewed films, and approved films received their Seal of Approval, which appeared at the beginning credits. This pacified some critics into the twenties, but a combination of internal dissent among the Board of Review and a number of highly publicized scandals in Hollywood stimulated renewed cries for censorship, causing the motion picture industry to take action.

State and local censorship boards increased in power from 1915 through 1919, due in part to the empowering ruling in Mutual v. Ohio, discussed in the previous chapter. With the Supreme Court’s blessing, states and cities approved the censorship of movies. The rationale began to narrow from the general protection of community morals to the specific goal of protecting children from the pervasive influences of the movies. This narrower rationale can be seen in the statement of the Chicago Motion Picture Commission, after unanimously voting for the censorship of all motion pictures in Chicago:

Heretofore, throughout all ages, the best thought, the most learned minds have been devoted to educating the youth along lines of betterment, and protecting the weak and thoughtless from the inroads of designing exploiters. It cannot be that in this progressive age we should silently consent or concur in having our wives and children, our homes, our schools and our churches turned over to the entertainer in order that he may make a profit regardless of the consequences to the individual . . . It seems absolutely essential that the exhibitions should be publicly controlled in the interest of the education and good morals of the children. (Jowett, 1976, p. 143)

The organized campaign for motion picture censorship would take a back seat to the war effort in the late 1910s, as the motion picture industry would rise to support the war efforts and the public’s attention was diverted elsewhere. But in the years following the war, the popularity of the movies would boom, as would cries for its censorship (Randall, 1968).

References:

Cook, D. A. (1990). A history of narrative film (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Couvares, F. G. (1996a). Hollywood, main street, and the church. In F. G. Couvares (Ed.), Movie censorship and American culture (pp. 129–158). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Cripps, T. (1997). Hollywood’s high noon: Moviemaking & society before television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jowett, G. S. (1976). Film: The democratic art. Boston: Little and Brown.

Randall, R. S. (1968). Censorship of the movies: The social and political control of a mass medium. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

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