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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).


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.


The Cycle of Self-Regulation in the Motion Picture Industry

by Chris A. Blair, Ph.D.

The cycle of self-regulation, as seen through various mass media in the past century, follows the pattern first seen in the motion picture industry. The tension between censorship and self-regulation in the film industry during the first quarter of the twentieth century provides a blueprint for the future struggles in the comic book industry in the fifties, the radio industry in the seventies, and the television industry in the late nineties. The pattern is always complicated by the circumstances and cultural context surrounding the fight for content control, yet the simplicity of the steps leading to the self-regulation is striking.

The cycle of self-regulation in mass media is as follows: first, content included in the medium or conduct within the industry offends or otherwise provokes an individual or a group to protest. Second, protests intensify and begin to impact the success of the medium, often when state and local officials begin to investigate the complaints and consider taking action against the medium. Third, the industry responds to the threat of censorship with an initial attempt at self-regulation that often is more of a public relations campaign than an attempt at “cleaning up” its act. This effort at self-regulation often pacifies the majority of protestors temporarily. Fourth, some event or combination of events leads to disillusionment with the current system, causing the protests to resume with new vigor.

Finally, the fear of federal intervention—or in some cases the actual act of federal intervention— causes the industry to form a self-regulatory body that exerts substantial influence over the content of the medium. This five-step pattern is seen first in the motion picture industry, then with the comic book industry, and to a lesser degree within radio broadcasting. In the 1990s, the television industry took a step further toward organized self-regulation with the Television Parental Guidelines and the implementation of the v-chip.

This article contends that the pattern leading to self-regulation traverses specific circumstances and cultural contexts to provide a better understanding of the struggle between censorship and regulation in mass media in the United States. This article argues that self-regulation was inevitable in these specific cases and was not the result of one person or one group’s crusade to regulate the medium. This pattern, however, is not conclusive or exhaustive, as is evident in the radio industry, the music industry and the video game industry at this time. This article does not assume that all media will follow the same pattern, but at the same time argues that this cycle toward self-regulation cannot be ignored when investigating content control of a mass medium. A closer historical look at the different examples in mass media should provide a better understanding of the steps leading to content self-regulation.

Through a brief sketch of the motion picture industry from its beginnings to 1934, one can identify the patterns leading to the strict implementation of the Production Code by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). These events set the standard that would be followed by other media in later decades, as is evidenced in the situation surrounding the crime and horror comics and the comic book industry in the late forties and early fifties, leading to the formation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) and their code, which closely resembles the MPPDA’s Production Code. These examples also shed light on the current regulatory situation, though American culture and its view of censorship have changed over the past decades. The pattern of self-regulation can also be identified in the 1990s with the federally “encouraged” Parental Guidelines and v-chip technology, and more recently with calls to address the “problem” of videogame and Internet addiction. Though some of the circumstances and approaches have changed, the basic arguments and reactions seem to have changed very little.