A Brief History of Movie Censorship

The 1950s may have saw the implementation of the Comics Code, which literally censored comics off the newsstand and all but destroyed the comics industry, but before that even some of the earliest forms of movie entertainment—the Nickelodeon and moveable theater—faced their own controversial censorship crusade. Once Upon a Screen looks back at the history of film censorship before the establishment of the infamous Hays Code in 1930.

At the turn-of-the 20th century, a fledgling and highly experimental entertainment form—the motion picture—was quickly gaining popularity, and every big city across the United States was setting up makeshift movie theaters to attract emerging crowds of movie-goers. Bright lights and gaudy posters promised outrageous excitement and splendid entertainment to 1900s youths, and because the technology was constantly being developed and improved, it was soon easy for folks in New York to enjoy the same pictures as those in Chicago. Hence, a new form of mass media was born. Moreover, the explosive public response to motion pictures encouraged amateur movie makers to continually explore and experiment with technique and content, pushing the boundaries of entertainment consumption in ways the world had never before seen.

Yet, like anything new and innovative and with a growing number of people enjoying a new entertainment form, there also come groups of concerned citizens who inevitably seek to shut down the all fun, afraid that change will inevitably lead to the moral corruption of American youths. In the comics industry, it was medical professionals like Dr. Fredric Wertham, who manufactured his research to fit his hypothesis that the consumption of comics by children lead to an increase in juvenile delinquency; government officials like Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who put comics on trial and organized an entire Senate Subcommittee Hearing to prove his case against what he saw as a national epidemic; and numerous parent-teacher organizations and media channels across the United States, who propagated the anti-comics messages said officials touted.

The movie industry was no exception. “The outcry for decency was first heard in big cities like New York and Chicago, but it quickly spread across the land,” writes Once Upon a Screen, adding:

Censorship was the answer to all of the concerns. The cries for government intervention were heard loud and clear from the beginning of cinema through the enforcement of the Production Code and beyond.

What started as a 1907 ordinance in Chicago that required any movies shown within the city to be preemptively approved and deemed “acceptable” by the state police, quickly escalated to the formation of the National Board of Censorship in 1909. Much like the Comics Code Authority, which was established in the aftermath of the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearing on the link between comics and juvenile delinquency, the National Board of Censorship was an industry-created regulatory group comprised of industry representatives, public educators, and community members formed to essentially censor films that didn’t fit a particular set of rules and guidelines. “Many believed that movies were a poor substitute for more traditional forms of art and entertainment,” notes the Chicago Historic Museum. Moreover:

One needed only to pass by posters advertising movies such as Blind Wives, The Branded Woman, Discontented Wives, and Forbidden Fruit to become suspicious of what this upstart industry was selling… To many critics, this new medium seemed destined and even designed to create a world morally unhinged and aesthetically numb.

In 1915, the motion picture industry had its own (bad) day in court when the case Mutual Film Corp v. Industrial Commission of Ohio went to the Supreme Court, which then upheld a decision that movies were, in fact not an art form, and as such were not protected by the First Amendment. As such, they could be freely censored as deemed fit by individual states. As noted by the Supreme Court:

The exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit like other spectacles, and not to be regarded as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion within the meaning of freedom of speech and publication guaranteed by the Constitution of Ohio.

From the East Coast to the West Coast, much like the epidemic officials and morality police were clamoring about, legislation to censor films spread like wildfire in the wake of the decision. Despite protests by industry professionals, movies were the great modern “evil” and actors and actresses the “players of the devil.” Nothing could be done to stop what we perceive now as a gross violation of free speech.

Although there were industry attempts to self-regulate, nothing would dissuade the morality police from backing off of the film industry. In light of what appeared to be a fruitless endeavor to appease officials and the media, the film industry pushed on. Through the 1920s and up until the establishment of The Production Code—best known as the Hays Code—movie makers continued to make the films they wanted, moral and amoral alike, and that was just the way it was going to be.

A similar trend followed in the comics industry after the establishment of the Comics Code (which, it should be noted, in many cases directly echoes the language of the Hays Code) with the foundation of the underground comix movement and EC Comics’ adoption of the magazine format, which could not be regulated by the Code.

In 1952, the Supreme Court finally overturned the 1915 decision that effectively made it legal to censor films, and in 1968 the Hays Code was put to rest when it was replaced with the MPAA rating system. In 2011, a mere 43 years later, the comics industry would be free of its censorship fetters as well when the Comics Code and Comic Magazine Association of America dissolved and the Comics Code seal of approval was transferred to CBLDF. Now in both industries, their respective contentious battles with censorship live on in history and teach us the importance of standing up for freedom of speech regardless of the tall-tale officials and the media try to spin.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!