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From Regulation to Censorship: Film and Political Culture in New York in the Early Twentieth Century1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 November 2010

Nancy J. Rosenbloom
Canisius College


The struggle over censorship stood at the core of the relationship between the political culture of progressivism and early moving pictures. Called by contemporaries and historians alike a democratic art, the moving pictures invited audiences to participate in the new mass culture of the early twentieth-century. As some early film makers began to use the medium to tell stories, those sitting in small theaters in towns and cities across America saw before them a make-believe world that was nonetheless plausible commentary on the past, the present, and the future. What remained unresolved was how those who championed political reforms, ostensibly in the language of progressive and democratic politics, might harness the power of the medium in redefining American political and social life. How much power the moving pictures and its mass audience might assume energized men and women, particularly progressives in New York City, who sought a more democratic culture, politics, and social life. How much power the moving pictures and its mass audience might assume energized men and women, particularly progressives in New York City, who sought a more democratic culture, politics, and social life. They regarded the political potential of the moving pictures as essential to the empowerment of the masses in an age when social boundaries were in flux. At the same time, they tried and ultimately failed to extend to moving pictures the protection of the First Amendment. They did this because they believed in the political and artistic possibilities of the medium for a democratic culture. In creating a plan to elevate the moving pictures and their places of exhibition, they became locked in a confrontation with other reformers who feared the awesome power of the screen to hasten modernity and all that it implied.

Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2004

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2 Kasson, John, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (New York, 1978)Google Scholar; Staiger, Janet, Bad Women: Regulating Sexuality in Early American Cinema (Minneapolis, 1995).Google Scholar See also Peiss, Kathy, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York (Philadelphia, 1986)Google Scholar; as well as Jowett, Garth, Film: The Democratic Art (Boston, 1976)Google Scholar; May, Lary, Screening Out the Past (New York, 1980)Google Scholar; and Sklar, Robert, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York, 1975).Google Scholar

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26 The author would like to express her appreciation to Joel Schwartz for his insight into the personalities and nuances of New York politics.

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38 New York Times, December 2, 1911.

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42 Mayor William Gaynor, Brief, December 27, 1912, cited in ibid.

44 The Moving Picture World, 17 (July 9, 1913): 3–5.

45 Levien was a staff member at the People's Institute who also had charge of educational and publicity work for the National Board. See “The Story of Sonya Levien as Related to Alida S. Malkus,” Success Magazine, January 1925, 55–57, 121, in the Levien Manuscript Collection, Huntington Library, Box 1, f 2. For additional biographical details, see “The Franks Case,” Hearst's International 16 (December 1924): 18–19 and 107–08. See also Levien, Sonya, “Hidden Sentiment in New York,” The Survey 29 (January 11, 1913).Google Scholar A copy of the published manuscript can be seen in the Sonya Levien Manuscript Collection, Huntington Library, Box 9. For her comments on this controversy, see “New York's Motion Picture Law,” The American City 9 (October 1913): 319–20.

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56 For more on the relationship between Canon Chase and Wilbur Crafts, another Protestant crusader against the moving pictures, and the Catholic Church, see Walsh, Sin and Censorship, esp. ch. 1, where it becomes clear that before 1917 the local parish or bishop provided the locus of activity within the Catholic Church for protest against screen content.

57 Benedict, Libbian, “The Story of Sonya Levien,” The American Hebrew 3 (June 19, 1924): 207Google Scholar, and Alida Malkus, “The Story of Sonya Levien,” January 1925, both in the Sonya Levien Manuscript Collection, Huntington Library, Box 1. On her responsibilities, see Levien to Collier, October 24, 1913, Levien Collection, Box 4.

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59 Statement in Hearings before the Committee on Education, House of Representatives 64th Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1916, Reprint, Arno Press, 1978), 262–64.

60 See Articles of the Association of the Motion Picture Producers Association, January 24, 1916, in the Hal Roach Collection, University of Southern California, Archives of the Performing Arts. See also Ross, , Working Class Hollywood, 60.Google Scholar

61 For example, see the petitions submitted by Globe Central Labor Council, Globe, Arizona, April 16, 1916, in the Congressional Record, April 15, 1916, 64th Congress, 1st session, vol. 53: 6774. For an extended discussion of the development of free speech doctrine, see Wertheimer, John, “In Retrospect: Freedom of Speech: Zecharaiah Chafee and Free-Speech History,” Reviews in American History 22 (1994): 365–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For Gompers' position, see Samuel Gompers, Against Government Censorship (New York, n.d.), in the National Board of Review Records, Box 143.

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70 William McGuire to George Eastman, June 21, 1916, National Board of Review Records, Box 24. This letter asks for on-going support for both Miss Peck and Miss Boswell.

71 Letter to Hon. Charles S. Whitman, April 19, 1916, on National Board of Review of Motion Pictures letterhead, in the National Board of Review Box, Miscellaneous Papers, Cooper Union Library, New York.

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74 W.D. McGuire to George Blair, April 28, 1916, National Board of Review Records, Box 24. Also see W. D. McGuire to George Kleine, May 3, 1916, Box 5.

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89 On Peck's travels, see Peck, Mary Gray, “Report on State Censorship Situation in Virginia,” January 27, 1920Google Scholar, National Board of Review Records, Box 118.

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95 H.D. Connick, typescript of testimony before the Governor of New York, n.d., 8–16, Administrative Subject File. Motion Picture Records, New York State Archives.

97 Gabriel Hess testimony, ibid., 25.

98 See the Memorandum on Resolutions Adopted by National Association, n.d. National Board of Review Records, Box 9. See also “Report to the General Committee of the National Board of Review, May-June, 1919, Box 120.

99 Lathrop, Motion Picture Problem.

100 For a more systematic discussion of the Catholic position regarding the National Board of Review, see Walsh, , Sin and Censorship, 1022.Google Scholar

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102 Typescript, by Brady, n.d., 1–3, Administrative Subject File, Motion Picture Records, New York State Archives.

103 Lathrop, , Motion Picture Problem, 4950.Google Scholar

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105 Report of the Motion Picture Commission of the Year 1921, 1–2. Press Notice, Typescript, New York State Archives.

106 “Lulu Bert,” November 23, 1921, Motion Picture Commission of the State of New York Register of Films, New York State Archives.

107 Entry 1072, Motion Picture Commission of the State of New York Register of Films, New York State Archives.

108 Entry 1347, “Foolish Wives,” Motion Picture Commission of the State of New York Register of Films, New York State Archives.

109 Two films that offended a commissioner on the ground of inciting to crime because of sacrilegious portraits were This Dollar Balry, Metro Pictures Corporation, and While Satan Sleeps, Famous Players Lasky. See entry 2817 and 2967 in Register of Films, and Any Ole Rags, Rastus Chases Chickens, and Holding His Own, April 26 and 28–29, 1922, Motion Picture Commission of the State of New York Register of Films.

110 Repor of the Motion Picture Commission of the Year 1921, Press Notice, 1–2.

111 Ibid., 7.

112 Ibid., 6.

113 Senate Resolution 142, Attached to “Proposed Investigation of the Motion Picture Industry,” Hearings Before the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate, 67th Congress, 2nd session (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1922).

114 “Chase Wants Films Investigated,” entry in the Chaney Digest of Scrapbooks, January 25, 1922, 373, Will Hays Manuscript Collection.

115 “Mr. Hays and the Pictures,” Dearborn Independent, in the Chaney Digest, February 11, 1922, 389, Will Hays Manuscript Collection.

116 Statement by the President [Harding], January 14, 1922, and Statement of producers and distributors, January 16, 1922, Will Hays Manuscript Collection, Box 15.

117 “Mr. Hays and the Pictures.”