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

  • Nancy J. Rosenbloom (a1)
Extract

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.

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

3 My reading of this group agrees with Mattson, Kevin, Creating a Democratic Republic: The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy in the Progressive Era (University Park, PA, 1998).

4 See Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations, ed., Hannah Arendt (New York, 1968): 217–51.

5 For a fuller discussion of the issue, see Czitrom, Daniel, “The Politics of Performance: From Theater Licensing to Movie Censorship in Turn of the Century New York,” American Quarterly 44 (1992): 525–53; and Czitrom, Daniel, “Underworlds and Underdogs: Big Tim Sullivan and Metropolitan Politics in New York, 1889–1913,” Journal of American History 78 (1991): 536–58.

6 Staiger, , Bad Women. 86115. For a fuller discussion of the strategy pursued by the film industry, see Rosenbloom, Nancy J., “Between Reform and Regulation: The Struggle over Film Censorship in Progressive America”, Film History 1 (1987): 307–25.

7 In addition to Peiss, Cheap Amusements, see Cohen, Lisabeth, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York, 1990); and Rosenzweig, Roy, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and leisure in an Industrial City, 1870–1920 (New York, 1983); and Ross, Steven, Working Cbss Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton, 1998).

8 In this respect, see Bowser, Eileen, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915 (New York, 1990); and Koszarski, Richard, An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Film, 1915–1928 (New York, 1990).

9 Staiger, , Bad Women, 8687. For a fascinating discussion of the impact of regulation on the development of classical Hollywood cinema, see Grieveson, Lee, Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth Century America (Berkeley, 2004) which appeared too late for consideration in this article.

10 Stansell, Christine, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (New York, 2000).

11 On the moral crusades of reformers that attacked moving pictures, see May, Screening Out the Past, esp. 43–59. In my opinion, Frederic Howe had departed from the goals of his mentor, Reverend Charles Parkhurst, by the time he joined the People's Institute.

12 For a lengthy discussion of anti-Semitism and Sunday closings drawn from contemporary accounts in New York newspapers, see Gunning, Tom, D.W. Griffith and the Narrator-System: Narrative Structure and Industry Organisation in Biograph Films, 1908–1909 (Ann Arbor, MI, University Microfilms, 1986), 469–79.

13 See Goren, Arthur, “Socialist Politics on the Lower East Side,” in Goren, Arthur, The Politics and Public Culture of American lews (Bloomington, 1999), 8789.

14 Jowett, , Film: The Democratic Art, 3132. For a discussion of the organization of the film industry, see Jacobs, Lewis, The Rise of the American Film (New York, 1939); Hampton, Benjamin, History of the American Film Industry from Its Beginnings to 1931 (New York, 1970); and Anderson, Robert, “The Motion Picture Patents Company: A Reevaluation” in The American Film Industry, ed., Balio, Tino (rev. ed. Madison, 1985), 133–52.

15 For the political agenda of the People's Institute, see Russell, E. A., “Work of the People's Institute,” Craftsmen 10 (May 1906): 183–89.

16 Anderson, , “The Motion Picture Patents Company,” 141–44.

17 Nancy J. Rosenbloom, “Between Reform and Regulation.”

18 For a more complete discussion of Collier's social goals, see Rosenbloom, Nancy J., “Progressive Reform, Censorship, and the Motion Picture Industry, 1909–1917,” in Popular Culture and Political Change in Modern America, eds. Bennett, Larry and Edsforth, Ronald (Buffalo, N.Y., 1991), 4159; and Rosenbloom, Nancy J.In Defense of the Moving Pictures: The People's Institute, the National Board of Censorship and the Problem of Leisure in Urban America,” American Studies 33 (1992): 4160.

19 Rosenbloom, , “In Defense of the Moving Pictures,” 4751.

20 “Coney Island Tests Sunday Law,” Moving Picture World, 4 (April 4, 1909).

21 Justinian, , “New York Exhibitors and Their Political Power,” Moving Picture World, 4 (May 22, 1909): 670–71.

22 Collier, John, From Every Zenith (Denver, 1963), 72.

23 See Daniel Czitrom, “Underworlds and Underdogs.”

24 For more on the early efforts of the Board of Censorship, see Rosenbloom, “Between Reform and Regulation,” 310.

25 Collier, , From Every Zenith, 7273.

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

27 Rosenbloom, , “In Defense of the Moving Pictures,” 4445.

28 John Collier to Frank Dyer, March 22, 1910, Document File, Edison Archives, Edison National Historical Site, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.

29 New York Times, October 11, 27, November 17, 1910. See also Hammack, David, Power and Sodety, Greater New York at the Turn of the Century (New York, 1982).

30 New York Times, October 11, 1910.

31 Fosdick, Raymond B., A Report on the Condition of Moving Picture Shows (New York, 1911), 6. In 1911 there were 450 theaters in Greater New York with common show licenses and 290 with concert or theater licenses. Of all these, 600 theaters sat 300 or fewer patrons. The pamphlet is in Document File, Edison Archives.

32 Fosdick, , Report on the Condition of Moving Picture Shows, 11.

33 Collier, John, “Movies and the Law,” The Survey 27 (January 20, 1912): 1628–29.

34 For a contemporary discussion of the weaknesses of New York's municipal courts, see McAdoo, William, “The Administration of the Municipal Courts,” in American Academy of Political Science, Government of the City of New York City: A Survey of Its Organisations and Institutions (New York, 1915), 196206.

35 “New York Picture Theater Ordinance Discussed,” The Moving Picture World 10 (November 18, 1911): 543–45.

36 Ibid. See also Collier, “Movies and the Law.”

37 “Punch in the Jaw of Alderman Levine Handed Over by Alderman White as a Convincing Argument in Moving Picture Debates,” New York Times, November 29, 1911.

38 New York Times, December 2, 1911.

39 Collier, John, “Film Shows and Lawmakers,” The Survey 29 (February 8, 1913): 643–44.

40 “Oppose Folks Picture Plan,” New York Times, May 10, 1912. See also “Plea for Folks Law to Govern Movies,” New York Times, December 17, 1912.

41 “Mayor Gaynor's Veto,” The Moving Picture World 15 (January 11,1913): 135–36.

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). 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.

46 National Board of Censorship, Suggestions for a Model Ordinance for Regulating Motion Picture Theatres (New York, n.d.). 2.

48 Howe, Frederic, “What to Do with the Motion Picture Show: Shall it be Censored?Outlook 107 (June 20, 1914): 412–16. See also Report of the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures (New York, 1913).

49 See Lewinson, Edwin, John Purroy Mitchel, Boy Mayor of New York (New York, 1965), 8998.

50 Stephen Bush, W., “A Tribute to Gaynor,” Moving Picture World 17 (September 27, 1913): 1368.

51 For an interesting analysis of this complicated film, see Hansen, Miriam, “The Hieroglyph and the Whore: D. W. Griffith's Intolerance,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 361–92

52 For a discussion of the history of the controversy around Birth of a Nation, see DeGrazia, Edward and Newman, Roger, Banned Films: Movies, Censors and the First Amendment (New York, 1982).

53 “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America,” requested by W.G. McGuire in McGuire to Griffith, May 8, 1916, National Board of Review Records, Box 28, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, New York Public Library.

54 For a historical discussion of the Mutual case, see Jowett, Garth, “‘A Capacity for Evil’: The 1915 Supreme Court Mutual Decision,” Historical journal of Film, Radio, and Television 9 (1989): 5978. Jowett bases his argument in part on the threat posed to the core Protestant values of America by non-Protestant, urban values epitomized by the new medium. The best legal review of the case can be found in Wertheimer, John, “Mutual Form Reviewed: The Movies, Censorship, and Free Speech in Progressive America,” The American Journal of Legal History 37 (1993): 156–89.

55 See the discussion in Couvares, Francis G., “Hollywood, Main Street, and the Church: Trying to Censor the Movies Before the Production Code,” American Quarterly 44 (1992): 584616; Walsh, Frank, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry (New Haven, Conn., 1996), 1015; and the film Where are My Children? (Universal, 1916), a copy of which may be found in the Motion Picture Division at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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): 207, 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.

58 For a general discussion about changes in filmmaking, see Koszarski, Richard, An Evening's Entertainment, 6380. See also Gabler, Neal, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York, 1988). For further insight into Selznick's politics, sec his exchange with Will Hays, November 10, 1921, in the Hays Manuscript Collection, Indiana State Archives, Indianapolis, Box 14.

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.

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. For Gompers' position, see Samuel Gompers, Against Government Censorship (New York, n.d.), in the National Board of Review Records, Box 143.

62 Jowett, , Film: The Democratic Art, 122–23.

63 Stephen Bush, W., “Federal Censorship is Wholly Bad,” The Moving Picture World 29 (June 10, 1916): 1853.

64 Frederick Dallinger, “Minority Views,” Report to Accompany H.R. 15462 Report 697, Part 2, Committee on Education, Motion Picture Commission, 64th Congress, 1st session (Washington: Government Printing Office, May 22, 1916).

66 Ibid., 4.

67 See Staiger, , Bad Women, ch. 23.

68 Personal Memorandum of Lester Scott, February 8, 1916, National Board of Review Records, Box 118.

69 Minutes from the Meeting of the Executive Committee, March 10, 1916, National Board of Review Records, Box 118.

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.

72 Lester Scott to Henry Baldwin, April 29, 1916, and Henry Baldwin to Franklin Lord, April 20, 1916, National Board of Review, Miscellaneous Papers, Cooper Union Library.

73 McGuire to George Eastman, May 3, 1916, and F.W. Lovejoy to McGuire, May 4, 1916, Eastman Kodak Archives, Rochester, New York, Box 28.

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.

75 Annual Report of the Attorney General of the State of New York for the Year Ending December 31, 1916 (Albany, 1917), 195–205. See also Whitman, Charles S., “Veto Memorandum,” Public Papers of Charles Seymour Whitman, Governor, 1916 (Albany, 1919), 111–16.

76 Lester Scott, “Report of the Committee on Legislation,” April 20, 1916, National Board of Review Records, Box 118.

77 Whitman, , Public Papers, 111–16.

78 Ibid., 116.

79 Luncheon and Conference of the Motion Picture Industry, June 3, 1916, Edison Document File, Motion Picture Censorship, Edison Archives.

80 Ligon Johnson to C.H. Wilson, June 17, 1917, Motion Picture Patents Company Administrative Files, Edison Archives, Box 3.

81 Shannon, Betty, “Women Oppose Censorship,” The Moving Picture World 28 (June 17, 1916): 2014.

82 “Film Men Firm,” The Moving Picture World, 30 (October 7, 1916): 51. Herkimer County was part of the 32nd district.

83 Bush, , “Motion Picture Men Greet President,” The Moving Picture World 27 (February 12, 1916): 923–30.

84 See Jowett, , Film: The Democratic Art, 119.

85 Slayton, Robert A., Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith (New York, 2001), 135.

86 For a brief review of how the commission operated and the limitations placed upon it following the 1951 Miracle case, see Richard Andress, “Film Censorship in New York State,” at http://www.archives.nyscd.gov/holding/.

87 On the evolving relationship between the Anti-Saloon League, temperance workers, and those who opposed moving picture censorship, see Executive Director, National Board of Review, to D.W. Griffith, February 14, 1919, National Board of Review Records, Box 28. For more context but a different perspective on women's activism, see Parker, Alison, Purifying America: Women, Cultural Rífom and Pro-censorship Activism, 1873–1933 (Urbana, 1997), 134–44.

88 Report of Mary Gray Peck to the Executive Committee of the National Board of Review, December 18, 1919, National Board of Review Records, Box 118.

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

90 Slayton, , Empire Statesman, 148.

91 Walsh, , Sin and Censorship, 1822.

92 Lathrop, Charles, The Motion Picture Problem (New York: Commission on the Church and Social Service, 1922), 4950.

93 See the typescript of April 6, 1921, hearing in the Senate Chamber, Administrative Subject File, Motion Picture Records, New York State Archives, Albany.

94 Franey, typescript of testimony in the Senate Chamber, April 6, 1921, ibid., 17.

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.

101 O'Brian's Summary Statement in Senate Chambers, n.d., 1–5, Motion Picture Records, Administrative Subject File, New York State Archives. O'Brian had to leave before his testimony in front of the Governor. For this reason he submitted a brief that he had prepared for the Senate hearings. For testimony from others in support of the bill, see Typescript of Testimony before the Governor, 54–61, Administrative Subject File, Motion Picture Records, New York State Archives.

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

103 Lathrop, , Motion Picture Problem, 4950.

104 New York State Motion Picture Commission, Annual Riport of the Motion Picture Commission of the Year 1921 (Albany, N.Y., 1921), 10, typescript in the Motion Picture Commission of the State of New York, New York State Archives.

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.”

1 I want to thank Alan Lessoff, Joel Schwartz, and Geoffrey Klingsporn for their insightful and knowledgeable comments on earlier drafts of this article and especially Larry E. Jones for his support and advice. I would also like to thank the Canisius College Summer Faculty Fellowship Program.

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  • EISSN: 1943-3557
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