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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Art forms of a New Country

article number 410
article date 01-06-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Censorship Checks Our New Passion for Movies, 1907
by Terry Ramsaye
   

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.

EDITORS NOTE: This article is decorated with pictures and captions of “respectable” movies of the times found in other books published in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

RIVERS have made nations and mountains have bulwarked the affairs of empire. Now certain less majestic matters of geography enter into the destiny of the motion picture with censorship arising from a dot on the map and extending cloud-like over all the world of the screen.

Let us regard for a moment the intersection of Madison and Dearborn streets in the heart of the Chicago loop, in 1907. On the southeast corner rose the ‘Chicago Tribune’ building. Across Dearborn street was Stillson’s Café, bar attached. In the adjacent block west in Madison street several all night nickelodeons, with glaring arc lamps and raucous ballyhoo phonographs, stood like carbuncles on the landscape.

When the highball hour approached, and the editorial staff of the Tribune went over the way for its midnight milk, all the roaring Loop was still, save for the buried rumble of the press room below and that screaming phonograph falsetto from the nickelodeons.

Late in March 1907, less than two years after the emergence of the nickelodeon, an editorial appeared in the Tribune entitled “The Five Cent Theatre.” The subjoined text was a neat job of damning the nickelodeon up hill and down dale.

“… without a redeeming feature to warrant their existence … minstering to the lowest passions of childhood … proper to suppress them at once . . . should be a law absolutely forbidding entrance of boy or girl under eighteen … influence is wholly vicious … There is no voice raised to defend the majority of five cent theatres, because they can not be defended. They are hopelessly bad.”

The nickelodeon was partly “in wrong,” because it had the bad judgment to erupt in the presence of the “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” This was, historically, ages before the ‘Chicago Tribune’ thought of ‘The Illustrated Daily News’ of New York.

That phrase about “no voice raised” was premature. George Kleine, of the Kleine Optical Company, consumer of a third of the Edison film output and importer of foreign cinema wares, probably then the world’s largest dealer in pictures, officing up in Randolph street, took up his pen and wrote liberally, to the Tribune, and to the trade press calling for a rallying of the defenders.

The censorship pot was on to boil—forever, apparently.

Chicago at that date had 116 nickelodeons, eighteen ten cent vaudeville houses, and nineteen penny arcades, showing motion pictures, screen and peep show. Kleine estimated a daily attendance of a hundred thousand for the screen in Chicago.

There was, as usual, something to be said on both sides. The swiftly rising foes of the films broke into print. A judge set the reformers agog with a letter to the papers, saying “these theatres cause, indirectly or directly, more juvenile crime coming into my court than all other causes combined.”

A list of the pictures shown at Chicago nickelodeons April 13, 1907, was printed, including:
- Cupid’s Barometer
- Old Man’s Darling
- Modern Brigandage
- A Seaside Flirtation
- Child Robbers
- Beware, My Husband Comes
- Paris Slums
- The Unwritten Law
- The Bigamist
- Course of True Love
- College Boy’s First Love
- The Female Highwayman
- Gaieties of Divorce
- Raffles, American Cracksman

Kleine replied and cited the films of ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Quaint Holland,’ ‘Wonders of Canada’ and the ‘Passion Play,’ remarking on their use in schools and churches. He averred that sensational pictures on the whole were as good as the stage melodrama in tone.

One deduced that if the adolescent picture patron were set on the high road to hell by the ‘Gaieties of Divorce’ he would in turn be brought back on snowshoes by the ‘Wonders of Canada.’

   
Scene from ‘The Great Train Robbery’. Revolutionary as a story-telling picture, directed by Edwin S. Porter for Edison and released in 1903.

The exchanges of remarks raged through the papers in April and on May 2, Jane Addams of Hull House presented a resolution at the City Club advising regulation rather than suppression of the picture theatres.

In June Miss Addams sought to lead the way by converting Hull House Theatre in Halsted street into a nickelodeon, with an electric sign and a barker at the door. The handpicked subjects presented there drew an audience of thirty-seven, perhaps because of the adjacent competition of ‘The Defrauding Banker’ and ‘The Adventures of the American Cowboy.’

The excitement spread to New York almost instantly, and simultaneously. The Children’s Society started a fight against the penny arcades and nickelodeons. In May they caused the arraignment of John Hauser, proprietor of a theatre at 416 First avenue, giving testimony that his house was packed with youngsters from four to fifteen years old, enjoying his peerless film presentation of ‘The Great Thaw Trial.’

This picture constituted the screen debut of Evelyn Nesbitt Thaw. Its graphic sequences included a marriage ceremony, a drugging scene, and an effort to portray the abrupt demise of Stanford White on the roof at Madison Square Garden.

Now Harry K. Thaw, the Pittsburgh sociologist, joined the reform element in its attack on the films. Being otherwise detained at the moment, Thaw dispatched his attorney Dan Reilly to the Yorkville Court, where Hauser was arraigned, to convey opinions on the film production.

Thaw thus enters the pages of screen history as the first great authoritative critic of the films. His exceptions to the picture were dramatic and technical.

“Mr. Thaw desires to point out to the court that the picture of his wife is not good and that the pictures do not show the marriage ceremony as it occurred. This also applies to the tragedy of the roof garden.”

Providence, Rhode Island, hastened to join in with a local aethetic movement of its own directed against the film drama of ‘Murphy’s Wake.’

The picture starred the deceased ‘Murphy,’ with candles about the bier, and his friends gathered for the keening. When the attention of the mourners was diverted, from time to time, the deceased helped himself from the surrounding bottles.

Members of the Clan Murphy of Pawtuckett sent word to Mayor McCarthy of Providence that they were coming over to suppress the picture in person. The Lyric theatre ran the film anyway, and a pleasant time was had by all.

Mayor George B. McClellan of New York received a report on the arcades and nickle shows from Police Commissioner Bingham, June 8, 1907, recommending that they be wiped out by cancellation of their licenses.

The People’s Institute of New York began a study of motion pictures and the theatres in which they were shown. Their report stated that “these places were not to be condemned in toto; that they were needed to meet the demands of the majority and that attention must be given them in a constructive way.”

   
Faust, a one-reel production made in New Orleans, with James McGee, Jean Ward, Harry Todd and Tom Santschi. Produced by Selig in 1908.

Out in Chicago the city council passed an ordinance of censorship, November 4, 1907, entrusting the issuance of picture permits to the chief of police, effective November 19, that year. This was the first direct censorship legislation addressed to the motion picture, so far as the writer has discovered. It was only a beginning.

In New York, the very day of the dinner of jubilation over the peace of the patents war, December 19, 1908, real trouble began. That day Mayor McClellan gave abrupt notice that, on December 23, he would hold a hearing to inquire into the advisability of allowing the motion picture shows to operate on Sundays and to go into the general question of the physical safety of the screen theatres.

No very astute investigator would have been needed to trace back to some of the influences which brought about this action.

The theatre of the speaking stage, now after three years of the motion picture houses, was feeling competition. The roadshow business was dying rapidly, and in that day a Broadway run was merely an introduction to the roadshow market of the stage. Now it is an introduction to the films. That is precisely what the stage magnates desired to prevent.

The spirit of the investigation, held by Mayor McClellan, was rather clearly evidenced when at the hearing that followed Charles Sprague Smith, head of the People’s Institute, ventured the suggestion that there were in New York “things more rotten than the motion picture that need attention” and thereby drew down on himself a violent reproach from the mayor.

The hearing started in the crowded aldermanic chamber at two o’clock in the afternoon and it raged for five hours. The reformers were out in force and full of words.

Following the session, Mayor George B. McClellan went to his country home near Princeton in New Jersey. He left behind him an order revoking the licenses of all five cent motion picture theatres in Greater New York and instructing the police department to see that they were closed at midnight December 24, Christmas eve.

It was 4:55 P. M., December 24, when a newspaper reporter at the City Hall learned of the order and telephoned to Gustavus A. Rogers, an attorney, for an interview. That was the first notice to the industry of the Mayor’s action.

The news wires carried the story across the United States, proclaiming the shame of the motion picture. Christmas morning the world read that New York’s mayor had clamped the lid of the law down on the city’s motion picture theatres as unclean and immoral places of amusement.

   
Edison studios in the Bronx. Since sound did not matter, two or more pictures, as in this view could be shot simultaneously.

A wail of deep grief and pain rose from the five hundred motion picture exhibitors affected by the order. A call went out for a mass meeting, held Christmas Day at the Murray Hill Lyceum, Third avenue and Thirty-fourth street. Israel was smitten and there was no balm in Gilead.

William Fox, who had risen from his penny arcade beginnings to a dominant position as an exhibitor, was chosen chairman of the meeting.

It was a noisy, stormy, vociferous session, flaming with indignation and humorously tragic.

“We elected Bill Fox chairman because he could holler the loudest,” one of the film men present recalled.

The session began in the forenoon and lasted far into Christmas night. An organization was formed for defensive purposes, with William Fox and Marcus Loew among the officers.

William Steiner, now in the exchange business following his producing ventures with the firm of Paley & Steiner, who made the Flatiron building classic noted in an earlier chapter, was one of the leaders in the meeting. A conference held on the platform agreed that each exhibitor should be assessed twenty-five dollars as a membership fee, to be used in court fights against the mayor’s order.

“Lock the doors, before you ask for the money,” Steiner whispered to Fox. “These guys will beat it if you don’t.”

When the announcement of the assessment for the defense fund came from the stage the crush at the doors was terrible and futile. Each exhibitor wanted to let his fellows finance the fight for his benefit.

When order was restored the membership and payment of fees was recorded. A large number of payments were in checks that came back a few days later marked “N. S. F.”

A legal campaign was instituted at once by the law firm of Rogers & Rogers. Gustavus A. Rogers was interested with William Fox in the Dewey theater in Fourteenth street, which they held under lease from “Big Tim” Sullivan of Tammany Hall.

The motion picture situation was not without its political developments in the course of the years indicated. Saul Rogers, also a member of the law firm, is now general counsel and an officer of the Fox Film Corporation.

For some seventy-two hours Gustavus Rogers labored continuously in the courts or in the preparation of processes. He obtained four injunctions against the execution of the Mayor’s order, one before Judge Blackmar and three before William J. Gaynor, justice of the Supreme Court, Kings County.

Rogers swore he would not go to bed until every picture show was open. Then he got twenty-four hours’ sleep.

The situation brought a great deal of attention to the whole subject of stage entertainments and a new enforcement of the Sunday laws. Vaudeville programs were hurriedly revised to give them an uplifting educational character.

The only pictures that could legally be run on Sunday were those “illustrating a lecture of an instructive or educational value.” The picture shows suddenly created a demand for lecturers. The lectures were charmingly educational.

At Hammerstein’s Victoria the lecturer stood in the orchestra and watched the screen. When a train appeared he spoke up brightly. “These are railroad tracks.” “More railroad tracks.” “We are now passing a mountain.” The lecture was the best act on the bill. It got a great hand.

   
Here is the infant star of ‘The Eagles Nest’ (1908) being carried off by a stuffed eagle and being pretty disagreeable about it. Distant landscape supplied by Richard Murphy.

Then and there the word “educational” as applied to motion pictures acquired a bitter taste in the mouth of the motion picture exhibitor. Bowery and Fourteenth street audiences went to the motion pictures to see the villain hurled over the cliff and they hissed at close-ups of bumble-bees buzzing in the clover and the evolution of the rose.

From that day onward the worst that could be said of a picture to damn it in the eyes of the motion picture exhibitor was to call it “educational.” It is still an unfortunate word in the business. It has the flavor of medicine in the exhibitor mind.

But out of the misfortunes of Christmas week of 1908 the motion picture found a real set of friends.

In the course of the arguments for tolerance the motion picture, men expressed a willingness to have the pictures submitted to a board of judges or censors before their exhibition to the public. They were guided by the example of the city of Chicago where the year before, the police department had begun previewing pictures.

The New York picture men were not eager for a censorship, but they were willing to accept any temporary refuge and expedient to avoid closing their houses.

Charles Sprague Smith, who had founded the People’s Institute and had inaugurated the community center movement in America, came forward to extend his cooperation and good will. With him was associated John Collier, secretary of the Institute, an idealist who saw what the motion picture might be.

It was of significance that when the motion picture had not yet evolved standards of art or morals or conduct for itself, these genuinely disinterested friends were ready to save it from itself and its own follies. They recognized more of the future of the screen than most of the picture makers themselves.

It should be recorded here that neither Charles Sprague Smith nor his associates were exponents of censorship. The ensuing steps were to be guided rather by expediency than theory, however.

“Censorship” became a necessary word, because to satisfy the public and official mind of the day the naughty, naughty motion picture had to be spanked on the wrist.

The motion picture craved a “censor” then just as baseball besmirched with scandal wanted a Judge Landis so it could turn to the world and say, “Now we’ve got somebody to make us be good.”

Early in 1909, a few weeks after the Christmas week disaster, the People’s Institute, in cooperation with the newly formed Motion Picture Patents Company and its members, formed the “National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures.”

The formation of the National Board of Censorship was warmly welcomed by Kennedy of the Patents Company, on two counts: first, the broad general welfare of the industry; second, a certain added vantage to Patents Company control of the art by taking under his wing, so far as might be, the body that gave the product the stamp of respectability.

   
JEREMIAH J. KENNEDY, Biograph’s war chief in the great Edison patent conflict and organizer of the powerful Motion Picture Patents Company — first czar of the industry.

There was no intent on the part of the People’s Institute to play a part in the interior politics of the motion picture industry, but through the sheer awkwardness and hesitancy of the scattering independent picture makers who came to contest the Patents Company, there remained a certain atmospheric advantage in that direction. The “independents” did not know how to approach the board.

The name of the newly formed organization was most unfortunate, even if expeditious. It gave impetus to the censorship movement in many directions. In 1915 the name was changed to the “National Board of Review,” which continues in cooperation between the motion picture industry and its public, with Wilton A. Barrett, the executive secretary in active charge.

Many cities followed the example of Chicago in enacting censorship ordinances. In 1912 New York tried it and encountered a veto from Mayor Gaynor.

State censorships began as early as 1911 when Pennsylvania enacted a law which has provided the world with one of the most entertaining of censorship boards. Kansas enacted a censorship law in March, 1913, and Ohio followed in April. The state of Maryland, home of terrapin and H. L. Mencken, created a censorship board in 1916. New York State achieved censorship in 1921.

Continuously since the days of the first prize fight film legislation, discussed in another chapter, there has been an agitation for a federal censorship in the United States.

The most conspicuous banner of leadership was carried by the Reverend Wilbur Fisk Crafts, superintendent of the International Reform Bureau, until his death in December, 1922, since which the Reverend William Sheafe Chase, of Christ Church, 317 Bedford avenue, Brooklyn, has dominated the movement.

Canon Chase has, however, been active from the beginnings in 1907-8, and much of his superior finesse controlled the efforts of the less polished Reverend Mr. Crafts.

The Reverend Mr. Crafts was violently aggressive, always sincere and sometimes misinformed in his extravagant enthusiasms. His life was filled with restless movements, a continual reaching for action.

He was born in Fryeburg, Maine, January 12, 1850, and at the age of seventeen had become a Methodist minister. By 1880 he moved from Methodism to Congregationalism, which held him only three years when he joined the Presbyterian church, in which, by the way, Will Hays is an elder.

In 1895 Crafts founded the International Reform Bureau. He travelled, wrote and pamphleteered extensively. He gave up a comfortable charge to move to Washington and live in the most meager circumstances to be a lobbyist of the Lord and work for legislative enactment of his views of morality.

He crusaded against opium, alcohol, sex and celluloid.

In 1915 hearings by a congressional committee were held in Washington taking statements ranging over the whole field of motion picture activities, financial and moral. The chief result was a group photograph of film men on the steps of the Capitol.

   
The first studio of the Biograph company, East 14th St., New York, about 1908.

Intermittently since national censorship bills have been introduced at the various congresses, all of them strangely enough, introduced by representatives of states in the southern areas of illiteracy and Daytonism.

The Reverend Mr. Crafts in 1920 sought to proclaim a jehad, handily summarized in the following dispatch which went to the newspapers:

“Washington, Dec. 10—The lobby of the International Reform bureau, Dr. Wilbur Crafts presiding, voted tonight to rescue the motion pictures from the hands of the Devil and 500 un-Christian Jews.

“As the first step in removing the menace of the movies, Dr. Crafts told the reformers that he would appeal to the Catholic Church and that he would crash into Congress backed by the Christian Churches and reform organizations, which was the only way to defeat the $40,000,000 slush fund the movie men had come to Washington with.”

This dispatch betrays several of Dr. Craft’s major errors. In the first place he should have known that taking the movies away from the Devil would be a mere chore as compared with taking them away from the able gentleman who have them.

He should also have realized that if the movie men of 1920 had surrounded $40,000,000 they would have gone to Albany and incorporated a new company, not to Washington to spend it.

Canon Chase is the author of a compendium of about all that has been said against the films, revised and kept up to date by editions and inserts, under the title of ‘Catechism on Motion Pictures in Inter-State Commerce,’ published by the New York Civic League.

That ably edited volume continues the jehad movement with citation of the familiar document known as ‘The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion’ and reference to the Dearborn Publishing Company’s reprints of the articles which so popularized Henry Ford on Broadway a few years ago. Also the better movie scandals are competently presented, with names, dates and newspaper references.

When, following his lecture on ‘The Mistakes of Moses,’ Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll was twitted with ignoring some of the things that might have been said in the favor of the great leader, the lecturer replied: “Ah, yes, but I am not attorney for Moses.” Canon Chase is not attorney for either Moses or the movies.

The chief expression of the censorship movement, crystallized after three annual conferences in Washington, is embodied in the “Federal Motion Picture Council in America, Inc.,” the Reverend Charles Scanlon of Pittsburgh, president; Canon Chase, general secretary.

Censorship laws and agitations have probably exerted less influence upon the pictures than their own automatic improvement.

The major effect of censorship is local trouble for film exchange-men. A slight influence is to be noted in the evolution of new screen hieroglyphics, typified by the technique of Monta Bell in a scene where he denoted the pedestrian members of the oldest profession by a close-up of a girl dusting foot ease powder into a shoe.

   
The Stage Rustler. D. W. Griffith (man with the bare arm, directing an early Biograph production in 1908.

The efforts toward influencing motion picture production on the part of club, church, civic and other organizations are endless. They are in the main, indicative of a minority demand for a sort of picture not generally available, and in part these movements point to the fact that quite a number of persons are looking for a cause.

In 1924 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union joined in the movement.

The General Federation of Women’s Clubs has been considering the films, pro and con for many argumentative years, with various internal movements for and against censorship.

In the early years of the motion picture’s struggles against the censorship movement, Vitagraph sent Rose Tapley, one time a screen player, touring the country to make pleasant talks about the triumphs of the screen art. Elizabeth Dessez, now connected with Pathé pictures, was engaged by George Kleine in an effort to relate the film business to the non-theatrical demand in church, club and school movements.

The literature of motion picture censorship is extensively incoherent. The most illuminating published expression is ‘The Morals of the Movie’ by Ellis Paxon Oberholtzer, formerly of the Pennsylvania board.

It contains, for the benefit of the consumer of printed words, a faithful presentation of some of the choicer items of screen obstetrics and tasty bits which came under the Philadelphia axe during his eventful administration.

There is the lilt of a motion picture subtitle in the heroic dedication of this volume: “To Katherine A. Niver, my comrade in arms in the thin red line.”

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