Cinema was born from the industrial revolution during a time of social progressivism – a movement in the late 19th and early 20th century that sought to bring about positive social change through active social organization and government regulation.
Even in cinema’s infancy, special interest groups sought ways to regulate this form of entertainment. The first laws governing films came about because of a boxing match. While prize fighting was a popular sport, it was technically illegal in every state but Nevada.
Although states had anti-prizefighting laws, there were no laws about showing prizefighting films — until three days after “The Fight of the Century” between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons was filmed in Carson, Nevada. That’s when the Maine Legislature passed a law fining anyone who exhibited boxing films, quickly followed by Illinois, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. However, because boxing was so popular, the laws were mostly ignored and then forgotten.
Chicago, New York City, and other municipalities began shutting down productions and closing theaters on moral grounds. This hit the film industry where it hurt the most — in the box office.
In an effort to find a solution agreeable to all, the The People’s Institute, one of the few reform groups that didn’t see movies as “evil” brought together ten other reform groups, including the Federation of Churches, the Women’s Municipal League, and the Society for the Prevention of Crime to create a new organization called the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship in 1909.
The board reviewed films and recommended cuts for a small fee (New York exhibitors voluntarily agreed to abide by their decisions). The board’s influence had a nationwide impact and eventually was re-named the National Review Board.
The NRB was able to ward off calls for government censorship until a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in 1915 in the case of a newsreel company, tired of paying fees to various state censorship boards and then waiting weeks or months before their newsreels were approved, that filed a lawsuit on first amendment grounds. However, the Supreme Court declared that movies were not legally considered free speech – thus handing the government the legal reins to make laws about the content of films. Just like that, the powder keg of censorship only needed a spark and it came in the form of scandal.
From Fatty Arbuckle’s charge of rape and manslaughter, William Desmond Taylor’s murder with homosexual undertones, and Wallace Reid’s drug overdose, the tabloids of the early 1920s fed on what appeared to be spoiled Hollywood excess. The pressure began to mount for someone to clean up Hollywood; over 100 Congressional bills for censorship were presented in 1921.
But censorship from Washington was the last thing Hollywood wanted. In an effort to avoid government oversight, Hollywood studios came together in 1922 to form an association called The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). The MPPDA reached out to Washington insider William H. Hays – Postmaster General under Warren Harding and former head of the Republican National Committee – to relieve the pressure between Hollywood and Washington and to lobby for the interests of the studios.
Hays formed a committee of studio heads in 1927 to create a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” based on the items commonly rejected by local censorship boards. The list included 11 subjects that were totally taboo and 25 that required delicate handling, but it didn’t have any real teeth.
The issue of censorship in Hollywood raged on, but now the newest movie technology – sound – added fuel to the fire.
For more information on censorship, see H is for Hays Code.