“All that Savors Indecency”: The early 20th Century’s Campaign for Movie Censorship

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“It is gratifying to know that newspapers throughout the province stand solidly behind a rigid enforcement of the censorship and the absolute prohibition of all that savors indecency.” – Quote taken from an article titled “Cleansing the Movies”, published August 1st, 1927 in the Globe.

The world changed after WW1.  New technologies and gadgets abounded, some which helped save time and some that helped pass the time, such as gramophones, telephones, vacuum cleaners, radio and the movies.  Music was faster, booze was cheaper and skirts were shorter.  Political parties and newspaper pundits wrung their hands in anxious frustration at a world which was seemingly spinning out of their control.

Newspaper archives from this period offer an interesting history of these pivotal times, as well as unintentionally shining a spotlight on the prejudices that fueled the self-righteous fervor of the censors and moral reformers so often quoted in the major papers of the day.

Racism was behind the anti-jazz music campaign of the 1920s.  The following are typical newspaper headlines from this time:

“Modern Day Dance Music is ESSENCE OF VULGARITY” – The Globe, September 20th, 1927

“Mothers Should Aid in Combating Jazz” – The Globe, March 21st, 1929

 Wife Played Jazz While Husband Was Dying!” – The Globe, March 9th, 1923

 One Globe article from September 28th, 1926 was simply titled: “The Evils of Jazz!”

 Misogynists directed their venom at the knee baring, high kicking young flappers often eulogized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and immortalized by the likes of Clara Bow and Joan Crawford. In a March 31st, 1932 article titled “Flapper Idols of Movies Have Bad Effect on Girls”, Chancellor Wallace of Victoria College issued the following warning to parents: “Do not let the emotional lives of your daughters be over-stimulated by the books they read and the shows they see…Which is your daughter – an angel or a flapper?”

 Some moralists however had a kitchen sink attitude to their crusades, such as the funster featured in this April 30th, 1925 Globe headline: “She Fears Smoking Will Ruin Humanity: Mrs. M.E. Frey, Evangelist, Decries Present Craze for Pleasure, Jazz, Drink and Poker.”

 There was one “pleasure” though which really had the Mrs. M.E. Freys of the world reaching for their smelling salts and that was the movies.

The 1897 boxing documentary “The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight” (also known as “The Great Corbett Fight”) is widely considered to be the world’s first feature film or at least its first blockbuster. Film historian Terry Ramsaye wrote that “until that picture appeared, the social status of the screen had been uncertain. It now became definitely low-brow, an entertainment of the great unwashed commonalty. This likewise made it a mark for up lifters, moralists, reformers and legislators in a degree which would never have been obtained if the screen had reached a higher social strata.” (Source: “Hollywood: The Pioneers”, Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, 1979).

 Just as they had tried to “save” the working man from booze with Prohibition, the upper class moral reformers of the day made it their mission to “clean up” the movies all in the name of “protecting” the lower classes, whom they feared would be led down a rabbit hole of salacious sin and depravity by way of Jean Harlow’s nipples and James Cagney’s knuckles.

“Women Smoking, Modern Dancing Scorned by Pastor: Rev. Dr. Riley Blames Movies for Tidal Wave of Banditry” screamed an April 12th, 1929 Globe headline.  “Sex Saturnalia of the Screen Must be Stopped” warned the Globe on March 19th, 1921 (I’d like to thank this headline for introducing me to the word “Saturnalia” which means “an occasion of wild revelry”, as in “I’m ready for my sex Saturnalia, Mr. DeMille”).

 Movies were being blamed for a supposed increase in crime: “Young Locksmith Lured to Vagrancy by Movies!” reads a headline from December 28th, 1920. A Globe article dated July 30th, 1934 tells the tale of a 12 year old girl “with blonde bobbed hair” who was charged with stealing purses and jewelry from homes in the Beach district. “Child is Moving-Picture ‘Fan’” clucks the subhead.

The flickers were also held accountable for men not casting their ballots: “Young Men Today Shunning Politics, Declares Liberal: Ward 5 Officer Blames Autos and Movies for Secession.” (The Globe, March 19, 1930).

A Globe article dated August 1st, 1927 titled “Cleansing the Movies” quotes the Stratford Beacon Herald as asserting that “People…go to the movies to be entertained, not for the stimulation of passion…If the provincial and state authorities will put their feet down good and hard on the ‘sex appeal’ stuff**, the film magnates will soon elevate the movies to the standard they ought to be.”

(**Mae West herself couldn’t have written a saucier double entendre! ;-))

I’ll end with this Letter to the Editor published on June 27th, 1927 in the Globe:

“I cannot believe that the average parent realizes the effect of these vulgar pictures on the girls and boys. The intelligent adult does not frequent the motion-picture house, only children and morons can stand the steady diet of frivolity, vulgarity and vice which the producers are serving up for us.”

 When it comes to my movies, I’ll have a cup of vulgarity with a side of vice, please. 🙂

***

Note: I don’t mean to pick on the Globe here. I researched this post by checking out the expansive Globe newspaper archives available on the Toronto Public Library website.  I am sure that most newspapers of the day carried similar headlines.  My sincere thanks to both the Globe and the Toronto Public Library for the invaluable public access.

Photo Credit: Photo of me taken by Neil Traynor at the historic Fox movie theater (established in 1914) during the 2019 Toronto Silent Film Festival.

 

 

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