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Freedom of the Screen

Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981

Laura Wittern-Keller
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 384
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    Freedom of the Screen
    Book Description:

    At the turn of the twentieth century, the proliferation of movies attracted not only the attention of audiences across America but also the apprehensive eyes of government officials and special interest groups concerned about the messages disseminated by the silver screen. Between 1907 and 1926, seven states -- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Kansas, Maryland, and Massachusetts -- and more than one hundred cities authorized censors to suppress all images and messages considered inappropriate for American audiences. Movie studios, hoping to avoid problems with state censors, worrying that censorship might be extended to the federal level, and facing increased pressure from religious groups, also jumped into the censoring business, restraining content through the adoption of the self-censoring Production Code, also known as the Hays code.But some industry outsiders, independent distributors who believed that movies deserved the free speech protections of the First Amendment, brought legal challenges to censorship at the state and local levels. Freedom of the Screen chronicles both the evolution of judicial attitudes toward film restriction and the plight of the individuals who fought for the right to deliver provocative and relevant movies to American audiences. The path to cinematic freedom was marked with both achievements and roadblocks, from the establishment of the Production Code Administration, which effectively eradicated political films after 1934, to the landmark cases over films such as The Miracle (1948), La ronde (1950), and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1955) that paved the way for increased freedom of expression. As the fight against censorship progressed case by case through state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, legal authorities and the public responded, growing increasingly sympathetic toward artistic freedom. Because a small, unorganized group of independent film distributors and exhibitors in mid-twentieth-century America fought back against what they believed was the unconstitutional prior restraint of motion pictures, film after 1965 was able to follow a new path, maturing into an artistic medium for the communication of ideas, however controversial. Government censors would no longer control the content of America's movie screens. Laura Wittern-Keller's use of previously unexplored archival material and interviews with key figures earned her the researcher of the year award from the New York State Board of Regents and the New York State Archives Partnership Trust. Her exhaustive work is the first to discuss more than five decades of film censorship battles that rose from state and local courtrooms to become issues of national debate and significance. A compendium of judicial action in the film industry, Freedom of the Screen is a tribute to those who fought for the constitutional right of free expression and paved the way for the variety of films that appear in cinemas today.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7264-4
    Subjects: Law, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Historians, lawyers, and journalists have debated for several decades whether the United States has had a “legacy of suppression” (as first phrased by Leonard W. Levy in 1960) or whether it has fostered freedom of expression. The arguments have gone back and forth for almost forty years. But whether the nation has suffered from constraint of speech or whether it has nurtured free expression, when movies burst onto the cultural scene at the start of the twentieth century, the scales tipped decidedly toward suppression.¹

    Even in the heyday of Anthony Comstock in the late nineteenth century, material deemed unwholesome was...

  5. 1 The Origins of Governmental Film Censorship, 1907–1923
    (pp. 17-38)

    With the advent of moving pictures at the turn of the century, Americans experienced a totally new phenomenon. For the first time, new and sometimes unwelcome ideas could be transmitted quickly and easily to anyone, regardless of education, age, or economic status, and without the usual communal filters imposed by family, church, and civic groups. The burgeoning film industry threatened traditional values of modesty, propriety, and lawfulness, and it did so in a most public fashion.¹ It particularly attacked the Victorian boundary between public and private behavior, once quite well defined but gradually melting at the turn of the century....

  6. 2 The Courts Provide No Relief, 1909–1927
    (pp. 39-50)

    America’s first movie censorship law—Chicago’s—became the first challenged in court. And the judiciary welcomed movie regulation with open arms: America’s legal culture was right in step with those who wished to control movies. The courts accepted the potent harm-to-minors arguments that had been used by the procensorites to get statutes like Chicago’s passed. Prevailing legal doctrine on obscenity at the turn of the twentieth century still rested on an 1868 British ruling (Regina v. Hicklin) that had carved in legal stone the idea that anything corruptive of youth (even if found in an isolated part of a work...

  7. 3 Hollywood and the Legion of Decency, 1922–1934
    (pp. 51-64)

    As successful and influential as the states’ censoring was, the push for national censorship persisted into the 1930s. The major studios were willing to accept some censorship as a necessary component of doing business, but they lobbied against any further governmental censorship, rallying forces whenever federal legislation loomed. Although it might seem that a federal agency would have been easier to deal with than a myriad of state and local boards, the moguls feared that a federal censorship agency might lead to broader regulation of their product,¹ including their greatest fear: antitrust action. From the start, the American movie industry...

  8. 4 Early Challenges to State Censors, 1927–1940
    (pp. 65-88)

    The judicial system was central to the control of movie content, both in upholding the censors’ legality and in legitimating censorship as fair and reasonable. Censorship statutes would have appeared draconian if they had not allowed recourse to judicial review. Permitting appeal of censor determinations gave prior restraint the appearance of equability. Recourse to the courts, however, the very thing that validated the censors, eventually proved their undoing.

    Between the initial New York challenges of the 1920s and World War II, fourteen distributors (all independents) legally challenged state censors. Almost half of those challenges were filed against New York’s censors.¹...

  9. 5 The First Amendment Resurfaces, 1946–1950
    (pp. 89-106)

    After 1915, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to accept free speech and free press arguments for motion pictures, censorship challengers dropped any attempt to invoke movies’ First Amendment rights and took a more pragmatic route, arguing findings of fact. The approach narrowed from “Allmovie censorship is wrong” to “Censorship ofthismovie is wrong.” During the 1930s, however, freedom of political speech became the subject of much debate in the legal community, assuming, according to Richard Steele, “the proportions of a national cause.” Only a decade removed from the speech-restricting excesses of the post–World War I years,...

  10. 6 The Strange Case of The Miracle, 1950–1952
    (pp. 107-148)

    In December 1950, when Americans first heard about Roberto Rossellini’s forty-one-minute filmThe Miracle(Il miracolo), New York State had been censoring all films commercially exhibited within its borders for twenty-seven years. Most New Yorkers gave little thought to this restriction on their entertainment. The country had more important issues, many of them focused on the cold war. It was clear that the five-year uneasy postwar peace was unraveling. The United Nations had censured the Communists of North Korea in June, President Truman had sent in American forces, and by December the news from the front was all bad. The...

  11. 7 La Ronde, 1951–1954
    (pp. 149-174)

    In 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear another case against the censors of New York State. The film wasLa ronde, a saucy, satirical, cynical treatment of seduction and casual sex. By the time Robert and Raymond Hakim of Commercial Pictures Corporation broughtLa rondeto the United States in late 1951, it had played for two years in Paris and for ten months in London, where it had passed the British censors with no cuts. Even though British censoring was considered “heavy handed,” the board there had begun to make allowance for artistic license.¹

    U.S. Customs censors...

  12. 8 The Tide Turns against the Censors, 1953–1957
    (pp. 175-196)

    AsLa rondeworked its way toward the Supreme Court, the legality of film censorship was beginning to look grim in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. New York’s judges, who for three decades had staunchly supported their censors, were starting to question the statute and its application. In the early 1950s, as the judicial attitude toward free speech was shifting at the federal level, New York’s appellate division justices became more skeptical about the prior restraint exercised by their motion picture division. In 1953 the board of regents and their counsel, Charles Brind, began a losing streak that never turned...

  13. 9 The Seventh Case in Seven Years, 1957–1959
    (pp. 197-216)

    By 1956, only New York, Maryland, Virginia, and Kansas were still censoring. When Kingsley International Pictures submitted a French film version of D. H. Lawrence’s sensational novelLady Chatterley’s Loverto the New York censors in 1956, only pirated and abridged copies of the book could be found anywhere in the United States because the U.S. Post Office had declared the original novel unmailable. Customs officials confiscated copies at the border.¹ Although shocking for its time, the novel received mostly favorable reviews from sources as varied as theNew York Times, theNew York Post, andTime. Its 1959 American...

  14. 10 The Curtain Coming Down, 1957–1964
    (pp. 217-230)

    WhileKingsleywas less than satisfactory as a solid legal precedent for either side, it was clear to the New York censors that their domain was now limited to obscenity. Since only obscene films could be banned or cut, Charles Brind got a break; he was not bothered by any film challenge cases for two years. But while things were quiet in New York, the anticensorship forces were suffering several worrisome developments: Pennsylvania had reinstated film censorship in 1959 (although, as we have seen, the new statute was struck down by the state supreme court two years later); a major...

  15. 11 Fight for Freedom of the Screen, 1962–1965
    (pp. 231-246)

    While New York wrestled withThe Connection and Twilight Girls, Maryland was having its own problems. In November 1962, Baltimore theater owner Ronald Freedman and the brazenly anticensorship Times Film Corporation decided to flout Maryland’s law by exhibitingRevenge at Daybreakwithout a license. Freedman had spent much of his career as an exhibitor doing whatever he could to make life difficult for the Maryland censors. He frequently restored excised scenes from films before showing them in his theater, and the board knew it.¹ Like the other independents who fought censorship, Freedman did not intend to become a crusader for...

  16. 12 Denouement, 1965–1981
    (pp. 247-272)

    The 1960s were not kind to movie censors and those who supported them. No other decade, with the possible exception of the 1920s, saw such radical social change. After World War II, those who valued self-reliance, hard work, and patriotism (the group most likely to favor censorship) began to lose cultural authority. The new culture that began to build in the 1950s and prevailed in the 1960s was based more on pacifism, egalitarianism, openness, and individuality.¹ Cultural authority shifted from parents, church leaders, educators, and political leaders to the self.² And a culture that emphasized the individual was not likely...

  17. Conclusion
    (pp. 273-282)

    Each time a new mass medium has appeared, it has been welcomed with calls for its restriction: mass market books, magazines, comic books, motion pictures, radio, television, and the Internet. At the beginning of the twentieth century, when moving picture technology allowed the mass dissemination of lifelike moving images for the first time, the result, on the part of some, was moral panic. Motion pictures bore the full brunt of the progressive notion that an educated, bureaucratized elite could best protect the nation and its children. Censorship was a well-established tradition; free speech was not. The era of film censorship...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 283-330)
  19. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 331-342)
  20. Index
    (pp. 343-356)