Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America

Lee Grieveson,
Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America.
Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004.
ISBN: 978 0 520 239661
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)

Censorship can be a sensational subject – couched in terms of the struggle of light against dark, good against evil. Whichever side of the debate you support, it can provoke more heat than light, and a fierce conviction that authority and justice are on your side! This is not that kind of book. It is a cool appraisal of the issues, drawing lightly on the authority of theoreticians such as Michel Foucault or Pierre Bourdieu, to examine the social and industrial contexts of film exhibition and of efforts by American police and governments to restrict the exhibition of ‘dangerous’ films. Its thesis is that “calculations of the weight of the functions of the medium were important to the constitution and consolidation of the institutional, legal, and discursive validation of fictional narrative cinema in the teens” (5). This air of academic distance is both the strength and the weakness of the book: it allows a fair presentation of many differing views, but it is also leads to a rather dry and bland presentation. So, though the book concerns some of the most salacious films and sensational court cases and media debates of the time, don’t expect to find it entertaining.

Grieveson concentrates on a very brief span of film history – less than a decade, from 1906 to 1914. But during this period, the main arguments about the social dangers of cinema were played out in the media and the courts, so that the ground-work was laid for the system of film production later labelled classicism, the system of distribution that controlled the circulation of films through theatres, and the system of regulation that limited the content of films: systems that held sway in USA for nearly a century to follow.

The book begins with a discussion of the Essanay Film Company’s competition to find a descriptive word that would encapsulate what one might see at a moving picture theatre – a competition won by the term ‘photoplay’, which then came into general usage. It was such films – narrative films, ‘telling stories’ – that were considered dangerous, and in need of ‘policing.’ The opening chapter discusses this term, relating advances in film form and technology to arguments about social responsibility, particularly those couched in terms of class and gender. Alternative exhibition practices – specifically, premises devoted to ‘educational’ films – proved a commercial failure, and regulation inevitably followed. The story is then built around several influential film examples. The Unwritten Law (Lubin, 1907) represents a cycle of ‘scandalous cinema’, fictionalising an actual sensational court case exposing sexual deviance and violence within the upper class. The general condemnation of the film’s subject-matter led to widespread calls from the reformers for official censorship, and from within the industry for self-regulation.

The most effective moves towards the latter came from ‘reforming cinema’, represented here by A Drunkard’s Reformation (Biograph 1909) and The Drive for a Life (Biograph 1909). Such films, depicting the possibilities of rehabilitation for the social outcast, demonstrated that commercial cinema could still be a powerful force in social education, upholding family values and feminine virtue. Such a function became increasingly problematic, as other subjects, such as the filming of boxing matches in 1909-1912, touched raw nerves. Prize-fighting was actually outlawed in some states, and was generally considered degrading, so films of boxing matches were deeply disturbing to the reformers. But the truly dangerous element was the defeat of various white men (Jim Jeffries, Tommy Burns, et al) by a black man (Jack Johnson) – so dangerous, in fact, that the fights caused riots and the films of them were declared illegal in several cities and states (including Arkansas and Tennessee), leading more states and cities to join the trend of appointing official censor boards. Federal legislation (the Sim Act) banning the movement of fight films across state lines followed, analogous to the power already in force in the Mann Act, prohibiting the commercial movement of girls and women across state lines for immoral purposes. At the same time, Johnson’s private life also came under scrutiny, until he was convicted under the Mann Act of the abduction of a white girl. The story of the consequent defeat of Johnson in the ring, and attempts to have a film of this defeat imported, make an extraordinary tale, well worth a film in itself! A sidelight of this tale is the way censorship became imbricated in the long battle against the Patents Co, for restraint of trade.

‘Judging cinema’ concerns the production and exhibition of two key ‘white slavery’ films in 1913-1914. Both Traffic in Souls (IMP/Universal 1913) and The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (Moral Feature Film Co. 1913) proclaimed their social purpose – the protection of poor and immigrant women by the exposure of the methods of white slavers. Both managed to gain the support of feminists and social reformers, in an alliance with production companies forced to defend their product in the courts. But the narrative strategies they used were very different – the former slipping from general exposition to specific fictional narrative, while the latter kept to a documentary-style. Grieveson sees these two films, then, as representing both sides of a divide that became increasingly fixed – between the educational film and the entertainment film. In that early period, censors were more likely to accept morally dubious subject-matter when it was presented as clearly fiction, but were less willing to accept it when it was presented with what they considered ‘excessive’ realism.

In each case, links are made between the subject-matter of the films, and developments in film form, throwing new light on the shaping of ‘classical’ cinema, and reading this through the lens of changing censorship standards and procedures. Unfortunately, the ‘classical’ aesthetic is not discussed in nearly such detail as other aspects, and I found myself repeatedly wanting more information. For instance, classical narrative became the standard for feature-length films, and the feature film became the standard in commercial cinemas precisely over this period. However, we are never told the length of any of the films being discussed. I suspect that The Unwritten Law was less than standard feature length, and that the fight films were generally more than standard feature length: I know that the white slave films discussed here were both standard feature length. I would have liked more discussion of this and other aspects of the classical narrative form.

Except for these questions to do with classical film form, the final chapter ties the elements together in a survey of developments after 1915. It shows how economic changes (the growth of vertically integrated companies) affected and were affected by changes in censorship (a shift away from national to state regulation, and from government regulation to industry self-regulation). These developments also affected the industry’s self-concept, confirming film as primarily an entertainment medium – with education, or ‘propaganda’ as it was labelled – something to be avoided in the commercial cinema, even during wartime, when cinema’s power to inform and persuade was sometimes utilised in the national interest.

It is this attempt to tie together all the various aspects of the development of film that is new and admirable in this book. It requires a concentration on a limited period of film history, but allows a detailed examination of this short period. Grieveson’s argument is that it was the complex developments in the period 1906 – 1915 that set in place the definition of the social function of cinema as entertainment. This definition underpinned other developments – not only in censorship, but also in the aesthetic of cinema that privileged the ‘classical’ narrative form over marginal forms such as documentary or exploitation films. The book, therefore, should appeal to not only those interested in the history of censorship procedures, but to anyone with an interest in the social and aesthetic development of film.

Ina Bertrand

Created on: Thursday, 9 November 2006

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →