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Film Censorship in New York State

by Richard Andress

On APRIL 23, 1886, THOMAS EDISON demonstrated the "vitascope" at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City. For the first time in this country, a theater audience watched moving images projected by this invention. Edison's "Bitascope" --- keystone of America's moving picture industry --- was a phenomenal success. A series of makeshift movie houses appearing initially in immigrant working class neighborhoods spread rapidly uptown to middle class audiences. Grand picture palaces such as the Regent (1913), the Strand (1914), and the Rialto (1916) opened in New York City. Each of these huge theaters seated several thousand people. Meanwhile the demand for the new "flickers" was spreading throughout the nation. Within 20 years of Edison`s demonstration, movies became the most popular form of mass entertainment in America.

As soon as films entered the entertainment market, many people became concerned with the content of motion pictures. While early films featured potentially objectionable themes such as brutality, crime, drunkenness, divorce, and sex, their treatment was no more excessive than it had been in burlesque houses and dime novels. What was unique and even revolutionary about the cinema was the enormous influence that the moving images could have. Parents groups, educators, religious and civic organizations concerned with the effects of films on young people wanted more control over what was shown on the screen. Because the movie industry was unwilling or unable to censor itself, many people felt that government regulation would help force the reforms they thought were necessary. These demands resulted in municipal film censorship laws such as those in New York City in 1906 and 1913, and Maryland in 1916. Responding to pressure for regulation, the New York State Legislature passed a bill in 1921 establishing an independent commission to review and license films. Organizations that opposed government censorship and representatives of the film industry objected to the bill. D. W. Griffith and William Fox were among the Hollywood luminaries who spoke against the bill at hearings in Albany. Despite these protests, Governor Nathan L. Miller signed the bill into law as "the only way to remedy what everyone concedes has grown to be a very great evil."

Thus the Motion Picture Commission was created in 1921. As part of a larger State reorganization, the Legislature transferred the Commission's powers and duties to a new Motion Picture Division within the State Education Department in 1926. The Division reviewed each film and issued a license for its exhibition unless the film was judged, as stated in the law, "obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, sacrilegious or of such character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or to incite crime." Distributors were required to submit an application fee, a print of the movie (later returned), and a written copy of all dialogue. Virtually every film shown in the State was submitted for review with the exception of education, scientific, and current events films. Reviewers could order elimination of objectionable scenes or reject an entire movie.

During the State's 44 years of censorship, over 73,000 motion pictures were reviewed. About six or eight a year were rejected in entirety, and an average of 10 percent of the total number reviewed were "cut" before licenses were issued.

In retrospect, some "cuts" such as a shot of ice cream running down a baby's leg in Brownie's Baby Doll, 1921 or a scene of a chimp's diaper change in Snooky's Fresh Heir, 1921, may seem frivolous. Nevertheless, the work of the New York censors was widely respected and was an influence on the decisions of other municipal and state censor boards. The commission's "cuts" in domestic films began to diminish, however, when the motion picture industry established the Motion Picture Procedures and Distributors Association to censor Hollywood productions. This voluntary effort was largely ineffectual until 1934 when a stronger Hollywood Production Code was enacted. Thereafter most of the films carrying the Code's approval were licensed quickly in New York.

Meanwhile, the Motion Picture Division was experiencing great difficulty in reviewing the growing number of foreign productions. After World War II, foreign movies accounted for the largest part of the Division's workload. Films from France, Italy, Mexico, Hong Kong, and other countries flooded the State. Distributors were seeking a market among New York City's polyglot population. Many of these movies, with their sophisticated attitudes towards love, marriage, and sex, ran counter to prevailing American mores and censorship laws. The controversial 1933 Czech film Ecstasy, perhaps the most notorious example, was licensed in New York in 1940 only after 14 separate court actions and significant changes in the film's content.

During the 1950's, court challenges weakened New York's censorship law dramatically. In 1951, the Division licensed the Italian film The Miracle. The Catholic Legion of Decency subsequently condemned the film and its exhibition created an uproar among New York City's Catholic population. The censorship determination was appealed to the Board of Regents which rescinded the film's license, declaring the film "sacrilegious." The State Court of Appeals upheld this action but the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned it, ruling that "sacrilegious" was unconstitutionally vague. Subsequent court decisions deleted "indecent" and "immoral" from the statute and by 1959 only obscenity remained a justification for denying a license. These court decisions reflected society's increasing tolerance of mature themes in books, plays, and other forms of entertainment. The influx of popular movies from abroad also helped to change audience attitudes. Foreign films that would have made Commission members of the 1930's blanch --- pictures such as The Lovers, Hiroshima Mon Amour, The Virgin Spring, and La Dolce Vita --- were by the 1960's seen as works of art and made many censorship standards seems obsolete.

The final blow to film censorship was delivered in 1965. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a Maryland ban on the Danish film, A Stranger Knocks, and demanded procedural changes in the appeal process of all state film censor boards. Because the New York State Legislature did not make the necessary changes in the law, the Board of Regents discontinued the Motion Picture Division, effective September 30, 1965.

Richard Andress is a former Archivist at the New York State Archives, a program of the State Education Department.

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