“The American public wants its movies passionate but pure”. The Question of Morality in American Film Censorship of the 1920s

Term Paper, 2012

33 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Demanding Morality, Calling for Censorship
2.1. State Censorship Boards
2.2. Reform Groups
2.3. The `Hays Office´

3. Morality Restored? Impacts of early 1920 Film Censorship
3.1. Filmmakers and Actors
3.2. The Hays Office and the Need for a Formal Production Code

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

Appendix 2

1. Introduction

For as long as there have been moving pictures, there have also been attempts to regulate their content. The first court case surrounding moving pictures has been recorded as early as 1897 and many more were to follow.1 While film was thus always subjected to scrutiny from various groups, the 1920s saw a more fervent battle for control over censorship which resulted in the formation of the 1930 Production Code remaining in effect until 1968. During those years, the American film industry underwent a complex transformation. While the medium of film was attempted to be used for educational purposes in the years before, the post-World War I era saw a focus on “the aesthetics of pleasure, fantasy and material luxury in which the tension between the old and new cultural values was clearly played out.”2 The film industry grew to be the fifth-largest industry in the United States and a visit to the movie theater became a popular pastime activity, turning film into a mass consumed medium. In a short time span, a handful of competitive production companies vertically integrated the production, distribution, and exhibition of movies and attempted to trump one another by building grand movie palaces which independently owned theaters could not compare to.3 Film took on a formative function since it “delivered messages about consumption, leisure, and identity that helped transform the American public.”4 Since the First World War, the use of film as a means to influence the masses’ opinion had been discovered and the film’s significance in portraying American culture had been recognized. The pronounced meaning and the formative character of the film industry which is essential for the understanding of a specifically American culture and economy becomes apparent in a description of American film by William Hays. He is quoted calling film not only the “epitome of civilization and the quintessence of what we mean by `America´,” but also the “silent salesman of American goods.”5

With the transformation of film from an art form to a mass consumed good under way, the mixture and habits of the audiences also changed in that they are argued to have shifted towards constituting a more homogenous mass. In his extensive study The Making of American Audiences, Richard Butsch notes a clear change in the demographic and the behavior of audiences in moderately priced nickelodeons popular at the beginning of the 20th century or small movie theaters, and later, the movie palaces. Although the movie industry is said to have “sought a middle-class audience”6 from the beginning by marketing the theaters as such, it was the movie palace built on shopping streets which succeeded in securing “`business-class`” rather than working-class families as its audience.7 Movie palaces “offered the consumption of luxury” by attracting audiences with their elaborate décor and lavish furnishings, inviting visitors to escape from reality for a few hours and indulge in an exotic place. While this pretension of luxury targeted the aspirations of the middle-class, “working-class people felt out of place.”8 A further aspect considered to be noteworthy is the behavior of movie audiences which underwent a transformation as movie palaces came up. Whereas an account of Lewis Palmer from 1909 describes nickelodeons as “genuine social centers … where the regulars stroll up and down the aisles between the acts and visit friends”9 and thereby depicting it as an activity focused on socializing with neighbors, the movie palace “lured, then awed and silenced the audience.”10 Talking and socializing was no longer permitted as the full attention was supposed to be on the movie presented on screen. This is significant in that it “suppressed audience expression.”11 It can thus be argued that the mass-frequented movie palace did not foster the community aspect of the nickelodeon experience. On the contrary, the requested silence turned theatergoers into a more anonymous, inactive mass. Whereas there were concerns about the behavior within the audience voiced by reformers during the nickelodeons’ success, the 1920s saw a focus on the behavior on screen which now became subject to regulation.

This supposedly inactive and easy to influence audience was now presented with a variety of scandalous film contents such as nudity and crime. Additionally, a row of murder cases and reports of alcohol and drug consumption drew attention to the actors associated with those movies.12 These factors combined initiated, as terms it, a form of `moral panic´ on the side of reformers as she critically assesses the “level of public concern [to have been] disproportionately high considering the potential harm.”13 Already before the 1920s, debates about morality were omnipresent as it was directly linked to public order and has been attributed the function of “the law of nature … [which] is necessary to society” and therefore had to be protected.14 Movies quickly became one of the most discussed influences on the public’s morality since there was a general consensus of a lack thereof. Consequently, a widespread fear of the youth being negatively influenced by behavior presented on screen erupted so that regulation was explicitly called for.

Lee Grieveson’s study Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early-Twentieth-Century America comprehensively describes long-lasting battles over movie content regulation and the discussion of the function of cinema. He affirms states’ legal battles over censorship to have started as early as 190715. Yet, he is among many scholars who sees the 1915 Supreme Court decision in the case “ as the culmination of these struggles as it proved “the validity of state censorship.”16 Justice McKenna in what Gregory D. Black calls a “curious”17 document is quoted ruling that “the exhibition of moving picture is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit, like other spectacles, not to be regarded … as part of the press of the country, or as organs of the public opinion.” Furthermore, it was estimated as being “capable of evil.”18 In other words, movies did no longer fall under the protection of free speech determined in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. They were not regarded as an art form but an entertainment business which was open for regulation. This ruling was not only significant for the increased state and city censorship which followed, but it also fueled censorship demands by various parties including religious groups, social reformers, politicians, and journalists who all called for the elusive concept of morality.

The road from this first ruling which titled the film industry as a business to be regulated towards a formal censorship with the aim of restoring morality manifested in the so-called Production Code in 1934 will then be the focus of this paper. The first part will consist of an analysis of the various parties involved in the attempt to regulate movie content in order to expose the individual motives behind their requests as well as their practices to reach their goal of censorship. Where did they see threats in movie content that could harm the American public or the international image of the United States and how were they going to enforce a form of censorship? How was their concept of morality defined? Was it even possible to define a mainstream concept of morality? It will be attempted to provide a broad and comprehensive view on the film industry by looking at state censors, various interest groups representing the public, and the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) which represents the self-regulation of the filmmakers themselves.

The following part will then deal with the question of how well the reformers were able to realize their goal of censoring the movies during the first years of the 1920s. This will be discussed by looking at the consequences of the call for morality and reactions towards an attempt at regulated movies. The potential success of censorship will be determined by looking at its reception by filmmakers and actors, and the further reworking of the regulation practices by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association.

The questions posed above will mainly be studied on the basis of guiding works in film censorship written by Gregory D. Black, Francis G. Couvares, Stephen Vaughn, Lee Grieveson and Leonard J. Leff and Jerold Simmons. Analyzed sources will include newspaper articles, state review board standards, studies on audience behavior, and an original text written by a direct participant of the 1920 censorship struggle, MPPDA president William Hays.

2. Demanding Morality, Calling for Censorship

A 1922 New York Times article concedes that “we all are interested in matters of sex and crime; but we hold it highly indecorous to go beyond certain narrow limits in exploiting either… The American public wants its movies passionate but pure.”19 Even though this statement underlines the difficulty in pleasing audiences’ desires for film content while preventing to cross over an invisible and indistinct line of a certain degree of “purity,” a non-negotiable call for regulation is made apparent. That this forcefully demanded regulation was not driven by a uniform set of principles and proposed procedures is exemplified in Couvares’ depiction of the different groups involved: “Economic and cultural elites could not agree on what to do about Hollywood: some promoted the close regulation of movies by custodians of conservative morality; others promoted the free market of ideas and amusements; still others looked to education and `cultural adjustment´ to bring movies and moral into closer alignment.”20 The following chapter will attempt to expose various motivations behind censorship as well as manners of regulation by looking at state censor boards, the interest groups of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union as well as religious communities, and the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, groups that were closely interrelated with one another in the heated debate about film censorship.

2.1. State Censorship Boards

The way for statewide or sometimes called political censorship was cleared with the 1915 ruling of the Supreme Court. By 1920, state regulated censorship was acted out in five states with bills proposing censorship boards in twenty two states in the same year.21 Proposals for federal regulations regularly appeared before Congress.22 Since each state could decide independently on which contents to show and to what extent, the distribution and exhibition of movies became more and more costly and difficult, a state Ruth Vasey likens to a “multiple taxation on motion pictures.”23 As an illustration, Oberholzer recounts a 1$ fee for a film reel in Ohio, 2$ in fees in Pennsylvania, Kansas and Massachusetts, and a 3$ fee in New York, emphasizing significant differences in distribution and exhibition costs. On top of that, there were also varying costs for original and duplicate reels.24 The varying standards thereby developed into a matter of great concern for film production companies.

Each state which had set up a censorship board was able to review and, if deemed necessary, cut certain elements of a film. Even worse, they could decide to prevent the screening of a film all together, according to individually set moral standards. In this case, film studios were confronted with the constant danger of incurring significant financial losses. Adding to this risk were the ever growing foreign restrictions endangering the release of movies in foreign markets and adding further pressure to film executives. Concerning the review boards’ basis for decision, Gregory D. Black claims that they had at least a “common denominator” consisting of the desire to eliminate depictions of “changing moral standards.” He lists the portrayal of crime, nudity, government corruption, and labor management discord as agreed upon misconduct to be prevented.25 Kansas, Maryland, and Pennsylvania are among the boards that vowed to approve films according to the elusive standard of being “moral and proper.”26 Yet, Jowett implies that the boards displayed not only differing, but also “vague and often arbitrary standards of morality and decency.”27 In order to exemplify different manners of conduct, the Kansas Board of Review and the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors will be introduced and contrasted.

Gerald R. Butters, Jr. provides a comprehensive overview and analysis of the moral standards and practices of the Kansas Board of Review and also includes the time span of the Roaring Twenties. Already founded in the 1910s, the Kansas Board became more “businesslike” in the 1920s as the number of employed censors increased and the board was no longer financially self-sustaining. In the Board’s Annual Report from 1920, censors stayed in the line of arguing for a regulation of movies including crime and slapstick comedy. Yet, Butters notes a change in interest regarding the proposed morality as the Kansas censors were now “preoccupied with censoring scene of specific locations associated with immorality such as brothels and drug chambers.”28 Additionally, they were focused on regulating sex and nudity due to a post-war “social revolution” of women openly calling for sexual freedom and a corresponding trend of “sex pictures.”29 In 1920, they were the first board to release a guide of standards being decisive in the question regarding what to display on screen. Ten points including aspects such as the ridicule of a certain religion or race, infidelity, nudity, crimes and violence were acting as a guideline from now on.30 Upon closer view of this guiding list, it becomes apparent that the concept of morality is very present as point A condemns movies that “tend to debase morals.” While different forms of misconduct are underlined, the presumed morals are not defined further. Moreover, a special emphasis is put on the “moral” depiction of love scenes as a suggestion of immorality is here not permitted. Similarly, a definition of what this immorality might entail is lacking. The reason for this might be the fact that one rigid definition of morality was not possible. Aside from the differences in defining morality based on motivations such as religion or education, Butters notes that geographic location was also an aspect to be considered regarding morality. In the case of Kansas, he argues that residents of larger cities with “easy access to the swinging lifestyle and jazz-filled clubs” could be seen as “a little more worldly than residents of rural Kansas.”31

In the course of several years, one can detect a change in the Kansas review board’s principles as guidelines seem to have been loosened. Butters comments that the percentage of films to be modified and requested by the Kansas Board of Review decreased from 18% in 1924/25 to 9% in 1926/27.32 He also draws attention to the fact that the board explicitly stated that “all film approved by the board are not suitable for the entertainment of children,” thereby requiring the parents to decide on the content their children are permitted to watch. This statement is significant in that it emphasizes a clear divergence from prior censorship goals for the protection of children was seen as essential. While Butters praises the board’s ability to adapt to “new standards of morality or new constituencies,” this change might just as well be critically judged as a form of neglect or inconsistency.

The standards of the Pennsylvania censorship board are listed and commented on in The Morals of the Movie written by Dr. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer and published in 1922. Oberholtzer was member of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors from 1915 to 1920 and is regarded as being very influential in establishing the board’s principles. As a contrast to the ten points of movie contents to be banned by the Kansas Board of Review, the Pennsylvania Board provided a significantly longer list consisting of twenty four points. While both lists display a consensus regarding misconduct such as infidelity, nudity, several forms of criminal behavior, and the depiction of white slavery and the ridicule of religion, the Pennsylvania standards are more distinct and detailed, as specific examples of aspects to be censored are provided. Whereas the Kansas standards merely proposed to ban “criminal methods,”33 the Pennsylvania Board exemplifies these methods by listing “murder, poisoning, house-breaking, safe-robbery, pocket-picking, the lighting and throwing of bombs, the use of ether, chloroform, etc. to render men and women unconscious, binding and gagging”34 as not to be tolerated. Next to instances in which the Pennsylvania standard is more explicit than the one proposed by the Kansas Review Board, there are some aspects issued in Pennsylvania that the Kansas list is lacking. Those include the specific mention of prostitution, childbirth, drug use (specifically defined as opium, morphine, and cocaine), abortion, etc. A noteworthy difference is also the objection to profane language, vulgarities and disapproved subtitles explaining events on screen.35

From this contrast of the two review boards’ standards and the observation that the Pennsylvania Board has more distinct and closely defined kinds of misconduct than the Kansas Board, one can suppose that those boards had varying principles upon which their censorship decisions were based. Furthermore, one can assume that a certain film was banned from the start in Pennsylvania as it infringed upon the state’s standards whereas the censorship of this movie was open to interpretation of the Kansas Board operating under a looser guideline. Due to the limits of this paper only two boards’ standards were contrasted, yet the fact that more American states had operating censorship boards leads to the assumption of an even wider divergence of censorship standards concerning morality on the state level.

2.2. Reform Groups

As early as 1937, Mortimer Jerome Adler retrospectively noted that the composition and motives of interest groups attempting to regulate movies were manifold, as he identifies them as

affiliated with particular churches, organizations of parents and teachers, woman’s clubs, groups organized for the specific purpose of studying the problem of the movies, committees of social hygienists and the like, or by unaffiliated individuals who as moralists, reformers, publicists or cranks, raise their voice for the public weal or the private good of man.36

At the beginning of the 20th century, the list of reforms concerning “the impact of modernization and urban living on the moral fiber of the nation” of the so called Progressives was long, and also included, next to aspects such as “pure” recreational activities and a fair work environment, the moving pictures.37 Since it was seen as any city’s duty to provide its citizens with places to spend leisure time in a morally appropriate way, movies had to confirm to this standard as well. Fears of moviegoers being negatively influenced by immoral behavior shown on screen were fueled by a mass of studies emerging during the 1920s and matching the tone of the Payne Fund which focused on the impact of movies on children. Richard Butsch quotes Herbert Blumer’s Movies, Delinquency and Crime which claimed that especially children were apt to lose themselves in the presented action of the movie through self-identification as ideas on screen were “implanted” in their young minds and might lead to the fact that they were “carried away from the usual trend of conduct.”38 The popular public figure Jane Addams equally propagated this argument of movies harming children by proposing an over simplified view of their impact. She suggested that a certain behavior perceived on screen would be directly transformed into action. Following this thought and taking it seriously, one would have to expect obscene and dark movies to have produced criminals by the dozen. Nevertheless, she stayed true to her line of argumentation which saw movies as disruptive to middle-class education and is quoted as being appalled by the fact that movies she describes as “absurdities which certainly will become the foundation for their working moral codes” were made available to children.39 Thereby, she apparently implies movies to damage children’s moral values instilled in their upbringing.

Alice Miller Mitchell is similarly concerned about the American youth as she is quoted complaining: "Everywhere, all about, is the movie, flashing shadows of life on a screen, shadows which Youth thinks are real," (a fact even more apparent with the advent of sound in motion pictures in 1927) robbing them of "the preciousness of childhood."40 Supposedly underlining this argument is her survey she conducted in 1929. She selected three groups of children: Boy and Girl Scouts, students from public schools as well as a group of “juvenile delinquents” from detention homes making up for a total of 10.052 children. Those children were asked to name their three most preferred movie genres.41 At this point of her study, one can already voice concern about the reliability of her investigation, as she gathered her data not by personally interviewing the children which would have allowed her to note their demeanor and way of expressing their opinion, but by simply asking them to answer a questionnaire. Frank Manchel supposes drawbacks in this as he calls it a “potentially unreliable method of investigation.”42 The outcome of Miller Mitchell’s survey reveals boys to prefer Westerns, Adventures, and Comedies and girls to like Romances, Comedies, and Westerns the most. Although she concludes that all three groups “like practically the same kind of movies,”43 she exemplifies answers given by the delinquent group displaying a particular liking for violent pictures in an exaggerated manner, thereby directly linking delinquency with movies of the crime and horror genre. She is sure to introduce one “delinquent” boy as having regularly stolen the money for the theater admission before quoting his following preferred movie content: “I like to see somebody get killed. I like to see some one getting robbed.”44 She also concludes that the delinquents not only saw more movies than the other two groups (they visited the movie theater “frequently,” in comparison to “one or two visits a week” for the other groups), but also had “a greater range of choices.” Conforming to a great number of reformers’ viewpoint during this time, Miller Mitchell determined that the exposure to adult themes during children’s formative years was potentially harmful.45 By exposing the “delinquent” group which one might suppose to have consisted at least partially of lower class children lacking parental supervision to have been particularly susceptible for the impact of movies, Miller Mitchell also relates morals, or the lack thereof, to a certain class and upbringing.


1 Jowett, Garth: “A Capacity for Evil.” The 1915 Supreme Court Mutual Decision, in: Bernstein, Matthew (Hrsg.), Controlling Hollywood. Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era. New Brunswick, NJ 1999, 21. For a brief overview of court cases in the 1910s, see 21-25.

2 Currell, Susan: American Culture in the 1920s. Edinburgh 2009, 104.

3 Currell, 107.

4 Butters Jr., Gerald R.: Banned in Kansas. Motion Picture Censorship, 1915-1966. Columbia, Missouri 2007, 146.

5 Hays qtd. in Currell, 105.

6 Butsch, Richard: The Making of American Audiences. From Stage to Television 1750-1990. Cambridge 2000, 158.

7 ibid., 161.

8 ibid., 161.

9 ibid., 148.

10 ibid., 161.

11 ibid., 162.

12 Leff, Leonard J., and Jerold Simmons: The Dame in the Kimono. Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s. New York, 1990, 1.

13 Wittern-Keller, Laura: Freedom of the Screen. Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981. Kentucky 2008, 2.

14 Grieveson, Lee: Policing Cinema Movies and Censorship in Early-Twentieth-Century America. Berkeley 2004, 20.

15 ibid., 202.

16 ibid., 197.

17 Black, Gregory D.: Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge 1994, 16.

18 Grieveson, 201.

19 “Humanizing the Movies.” New York Times January 18, 1922.

20 Couvares, Francis G: Movie Censorship and American Culture. Washington 1996, 4.

21 Vasey, Ruth: The World According to Hollywood, 1918-1939. Madison, Wisconsin 1997, 17.

22 Vaughn, 45.

23 Vasey, 17.

24 Oberholtzer, Ellis Paxson: The Morals of the Movie. New York 1971, 119.

25 Black, 15.

26 Oberholtzer, 122.

27 Jowett, 25.

28 Butters, 147.

29 ibid., 148.

30 ibid., 149-50. For the complete list of the Kansas Board of Review’s standards, see Appendix.

31 Butters., 173.

32 ibid. 170.

33 Butters, 150.

34 Oberholtzer, 213.

35 Oberholtzer, 212-215.

36 Adler, Mortimer Jerome: Art and Prudence: A Study in Practical Philosophy. New York 1937, 149.

37 Black, 8.

38 Butsch, 168.

39 Black, 9.

40 Vaughn, Stephen: Morality and Entertainment. The Origins of the Motion Picture Production Code, in: The Journal of American History, 77. 1. (Jun. 1990), 39-65, 41.

41 Miller Mitchell, Alice: The Movies Children Like, in: The Survey, November 15, 1929, pp. 213-215, 213.

42 Manchel, Frank: Film Study: An Analytical Bibliography. Rutherford 1990, 727.

43 Miller Mitchell, 213.

44 Miller Mitchell, 214.

45 Manchel, 727.

Excerpt out of 33 pages


“The American public wants its movies passionate but pure”. The Question of Morality in American Film Censorship of the 1920s
University of Göttingen  (Seminar für Mittlere und Neuere Geschichte)
The "Roaring Twenties": Die Massenkultur der 1920er Jahre in transatlantischer Perspektive
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american history, film censorship, production code, film studies, morality
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Amelie Meyer (Author), 2012, “The American public wants its movies passionate but pure”. The Question of Morality in American Film Censorship of the 1920s, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/537937


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