Defending the Courts against Self-Defense

Self-Defense is a 1932 western/melodrama from Monogram. Katy owns and runs a gambling bar in a small town in northern British Columbia, but has sent her teenage daughter, Nona, to a boarding school in California. Nona believes her mother runs a high-end hotel, and Katy doesn’t want Nona to learn the truth. A local trouble maker makes trouble for Katy, including arranging for Nona to come to town. This leads to a confrontation between the bad guy and Tim, a friend of Katy’s, where Tim shoots and kills him. At the trial, Tim pleads self-defense, but cannot give all the details, as that would reveal the truth about Katy’s establishment, and Nona is present. The trial concludes in an unorthodox manner. A full synopsis is available at Turner Classic Movies.

When the film arrived in British Columbia, provincial censors were concerned about the portrayal of the court system, and ordered the removal of all references to the province. This consisted mostly of mentions of going to Prince Rupert, as well as visible BC license plates on cars. It’s entirely possible that the story was set in BC in the first place, rather than a western state, in order to avoid problems with American censors. They were concerned with negative portrayals of the USA. For example, in the mid-1920’s the Pennsylvania Board of Censors ordered that a location title be changed from “Deep in the fastnesses of the great California forest” to “Deep in the fastnesses of the great Canadian forest,” suggesting that the lawlessness of that film’s characters was more appropriate to exotic Canada.

In addition to the cuts, a title disclaimer was added at the start of Self-Defense, for its showings in BC.

This picture is purely fiction and deals with a romantic story of the far North in the early days. It must be understood that no Courts in Canada under jurisdiction of British Law were ever conducted as depicted in this film.

This picture is purely fiction and deals with a romantic story of the far North in the early days. It must be understood that no Courts in Canada under jurisdiction of British Law were ever conducted as depicted in this film.

Negative portrayals of any institution, including colleges, the police, the church, and hospitals, were frowned upon, and could result in a film being banned. It’s not clear if this disclaimer was requested by the censor, or volunteered by the distributor, however the record of the addition was added to the file later. Disclaimers like this were not unusual at the time. As the film showed cars (with BC license plates), stating this was “the early days” may not have been effective, but anachronisms were common in period films, especially westerns. Now it’s anachronistic to be concerned about protecting the reputations of our institutions, and perhaps that’s a good thing.

2 thoughts on “Defending the Courts against Self-Defense

  1. It is tricky. You don’t want to censor criticism of institutions, and you don’t want to censor stories that explore what-if scenarios involving institutions, or have minor errors. For example, a key plot point in Body Heat (1981) is based on a legal rule which does not apply in the state where it is set, but no one should be taking legal advice from thrillers. On the other hand, it might be considered socially harmful for an institution to be routinely misrepresented in art.

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