Omri Silverthorne – The Board Chair who Tried to End Censorship

Omri Silverthorne became the chair of Ontario Film Review Board in 1934. Silverthorne was a friend of the new premier, and is rumored to have supplied banned films for the premier’s private parties. The premier resigned amid charges of scandal and corruption in 1942, but Silverthorne continued as Board chair under successive premiers until his retirement in 1974. One of his first decisions was to drop the 1920 standards, in favour of judging each film on its own merits. As before when rigid standards were dropped, rejections also dropped dramatically. In 1940, for the first time, no films were rejected.

In 1946 Silverthorne introduced classification. Until then, although there was a Universal certificate or an Adult certificate, films were generally required to be suitable for all ages. Exceptions included “V.D. films,” which were limited to adults only. The Ontario Board became the first jurisdiction in North America to acknowledge that some films were suitable for adults only and regularly classify films accordingly. The Adult certificate was roughly equivalent to the modern restricted rating – these were not what is now euphemistically called an Adult film.

In the thirties and forties the American Production Code made Silverthorne’s job easier – he noted that British films required more cuts than American films, due to their language. By the 1950s, the weakened Production Code, and the 1952 decision that films were protected speech, meant more and more films required cuts. This was challenging for Silverthorne, as he believed censorship should not be obvious. His response was to question his role.

In 1960 Silverthorne spoke out against censorship at a national conference of censors. He stated “the rigid inflexibility, the inability to adapt to the changing outlook of the Canadian people, the conflicting decisions and inconsistencies have succeeded in making censorship look ridiculous in the eyes of the people we seek to serve.” In 1963 he noted “banning any film today only arouses controversy and brings it a publicity value it does not deserve.”

The Japanese erotic fable Woman in the Dunes passed uncut, with nudity, in 1965, though other films that pushed the boundaries of obscenity, including the Canadian made High and the Swedish made I am Curious (Yellow) were subject to cuts.

Public criticism of the Board’s secret deliberations and apparently arbitrary decisions mounted even as the Board strived to make as few cuts as possible in challenging films. Of Last Tango in Paris, Silverthorne said “we just closed our eyes and ears and let it go.” Censorship was being questioned in other provinces too. Manitoba moved to a classification only system in 1972, and Quebec phased out censorship during the period from 1967 to 1975.

In 1971, at another national conference of censors, Silverthorne called for the abolition of censorship within 2 years. However, an Ontario government investigation the following year criticized the Board’s “concern for cultivating a reputation for liberality” and called for more censorship, especially of foreign films and of the new medium of videotape. Home video cassettes were still several years away, but industrial video formats were being used to produce and distribute sex films.

In 1973 film producer John Bassett wrote a report for the Ministry of Industry and Tourism, suggesting a new Ontario Film Office to support film production. Among other things, this office would replace the Board of Censors, and classify, not censor, films. The Ministry went ahead with the office, but only to promote film production. The government ignored Bassett’s advice and Silverthorne’s suggestion that a young censor be appointed to replace him.

When Silverthorne retired in 1974, Donald Sims, a sixty year old broadcaster who later described himself as a “seat belt on your psyche,” was appointed chair. Ontario soon became widely known for its high levels of film censorship.

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