Movie Theatres are Dangerous, and so is Nationalism – Censorship in 1920

After an early experiment “judging each film on its own merits,” Ontario re-instated formal standards in 1920. Prohibited films included those that were degrading, immoral, improperly suggestive, harmful, and indecent, or that showed foreign flags, cruelty to animals, firearms, violence, crime, arson, insanity, murder, suicide and breaking the law (except in good natured comedies).

Also new for 1920, unaccompanied children were allowed in theatres on Saturdays and holidays between 9 AM and 6 PM, provided a matron was on duty to “supervise the conduct of such children and of adults toward them.” This guideline simultaneously granted some freedom to children, and their parents, and preserved the notion of the theatre as a place dangerous for children.

The notion of theatres as disreputable was persistant. From a 1922 legal textbook on films:
“There is an undoubted effect on standards of conduct resulting from the fact that the audience, often young girls and boys, are packed in narrow seats, close together, in a darkened room. … It is significant that the phrases ‘movie masher’ and ‘knee flirtation’ are coming into use. ” … “No one considering the effect of moving pictures can neglect the possibilities for bad behaviour through the darkness of the hall in which the pictures are shown. Under cover of dimness, evil communications readily pass, and bad habits are taught. Moving picture theatres are favourite places for the teaching of homosexual practices.”

A federal MP claimed that theatres are places where only undesirable people go to hide; and said “pictures that are shown are an invitation to the people of the poorer classes to revolt, and they bring disorder into the country.”  The media did not less this pass, providing some evidence of resistance to this notion of film as a source of evil, foreign influence. A Montreal paper claimed that not all 50,000 people at the theatres every day are hiding from the law. An Ottawa paper went further, stating that “there can only be one censorship – public opinion.  If people object to certain pictures, they will be unprofitable to exhibit.”

In 1921 the various provincial censors held a national meeting in Toronto, to discuss national cooperation. They agreed to move to one set of standards, based on Ontario guidelines, and agreed to discourage profane or suggestive titles. They also agreed to to ban all films made in Germany or that appeared to support German ideals. Finally, they agreed to meet once a year.

Next year in Montreal they agreed to cut the phrase “Passed by the National Board of Review” from American films. Then the censor from Alberta proposed that handling of German pictures be at the discretion of the provinces. At this time, German speaking immigrants were about 10% of the population of Alberta. The end result of the proposal was a decision to continue individual provincial standards, “as each province has a different class of people.” The next known meeting was in 1961.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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