The Americans are Coming! The Americans are Coming!

The Ontario Government created a Board of Censors in 1911. That same year saw boards established to the west in Manitoba, to the east in Quebec, and to the south in Pennsylvania. Major cities had censors for stage plays, and with purpose built theatres showing ever longer and more depraved movies, something needed to be done about the movie menace.

The original guidelines were short and clear: “no picture of an immoral or obscene nature, or depicting crime or pictures reproducing a prizefight shall be passed”. Only 1 in 4 films passed this high standard. Films that passed could still be cut, or have an offending image such as the American flag, blacked out. The Board Chair, George Armstrong, wrote an open letter to film distributors in a trade magazine, explaining that gratuitous displays of the American flag would not be permitted. When the Great War began in 1914, Canadians were even less tolerant of literal and thematic American flag waving in movies. The United States eventually joined the Allies in 1917, and promptly began producing films which supported the war effort but completely ignored the sacrifices of Canada and other nations.

In 1925, Maclean’s magazine published “What the Censor Saves us From.” The pro-censorship anti-american rant featured a brave reporter venturing across the border to see American films in all their shocking uncensored glory, as well as attacking the American film industry in general for its obsessions with loose morality, depictions of crime, and portrayals of frontier justice. Memories of the American late entry into the war were not forgotten: The reporter criticized American films for freely using Canadian locations yet ignoring Canada’s war efforts.

While censors did their best to protect Canadians from American films, the government regularly considered quotas to ensure proper British films were shown, and the British film industry supported. Of course, theatre owners were opposed. M. J. O’ Brien, of the Ottawa Valley Amusement Company, operating the O’Brien Theatres in Pembroke, Renfrew, Arnprior and Almonte, wrote to the provincial Treasurer in 1931, protesting one of the last airings of a possible quota. He included the text of a telegram he had just sent:

Understand legislation being considered to force theatres of province play twenty per cent British films stop … have tried British pictures our circuit with disastrous results stop pictures are poorly made stop box-office receipts affect tax receipts stop … you may censor what people want to see but you cannot force them to pay to see pictures they don’t like.

Quotas were never introduced, and the tables soon turned. By the late 1930s, the Production Code was in full effect in the United States, and the cleaned up pictures were a relief to Canadian censors. In 1937, Board Chair Omri Silverthorne stated in Variety that American films required fewer cuts due to language than British films. The next two decades were peaceful times for censors.

By trc

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

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