D. W. Griffith V. City Hall: Politics, Ethnicity, and Chicago Film Censorship

By Ross, Harris | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
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D. W. Griffith V. City Hall: Politics, Ethnicity, and Chicago Film Censorship


Ross, Harris, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


In 1907 the Chicago city council passed the first legislation in the United States specifically designed to regulate the content of motion pictures by means of a censor board. Initially, the city council gave the superintendent of police the power to license films shown within the city and either to suppress or to modify objectionable ones; but in 1913, after police censors embarrassed the city's Progressives by banning Max Rheinhardt's widely admired film, The Miracle, the authority to censor passed from police to civilian hands; in a move unique to Chicago, responsibility for the suppression of vice was vested in a single individual charged with defending the morals of the city from threats posed by houses of prostitution, saloons, dance halls, cabarets, dime novels, suggestive dances, and moving pictures. The civilian chosen for this task was Major M. L. C. Funkhouser, who became, for many, the prime example of the capriciousness of a censor, practicing what was anointed "Funkhouserism."

The issue endlessly debated during the first decades of the century was what constituted "sane censorship." Except for a few libertarians who put their trust in the discretion of the moviegoer, for most the issue was not whether film censorship was necessary but whether it could best be administered by legally empowered censors, by the volunteer censors of the National Board of Censorship, or by film manufacturers. It was widely held - at least by those whose opinions mattered to the press and the politicians - that intemperate movies might undermine not only morality but also the uneasy relations among Chicago's ethnic and economic groups. Film censorship was but one way (though an unusually long-lived way) of mending the cracks in the city's social structure brought on by the industrial revolution and the rapid influx of European immigrants driven from their homelands by poverty and political oppression and drawn to Chicago by the promise of livable wages and upward mobility.

The lasting contribution of Chicago to the evolution of film censorship was the desire to make film apolitical, to cleanse it of material that might undermine the relationship of one group to the larger social order, a concern that continued under Hollywood's board of self- regulation, the Production Code Administration. An examination of the controversies engendered by the exhibition in Chicago of The Birth of a Nation and Hearts of the World, two films directed by D.W. Griffith, reveals the highly politicized nature of film censorship itself. In the first place, the Chicago ordinance enforced particular views of morality, social relations, and governance, one that the censors and the reformers characterized as consensus views. In the second place, film censorship was used by politicians to curry favor with segments of the voting public. In other words, politicians used film censorship to capitalize on what could be seen as a particular film's attack on the social order; by defending groups attacked by the film, politicians used censorship to curry votes from politically valuable ethnic and racial communities. Film censorship could be rationalized as a means of achieving social cohesion and used as a means of accruing political power. As we shall see, while the struggle within the courtroom over the application of the censorship ordinance was based on police powers versus due process, the struggle outside was over political versus economic capital, or, to put it bluntly, over ballots versus bucks.

Chicago's civilian censor board grew from an investigation beginning in 1910 of the city's baleful morals by the Chicago Vice Commission and raids in 1912 by the state's attorney of Cook County against the city's notorious vice district, the Levee. Feeling the heat generated by both the report and the raids, Mayor Carter Harrison II, the Democratic mayor who had been elected with help from the Levee's Democratic machine, reluctantly ordered a reorganization of the police department, including the creation of a morals squad headed by the Second Deputy Superintendent of Police.

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