Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981

Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981

Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981

Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981

Synopsis

At the turn of the twentieth century, the proliferation of movies attracted not only the attention of audiences across America but also the apprehensive eyes of government officials and special interest groups concerned about the messages disseminated by the silver screen. Between 1907 and 1926, seven states -- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Kansas, Maryland, and Massachusetts -- and more than one hundred cities authorized censors to suppress all images and messages considered inappropriate for American audiences. Movie studios, hoping to avoid problems with state censors, worrying that censorship might be extended to the federal level, and facing increased pressure from religious groups, also jumped into the censoring business, restraining content through the adoption of the self-censoring Production Code, also known as the Hays code.But some industry outsiders, independent distributors who believed that movies deserved the free speech protections of the First Amendment, brought legal challenges to censorship at the state and local levels. Freedom of the Screen chronicles both the evolution of judicial attitudes toward film restriction and the plight of the individuals who fought for the right to deliver provocative and relevant movies to American audiences. The path to cinematic freedom was marked with both achievements and roadblocks, from the establishment of the Production Code Administration, which effectively eradicated political films after 1934, to the landmark cases over films such as The Miracle (1948), La ronde (1950), and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1955) that paved the way for increased freedom of expression. As the fight against censorship progressed case by case through state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, legal authorities and the public responded, growing increasingly sympathetic toward artistic freedom. Because a small, unorganized group of independent film distributors and exhibitors in mid-twentieth-century America fought back against what they believed was the unconstitutional prior restraint of motion pictures, film after 1965 was able to follow a new path, maturing into an artistic medium for the communication of ideas, however controversial. Government censors would no longer control the content of America's movie screens. Laura Wittern-Keller's use of previously unexplored archival material and interviews with key figures earned her the researcher of the year award from the New York State Board of Regents and the New York State Archives Partnership Trust. Her exhaustive work is the first to discuss more than five decades of film censorship battles that rose from state and local courtrooms to become issues of national debate and significance. A compendium of judicial action in the film industry, Freedom of the Screen is a tribute to those who fought for the constitutional right of free expression and paved the way for the variety of films that appear in cinemas today.

Excerpt

This project grew out of one of those innocuous “hi how are you” conversations in the hallway. Ivan Steen stopped me outside his office in the history department of the University at Albany to tell me about a trip with his public history class to the New York State Archives. He had just listened, he said, to archivist Bill Evans practically beg the students to use the state’s massive collection of film scripts and other records from the state’s forty-three years of censorship bureaucracy. Evans had made the same appeal to Steen’s classes for years, to no avail. I decided that I’d go down to the archives to see what Evans was so eager to reveal. What I found was a massive repository of more than seventy thousand film scripts and other censor records. A conversation with Evans got me thinking about the censors and why they never wondered, after watching so many of these supposedly dangerous movies, that they themselves were not crazy, drug-addicted, alcoholic, adulterous, murderous sex addicts. I wanted to find out who these censors were and how they worked. I quickly learned, though, that most of the personnel records of the New York State Motion Picture Division had been culled before being turned over to the archives. So, searching for a research topic, I looked to see which of those seventy thousand files were the fattest, and then I had it. The research bonanza I was looking for was in the files of the movies whose distributors had sued. That tack brought me to long-forgotten distributors of foreign films who earnestly fought to allow their movies to be shown—men like Joseph Burstyn, Ronald Freedman, Edward Kingsley, and Richard Brandt. I was hooked.

None of the ensuing research would have been possible without the assistance of the New York State Archives staff, specifically Dr. Jim Folts, and the now retired Bill Evans and Dick Andress. Generous support of the New York State Archives Partnership Trust allowed me to spend as much time in the archives as I could for two years running. The New York State Library staff also provided much-needed help as I struggled to understand the complexities of the New York legal system.

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