Movie Censorship and American Culture

By Anderson, Roger | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2007 | Go to article overview

Movie Censorship and American Culture


Anderson, Roger, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Movie Censorship and American Culture Francis G. Couvares, Editor. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

The second edition of this edited book is virtually unchanged from the original published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1996 except for a new preface by the editor. The work consists of the editor's introduction and eleven chapters. Most of the authors see connections between the historic cultural struggles in the United States as a result of ethnic and religious differences, immigration, and the commercialization of mass culture, and movie censorship. Attempts to censor or regulate motion picture content were particularly widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, although they extend to the present day. The early censorship efforts were led by reform groups such as the Women's Christian Temperance League and the General Federation of Women's Clubs or religious coalitions such as the National Catholic Welfare Conference and the National Council of Churches. As the authors point out, activists campaigned for federal, state and local censorship and consumer boycotts of the movies arguing that youth, women, and rural citizens were particularly vulnerable to the corrupting influences of the cinema.

In arguing their points, many of the authors rely on recent books on movies and mass media, documents of the National Film Board of Review in the New York Public Library, archives of the Hollywood Production Code Administration and records of state and local censorship boards and reform groups.

Daniel Czitrom's chapter on early theater licensing and the beginnings of movie censorship in New York City is particularly insightful and helpful. He notes that the Motion Picture Exhibitors Association began self-censorship as early as 1909 when the center of the industry was in New York City. When Hollywood became the heart of the industry the motion picture producers formed another voluntary censorship body, the National Board of Review. This organization formed the foundation for the later establishment of codes of censorship by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) under the leadership of William Hays, former Republican official and US Postmaster.

"Mothering the Movies" a chapter by Alison M. Parker is a fascinating study of the role of the WCTU in attempts to censor the movies. The WCTU's efforts were aided by the US Supreme Court ruling in 1915 which argued that movie censorship and particularly prior restraint, did not violate the constitutional protections under the first and fourteen amendments of the US Constitution.

Richard Maltby in his chapter focuses on the role of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors in its censorship or alteration of plays, novels, and scripts to meet the demands of the Hays office. Editor Francis G. Couvares's study of the role of Protestant and Catholic interest groups in the censorship battles is particularly useful for scholars. …

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