Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America

By Wukasch, Charles | Film & History, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America


Wukasch, Charles, Film & History


Lee Grieveson. Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century America. University of California Press, 2004. 361 pages; $60.00.

Seminal Work

When one is barraged daily with media coverage (some critics use the term "media circus") of trials such as O. J. Simpson, Scott Peterson, and Michael Jackson, one may be tempted to feel that this is a modern phenomenon. By the same token, when one sees some of the idiotic manifestations today of what has come to be known as "political correctness," one may likewise be tempted to feel that this, too, is a modern phenomenon. In his excellent book, Lee Grieveson shows that these phenomena existed in early 20th-century America.

Policing Cinema comprises five main chapters: "Policing Cinema," "Scandalous Cinema, 1906 - 1907," "Reforming Cinema, 1907 - 1909," "Film Fights, 1910 - 1912," and "Judging Cinema, 1913 - 1914." The Introduction is also a worthy contribution to the history of film. For example, Grieveson gives information about the history of such current terms as cinema, plus those that have gone by the wayside (examples are nickelodeon and photoplay). The endnotes (given as a unit after the main text) are copious and consist of almost 100 pages. The author has clearly researched his topic carefully and extensively.

Some controversial films are The Unwritten Law, Johnson-Jeffries Fight, and Birth of a Nation. The 1907 drama, The Unwritten Law, was based on a sensational trial, that of Harry Thaw for the murder of Stanford White. Thaw's wife, the lovely Evelyn Nesbit, confided to her husband after their marriage that she had been "ruined" by dating White. (Today we would call it date rape.) Thaw's attorney based his defense on the so-called unwritten law, which said that a husband, father, or brother had a de facto right to exact revenge on a man who had sex with his wife, daughter, or sister, respectively. …

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