In the 1920s, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, time after time, advocated a more rigid censorship of motion pictures. The newspaper exposed the “indecencies” of many of the films being shown in the movie houses. It was felt that the regulation in effect at that time was inadequate and disclosed that the National Board of Review that censored films was under control of the movie producers themselves.
The front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of April 17, 1921, carried news that a movie censorship bill had been passed the day before by the New York Assembly in Albany. Governor Miller was all for it, and so was the Assembly, 102 to 38.
As early as 1909 New York had its own “Board of Motion Picture Censorship,” which viewed all films prior to the making of the final release.
The censors were volunteers, dignified women in broad-brimmed flowered hats and dour-faced men, who sat down to watch seven or eight of the producers’ latest offerings. Some 20 percent of the films they saw they refused to approve. Often they required cuts in the films they passed. Obscenity was their prime target, but they never defined the word, assuming that a respectable person knew obscenity when he or she saw it.
Films of women in corsets and leotards, kidnappings, gruesome crimes, and films that might give instructions on how to commit a crime, were taboo. A theatrical suicide, with beating of breast and rolling of eyes, could pass; a leap from the Brooklyn Bridge could not.
In 1915 the U.S. Supreme Court held that motion pictures were not protected by the First Amendment because they were mere spectacles. In 1922, Will Hays, a former politician, became president of an organization named the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. He successfully removed the threat of government on civic censorship of motion pictures by instituting a motion picture moral code in 1934. The code, which was sanctioned by all the leading men in the industry, allowed the industry to self-regulate.
Movies produced in the period before 1934 are called pre-code movies and occasionally you’ll see a “Pre-Code Festival of Films.” The Code established rules such as a man and woman could not be shown in the same bed, nor could a lady’s posterior be pinched or patted.
These days a system voluntarily formulated by the Motion Picture Association of America has a rating board that classifies films as to what is considered appropriate or inappropriate for persons under seventeen or eighteen years of age.