A crowd of children going into a movie theatre in Florida.
In the early twentieth century, the average American had less than a 5th grade education. To many, memories of the Civil War were still very clear. That generation had grown up in an age of Victorian virtues and Protestant conservatism. Innocently, however, they stepped into the explosion of new innovations: electric lights, automobiles, airplanes, radios, telephones, and motion picture films.
The potential of the film industry in the early 1900’s was limitless. Filmmakers became powerful, because their products influenced society on many levels. Hollywood churned out full length films that the public wanted. Surprisingly, the Victorians and Protestants did not want to see wholesome and happy stories, but, instead, wanted sex, and lots of it, and stories about white supremacy, too.
The early films also dealt with social issues such as venereal disease and the sex trafficking of white women. These films were greeted with huge audiences, especially in the cities. When a major feature film opened, sometimes as much as one third of a city’s population would see the film within three days of its opening.
Daytime crowds were usually made up of unsupervised children of all ages. Despite its popularity with the public, small groups of concerned citizens, many church related, began to hold meetings and question the morality and decency of the films. Fear mounted that the nation’s innocence was in serious peril of being corrupted by the likes of such “immoral and disgusting” films as Birth of a Baby , 1918; Damaged Goods , 1915; Is Any Girl Safe? , 1916; House of Bondage , 1914; and Know Thy Husband ,1919. Thus, began the struggle over censorship.
Many felt censorship was necessary, but few could agree on a plan. Jane Addams, a Chicago feminist and reformer for women’s and children’s rights, felt that films dealing with sexually transmitted diseases and the bondage of white women was a poor use of this new power of communication. Addams felt that films should be used to advocate hard work and good citizenship and in that way could help in the fight against poverty and injustice. Additionally, it was also a concern that these films might promote sex trafficking, rather than inspire debate and inform the public.
The courts viewed the film business as “junk entertainment”, and judged it to be in the same category as a circus. Although influenced by many religious groups, the judges began to distance themselves slowly from the strict moral codes of the Victorian period. The Supreme Court of 1915 in Mutual Film v Industrial Commission of Ohio held that the film industry was not entitled to protection under the First Amendment.
By the 1920’s and 30’s a code of decency had been applied to the production and development of films, and the standard was usually determined by place of film distribution. Filmmaker, Cecil B. DeMille expressed his frustrations when he said that, although 35 states and municipalities had demanded alterations to his film Carmen ,“ … no two demanded the same changes”.
For more readings on this subject: Gregory D. Black , The Catholic Crusade Against The Movies; William Bruce Johnson, Miracles & Sacrilege.