Original Document
Original Document
Ellis P. Oberholtzer, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Motion Picture Censors, on film censorship, 1921.

If the making and exhibition of moving pictures is the fifth or fourth industry in the country, as producers of film often say, its importance from the standpoint of business cannot be easily over-rated. They declare, too, that one out of ten persons in our American states-men, women, and children-goes into a picture house daily. We export enough film to Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the South Seas in a year to girdle twice around the earth at the Equator. The trade spells wealth to large numbers of people identified with it, just as it also means entertainment to the multitudes in this and other countries who watch its reels unfold their endless story of adventure and romance.

One must wonder what changed consciousness, what altered outlook comes to those who live in this shadowland. Is there net gain in it? We constantly hear that there is harm in film, or in some portions of it. Producers in their comedies are vulgar. Their film stories are often set in the underworld. Boys, getting the suggestion from the cinema house, become amateur highwaymen. Those who have evil instincts see all manner of crime, indeed, the detailed illustrations of feasible methods of committing it. Keepers are told by inmates of reformatories and penitentiaries that they were prompted to wrong doing by looking at moving pictures. Adolescents are fed upon sex stories and are excited to sensuality and passion. The pretty innocence of young womanhood, the chivalry of young manhood are swept away. Under the masque of instructing girls about white slavery or the dangers of malpractice, and boys about offensive infectious diseases, film which never should be shown is widely circulated.

The actor on the stage spoke to a few hundred, and himself traveled to reach a few hundred more. But now his picture travels. It is seen, it may be, a hundred or two hundred times simultaneously in as many places in his own country and in a score of foreign lands. Such an influence rivals that of all the stages, pulpits, lecture platforms, newspapers, and books hitherto known in the world. A picture company which issues a news reel each week announces that it has twenty-nine million readers. A popular photoplay comes before as many pairs of eyes. "Rags" and "Suds," many a Chaplin comedy and "Bill" Hart "Western" have been seen by ten times twenty million. "The Birth of a Nation" has given American history (false and true mixed together) to more of the world than have all the text books in all the schools. The acting, the sumptuous indoor sets, the outdoor scenery, remarkable for its variety, the latest mechanical lighting effects, entertaining incidents, dramatically arranged, have widened the experience, quickened the imagination, and satisfied the craving for romance of multitudes who are deprived of the education that comes of books, travel, and human association, and who but for this agency, would live and die in constricted little circles of duty and work into which they were born. …

I have often been told, when I protested against a particular scene in a film, that this is but a transcript of what is described in a newspaper or magazine. Conditions are very different; the analogy is false. A printed line may tell of the birth of a child; a photographic depiction of the processes of childbirth is another matter. An assault upon a woman may be alluded to in print; it may indeed be the climax of a story. But to photograph the last details of such an attack and reproduce each movement in the graphic method of the "movie" is to offend good taste and often good morals. To declare that a man opened a window and "cracked" a safe is a usual communication but to put the description into film with the reality of the actual robbery may be too instructive to those who may see the ease and entertain the advisability of imitating the feat.

Boss Tweed said when he offered Thomas Nast $500,000 for ceasing to caricature him and his companions in thievery in Harper's Weekly - "I don't care so much what the papers write about me-my constituents can't read; but they can understand pictures."

So it is with the "movie." It can be understood by persons of the lowest degree of intelligence and by children. They can sit in cushioned seats and look, to the accompaniment of music, at the vivid and seductive representation of scenes upon the screen for hours together, though they may not be able to read a line of print. We have begun to use film to instruct strangers from other lands as to our American institutions. They are being shown on ship board before they land at our ports what we conceive it to be good for them to know. What then must be the effect, if we shall set before them, after their arrival upon our shores, the unrestricted offerings of picture producers in whose hearts and minds there is an absence of responsible feeling - pictures of crime and more crime in infinite variety designed to create dissatisfaction, it may be, and certainly to suggest a defiance of the orderly restraints of society!...

Often as I have sat in the small theater, in what we use to call "nickleodeon" before the war came to alter our views of prices, the very announcement on the screen that the "9th Episode" of The Flaming Spectre, or The Black Claw, or The Yellow Terror would be presented in that house on the following Wednesday afternoon was enough to awaken Bedlam. The psychological effect of such exhilaration of the gang- of the young may be left to those who know the subject scientifically. A layman can merely conclude that a given amount of pictured crime and violence, unrelieved by any lesson in virtue, administered to a brain in a formative state, each day or week, is not without grave influence.

If it were worth while for us a generation ago to condemn the dime novel, which the youth of our land read in stolen hours behind the barn, we probably shall not have very much approval to bestow upon the same thing made into a picture which can be absorbed as water enters a sponge without the toil of spell' and getting the sense out of the printed characters. The man who manufactures and distributes such film is acting very obviously for his own pecuniary advantage, and the boy is acting pretty plainly for his moral disadvantage. Quite patently both the producer and the consumer are going on without taking account of the larger interests of society…

How then shall we proceed? Our intervention, if it be worthy of our devising at all, must be effective. It is pointed out that we already have common law, supplemented by statutes and ordinances bearing upon indecency and obscenity which cover the movie man's transgressions…

But the conditions in this great industry are such that spasmodic intercession from such sources has not materially improved the situation. The source of the difficulty has not been reached, the public interest is no more safeguarded than it was before. Clearly, so students of the problem after long contact with it declare, there must be some legal penalty, such as is provided by the existing law on the subject of obscene communications. And there must be more, for those laws were made before the "movie" was dreamed of. They are no more applicable to it than the general laws relating to the road were applicable to the automobile when it appeared on the scene.

Moreover, so the students of the situation assert, there must be special agents whose duty it shall be to watch the "movie" and note the course of those showing it everywhere. It goes about in its tin box by railway train, motor car, and bicycle each day. It is here a little while and proceeds almost at once to another place. Before its character can be known, after its "one night stand" in one hamlet, it is off to the next town. Policeman or constable cannot deal with it, even if he had standards of judgment qualifying him for such a service. Only one method suggests itself to the student of the problem and this is a pre-view of the film before it goes forth at all, and the licensing of it to proceed only after it has conformed to the rules made for it by intelligent and competent men.

This inspection has been called censorship, a name, which many do not like. It can be called anything else. The point to be held in mind is that the film is to be physically looked at and approved as fit for public showing before its circulation is begun. Some one person, or small group of persons, familiar with the whole subject, must sit in the dark room and review the film, certifying to its good quality, if it is good, and insisting upon excisions and eliminations, if it be not good. Such film as no changes can disinfect and purify must be entirely barred from exhibition.

It is to this point in dealing with the problem that much of the world has come. England has an effective, though it is in a measure voluntary, control by pre-view. Scandinavia, all Canada, Japan, British Australasia follow similar methods, as do a number of states and cities in the United States. Germany, which lapsed into great freedom after the war ended, has recently found it necessary to reestablish reviewing stations to check the exhibition of offensive film. The law has been invoked and the situation is under control.

It is contended in this country that as soon as the weight of pre-view sentiment shall increase sufficiently to bring other large states to the support of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and those which for some years have followed this policy, the evil influences which emanate from film will be appreciably reduced. The statute governing the Board of Censors in Ohio provides for a "congress" of censors, which by agreement shall formulate common rules and standards. Such a proceeding would give needed advice to producers and directors. In their studios they could begin a reformation of policy which would be for the general benefit. Pending a Federal law to govern interstate commerce in films, which has been before Congress repeatedly, there would be a starting point for the choice and treatment of motion picture themes which would give the public protection against evil film it seems to crave and require, and an assurance to producers that, conforming to the provisions of the law in their manufactories, will meet with no interference in the pursuit of their business after their film is ready for sale.

Here is the proposed ground for mutual understanding. Unless one be quite unable to read the signs of the times aright, nothing less than such an understanding on the basis of definite law, administered by tolerant and honest men suitable for their large tasks will satisfy the country. Forces are active on every hand which indicate a working out of the problem along these lines at an early day. Thus will adventurers and speculators be pressed from the motion picture field, while that which is of unmistakable value will be emphasized and its vast potentiality for good will be seen and understood by everyone.

Credit: Ellis P. Oberholtzer, World's Work 41 (January 1921): 249-63.
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