The Hays code

Will H. Hays c.1921, from the Library of Congress

Meet William Harrison Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee, then U.S. Postmaster General, then president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945, making him one of the most influential people in American film. The MPPDA (later the Motion Picture Association of America) was formed following the criticism made of the Hollywood following such scandals as the death of the drug-addicted Wallace Reid and the lurid Fatty Arbuckle case. The industry feared the imposition of federal censorship and created the MPPDA to demonstrate that it could govern itself.

The MPPDA was therefore a trade association whose chief interest was in maintaining good relations with government, church groups, and other bodies concerned at the influence – real or imagined – that motion pictures had, particularly on the young. Its best known output was the Production Code, popularly known as the Hays code, of 1930, which set down moral guidelines for the production of motion pictures, with these three guiding principles:

  • No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  • Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  • Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

The Code as not mandatory at first, but became so in 1934 (hence the ‘Pre Code’ films of the era immediatelt before 1934) and would remain in force, though progressively infringed, until 1968, when it was replaced by the MPAA ratings system.

All of this makes the operations, decisions, personnel and associates of the MPPDA of huge relevance to the study of American motion pictures, in the silent era and beyond. And so the creation of the MPPDA Digital Archive is considerable importance to our field.

This is a database, with digitised documents, of the extant records of the General Correspondence files of the MPPDA, covering the period from 1922 to 1939. The MPPA microfilmed some of its archive of documents in 1965, then threw away the originals. Researcher Richard Maltby discovered the reels in 1984 and had copies made of twelve of them. Subsequently the original microfilms were donated to the Special Collections Department of the Centre for Motion Picture Study of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, by which point some had been mislaid (covering the 1920s). So some of the reels made by Maltby are the only surviving copies, and they can be found on the MPPDA Digital Archive.

There are some 35,000 pages available. Owing to the poor quality of the microfilms, the use of optical character recognition for converting the documents into word-searchable text wasn’t possible. Instead – and thanks to assorted research grants – Maltby as fellow researchers at Flinders University, Australia (notably Ruth Vasey) have transcribed, described or otherwise annotated huge numbers of the documents, as well as having them digitised and ordered in a form that respects their original arrangement and enables reliable citation for scholars. It is a model piece of database construction.

An advertisement for Daughters of Today (1924) which caused an uproar by mentioning Leopold and Loeb (see http://mppda.flinders.edu.au/records/137)

So what will you find? You will find the essential minutiae of an industry protecting its reputation through the subtle arts of public relations. As the website puts it:

The documents in the MPPDA’s General Correspondence files are an immensely rich source of information about the history of the motion picture industry. They describe the organization and operation of the industry’s trade association, and include extensive correspondence and other documentation relating to industry policy and public relations, distributor-exhibitor relations, censorship and self-regulation. The great majority of this material is unavailable from other sources.

You will find letters, telegrams, memos, press releases, speeches, official statements, newspaper cuttings, and much more. The search apparatus is extraordinary. As well as being able to search for any term, you can search by frame reference, year, record type, keyword, organisation, film, or person. In each case a drop-down menu is provided, with the number of records held under each term, so straight away you can see that there are, for example, 75 press releases available, 13 documents on audience research, 30 records relating to United Artists, 10 documents on Battleship Potemkin, and 986 document that reference Will H. Hays himself. Some of the classification employed (i.e. for the keywords) is idiosycratic or unevenly applied (only one record keyworded under ‘sex’?), but it makes the database compulsively browsable as well as useful.

The database is open to all, but the document appear in low resolution form unless you are registered with the site (which is free). The higher resolution images come with a helpful zoom option for examining documents in closer detail. There is much background information on the MPDDA, its archives and the construction of the database, with quick links to featured records, people and organisations available on the front page for these needing a flavour of what the site contains (so, for example, the entry on Harry Warner gives you a short biography, links to organisations and links to all association records where he is mentioned). Although the archive is advertised as covering 1922-1939, there are a few documents going back to 1912.

Richard Maltby, Ruth Vasey and the Screen and Media Department of Flinders University, Australia continue to work on the database, adding new transcriptions and supporting descriptive information. It is an extraordinary achievement and a huge boon to moving image research, for the silent era and beyond.

Go explore.

The rejected

Nosferatu, rejected by the BBFC in 1922, from DVD Beaver

Last week we wrote a post on the British Board of Film Classification, whose centenary occurs this year, and whose website includes a database of the films it has examined since 1912. The films can be searched by date and classification, and so it is possibile to produce a list of all of the films of the silent era rejected by the BBFC as being unsuitable for screening in the UK.

There are 208 of them, but the database provides little more than English language title, the date of examination, the distributor who submitted the film, and the classification (R for Rejected). Some of the films are familiar titles (Battleship Potemkin, America, The Seashell and the Clergyman) others much less so, and while most are American there are films from several other countries less easy to identify. It should be noted that this is not a complete list of all films rejected by the BBFC in the silent era, records for the rejection of some films (such as Lois Weber’s abortion drama Where Are My Children?) apparently no longer existing. Other films (such as Auction of Souls) were never submited to the BBFC, which would have rejected them otherwise.

It would be good to know the correct title, date and country of origin for each film. There records at the BBFC that may say more, though in most cases the films are simply listed in annual reports and give no more information than is provided on the database. So we have produced a list and started to identify them. This has mostly involved cross-checking with the Internet Movie Database, plus books written on the BBFC which discuss particular titles. But there are many gaps, and the Bioscope invites you to help fill them.

Each record below gives the title as submitted to the BBFC (hyperlinked to the BBFC database record), the date of examination, the name of the distributor, and then the true title, country, year, director and production company where I have been able to find these. Certain producers and distributors recur with interesting frequency: Fox Films, Nordisk, Cines, Trans Atlantic (European agents for Universal), Thanhouser and Pathé Frères among them, while there are some obscure companies involved, such as Inter Ocean, about whom it would be good to know more. The BBFC records have been copied as they appear, including typos and anachronistic references to film companies that only came into being after this period (Gaumont-British, 20th Century-Fox).

As for the kinds of film censored, the BBFC’s website does not give the reasons for rejection and to give plot summaries where these exist could be misleading, as the reason for rejection was not always so obvious (Nosferatu, for example, was probably rejected – under the title Dracula – on account of a copyright claim in Germany from the estate of Bram Stoker rather than for its horrific content). But there are films on prostitution (The White Slave Traffic), drugs (The Case of the Doped Actress), venereal disease (The Spreading Evil), politics (Irish Destiny), childbirth (The Mysteries of Birth), racial prejudice (Free and Equal) and religion (Leaves from the Book of Satan). Some of these were not so much rejected for their content as for being propagandist in tone, the BBFC having decided to rule against films which solicited public opinion. There are newsreels from the wartime period, the only time topicals were subject to censorship. There are films whose offensive character it is now hard to see (how did Hal Roach come to upset them so often?).

If you can help to identify any of the films (or correct y identifications), please say so through the comments and I’ll add the details to the post. The films are listed in the alphabetical order offered by the BBFC database, with definite articles (A and THE) recognised.

A BACHELOR APARTMENT – 24/03/1922 – Inter Ocean Films Ltd = perhaps Bachelor Apartments (USA 1921 d. Johnnie Walker p.c. Georgia Hopkins)
A DAUGHTER OF THE DON – 25/09/1922 – Inter Ocean Photoplays Ltd = possibly The Daughter of the Don (USA 1916 d. Henry Kabierske p.c. Monrovia)
A FOOL THERE WAS – 06/06/1916 – Fox Film Company Ltd = A Fool There Was (USA 1915 d. Frank Powell p.c. Fox)
A HERO OF GALLIPOLI – 27/09/1916 – A1 Features & Exclusives = perhaps The Hero of the Dardanelles (Australia 1915 d. Alfred Rolfe p.c. Australasian Films)
A MAN WITHOUT A SOUL – 21/07/1916 – London Film Co Ltd = The Man Without a Soul (UK 1916 d. George Loane Tucker p.c. London)
A PARISIAN ROMANCE – 20/07/1916 – Fox Film Company Ltd = A Parisian Romance (USA 1916 d. Frederick A. Thomson p.c. Fox)
A ROYAL BULL FIGHT – 24/04/1923 – Tayers Ltd
A SALVAGE – 11/07/1913 – M.P. Sales Agency Ltd
A SCREAM IN THE NIGHT – 05/01/1923 – Ward’s Productions Ltd = possibly A Scream in the Night (USA 1923 d. Leander De Cordova, Burton L. King p.c. A.H. Fischer Features)
A SHOP GIRL’S PERIL – 15/10/1913 – M.P. Sales Agency Ltd
A SNAKE’S MEAL – 15/10/1913 – M.P. Sales Agency Ltd
A SPLENDID WASTER – 12/07/1917 – International Variety Agency Lt = The Splendid Waster (South Africa 1916 d. Harold Shaw p.c. African Film Productions)
A TRUTHFUL LIAR – 22/10/1924 – W & F Film Service Ltd = A Truthful Liar (USA 1924 d. Hampton el Ruth p.c. Hal Roach) (or possibly The Truthful Liar, USA 1922)
A WOMAN – 08/01/1915 – Cines Co
A WOMEN’S [i.e. Woman's] FATE – 14/01/1924 – M & F Film Agency Ltd
ACROSS NO MANS LAND WITH TANKS – 23/04/1917 – Screen Plays Co
ADVENTURES OF MAIZIE CH 10 “LITTLE ANNIE LOONIE” – 16/07/1926 – Wardour Films Ltd = The Adventures of Mazie: Little Andy Looney (USA 1925)
AIR RAID ON LONDON – 01/06/1915 – Eclair Film Co. Ltd
ALL MAN – 30/04/1919 – Vitagraph Film Hiring Co. Ltd = All Man (USA 1918 d. Paul Scardon p.c. Vitagraph)
ANIMALS LIKE HUMANS – 31/08/1923 – Gaumont Co Ltd
ARRIVAL OF SINN FEIN PRISONERS OF DUBLIN – 14/07/1917 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd
ARRIVAL OF THE GUNTESS MARKEIVING [i.e. Countess Markievicz] ON HER RELEASE – 14/07/1917 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd
AS MAN MADE HER / 04/05/1917 – Gaumont British Dist = As Man Made Her (USA 1917 d. George Archainbaud p.c. Peerless)
AS THE SHADOW FALLS – 11/02/1916 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd = As the Shadow Falls (USA 1915 d. William Worthington p.c. Universal)
AT THE MERCY OF MAN – 18/09/1919 – Littleton Park Film Prods = possibly At the Mercy of Men (USA 1918 d. Charles Miller p.c. Select Pictures)
BATTLING BUNYAN – 30/04/1925 – Ideal Films Ltd = Battling Bunyan (USA 1924 d. Paul Hurst p.c. Crown)
BELOW THE DEADLINE – 15/09/1929 – Argosy Film Co Ltd = probably Below the Deadline (USA 1929 d. J.P. McGowan p.c. Chesterfield)
BEYOND THE BARRICADE – 15/12/1921 – Nordisk Films Co. Ltd = Har jeg Ret til at tage mit eget Liv? (Denmark 1920 d. Holger-Madsen p.c. Nordisk)
BIRDS OF PREY – 07/06/1927 – Film Booking Offices Ltd = probably Birds of Prey (USA 1927 d. William James Craft p.c. Columbia)
BLINDFOLDED – 07/08/1918 – Gaumont British Dist = probably Blindfolded (USA 1918 d. Raymond B. West p.c. Paralta)
BOLSHELVISM ON TRIAL – 21/03/1922 – Peter Freres Cinema Ltd [presumably Pathé Frères]
BOSTON BLACKIE – 27/06/1923 – Fox Film Company Ltd = Boston Blackie (USA 1923 d. Scott R. Dunlap p.c. Fox)
CABARET NIGHTS – 10/09/1928 – First National Pathe Ltd
CAPTURING WILD ANIMALS IN THE ROCKIES – NOS 1, 2, 3, 4 – 22/07/1920 – Gaumont Co Ltd
CAPTURING WILD ANIMALS IN THE WILDERNESS – NOS 1, 2, 3, 4 – 22/07/1920 – Gaumont Co Ltd
CASANOVA’S SON – 11/02/1929 – Leon Wynbergen Ltd
CHILDREN OF DESTINY – 05/01/1923 – Ward’s Productions Ltd = maybe Children of Destiny (USA 1920 d. George Irving p.c. Weber Productions)
COCAINE – 12/05/1922 – Astra Films Ltd = Cocaine (later While London Sleeps) (UK 1922 d. Graham Cutts p.c. Master)
CONSCIENCE – 09/11/1917 – 20th Century Fox Film Co. Ltd = Conscience (USA 1917 d. Bertram Bracken p.c. Fox)
CORALIE & CO – 30/07/1914 – Cines Co = Madame Coralie & Co. (Italy 1914)
CUPID ARTHUR & CO – 22/11/1915 – Cines Co
DAMAGED GOODS – 21/11/1919 – Royal Film Agency = Damaged Goods (UK 1919 d. Alexander Butler p.c. Samuelson)
DEALERS IN HUMAN LIVES – 18/09/1914 – Ruffles [i.e. Ruffell's] Imperial Bioscope Ltd
DON’T FLIRT – 14/05/1925 – Peter Freres Cinema Ltd [presumably Pathé Frères] = presumably Don’t Flirt (USA 1923 d. Len Powers p.c. Hal Roach)
DRACULA – 11/12/1922 – Y Froehlich = Nosferatu (Germany 1922 d. F.W. Murnau p.c. Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal)
EAGLE’S EYE,THE – 29/10/1918 – Film Booking Offices Ltd = The Eagle’s Eye (USA 1918 d. George Lessey et al p.c. Wharton)
ECLAIR JOURNAL NO.13 1ST EDITION ARMOURED MOTOR CARS – 27/03/1915 – Eclair Film Co. Ltd = newsreel
ECLAIR JOURNAL NO.25 1ST EDITION – A CITY OF FIRES – ANTI GERMAN SCENES IN JOHANNESBURG – 19/06/1915 – Eclair Film Co. Ltd = newsreel
ENGLISH AVIATOR IN THE FAR EAST – 12/05/1916 – Urban Trading Co Ltd
ENGLISH SEAPLANE AT SALONIKA – 12/05/1916 – Urban Trading Co Ltd
FEAR – 18/01/1917 – Llanhouser Films Ltd [i.e. Thanhouser] = Fear (USA 1917 p.c. Thanhouser)
FIT TO MARRY – 22/03/1923 – Joseph Klein
FLYING WHEELS – 08/06/1926 – Famous Players Film Co Ltd = Flying Wheels (USA 1926 d. Edward Ludwig p.c. Century)
FOUR IRISH GIRLS – 22/02/1917 – Western Import Co Ltd
FREE AND EQUAL – 25/03/1919- Stoll Film Co Ltd = possibly Free and Equal (USA 1918 d. Roy William Neill p.c. Thomas H. Ince)
FRENCH FISHING SMACKS MOUNT QUICK FIRES AGAINST THE PIRATES – 12/03/1915 – Gaumont Co Ltd = newsreel
FRENCH HOWITYERS [i.e. Howitzers] – 13/08/1915 – Gaumont Co Ltd
FRENCH TROOPS LEAVING MARSEILLES FOR THE EAST – 19/03/1915 – Gaumont Co Ltd = newsreel
FROU FROU – 14/06/1913 – A.E. Hubsch and Co. Ltd (There were American film adaptations of the play Frou-Frou in 1914, 1917 and 1918)
FUNNICUS THE MINISTER – 27/01/1913 – Tyler Film Co Ltd = Gavroche remplace le ministre (France 1913 d. Romeo Bosetti p.c. Éclair)
GERMAN KULTUZ [presumably Kultur] – 16/06/1917 – Kineto Ltd
GETTING STRONG – 25/02/1924 – Regent Film Corp Ltd
GLITTERING BROADWAY – 11/12/1916 – Pathe Freres Ltd
GOD’S LAW – 24/04/1918 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd = probably The People vs John Doe (USA 1916 d. Lois Weber p.c. Universal)
GREATER THAN LOVE – 15/12/1921 – Associated Producers Ltd = Greater than Love (USA 1921 d. Fred Niblo p.c. J. Parker Read Jr. Productions)
GREED NO. 14 – 19/05/1916 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd
GRIT – 11/02/1925 – George Smith Films Ltd = probably Grit (USA 1924 d. Frank Tuttle p.c. Film Guild)
HANDCUFFS AND KISSES – 22/02/1922 – Peter Freres Cinema Ltd [presumably Pathé Frères] = presumably Handcuffs or Kisses (USA 1921 d. George Archinbaud p.c. Selznick)
HEARTS IN EXILE – 09/08/1915 – Clarion Film Agency Ltd = Hearts in Exile (USA 1915 d. James Young p.c. World)
HER DANGEROUS PATH EPISODE 9 – 21/01/1924 – Peter Freres Cinema Ltd [presumably Pathé Frères] = Her Dangerous Path [serial (USA 1923 d. Roy Clements p.c. Hal Roach)
HER WHITE GOD – 20/05/1919 – Essanay Film Service Ltd
HIS MODEL WIFE – 10/01/1918 – Oppidan Film Productions Ltd = possibly His Model Wife (USA 1917 d. Al Christie p.c. Christie)
HIS ONLY SON – 30/05/1913 – Pathe Freres Ltd = possibly His Only Son (USA 1912 d. Jack Conway p.c. Nestor)
HONOR’S CROSS – 01/08/1918 – Inter Ocean Films Ltd = Honor’s Cross (USA 1918 d. Wallace Worsley p.c. Selexart Pictures)
HUMAN WRECKAGE – 16/01/1924 – R C Corporation ltd = Human Wreckage (USA 1923 d. John Griffith Wray p.c. Thomas H. Ince)
HUMAN WRECKS – 08/04/1915 – Davison’s Film Sales Agency = possibly Wykolejeni (Poland 1913 d. Kazimierz Kamiński p.c. Sfinks)
HYPOCRITES – 18/05/1917 – Western Import Co Ltd = probably Hypocrites (USA 1915 d. Louis Weber p.c. Hobart Bosworth Productions)
I ALSO ACCUSE – 24/04/1923 – Foyers ltd = Moi aussi, j’accuse (France 1923 d. Alred Machin, Henri Wulschleger p.c. Les Films Alfred Machin/Pathé)
INNOCENT – 24/03/1915 – Cines Co = L’Innocente (Italy 1912 p.c. Cines)
INSPIRATION – 19/05/1916 – Thanhouser films ltd = Inspiration (USA 1915 d. George Foster Platt p.c. Thanhouser)
INTERRUPTED – 24/01/1913 – Nordisk Films Co. Ltd
IRISH DESTINY – 21/04/1926 – Eppels films ltd = Irish Destiny (Ireland 1926 d. George Dewhurst)
IRISH REBELS ARRIVE IN LONDON AND ARE INCASCERATED IN – GAOL – 09/05/1916 – Peter Freres Cinema Ltd [presumably Pathé Frères] = newsreel
IT MAY BE YOUR DAUGHTER – 10/02/1917 – M.P. Sales Agency Ltd = It May be Your Daughter (USA 1916 p.c. Moral Uplift Society of America)
JUST AS HE THOUGHT – 30/11/1917 – American Film Co = Just as He Thought (USA 1916 p.c. American Film)
LA CULOTTE DE RIGADIN – 05/12/1913 – Eclair Film Co. Ltd = La culotte de Rigadin (France 1914 d. George Monca p.c. Pathé Frères)
LAWFUL CHEATERS – 30/11/1925 – Vitagraph Film Hiring Co. Ltd = presumably The Lawful Cheater (USA 1925 d. Frank O’Connor p.c. B.P. Schulberg)
LEAVES FROM THE BOOK OF SATAN – 15/12/1921 – Nordisk Films Co. Ltd = Blade af Satans bog (Denmark 1921 d. Carl Th. Dreyer p.c. Nordisk)
LIFE’S SHADOWS – 03/05/1927 – Wardour Films Ltd
LITTLE MONTE CARLO – 15/12/1916 – M.P. Sales Agency Ltd
LITTLE WHITE SLAVES – 03/07/1914 – Tyler Film Co Ltd = Kleine weiße Sklaven (Germany 1914 d. Oskar Ludwig Brandt p.c. Lloyd-Film)
LOVE – 15/12/1921 – Assoc. Ind. Producers Ltd
LOVE AND SACRIFICE – 21/07/1924 – Allied Artists Corpn. Ltd = America (USA 1924 d. D.W. Griffith p.c. D.W. Griffith Productions)
LOVE AT FIRST FLIGHT – 20/02/1929 – Wardour Films Ltd = Love at First Flight (USA 1928 d. Edward F. Cline p.c. Mack Sennett)
LOVE IS BLIND – 28/10/1913 – Gerrard Film Co Ltd = probably Love is Blind (USA 1913 d. Allan Dwan p.c. American Film Manufacturing Company)
MARRIAGE – 19/12/1929 – Pro Patria Films Ltd
MEPHISTS [presumably Mephisto] – 03/03/1913 – Elite Sales Agency Ltd
MIRACULOUS WATERS – 23/02/1914 – New Agency Film Co
MOTHER’S CONFESSION – 21/01/1916 – A. Reid & Co = A Mother’s Confession (USA 1915 d. Ivan Abramson p.c. Ivan Film)
MOTHER, I NEED YOU – 23/10/1919 – L. Zimmerman = Mother, I Need You (USA 1918 d. Frank Beal)
MY WIFE AND I – 07/04/1914 – A.E. Hubsch and Co. Ltd
NABBED – 19/05/1916 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd (There were two films titled Nabbed in 1915, one USA, one UK, neither connected to Universal/Trans Atlantic)
NIGHT LIFE – 16/02/1928 – British Exhibitors Films Ltd
NIGHT OUT, A – 08/09/1916 – Eclair Film Co. Ltd
NOBODY – 30/04/1923 – Associated National Pictures
NOBODY WOULD BELIEVE – 11/03/1913 – J. Frank Brockliss Ltd
NORTH OF 50-50 – 14/05/1925 – Pathe Freres Ltd = North of 50-50 (USA 1924 d. Len Powers p.c. Hal Roach)
OPEN ALL NIGHT – 27/11/1924 – Famous Players Film Co Ltd = Open All Night (USA 1924 d. Paul Bern p.c. Famous Players-Lasky)
OUR LITTLE NELL – 14/05/1925 – Pathe Freres Ltd = Our Little Nell (USA 1924 d. Len Power p.c. Hal Roach)
OUTSIDE THE LAW – 25/03/1927 – European Motion Picture Co Ltd
PATHE DAILY GAZETTE – 03/10/1914 – Pathe Freres Ltd = newsreel
PATHE GAZETTE – “BOMBING SCHOOL OF THE 10th MIDDLESEX” – 11/10/1915 – Pathe Freres Ltd = newsreel
PATHE GAZETTE- “AFTER AN ADVANCE” AND “THROWING A GRENADE” – 12/10/1915 – Pathe Freres Ltd = newsreel
PLUSCH AND PLUMOWSKI – 18/11/1927 – Butchers Film Service Ltd = Plüsch und Plumowski (Germany 1927 d. Hans Steinhoff p.c. Georg-Jacoby-Film)
POTEMKIN – 30/09/1926 – Film Booking Offices Ltd = Bronenosets Potyomkin (USSR 1925 d. Sergei Eisenstein p.c. Goskino)
RELIGION AND SUPERSTITION IN BELOOCHISTAN – 19/09/1913 – New Agency Film Co
RIDERS OF THE NIGHT – 09/09/1919 – David Mundell = Riders of the Night (USA 1918 d. John H. Collins p.c. Metro)
ROSE OF THE TENEMENTS – 10/06/1926 – Ideal Films Ltd = Rose of the Tenements (USA 1926 d. Phil Rosen p.c. Robertson-Cole)
SALWATER [i.e. Saltwater] JANE – 10/06/1927 – Ideal Films Ltd
SEALED LIPS – 30/03/1917 – Inter Ocean Films Ltd = possibly Sealed Lips (USA 1915 d. John Ince p.c. Equitable Motion Pictures)
SHOOTIN’ FOR LOVE – 07/12/1923 – European Film Dist Ltd = Shootin’ for Love (USA 1923 d. Edward Sedgwick p.c. Universal)
SINS OF YOUR YOUTH – 16/06/1914 – Oscar Rosenberg = possibly Ekspeditricen (Denmark 1911 d. August Blom p.c. Nordisk)
SKIRTS – 26/02/1917 – Western Import Co Ltd = Skirts (USA 1917 d. Al Christie p.c. Christie)
SPANISH BULL FIGHT – 14/03/1913 – Gerrard Films Ltd
STORY OF SISTER RUTH – 11/04/1913 – Gaumont Co Ltd
STRAFING THE KAISER – 03/02/1917 – Walturdaw Co Ltd = Pimple Strafing the Kaiser (UK 1916 d. Fred Evans/Joe Evans p.c. Piccadilly)
SUBMARINE FOR ENGLAND’S NAVY LAUNCHED AT QUINCY MASS – 18/08/1915 – Gaumont Co Ltd = newsreel
TANKS – 14/10/1916 – Kineto Ltd
THE ACE OF BADS - 21/03/1927 – Famous Players Film Co Ltd = The Ace of Cads (USA 1926 d. Luther Reed p.c. Famous Players-Lasky)
THE BACHELOR GIRL – 03/10/1923 – London & Counties Film Bureau
THE BATTLE OF LIFE – 12/03/1917 – Fox Film Company Ltd = The Battle of Life (USA 1916 d. James Vincent p.c. Fox)
THE BLACK TERROR – 12/06/1917 – Thanhouser Films Ltd = The Black Terror (USA 1916 d. Fred Kelsey p.c. Thanhouser)
THE BLUE ROOM – 07/04/1914 – A.E. Hubsch and Co. Ltd
THE CASE OF THE DOPED ACTRESS – 11/02/1919 – Life Dramas Ltd = The Case of a Doped Actress (UK 1919 d. Wilfred Carlton p.c. Life Dramas)
THE CITY OF SIN – 20/09/1926 – Peter Freres Cinema Ltd [presumably Pathé Frères]
THE COMPANIONATE MARRIAGE – 29/10/1928 – First National Pathe Ltd = Companionate Marriage (USA 1928 d. Erle C. Kenton p.c. C.M. Corporation)
THE CRIMSON CROSS – 08/10/1913- Eclair Film Co. Ltd = The Crimson Cross (USA 1913 p.c. Eclair)
THE CRIMSON STAIN – 08/03/1918 – Ideal Film Renting Co Ltd
THE CRIMSON STAIN MYSTERY – 03/07/1919 – Inter Ocean Films Ltd = The Crimson Stain Mystery (USA 1916 d. T. Hayes Hunter p.c. Consolidated)
THE DIVA IN STRAITS – 23/03/1914 – A.E. Hubsch and Co. Ltd
THE DIVIDED LAW – 13/05/1919 – Inter Ocean Films Ltd
THE DOUBLE ROOM MYSTERY – 12/03/1916 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd = The Double Room Mystery (USA 1917 d. Hobart Henley p.c. Universal)
THE DOWNFALL – 18/06/1924 – Regent Film Corp Ltd
THE DRAGON – 31/05/1916 – F. Simmonds
THE EEL – 26/02/1916 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd = The Eel (USA 1916 d. Harry F. Millarde p.c. IMP)
THE END OF THE ROAD – 01/10/1925 – Carcopal Film Co Ltd
THE FIRE – 11/02/1916 – McEnnery Syndicate Ltd
THE FOUR FEATHERS – 03/10/1917- Albion Cinema Supplies Ltd = probably The Four Feathers (USA 1915 d. J. Searle Dawley p.c. Dyreda)
THE FOURTH ESTATE – 14/06/1917 – Fox Film Company Ltd = The Fourth Estate (USA 1916 d. Frank Powell p.c. Fox)
THE GIRL FROM CHICAGO – 22/02/1917 – Players Management Ltd = The Girl from Chicago (USA 1916 p.c. Thanhouser)
THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE – 11/12/1928 – Wardour Films Ltd = The Girl from Everywhere (USA 1927 d. Edward F. Cline p.c. Mack Sennett)
THE GOOD PRECEPTRESS – 28/01/1913 – New Agency Film Co
THE GREAT PHYSICIAN – 21/01/1913 – Thos. A. Edison Ltd = The Great Physician (USA 1913 d. Richard Ridgely p.c. Edison)
THE GREAT SHADOW – 27/05/1920 – Walturdaw Co Ltd = The Great Shadow (USA/Canada 1920 d. Harley Knoles p.c. Adanac)
THE HAND THAT RULES THE WORLD – 23/07/1914 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd = The Hand that Rules the World (USA 1914 d. Edwin August p.c. Powers)
THE HAUNTED SHIP – 16/02/1928 – British Exhibitors Films Ltd = The Haunted Ship (USA 1927 d. Forrest Sheldon p.c. Tiffany-Stahl)
THE INHERITED BURDEN – 24/05/1915 – Dominion Exclusives
THE KISS OF HATE – 22/09/1916 – Ruffles [presumably Ruffell's] Exclusives Ltd = The Kiss of Hate (USA 1916 d. William Nigh p.c. Columbia)
THE KITCHENER FILM – 13/04/1922 – Mr A Freeman = How Kitchener Was Betrayed (UK 1921 d. Percy Nash p.c. Screen Plays)
THE LAND OF THE FOREFATHERS – 10/02/1917 – Gaumont Co Ltd
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH – 27/11/1924 – Fox Film Company Ltd = The Last Man on Earth (USA d. John G. Blystone p.c. Fox)
THE LAST SUPPER – 17/04/1914 – American Film Co = The Last Supper (USA 1914 d. Lorimer Johnston p.c. American Film Manufacturing Company)
THE LIBERTINE – 09/05/1917 – Bolton’s Mutual Films = probably The Libertine (USA 1916 d. Joseph A. Golden, Julius Steger p.c. Triumph)
THE LOST BAG – 23/05/1913 – Nordisk Films Co. Ltd = Naar Fruen gaar paa Eventyr (Denmark 1913 d. August Blom p.c. Nordisk)
THE LOVE ADVENTURES OF FAUBLAS – 19/06/1913 – Paramount Film Service Ltd = Les aventures du chevalier de Faublas (France 1913 d. Henri Pouctal)
THE LURE – 30/08/1915 – Elasion Film Co Ltd = possibly The Lure (USA 1914 d. Alice Guy p.c. Blaché Features)
THE MARIONETTES – 29/10/1917 – Vitagraph Film Hiring Co. Ltd = The Marionettes (USA 1917 d. Thomas R. Mills p.c. Vitagraph)
THE MOTHER – 06/12/1928 – Brunel & Monatgu Ltd = Mat (USSR 1926 d. Vsevolod Pudovkin p.c. Mezhrabpom-Rus)
THE MYSTERIES OF BIRTH – 18/02/1929 – L. Wechsler
THE NEW MOON – 16/02/1922 – Pathe Freres Ltd
THE NIGHT BEFORE – 11/03/1913 – A.E. Hubsch and Co. Ltd
THE ONE WOMAN – 10/07/1919 – Film Booking Offices Ltd = probably The One Woman (USA 1918 d. Reginald Barker p.c. Mastercraft
THE PRICE OF YOUTH – 24/03/1921 – L. Zimmerman = probably The Price of Youth (USA 1922 d. Ben F. Wilson p.c. Berwilla)
THE PRIEST AND PETER – 06/02/1913 – Universal Pictures
THE RACK – 24/05/1916 – American Film Co = probably The Rack (USA 1915 d. Emile Chautard p.c. William A. Brady)
THE RACKETEERS – 19/12/1929 – Producers Releasing Corp Ltd = possibly Love’s Conquest (USA 1929 d. Howard Higgin p.c. Pathé Exchange)
THE RED KIMONA – 15/01/1926 – A Claresing [probably Clavering] = The Red Kimona (USA 1925 d. Walter Lang p.c. Blanc de Chine)
THE SCARLET MARK – 12/03/1917 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd = The Scarlet Mark (USA 1916 d. Lucius Henderson p.c. Victor)
THE SEASHELL & THE CLERGYMAN – 13/11/1929 – Cinema Exclusives Ltd = La coquille et le clergyman (France 1928 d. Germaine Dulac p.c. Délia Film)
THE SPREADING EVIL – 16/10/1919 – James Keane Productions = The Spreading Evil (USA 1918 d. James Keane p.c. James Keane Feature Photo-play Productions)
THE UNPAINTED PORTRAIT – 10/05/1916 – Western Import Co Ltd = The Unpainted Portrait (USA 1914 p.c. Majestic)
THE WAGER – 18/01/1917 – Ruffles [i.e. Ruffell's] Exclusives Ltd = The Wager (USA 1916 d. George D. Baker p.c. Rolfe Photoplays)
THE WEAVERS – 25/07/1927 – Pathe Freres Ltd = possibly Die Weber (Germany 1927 d. Friedrich Zelnik p.c. Friedrich-Zelnik-Film)
THE WHELP – 01/03/1917 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd = The Whelp (USA 1917 d. Millard K. Wilson p.c. IMP)
THE WHISPERED NAME – 18/06/1917 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd = The Whispered Name (USA 1917 d. Donald MacDonald p.c. Rex)
THE WHITE SLAVE TRAFFIC – 25/07/1927 – F. Alfred = Mädchenhandel – Eine internationale Gefahr (Germany 1927 d. Jaap Speyer p.c. Liberty-Film)
THE WOMAN HOUSE OF BRES[C]IA – 23/03/1921 – Elijah Day & Sons Ltd = Das Frauenhaus von Brescia (Germany 1920 d. Hubert Moest p.c. Moset-Film)
THE WORD THAT KILLS – 25/02/1914 – Cines Co
THE WRECKED ZEPPELIN – 03/10/1916 – H.D. Girdwood [i.e. Hilton DeWitt Girdwood]
THE YOKE – 31/12/1915 – International Cine Corpn-Ltd = The Yoke (UK 1915 d. James Warry Vickers p.c. International Cine Corps)
THE ZEPP[E]LINS LAST RAID – 20/02/1918 – Lionel Phillips
THOSE WHO TOIL – 20/07/1916 – J.F. Brockliss Ltd
THREE MEN AND A MAID – 22/06/1914 – Nordisk Films Co.Ltd
THROUGH THE DARK – 11/02/1924 – Jury Metro-Goldwyn Ltd = Through the Dark (USA 1924 d. George W. Hill p.c. Cosmopolitan)
TOIL AND TYRANNY – 31/05/1916 – Pathe Freres Ltd = Toil and Tyranny (USA 1915 d. Harry Harvey p.c. Balboa Amusement Producing Company)
TRAPPED FOR HER DOUGH – 18/01/1917 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd
TWO’S COMPANY – 03/08/1928 – Brunel & Monatgu Ltd = possibly Tretya meshchanskaya (Bed and Sofa) d. Abram Room p.c. Sovkino)
TWO-TIME MAMA – 05/05/1927 – Ideal Films Ltd = Two-Time Mama (USA 1927 d. Feed Guiol p.c. Hal Roach)
UNDER THE BED – 18/06/1917 – Trans Atlantic Film Co Ltd = Under the Bed (USA 1917 d. Louis Chaudet p.c. Universal)
VERA – 30/12/1915 – Cines Co
WHAT HAPPENED AT 22 – 12/06/1917 – Bolton’s Mutual Films = What Happened at 22 (USA 1916 d. George Irving p.c. Frohman Amusement Corp.)
WHAT THE CURATE SAW – 12/05/1916 – Regal Films International
WHY MEN LEAVE HOME – 18/07/1913 – Imperial Film Co Ltd = Why Men Leave Home (USA 1913 p.c. IMP)
WOMAN, WOMAN – 20/05/1919 – Fox Film Company Ltd = Woman, Woman! (USA 1919 d. Kenean Buel p.c. Fox)
WONDERFUL NEW ARMOURED MOTOR CAR THAT DEFIES ALL ATTACKS – 09/07/1915 – Pathe Freres Ltd= newsreel
YOU CAN’T BEAT THE LAW – 09/05/1928 – First National Pathe Ltd = You Can’t Beat the Law (USA 1928 d. Charles J. Hunt p.c. Trem Carr Pictures)
ZEPP[E]LIN’S VISIT LONDON – 01/06/1915 – Gaumont Co Ltd

What the censor saw

The notorious crucifixion scene from Auction of Souls (1919), shown uncertificated in the UK

If you look up the British Board of Film Classification in The Encylopedia of British Film, you are given a cross-reference to ‘censorship’. That’s a little hard, indeed misleading for an organisation which since 1985 has had the C in its initials standing for Classification rather than Censorship. They do not censor films as such (though some cuts are made where films infringe guidelines or actually break the laws of the land), they rate films according to social expectations. Those expectations are reflected in guidelines which have changed down the years as society and society’s relationship to the screen have changed. To follow the BBFC’s journey from censorship to classification is to understand how much films are profoundly connected to the temper of their times.

The British Board of Film Censors was formed one hundred years ago in 1912. Ever since motion pictures first appeared in Britain, the authorities sought to control them, though primarily they were concerned with how and where films were shown rather than what they showed. Tragic deaths at Newmarket in 1907 (where two woman and a girl died in a film fire) and Barnsley in 1908 (when sixteen children were crushed to death at crowded cinematograph show) demonstrated that film shows had to be brought under local authority control, though equally there was concern at the young, the mixed sexes and the working class being brought together in the dark where you couldn’t keep a proper eye on them. The fire risk was real, but it was also an excuse for the exercise of moral censure.

Existing legislation did not cover cinema shows, so in 1909 the Cinematograph Act was passed, which required cinemas to be licensed. Now attention turned to the films themselves. There was considerable social disquiet at the content of some films, particularly as a large part of the cinema audience consisted of children. Films were accused of encouraging children to steal, of corrupting morals, of transgressing the bonds of society.

There were calls for government censorship, and local authorities started to censor films for themselves, applying widely different standards. It was to bring about uniformity of decisions nationally, and to avoid the perils of state-imposed censorship, that the British film industry decide to police itself. So in November the British Board of Film Censors was formed, head by George Redford. The Secretary was J. Brooke Wilkinson, and there were four examiners. Every film to be screened in Britain had to be passed by the BBFC, though it had no statutory authority, those powers remaining with the local councils (who also administrated cinema licences) and who could override the BBFC’s decisions if they so chose. Topicals, or newsreels as they were to become, were made exempt from censorship (except in wartime). Film companies had to pay for films to be registered, which funded the service (and does to this day).

The BBFC began work on 1 January 1913, and there were two categories of certificate that it could assign to a film: U, for Universal exhibition, and A, for Adult only. Some films were subject to cuts; others were rejected entirely. In its first year of operation the BBFC examined 7,488 films, passed 6,681 as U, 627 as A, took exception to 166, and completely rejected 22 (figures from Rachael Low, The History of the British Film 1906-1914).

Originally there were only two rules applied by the BBFC to films, which were that they must not show the living figure of Christ, and that they must not show nudity. Otherwise they simply followed their sense of what would offend against morals or upset all or part of a cinema audience. No formal code was ever drawn up (in contrast to the Hayes Code in the USA), but gradually a set of guidelines grew and grew, as revealed by T.P. O’Connor in 1916 at an enquiry into cinema-going undertaken by the National Council of Public Morals, which listed, sometimes comically, all those scenes in a film which would cause them to reject a film in part or in its entirety:

1. Indecorous, ambiguous and irreverent titles and subtitles
2. Cruelty to animals
3. The irreverent treatment of sacred subjects
4. Drunken scenes carried to excess
5. Vulgar accessories in the staging
6. The modus operandi of criminals
7. Cruelty to young infants and excessive cruelty and torture to adults, especially women
8. Unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing
9. The exhibition of profuse bleeding
10. Nude figures
11. Offensive vulgarity, and impropriety in conduct and dress
12. Indecorous dancing
13. Excessively passionate love scenes
14. Bathing scenes passing the limits of propriety
15. References to controversial politics
16. Relations of capital and labour
17. Scenes tending to disparage public characters and institutions
18. Realistic horrors of warfare
19. Scenes and incidents calculated to afford information to the enemy
20. Incidents having a tendency to disparage our Allies
21. Scenes holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule
22. Subjects dealing with India, in which British Officers are seen in an odious light, and otherwise attempting to suggest the disloyalty of British Officers, Native States or bringing into disrepute
British prestige in the Empire
23. The exploitation of tragic incidents of the war
24. Gruesome murders and strangulation scenes
25. Executions
26. The effects of vitriol throwing
27. The drug habit. e.g. opium, morphia, cocaine, etc
28. Subjects dealing with White Slave traffic
29. Subjects dealing with premeditated seduction of girls
30. ‘First Night’ scenes
31. Scenes suggestive of immorality
32. Indelicate sexual situations
33. Situations accentuating delicate marital relations
34. Men and women in bed together
35. Illicit relationships
36. Prostitution and procuration
37. Incidents indicating the actual perpetration of criminal assaults on women
38. Scenes depicting the effect of venereal disease, inherited or acquired
39. Incidents suggestive of incestuous relations
40. Themes and references relative to ‘race suicide’
41. Confinements
42. Scenes laid in disorderly houses
43. Materialization of the conventional figure of Christ

Some might look at such a list and wonder what on was left that would make going to the cinema any fun at all. The BBFC started to gain for itself a reputation for extreme fuddy-duddy-ness, exemplied by the famous pronouncement on Germaine Dulac’s experimental work The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928):

The film is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.

which stands as one of the most memorable lines of film criticism ever written.

The Seashell and the Clergyman (La Coquille et le clergyman)

This reputation is not entirely fair. The BBFC took its work seriously, and when it took upon itself not to allow films that could be ‘calculated to demoralise an audience … or undermine the teachings of morality’ then it only did so after careful consideration of each film, measured against what it sensed to be the prevailing feeling of society. The problem was that the society familiar to the BBFC’s examiners in the 1920s was a narrow one, constrained by class and social prejudice. They tried to dictate the behaviour of society at large by muffling the films that people wanted to see, but banning the film did not halt the public taste for what it showed, nor did it halt the vice from happening in real life. The BBFC thought it was protecting society, but really it was protecting itself from that society – and it was fighting a losing battle.

Various decisions made by the BBFC in the 1920s have become renowned for what they reveal of the governing class’s fears and assumptions. Damaged Goods (1919), a coy drama about the dangers of venereal disease, was rejected outright (despite appeals from some authorities to allow screenings beause of the lessons the film made) as much because it was propagandist in tone as because of its subject matter. The same producer, Samuelson’s, subsequently submitted Married Love (1923), scripted by family planning pioneer Marie Stopes, which decorously approached the subject of birth control. This was passed with cuts once its propagandist tone had been cut down, Marie Stopes’ name had been removed, and the title was changed to Maisie’s Marriage.

On the subject of drugs, the BBFC rejected Mrs Wallace Reid’s impassioned Human Wreckage (1923), not wishing to countenance any film on the theme of drug addiction, yet it passed Graham Cutts’ Cocaine (1922), once its sensational title had been changed to While London Sleeps and after the producer Herbert Wilcox had defied the BBFC by securing screenings of the film in Manchester. Another Wilcox production, the ponderous Dawn (1928), on Nurse Edith Cavell (executed by the Germans during the war for helping Allied soldiers escape), which was denied a certificate because it might revive anti-German feeling. Political pressure was probably exercised, but many local authorities passed the film for screening anyway, demonstrating how the BBFC’s rulings were, after all, only guidelines.

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin (1925) was a notable victim of the BBFC’s timorousness (the film had been screened without trouble in the USA), rejected because it forbade films that addressed issues of ‘political controversy’. As the BBFC website’s case study notes on the film state:

No doubt at the back of the BBFC’s mind was the nine day British general strike in May 1926 which had provoked fears amongst some quarters of society of a potential revolution in the UK.

It was claimed that the violence scenes in the film were further reason for its rejection, but no cuts were ordered for these, making its unwelcome political theme the real reason why it was refused a certificate, though it was shown in its uncertificated state at the London Film Society (it was eventually passed by the BBFC in 1954, with a X certificate).

Another example of a film screened in Britain despite hot having been passed by the BBFC was Auction of Souls. This semi-drama semi-documentary told of the Armenian genocide as experienced by escapee Aurora Mardiganian. It featured scenes of massacres, tortures, brutalities of every description, culminating in an horrific scene of a row of crucified naked women. It is hard to imagine such a film being made, still less being offered as a commercial proposition, yet it had been widely shown in America where it was produced. The film was shown at the Albert Hall in London by the League of Nations Union, before the BBFC had viewed it, and when the distributor refused to countenance any cuts the BBFC said it was inevitable that the film would be rejected (though it never actually reviewed the film formally). It was not just the shocking scenes but a fear expressed through the Foreign Office that the film could endanger ongoing peace talks with Turkey that influenced their thinking. Subsequently a London cinema showed it in defiance of its local authority which said that all films shown in its district needed a BBFC certificate. The cinema won the ensuing court case, but in the end the Home Office instituted a system whereby almost all local authorities agreed not to permit the screening of any film rejected by the BBFC. This decision helped cement the position of the BBFC at the heart of British film exhibition, a place that it retains to this day.

Many have mocked the BBFC of the 1920s, seeing it as an out-of-touch institution peopled by retired colonels and maiden aunts gently bent on maintaining the values of a past age which had probably never existed in the first place. The BBFC was unduly concerned by contentious moral issues, it did display political bias, and though ostensibly independent it did bow to political pressure from the Home Office. But it could also be argued as having helped save the British film business, carefully managing the conflicting interests of distributors, audiences and society’s guardians, in a manner that helped establish the cinema as an accepted feature of British life rather than the threat that many felt it represented back in 1912.

The British Board of Film Classification, as it now is, rarely rejects films outright these days. It demands cuts, certainly, measured against a regularly reviewed set of guidelines, but it seldom bans outright, despite films of a nature that would make Messrs Redford or O’Connor faint dead away with shock. It has to maintain a balance between those who abhor being told what they can or cannot see and protest at any cuts and those revolted or upset by cinema’s latest extremes and who call for such films to be banned. Striking a balance has always been at the heart of the BBFC’s work, even if the organisation of today is predicated on a trust in the audience’s good judgment that the BBFC of earlier decades was not.

The BBFC’s website is well worth visting. It has a history of the organisation, explanation of its guidelines, statistics, the law, and information on recent decisions. There are supplementary websites for parents, schools, and students of media regulation and film. Above all there is its database – a listing of films or videos that the BBFC has examined. Using the Advanced Search option with the date delimiters, the database turns out to have 4,590 titles for the silent era (1912-1929). This cannot be anywhere near the number of films that were actually examined by the BBFC for the period, but it is a rich resource nonetheless.

The records are a little on the spartan side. Mostly you get title, date submitted, distributor (i.e. the company that submitted the film for examination), length of cuts made (but no details of wat the cuts were or why they were made) and three categories – U, A or R for Rejected. Refining the search to Rejected titles only brings up 208 results. It is fascinating mixture of the familiar and the little known, identification of which is sometimes difficult because English titles are given for what were often foreign releases. But because this post has gone on long enough, further analysis of the 208 rejectees will have to be the subject of a follow-up post.

From the front cover of the 1912 pamphlet introducing the British Board of film Censors to the film business

The BBFC is marking its centenary in a number of ways. There is a centenary section of the site, which includes outlines various celebratory activities taking place and has an archive section looking back at past highlights and items of interest. Post number one in the archive contains a downloadable facsimile of a 1912 pamphlet introducing the BBFC to exhibitors and promising “absolutely independent and impartial censorship”.

There is to be a film season at the BFI Southbank marking the centenary later in the year, and a book marking “100 years of film classification” (they don’t say censorship) will be published in the Autumn. This is going to be particularly welcome, since it’s been a while since we had a good book published on British film censorship (or classification). If you do want to read more, a good place to start is James C. Robertson’s The British Board of Film Censors: Film Censorship in Britain 1896-1950 (1985) and The Hidden Cinema: British Film Censorship in Action, 1913-1972 (1989). For those interested in the legal side, Neville March Hunnings’ Film Censors and the Law (1967) is an exceptional work, exhaustive and illuminating, covering not only Britain but the history of film censorships in the USA, India, Canada, Australia, Denmark, France and the USSR. Also recommended is Annette Kuhn’s sophisticatedly argued Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality 1909-1925 (1988) and Picture Palace: A Social History of the Cinema (1974), written by Audrey Field, a BBFC examiner, who reveals that comonsense and a sympathetic understanding of people were hallmarks of at least some at the BBFC far earlier than many might suspect.

Update: A follow-up post identifying the 208 films rejected by the BBFC during the silent era is at http://thebioscope.net/2012/03/22/the-rejected.

Cinema context, once more

The Rembrandtplein, Amsterdam in 1934, from Cinema Context

In the very early days of the Bioscope, when its total readership could probably have been fitted into a broom cupboard with some comfort, we reviewed Cinema Context, one of the leading film-related resources anywhere. Four years on, the broom cupboard has expanded somewhat, and it’s time we returned the resource, and devoted more attention to it. So let’s do so.

Cinema Context is a database of Dutch film culture. There’s something about the Netherlands that makes it just about the right size for a country when it comes to apportioning things (geographically, demographically, economically), and it’s the case when it comes to film databases. At the heart of Cinema Context is data on all of the Dutch cinemas, including travelling cinemas, that have existed since 1900 – there are 1,615 of them – and so far as I know the Netherlands it the only country to have comprehensively documented its every single film venue. The venues have then been mapped to almost every film shown in a Dutch cinema up to 1960 (45,582 of them), so that one knows not only what was shown, but when it was shown, and where. This information has been taken from a wide variety of film programme information, from which data has been added on musicians, live performers, entry prices and more. There is a whole range of people (4,259) and companies (1,611) listed, from cinema managers to distributors, so one does really get a sense of the depth and extent of Dutch film culture. It is, by the way, a bi-lingual site – Dutch and English.

What Cinema Context does not provide is much in the way of filmographic detail, but it does link every identifiable film to its record on the Internet Movie Database, so it is possible for the dedicated researcher to trace not only which films but which performers very popular in which part of the country, and how such presence changed over time and territory. The site does not exist to give you every answer, but rather to provide a solid basis on which to go looking for answers.

There are simple and advanced search options. The latter invites you to search across five categories: films, cinemas, programmes, people and companies. Under programmes, you can search for programmes showing more than one film, those from travelling cinemas only, and search within particular dates. So, for example, if I look up Alex Benner’s Bioscope, a travelling cinema which appeared at a fair near the town of Roosendal on 24 December 1911, I get its position on a Google map, a list of the films shown (all hyperlinked to their own page and ultimately the IMDb) and a listing of the archival resources used. And the films are (with their Dutch release titles, though there is cross-referencing to original titles):

Kabeljauwvangst op IJsland
De gelofte
Het interessante artikel in de courant
De jonge circusrijders
De meloenen op hol
Door eigen kracht zijn eer gered
Het witte costuum van Nauke
Wil het mij vergeven
Max gaat hoepelen

There’s a browsing option, which is probably the best way into the resource. Here you can look across cinemas by year or by city; films by country, year, title (original or Dutch); by company (exhibitors or distributors, but not production companies); by people (name or function); and by censorship rating, year or file number. This latter element is an exciting development. Every film record between 1928 and 1960 on Cinema Context has been cross-linked to the record of its file from the Netherlands Board of Film Censors, as held by the Nationaal Archief in the Hague. It does just point you to a catalogue entry rather than a digitised document or transcript, but let’s not be greedy. Cinema Context remains a work in progress, and is keen to grow further. Such additional features will be added in time.

And there’s more. The site offers some useful statistics, such as cinema attendances and film production year by year in the Netherlands and selected cities, a listing of all Dutch film magazines, and a map of the country which links you to cinemas on the database.

Back in 2007 I wrote:

What is the finest film reference source on the Web, for all film let alone silent film? With all due respect to the Internet Movie Database, I think it is Cinema Context, a Dutch site created by Karel Dibbets and the University of Amsterdam.

I think I still stand by that, though it may now share first place with Germany’s Filmportal, while resources produced since 2007, notably the University of North Carolina’s more localised and more specialised Going to the Show, demonstrate how to take this sort of data to the next level through the new search tools that are now available. And I see no reason to change my original summing up of the resource: “This is the new film research. Every nation should have the same”.

I don’t know the degree to which these databases of cinemas rather than films have succeeded in opening up cinema history to social and cultural historians in general, and not just a film studies audience, but that has to be the intention. Resources such as Cinema Context must exist to facilitate the fundamental question that should be asked of film history, which is how it related to society. My feeling is that such databases – other examples are the London Project, the Scottish Cinemas and Theatres Project, the Utrecht Project, and the huge American site Cinema Treasures – still direct themselves primarily towards an audience which understands film culture first and foremost. They may seek to answer new questions, but it is unclear if they are sufficiently reaching out to those who are asking those questions. It is when Cinema Context or the London Project map themselves to population figures, transportation data, domestic expenditure, or the competition from alternative attractions, that we may really start to compute the historical position of cinema in society.

The National Archives goes to the movies

The National Archives

The National Archives is the UK government’s official archive – not to be confused with the National Archives and Records Administration in the USA. In 2003 the UK’s Public Record Office merged with the Historic Manuscripts Commission to become The National Archives (known to its friends as TNA), which pointed to a broader, more inclusive remit, but some still hanker for the reassuring days of the PRO. The location has remained the same – an imposing modernist building in Kew, to the west of London, with ponds and swans in its grounds, and hordes of historians and amateur genealogists within. It holds government and public records from the Domesday Book onwards, which are released to the public generally after thirty years have elapsed from their original production.

All of which is preamble to the news that TNA has produced a podcast entitled The National Archives Goes to the Movies, and it’s rather good. Written and presented by Joseph Pugh, the podcast is a knowledgeable guide to the history of British cinema through the records of The National Archives. Recorded before an audience, around half of the hour-long talk is about the silent period. Among the subjects he covers are Will Barker’s 1911 film of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, all copies of which were burned in a publicity stunt; the efforts of the Colonial Office to ban The Birth of a Nation; concern within the Home Office at how Cecil B. De Mille’s The Cheat could offend the Japanese; the production of Maurice Elvey’s ill-fated epic The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918); the British government-sponsored dramas Hearts of the World (1918) and The Invasion of Britain (1918); Home Office efforts to ban Graham Cutts’ sensationalist Cocaine (1922); and Marie Stopes’ correspondence with the Home Office over her birth control film Married Love (aka Maisie’s Marriage) (1923).

The point of the talk is not only to entertain but to encourage research. Consequently most of the films that Pugh refers to are also listed on Your Archives, TNA’s wiki where researchers can post information on files that they have found. I’m not sure how much the wiki gets used, because researchers tend to be a little wary of giving away all their sources, but the principle is noble.

A trade paper advertisement for Cocaine and a poster for Maisie’s Marriage, taken from The National Archives’ Flickr site, original file references HO 45/11599 and HO 45/11382

The sort of records one find in The National Archives are those which document the day-to-day processes of government departments. There are memos, memos responding to memos, and memos responding to memos responding to memos. There are letters, minutes, briefing papers, personal papers, official papers, diaries, reports, lists, registers, passenger lists, medal rolls, photographs, maps and posters. The contents are generally arranged chronologically, identified by government department and then gathered together by theme into individual numbered folders.

The National Archives can be a daunting place for any newbie researcher. There is no single index, and although they produce an amazing rich online catalogue (helpfully named the Catalogue) they also have to produce a multitude of specialist guides that explain how to pursue particular topics. One of these research guides covers The Arts, Broadcasting and Film, and it’s a very good starting point. As said, The National Archives arranges its records by department, so it is important to know that responsibility for film was held by the Board of Trade’s Industries and Manufactures Department (formed 1918), but information on film is spread widely across particularly all departments. To produce a complete guide to TNA records to silent film would require a blog (or a wiki) all of its own, but here’s an outline guide to some of the key departments to explore. Please note that catalogue references will simply take you to the barest of descriptions online, and to view the documents themselves you will have to visit Kew.

  • AIR (Air Ministry, Royal Air Force etc)
    Records of aerial photography and cinematography during World War One are held in AIR 2 (search under ‘cinematography’).
  • BT (Board of Trade)
    Records of registered companies (since dissolved), including hundreds of film businesses (producers, distributors, cinemas etc), with information on capital and shareholders, are in BT 31; records of liquidated companies 1890-1932 are in BT 34; trade marks (BT 42-53) includes film company trademarks, though there is no overall index so you need to search on-site by date (see the TNA guide on registered designs and trade marks); BT 226 has bankruptcy records for companies and individuals. BT 26 and BT 27 contains lists of ship passengers who arrived in (1878-1960) or left (1890-1960) the UK. The incoming lists themselves can be viewed online (payment required) at Ancestry, and the outgoing list (again payment required) at Ancestors on Board.
  • CAB (Cabinet)
    Papers from the very heart of government. Nicholas Reeves’ Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War has a handy guide to PRO/TNA papers relating to official film, including Cabinet papers in CAB 21, 23-25, 27, 37 and 41.
  • CO (Colonial Office etc)
    Many records relating to the production, distribution and exhibition of films in British colonies and countries of the empire, including records of the Empire Marketing Board (for which John Grierson worked) in CO 758 (correspondence), CO 759 (index cards), CO 760 (minutes, papers) and CO 956 (posters).
  • COPY (Copyright Office, Stationers’ Company)
    Before the 1911 Copyright Act if a UK film producer wanted to copyright a film (usually they did so only if there had been a case of their work being copied) then they had to do so as it if was a photograph; consequently there are numerous records of films 1897-1912 registered under COPY 1. The registration forms were accompanied by single frames, bromide prints, or in a few cases a few frames of film (the originals are now held by the BFI). For a guide to this collection, which comprises a few hundred titles among the many thousands of photographs, see Richard Brown’s essay in Simon Popple and Colin Harding’s In the Kingdom of Shadows. There are also registers and indexes under COPY 3. Some film posters and other promotional material can also be found in the COPY records.
  • ED (Department of Education and Science)
    Disparate documents on film and education, a theme of growing interest throughout the 1920s, including assorted commissions of enquiry.
  • FO (Foreign Office)
    The Foreign Office was concerned with promoting British foreign policy. There are extensive records relating to British propaganda films being shown overseas during World War One, in particular FO 115 on propaganda in the USA and Canada, FO 371 covering general correspondence, and FO 395 which covers war films and American propaganda 1916-17. There is a card index to the FO papers in TNA’s search rooms, making this a particularly fruitful area to explore.
  • HO (Home Office)
    The Home Office oversaw domestic policy. There are extensive records on actual legislation (starting with the 1909 Cinematograph Act) and proposed regulation affecting the British film business, including such issues as censorship, local authority control, unlicensed film exhibitions and the filming of contentious events (political marches etc) are in HO 45. See also HO 158 for relevant general papers and correspondence.
  • INF (Ministry of Information etc)
    A particularly valuable source, with records of the War Propaganda Bureau, the War Office Cinematograph Committee, the Department of Information and the Ministry of Information, all of which were concerned with film production during the First World War (further official papers on war film production are held by the Imperial War Museum). The main section to follow is INF 4. Of particular interest is one chapter from the unpublished memoir by J. Brooke Wilkinson, leading film industry representative and first head of the British Board of Film Censors, at INF 4/2
  • J (Supreme Court of Judicature)
    Covers records of court cases (Chancery), often a rich source of information on how a film company operated. See in particular the winding up orders under J 13.
  • LAB (departments responsible for labour and employment matters and related bodies)
    Includes documents on film industry employees and industrial relations (though relatively little here for the silent era).
  • MEPO (Metropolitan Police)
    The Metropolitan Police conducted surveys of early London cinemas around 1908-09 after they were causing some social concern. The result is a rich record of the early cinema business and audiences, to be found in MEPO 2. They are described in detail in Jon Burrows’ two essays ‘Penny Pleasures: Film exhibition in London during the Nickelodeon era, 1906-1914,’ Film History vol. 16 no. 1 (2004) and ‘Penny Pleasures II: Indecency, anarchy and junk film in London’s “Nickelodeons”, 1906-1914,’ Film History vol. 16 no. 2 (2004), while the London Project database lists the venues covered by files MEPO 2/9172 file 590446/7 and MEPO 2/9172, file 590446 (see also HO 45/10376/16142). There are later surveys of cinemas and screenings of indecent films in the 1920s.
  • RG (General Register Office)
    Has census returns from 1861 onwards (1841-1851 are under HO 107). These can all be found online through various commercial services (see details here), but all are available for free at Kew – see the helpful TNA guide to researching census records.
  • WO (War Office)
    There is relatively little that specifically relates to film here, as most papers relating to the War Office Cinematographic Committee will be found at the Imperial War Museum and the House of Lords Record Office (Beaverbrook Papers). But surviving records of film personnel who served during the War (including Official cameramen) can be found at WO 338 (officers’ service records), WO 363 (service records), WO 364 (pension records) and WO 372 (medal cards). Digitised copies of the actual documents in all four categories can be found online through TNA’s Documents Online or Ancestry (in both cases payment is required for downloads).
  • Other records where information on silent era films can be found include ADM (Admiralty), CUST (Customs and Excise), IR (Inland Revenue), and T (Treasury).

This is a very simplistic overview, and it must be stressed that information on films will be found all over the place. For example, type in the term ‘cinematograph’ in the catalogue and you will get 1,108 records from forty-four separate departments (448 records from twenty-five departments if you narrow the date search to 1896-1930). It is a good idea to look at the bibliographies of books and the end notes of journal articles which have benefited from research at TNA (or PRO before it) to pick up specific references and useful indications of where it would be profitable to search.

The National Archives has produced some substantial publications which explore a subject in depth with copious file references. However, there is no such guide for film (one has been talked about for years but has never been forthcoming). However, there is a classic article by Nicholas Pronay, ‘The “Moving Picture” and Historical Research’, Journal of Contemporary History vol. 18 (1983) (available to higher education users on JSTOR) which describes in details the several kinds of government records which can be used for the study of film, describing why they were created, and giving specific file names. Note also that the above file information relates only to silent films – there is a huge amount of information at The National Archives relating to film (and television) from later periods, particularly govering the GPO Film Unit, film during World War II, the COI Film Unit, the Colonial Film Unit, broadcasting policy, British Council records, and much more besides.

The National Archives is still an underused resource for film history, though we have got beyond the days when Rachael Low could write a multi-volume history of British film apparently without any reference to the Public Record Office. If you’ve not been, and you can get there, then you really should – it’s the most engrossing and rewarding research experience imaginable. Go explore.

By the way, films can be public records too, but the productions of the Ministry of Information, the COI Film Unit and others are preserved on TNA’s behalf by the BFI National Archive and the Imperial War Museum.

My thanks to Brad Scott for alerting me to the podcast.

Lessons from Toledo

There has been quite an on-rush of new material appearing on the Internet Archive, some of it relating to our subject and period, and I’ll be working my way through selected titles and adding them to the Bioscope Library. First up is the Reverend John J. Phelan’s Motion Pictures as a Phase of Commercialized Amusement in Toledo, Ohio (1919). This is another example of a social survey driven by moral concerns rather than social science itself, and the distaste implied by the book’s title is reinforced by these lines from its introduction:

Students of social science are in quite general agreement as to the necessity of community control
of public commercialized amusements.

And yet there is rather more to this study than disdainful suspicion of popular taste for the movies. To begin with, Phelan recognises the virtues, listing these key advantages that motion pictures offered society:

1. The providing of a reasonable-priced and highly entertaining form of amusement.
2. Convenience both as to accessibility and continuous play hours.
3. The promotion of family unity – as seen in attendance of the entire family.
4. The counteraction against the influence of the brothel, saloon, public dance hall and other questionable forms of amusement.
5. A provision for amusement and relaxation.
6. The supplying of information in regard to travel, history and world events.
7. The treatise of high moral and educational themes.
8. The movies as an “art.”

So, while Phelan feels that the movies may appeal to those “who feed their nature upon the abnormal, distorted, suggestive and far too often, vicious things of life”, he feels that they are capable of “moral and educational worth”. But what makes his study valuable for us is that he wants to back up his understanding of motion pictures with empirical data.

Using Toledo as his subject, Phelan tells the number, type, size, location, ownership and function of the different cinemas in his town (there were six in 1919). He tells us of their proximity to other forms of commercialised amusements (saloons, dance halls etc.). We learn of their value, the rental fees charge, and the cost of machinery, fabric, employees, musicians, advertising, lighting and heating. He supplies figures on the composition of audiences, prices of admission, and the construction of cinema programmes. We learn what it cost to invest in the cinema business, the operating expenses and the revenue. This is all very useful data.

Phelan provides evidence of studies conducted at individual schools. There is a long list of suitable educational films, by itself an illuminating guide to how this new branch of the film business was starting to blossom. There is plenty on the moral issues, censorship and the hoped-for attractions of “non-commercialized” amusements valiantly fighting their losing battle against the irresistible attraction of the screen. Intriguingly, Phelan ends each section of the book with a series of questions for other “social studies” students, indicating the sort of things they should be asking of their own territories should they intend to conduct similar surveys.

The book concludes with substantial appendices. These includes a valuable bibliography; examples of relevant legislation; a list of all Ohio cinemas with owners, managers, seating, location and number of employees; sample questionnaires; sample testimony from juvenile courts; and much more. Beyond the moralising, this is study with a great deal of practical information to inform a particular study of American film-going in 1919 – well worth investigating further.

Quebec and Québec

F. Guy Bradford (left), Joe Rosenthal (right) and the Living Canada travelling company, c.1903 (Cinémathèque québécoise)

Another day, another site goes up with unique silent film content, richly contextualised. Truly the online world is our archive. This time it is Le cinéma au Québec au temps du muet/Cinema in Quebec in Silent Era, an impeccably bilingual site giving us the history of early cinema in Quebec, Canada.

Quebec has a distinctive early film history. It is a tale coloured by its geography, its French heritage, local regulations, audiences and enthusiasms, and by snow. Particularly, it is a tale shaped by the dedicated efforts of a hardy band of pioneers, such as James Freer, Henry de Grandsaignes d’Hauterives and Léo-Ernest Ouimet. It is a tale of travelling cameramen (Joe Rosenthal, William Paley) and travelling exhibitors (F. Guy Bradford), an adventurous cinema with a spirit of newness and discovery about it.

The site has been put together with impressive thoroughness and local pride. There are extensive, knowledgable texts on such themes as the history of cinema in the area, biographies, audiences, film companies, sponsorship (the Canadian Pacific Railway made much use of film to promote its activites), censorship and travelling cinema. There are twenty or so films, available in low and high bandwidth, mostly non-fiction, including such titles as Skiing at Quebec (Edison 1902), Mes espérances en 1908 (Ouimet 1908), The Building of a Transcontinental Railway in Canada (Butcher 1909), Put Yourself in their Place (Vitagraph 1912 – fiction film set in Quebec) and the sobering Forty Thousand Feet of Rejected Film Destroyed by Ontario Censor Board (James and Sons 1916). All have musical accompaniment by Canada’s own Gabriel Thibaudeau.

There are also three lively ‘interactive journeys’ which you can take through the ‘Rural Milieu (1897-1905)’, ‘Working-Class Milieu (1906-1914)’ and ‘Middle-Class Milieu (1915-1930)’, which is an interesting way in which to divide up cinema history. Plus you will find documents, photographs, further background texts (some in French, some in English, some in both), and educational activities and a good, eclectic set of links (where you may learn that The Bioscope is ‘Plus qu’un blogue’ – merci beaucoup). An historical timeline is also offered, though I’ve not been able to make the link work. All in all, an exceptional piece of work, lovingly constructed, with discoveries a-plenty to be made.

The site is a collaborative effort between GRAFICS, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and the Cinémathèque québécoise. Acknowledgments to Bruce Calvert on the indispensible silent film forum Nitrateville for information on this site.

Laws and cases

It’s high time we had a new addition to the Bioscope Library. Fresh in, and just being stamped and having its classification number assigned is The Law of the Motion Picture Industry (1916), by Gustavus A. Rogers. This is the text of a lecture given by a New York lawyer to the College of the City of New York on 28 November 1916. The legal side of early film may not seem to have that much appeal, but it is a crucial subject to grasp. Laws existing and laws which had to be devised for the purpose not only governed but helped define the new medium.

Gustavus A. Rogers proves to be a helpful guide, with a clear-sighted view of his subject and much case law that he is able to cite as milestones in the development of cinema as a social entity. There is a particularly helpful section on patent law (“Ask the average person who is the inventor of motion pictures and the answer will be, Thomas A. Edison. Mr. Edison himself would probably agree that he is the inventor, but the courts have held otherwise”.) and the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company, which sought to restrict trade to those businesses which recognised Edison’s film patents. Out of this history Rogers draws some fascinating and helpful definitions of what motion pictures actually were (in law), what the technology was there to achieve, and how a motion picture production was to be defined. He cites in the important case of the Kalem Company v Harper Brothers, which determined that the Kalem 1907 film Ben Hur infringed the copyright of the Lew Wallace book on which it was based. Rogers’ interest is in what the ruling meant for the definition of a motion picture in other legal proceedings. He says that the the case had not “definitely determined as to whether a photo-play is really ‘a commodity’ or whether as such it comes under the jurisdiction of the Federal Anti-Monopoly Law”. Rogers’ inference from this is interesting:

I am, however, of the opinion that whenever it will become important to effectually dispose of the question, that it will be found that there is no difference between the photo-play and the celluloid record which is used upon the phonograph, or the picture postal-card. For, after all, what is sent in commerce is a strip, or strips, of film, contained in rolls of approximately a thousand feet each. On these are still photographs that are commercially useful when put into a projecting machine and ground out to portray the story on the screen, in the same manner as the phonograph record is put upon the machine for the purpose of reproducing the musical sounds or matter contained on the record.

This short document (sixty pages) is therefore useful not just as a survey of the law’s engagement with motion pictures to 1916, but as a thoughtful disquistion on what a motion picture actually is. There is useful discussion of trade marks, copyright law, censorship (with comparisons of the state of things in America, Britain and France), Sunday legislation, and an overview of the laws regarding motion pictures in various European countries. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (1.6MB), PDF (5MB), b/w PDF (1.5MB) and TXT (122KB) formats.

Kansas Board of Review Movie Index

Following the item a couple of months back on the New York State Archives’ film censorship records, let’s now turn our attention to the Kansas Board of Review Movie Index.

The index covers all films assessed by the Kansas Board of Review, 1910-1966, for which some change was demanded prior to public screening – ranging from from cutting of brief scenes to the banning of entire films. The original index, held on 3×5 index cards, lists the date, number of reels, title, film company and whether accepted, rejected or to be accepted only with specified eliminations to be made. Cards for films with such eliminations contain a detailed description of the portions to be censored, and it is these that make the online version of this index so fascinating.

The Movie Index site explains the procedure:

In its earliest existence, the board was required to “Approve such film reels, including subtitles, spoken dialogue, songs, other words or sounds, folders, posters and advertising materials which are moral and proper” and to censor films that were “cruel, obscene, indecent or immoral, or such as tend to debase and corrupt morals.” The board accomplished this daunting task by requiring that all films to be shown in the state first be passed by a board of three censors. This board had the power to remove any scenes that it felt met the aforementioned criteria. The board also could ban films in toto (as it did with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation from 1915 to 1923 for “inciting racial hatred and sectional bias”). After being reviewed and edited, the film was then tagged with a unique serial number that identified the film as having been reviewed and passed.

Although Birth of a Nation was accepted for public exhibition in Kansas, it could only be so following eliminations made, as the Index record demonstrates:

The Birth Of A Nation
Date of Review: 1923-11-27
Company Name: States Rights
Starring: Not Stated
Notes: Film was approved with elimination. Sam Silverman submitted a sound version on 3/23/31 which was examined and disapproved 11/12/31 because of tendency to debase & corrupt morals.
Contains Smoking? Not Stated
Eliminations: Reel 2: Reduce to flash mulatto woman on floor with bare shoulders. Reel 2: Eliminate scene of Stone embracing mulatto woman. Reel 4: Eliminate scene of soldier piercing body of fallen man with bayonet. Reel 5: Eliminate scene mulatto woman fondling arm of Stone. Reel 9: Eliminate closeup of negro’s face looking through trees. Reel 9: Reduce scenes of negro chasing girl. Reel 11: Reduce scenes of Lynch holding Elsie and looking sensually at her.
Box Number: 35-06-05-12

You can search by film title, company name, performer, specific elimination (the term “negro” brings up thirty-two hits) and date range – just searching on 1910-1929 alone brings up 4,638 hits. A first rate resource, compiled by volunteers it seems, to whom all praise.

So far as I know there aren’t any other American state censorship records available online, apart from New York and Kansas, but I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who can tell me otherwise.

Human Wreckage

Bioscope Festival of Lost Films

USA 1923

Director: John Griffith Wray
Production company: Thomas H. Ince Corporation
Director of photography: Henry Sharp
Script: C. Gardner Sullivan

Cast: Mrs Wallace Reid (Ethel MacFarland), James Kirkwood (Alan MacFarland), Bessie Love (Mary Finnegan), George Hackathorne (Jimmy Brown), Claire McDowell (Mrs Brown), Robert McKim (Dr Hillman), Harry Northrup (Steve Stone), Victory Bateman (Mrs Finnegan), Eric Mayne (Dr Blake), Otto Hoffman (Harris), Philip Sleeman (Dunn), George Clark (The Baby), Lucille Ricksen (Ginger Smith), George E. Cryer (A city official), Dr R.B. von Kleinsmid (An educator), Benjamin Bledsoe (A jurist), Louis D. Oaks (A police official), Martha Nelson McCan (A civic leader), Mrs Chester Ashley (A civic leader), John P. Carter (A civic leader), Mrs Charles F. Gray (A civic leader), Dr L. M. Powers (A health authority), Brig. C. R. Boyd (Salvation Army worker)

7,215 feet
Distributed by Film Booking Offices of America

Human Wreckage

Mrs Wallace Reid and Bessie Love (right), in Human Wreckage

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening, and welcome to the third screening of the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films. Today we find ourselves at the Casino de Paris in London’s Oxford Street. This small but fine building, which first opened its doors on 18 September 1909, seats just 175 of you. The venue has been chosen for its select nature, as only an invited and carefully vetted audience could be allowed in to see this evening’s sensational production which – as you will know – has been banned by the British Board of Film Censors. It is only under special licence from the London County Council that we are able to show it to you at all. The music comes from that legend among silent film pianists, Mr Arthur Dulay (round of applause).

What is also special about this evening’s main film is that it is to be shown in the presence of its principal performer, Dorothy Davenport, previously a popular film actress but now perhaps best known to you all as Mrs Wallace Reid (murmurs of sympathy). For it was the unfortunate death of her husband, the much-loved Wallace Reid, as the result of a wretched morphine addiction, that led her to produce Human Wreckage, and she has been tireless in presenting the film herself at its screenings across America. She is in this country to promote the film’s serious message, and we welcome her (warm and prolonged applause).

The history of Wallace Reid you will know well. The highly popular American star of such popular films as The Affairs of Anatol and Forever, became addicted to morphine, it is said after he suffered injuries in a railroad crash in 1919, while making The Valley of the Giants. What was at first medical expediency became an increasing habit, to the extent that it is believed that Wallace had morphine administered to him by a doctor at Famous Players-Lasky studios, to ensure that he could complete the many motion pictures that were demanded of such a popular star (expressions of shock and dismay). Many among you will recall the apathetic look that Wallace bore in his later pictures – only now do we know why! His death came on 18 January 1923, aged just thirty-one (deathly silence).

Human Wreckage is not the story of Wallace Reid. Instead it is a product of Mrs Wallace Reid’s determination, following her husband’s death, to campaign against the evils of drug pedling and addiction. Of course, its theme of drug addiction runs against the normal American censorship codes, but the picture’s serious intent has seen it gain a special dispensation from Mr Will Hays, and it was made under the guidance of the Los Angeles Anti-Narcotic League. You will have noted the various civic and health figures included in the cast (murmurs of approval).

Bessie Love in Human Wreckage

Bessie Love as Mary Finnegan in Human Wreckage

The film tells of the evils of drug addiction as they affect several people. Jimmy Brown, a heroin addict, is arrested by the police but successfully defended in court by attorney Alan MacFarland. Jimmy is sent to hospital (where he endures the pains of withdrawal symptoms), while MacFarland, exhausted by pressure of work, is offered morphine by a friend. He gradually becomes addicted. Meanwhile his wife, Ethel, notices that a young girl, Mary Finnegan, living in the same tenement as Jimmy’s mother, is injecting herself with morphine. She is also putting morphine onto her breast to quieten the baby she is nursing. Mary tries to kill herself, but ends up in hospital and separated from her baby. Alan MacFarland is hired by Steve Stone, who is his own dealer, and manages to keep him out of jail. Ethel is unable to save her husband from his addiction, but then he discovers that despair has apparently led her to her own drug addiction, and this brings him to a shocked realisation of what he has put her through. Her ruse works, and he gives up morphine. Jimmy Brown takes Steve Stone on a mad taxi drive through the city, and both are killed in a crash. The film concludes with a plea from the MacFarlands for stronger laws to confront the evil of drugs.

The film has caused a sensation in the United States. Those uncertain about the film’s motives have been shaken by its sincerity and the power of its telling. Mrs Reid herself has been tireless in promoting the film, often introducing it herself, and using her profits to support the Wallace Reid Foundation Sanatorium, as well as establishing her own film production company (warm applause). It is no cheaply-made exposé; instead it has been handsomely produced by the Thomas Ince Corporation, and boasts some remarkable sets inspired by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari for one fantastical sequence. The producers’ confidence has been rewarded by the film’s noted financial success in America.

Here in Britain, where the American context of the story means less, the censors have been less accommodating. Our BBFC rejected the film in January 1924. Mrs Reid has organised some screenings for private individuals – our screening this evening is one of these – but this seems to have shocked the BBFC still further. The chief censor, Mr J. Brooke Wilkinson, has gone on to say:

There have been few, if any, films submitted to the Board since its inception which the examiners look upon as more dangerous than this film ‘human wreckage,’ and we see no possibility of altering it so as to make it suitable for public exhibition in this country.

And so it remains banned, and unseen (cries of ‘shame’).

The lost short accompanying our main feature is Dorian Gray (1913), also known as The Picture of Dorian Gray. How bitterly ironic it is that the young Wallace Reid should have starred in this film, playing Oscar Wilde’s seemingly unblemished young man, whose true, corrupted nature is revealed through a deteriorating portrait of him. The film was directed by Phillips Smalley and written by his talented wife Lois Weber, both of whom also appear in the film. It was made by the New York Motion Picture Corporation.

This has been a harrowing evening. We thank you all for you attention, and particularly to Mrs Reid for having graced us with her presence (loud applause). Tomorrow we will move around the corner to the Cambridge Circus Cinematograph Theatre, for a compelling Anglo-German production. Do join us.

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