“You can’t do that in the movies!” or, Censor Cuts from the Summer of 1917

It’s grand fun to look back and see what was happening in the movie a century ago. What were they wearing? Who were the biggest stars? Which pictures were the biggest hits.

And what content would make granny faint?

Back in 1917, individual states and cities in the United States would set up their own censor boards and demand cuts if they felt the material was unsuitable for the public. (“After repeat viewings, we have determined that this film is very naughty but we’ll see it again to make sure.”)

This was an enormous hassle for filmmakers, which is why they didn’t entirely object to the Code. After all, dealing with one silly board (NO COW UDDERS, you will inspire lusty thoughts in young men!!!) was easier than dealing with dozens of silly boards.

The censor board of Chicago was particularly influential and the Exhibitors Herald published their specific cuts. Here’s a selection from summer of 1917:

Well, it could have been worse, it could have been cow udders.

Sure, forced marriage and biting policemen is bad but nothing quite as scandalous as references to “honky tonk.”

Five? FIVE? That does seem a bit excessive.

“Showing vision of dancing girl in jelly dessert” is not a sentence I thought I would ever write. And it seems that stabbing people with forks is okay, it’s the pulling out that is too hot for Chicago.

It sounds like once the board was done with this Fairbanks film, the whole thing would have lasted six minutes. (Wild and Wooly survived Chicago and is available as part of Flicker Alley’s Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer box set.)

Yipes! Here’s another one that was probably cut down to nubbins. Although in all fairness, cutting “A Savage passion that dissolves morality in its flame,” is more striking a blow for good writing than censorship.

Even Chaplin is not immune. Thumbing noses? The horror! (You can read my review of The Immigrant here.)

Again, this seems excessive. How many hold-ups do we really need to see? What do they do to add variety? Do they start holding things up while riding unicycles? Because I would like to see that.

More hold-ups. But what was it about the eighth hold-up that made it okay in this censor board’s book?

Chicago even banned films outright, as it did with The Little American. They called it anti-German. They weren’t wrong. Note that Evanston was A-okay with the picture, proclaiming that it had violence but at least there was no sex stuff if you don’t count all the rape. (sigh.)

But the decision was overturned and Chicago got to see The Little American after all. Yay? (Read my review of the film here.)

In conclusion:

Run, Bossy, run!

(You can find lots of great info and period magazines over at the Media History Digital Library, which was my source for these swell clippings.)

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14 Replies to ““You can’t do that in the movies!” or, Censor Cuts from the Summer of 1917”

  1. “Showing vision of dancing girl in jelly dessert” is not a sentence I thought I would ever read, either. At least not on a website like this one.

  2. If I know anything about farmers, and I’ve spent time with a few, a professional evaluation of the cow udders would be the likely reaction in the sticks.

    Your GIF does demonstrate their potentially comedic value, especially for more earthy audiences.

    I wonder if scenes likely to be cut were planted to attract censor attention in the knowledge that they might divert his/her attention and let something else slip through.

    1. I certainly believe it. I remember a director back in the 90s (I think it was Peter Berg) talking about how he added crazy content designed to be edited out so that his black comedy could get a marketable R instead of an NC-17 and was shocked when the MPAA left it all in!

  3. Sadly ironic…from Photoplay June 1915, obtained using the Media History Digital Library link provided by Fritzi:

    “Last month we received 3 or 4 dozen letters asking if Florence La Badie had joined the Heavenly Movies. She’s the livest thing you’ve ever seen. Have a heart. Why pick on Florence? We can’t afford to lose her”.

  4. Cow udders….hahahahaaa. Now I worry about the person who censor d this and what they would do if ever alone with a cow…just saying. Chicago is nuts

  5. And meanwhile, in the Frozen North…

    Manitoba (provincial motto: Gloriosus et Liber) forbade all screenings of comedies in 1918 as they could lead to a frivolous outlook on daily life. Ban eventually lifted, so I assume Manitobans did get a look somewhere down the line at Harry Langdon and the udders 😉

  6. That discussion of bovine mammary organs and their effect on adolescent males was udderly ridiculous.

    Aw, c’mon, someone had to say it…

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