You Can’t Do That in the Movies! Official Cut-Outs from the Chicago Board of Censors

Back in the 1910s, there was no central body for judging a film’s suitability for audiences. As a result, state and city boards of censors took up the slack and one of the most famous was the board working in the city of Chicago.

Let’s travel back in time 100 years to see what changes this board demanded in films released in 1918. If the film survives, I will be sure to mention it.

Hart demonstrates his tough talking ways in Hell’s Hinges.

“Selfish Yates” (Artcraft) — Additional elimination in reel 5, subtitle: “I don’t care what the H-ll he wants. Riley has got to die.”

William S. Hart’s films usually had quite a bit of real, implied and censored strong language for the time. Selfish Yates survives in the MoMA collection but is not yet on home video.

“Ace High” (Fox) — Reel 2, three holdup scenes; subtitle: “If I ever get Revard without his gun, I’ll send him to hell.” Reel 4, shooting man from horse. Reel 5, attack on and muffling of girl; striking man on head with bottle; reduce fight scenes in saloon by half.

Ooo, another cowboy in trouble for his language. I wonder why half a saloon fight was seen as moral and proper and right but a whole one was sinful. Ace High survives in the Lobster Films archives.

“His Bitter Half” (W. II. Prod.) — Reel 1, woman throwing herself back on bed and exposing her underwear. Reel 2, scene of man tying pajamas; colored man jumping into bed with girls.

Apparently a reissue of the 1915 Keystone comedy Those College Girls (let me know if you have seen it and if these scenes were present). This is interesting because it shows the racist aspect of censorship. In addition to reducing sex, violence and language, censors throughout the first half of the twentieth century were obsessed with eliminating any hint of “miscegenation” or romance between races.

I couldn’t find a perfect GIF of a shirtwaist but here is Colleen Moore with a suitably prim blouse and a kitten in The Busher.

“The Ordeal of Rosetta” (Select) — Reel 1, entire scene of artist opening girl’s waist and pulling it from her shoulders, to include artist reaching toward girl and girl fastening waist. Reel 3, same cutouts as in preceding reel.  Reel 4, newspaper notice of man’s engagement; letter to be eliminated and one inserted to establish a marriage between man and woman. Reel 5, girl’s dream is to be ended directly after drunken girl is seen standing on table, to include carrying drunken girl from room, locking door, Lola telephoning girl’s brother, arrival of brother, men listening at door, holding up key and giving it to man; shooting woman.

The “waist” referred to here would have meant shirtwaist, the full-sleeved blouse that was popular in the 1910s. This was a pretty wild melodrama from the looks of it but, alas, it is considered a lost film.

A Desert Wooing” (Paramount) — Reel 3, subtitle “You may be mad but you must pay”; first two choking scenes; closeup of man looking at woman  through window; all scenes of woman in bed up to time she appears with robe on, after man enters room.

First two choking scenes? How many choking scenes total? Was this a thing? A Desert Wooing stars Jack Holt and Enid Bennett and is available on DVD.

“Old Wives for New” (Artcraft) — Adult only permit — Reel 1, subtitle “A shrewd sensualist,” etc. Reel 3, subtitles “With a ribbon and feather Berkeley pays his debts”; “Suppose he didn’t get you the ermine?” Incident of Mrs. Murdock pointing to place near her in bed. Reel 4, subtitle “No, I cant forget. I’ll take you only to your apartment”; all scenes of girl in man’s arms on chair. Reel 5, all scenes of girl in man’s arms on chair; girl shooting man; all scenes of girl on floor after shooting; subtitles “I killed him; he was a beast”; “We’ve got to get him to his hotel”; “Hushing it up”; “I won’t turn you over to the police yet.”

Cecil B. DeMille’s issues with censor boards are pretty famous (if you haven’t heard of them, check out The Sign of the Cross) but this is early-ish of the problem. Old Wives for New was one of DeMille’s early dramedies of marriage and divorce and it’s available on DVD.

Flirtation in The Beloved Blackmailer.

“The Beloved Blackmailer” (World) — Reel 5, man locking bedroom door.

Oh my! You can read my review of the whole film here.

“Riddle Gawne” (Artcraft) — Reel 1, scene of woman at bar. Reel 2, two scenes of woman at bar; scene of Hart shooting man in back; subtitle: “Blanche Dillon, former dance hall girl, now Bozzam’s ‘housekeeper,’ ” and all scenes of girl in Bozzam’s house; scene of Bozzam slugging Cass with gun. Reel 3, man shooting Hart from horse; subtitle: “She may be a good nurse, but she ain’t the sort of woman I want, etc.” Reel 5, Bozzam shooting girl’s father; shooting Hart; shooting of Gawne’s brother in vision scene.

This is a tantalizing peek at a mostly-lost film (a fragment survives) that is especially tantalizing because while William S. Hart plays the hero, Gawne, the villain Bozzam is played by none other than Lon Chaney! Curse you, lost films!

“Shifting Sands” (Triangle) — Reel 1, three scenes of man bending woman over table and forcibly kissing her.

What was it with tables in this movie? The film stars Gloria Swanson and is available on DVD.

Fragment from Cleopatra, another of Bara’s missing films.

“Salome” (Fox) — Reel 5, closeup of Salome in litter where she raises arm and exposes breast. Reel 6, scene of executioner’s sword descending. Reel 8, in two scenes where Salome is shown bending over dungeon, eliminate those portions of the film where her breasts are exposed.

It wouldn’t be a censorship piece without at least one Theda Bara picture on the crosshairs. Like so many of her films, this one is missing and presumed lost. Sounds spicy.

“The Riders of the Purple Sage” (Fox) — Reel 3, man falling after Lassiter shoots. Reel 6, subtitle: “He made me — I can’t tell you — I can’t — “; shooting Oldring. Reel 7, last shooting scene in which Mormon is killed.

80% of all cuts in Chicago seem to be aimed at westerns, serials and Theda Bara films. This is one of the silent films I still own on VHS so let me know if you hear about a digital release.


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  1. Ross

    In 1983 I was a sound editor on the New Zealand film, ‘UTU.’ I was still available at the end of post production, so I got the mechanical job of cutting a few feet from a number of release prints at the (Government) Censor’s direction

    They depicted a Māori lad in the bed of a British officer. The non active lad was in deep background, the officer in active eye drawing foreground some distance away from the bed. Implication there if you chose to read it, which the Censor did. There had been some belief that the censor had issues re homosexuality, the film’s director may have been teasing him.

    Beds do appear to be a hot button for all censors, but ‘Hell’ not so in the Anglo film world. Maybe an American obsession.

    However the beheading of a preacher in his chapel, graphically portrayed (and a true story), raised no censorship issues.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Isn’t it strange what will and won’t raise hackles? Like, I keep seeing cuts for married couples in bed– the separate beds for married couples thing remains one of the most bizarre aspects of the Code by far. Hell and damn seem to have been a hit or miss affair and in all fairness, it does seem this board objected to violence as much as sex. (Unlike the modern PG-13, which allows mass slaughter but don’t you dare smoke a joint!)

  2. Steve

    I wonder what the censors thought of the scene in “The Penalty” showing a live nude model in the sculptor’s studio…. The version I saw recently gives much more than a fleeting glimpse.

    I was surprised to see so much skin in a 1920 film, but I suppose then as now some people believed that nudity in art is greatly different from nudity that is presented only “to excite.”

    What’s funny is that in The Penalty the story itself includes some fuss over whether a man should be allowed in a room in which a (female) sculptor is working from a live nude (female) model. But if that’s an issue, then what about including such a scene in a film that will be seen by thousands of men as well as women?

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I am going from memory here but I believe I read that the scene in The Penalty that caused a real stir was Chaney pawing various women. I’m sorry to type this but the objection was not so much that he was a villain or even a man but that he was disabled.

      Nudity was often excused in films of this period with the “Oh, she’s an artist’s model!” excuse, much the same way a certain magazine was read “Just for the articles” later on. Censor boards did definitely object to nudity, though I know some boards let Bara’s Cleopatra through because it was a historical film.

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