For Banned Book Week: A Collection of Silent Film Censorship Cuts

This week is Banned Book Week and back in my bookstore working days, I always used to make up a nice little display of banned books, both famous and obscure. In that spirit, I would like to share some censorship cuts inflicted on silent films by the censorship boards of the day.

Before Will Hayes and a central censorship body, studios were basically at the mercy of whatever whims assorted state and city censor boards had at the moment. Some studios courted controversy because it was free publicity but independent producers could be bankrupted if their films were banned from too many major markets.

Chicago’s board was quite strict and influential and so we’ll be looking at their cuts first.

The William S. Hart picture The Silent Man had to cut several title cards, including:
“Region God left unfinished and cursed.” before it was deemed suitable for Chicago release. Also cut were “two scenes of girl drinking at bar with men; five roulette scenes; flash adjustment of roulette wheel.”

No mixed-gender drinking, no roulette and no questioning a deity finishing or not finishing a region. Got it.

Keystone’s signature Bathing Beauties caused some concern and the Dale Fuller vehicle Her Busted Debut was not welcome in Chicago unless it cut “closeup of girls in one-piece bathing suits in foreground of pool; all closeups of girls on springboard; two closeups of girl as she is being rescued by man in water; closeups of bathing girls when man is firing gun; five views of girl in white bathing suit.”

That must have been some white bathing suit!

The Harold Lloyd short film Swing Your Partners only called for one cut and it would seem mysterious at first glance. “Two near views of Lloyd on piano stool facing camera.” But you see, during the piano scenes, Harold is wearing a very skimpy leopardskin leotard and so we can presume that perhaps the coverage was not all that could have been hoped for once the costume became disheveled.

The Human Tiger, a Universal short film, was required to cut “four struggle scenes between man and girl; two close-ups of lion and man in struggle; second view of lion tearing at man’s body.”

You can’t fight a lady, you can’t fight a lion and we haven’t even heard about the tiger.

Chicago was not the only censor board, though, and one of my favorite anecdotes features Ohio and its board’s reaction to the 1915 Cecil B. DeMille adaptation of Carmen. A reader went to see the film only to discover:

“After the Ohio censors got through with Carmen the hot-blooded gypsy girl had become a decorous, peaceable and even demure little maiden, opposed to cigarettes and cultivating the most friendly relations with the other factory girls. Done Jose is not allowed to do any bodily harm to Carmen. As for the embraces of Jose they are simply barred. We suppose that the censors will have no objection to a subtitle in which Carmen assures the young sergeant of her platonic regard.”

Yikes! By the way, the uncensored Carmen survives and it is fantastic.

The scene that caused all the trouble. After repeated viewings, the censor boards declared it very, very naughty. Then they watched it again just to make sure.

I’ll close things out with a quote from Oscar Micheaux, a cinema pioneer and a veteran of clashes with censor boards. Virginia’s board attempted to block one of his pictures on the grounds that it would cause black moviegoers to riot. Micheaux’s films were intensely political but he knew hypocrisy when he saw it and he delivered this comeback:

“There has been but one picture that incited the colored people to riot, and that still does; that picture is The Birth of a Nation.”

Obviously, Micheaux’s clashes with censor boards are worthy of an entire book but in the meantime, do watch Within Our Gates, his earliest surviving feature. It’s a revelation.


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