Apollo Theater, Washington DC, c. 1918. Photo: Shorpy.com
Many movie fans are familiar with Hollywood's self-censorship between 1934 and 1966--the Production Code Administration (better known as the Hays Code). But not many know the story of governmental movie censorship in the United States. The pages that follow will introduce two main characters: (1) the governmental censors, some of whom worked for statewide boards as in New York and Pennsylvania and some who worked for local boards like Chicago, Memphis, and Atlanta; and (2) those distributors, exhibitors, and producers who fought back against this infringement of both the freedom to see movies and the property right to show movies. In the words of the television series Law and Order, "these are their stories."
Movies and the Law
Although we think of movies as art, as the product of creativity, entertainment, and communication, for many of decades of film history, movies were regarded in the American legal culture as nothing more than any other business. This attitude allowed movies to be controlled by state and local bureaucrats. Only when distributors, exhibitors, and producers stepped forward to challenge such control did the courts get involved. As you can see from the movie ad to the right, some movies would never have been seen had it not been for those who challenged governmental censorship. (This ad is from 1952.)