Movies Are Good For You: Week of December 18th, 1920

The International Reform Bureau

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that reformers were bothering Hollywood again, and Samuel Goldwyn, president of the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, had something to say about it:

He has sent the following telegram to the Rev. Wilber F. Crafts, superintendent of the International Reform Bureau, Washington, D.C., which is seeking to take the sun out of Sunday by closing motion-picture theaters and prohibiting other forms of amusement. The Goldwyn wire says:

“The movement to close motion-picture theaters on Sunday, fostered by your organization, is a dangerous encroachment on the liberties of the people, and is an effort to take away from them beneficial entertainment. I maintain that motion pictures have a tremendous influence for good on the public.

I ask you in all fairness to reflect for a minute on the motion pictures, which you may have seen. Is it not a fact that right and virtue triumph in every photoplay?

The basis of all drama is that the sympathy of the audience must be aroused, and this can be done only by a sympathetic (that is a good) character. A thousand moralists in a thousand lectures could not drive home their lessons with as much force as these film stories.”

In addition to the usual argument that people should be able to decide for themselves how to spend their Sundays, I was surprised to learn that Goldwyn, just like Roger Ebert, thought that film is an empathy machine. Movies are good for you! Goldwyn really wanted to get their attention: that was one expensive telegram (I couldn’t find out what the per-word rate was in 1920, but they weren’t cheap). Sharing it with the newspaper made them notice, too.

Wilbur F. Crafts

However, no matter how excellent Goldwyn’s argument was, he wasn’t going to sway Rev. Wilbur F. Crafts, who, with his lobbying firm the International Reform Bureau, had been advocating various kinds of reform for 27 years. According to Crafts’ New York Times obituary, he had “an influential part in enacting prohibition, of laws to restrict the use of narcotics and of legislation of a similar nature…To the general public Dr. Crafts was, of course, best known for his attacks on popular amusements. Screen vampires, close dancing, ‘joy rides,’ which he said ‘often proved a ride of lifelong shame and woe;’ Sunday baseball, and cigarettes were a few of the objects of his tireless reforming zeal.” He had long opposed any amusements on Sundays; his book The Sabbath for Man was published in 1884 and had been reprinted in many editions. Since 1915, the IRB had occasionally called for film censorship, but late in 1920 he decided to go all in against films.

Of course, it wasn’t just Goldwyn’s telegram against Sunday closings. On January 1st, the Exhibitors’ Herald reported the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America and the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry joined together to fight the IRB. William A. Brady, president of the NAMPI, gave them a statement about

the small self-appointed guardian angels who have taken it upon themselves to endeavor to regulate and set to their own satisfaction the minds, morals and mode of life of this commonly considered free country… By what right does the International Reform Bureau propose to dictate to the American worker how he shall spend the one day in the week that he has to himself for pleasure? The members of the bureau are simply profiteering in morality, attempting to force their narrow-gauge views down the throats of the public, which is not paying enough attention to its personal liberty.

The industry tried to mollify Crafts by inviting him to a meeting of the NAMPI. He did go, and on March 5th, 1921, they came to an agreement: he would stop lobbying Congress and they would self-regulate, adopting thirteen standards for photoplays. Crafts promptly reneged and started lobbying for even more control over the industry.  He urged Congress to pass a bill licensing all producers, distributors and exhibitors of film, putting them under the supervision of an Interstate Motion Picture Commission, just as the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated railroads. According to an interview he gave to Exhibitors’ Herald, that Commission would not only close theaters on Sundays but would also censor the stories, set admission prices, and approve advertising, “every step of production, distribution and exhibition would be carefully supervised.”

In a later interview with the Exhibitors’ Trade Review, Crafts said that he originally wanted Congress to introduce the bill for the Commission in Fall, 1921, but he decided to wait until later, because pending tax and tariff bills were more important. The bill never got introduced, and Crafts died of pneumonia on December 27, 1922, aged 73. Rev. Robert Watson took over leading the IRB, but there’s no evidence it continued after 1923. Other groups took up the film industry reform cause. However, it’s interesting that there were reform movements just before the big scandals that are usually credited with inflaming reformers, like the Arbuckle case and the Taylor murder.

Christmas was just a few days away, and it sounds like Kingsley had enough of the festive season already:

If some day you’ve been traveling through the desert of late Christmas shopping, buying things you don’t want to, for friends who don’t want them, until, parched and weary, your feet and head both aching, and yourself feeling as though you would like to hurl the gifts you have purchased at your dear friends’ heads, while you exclaim, “Take your darned old present!”—don’t despair. There’s at least one spot in town where you can enter the enchanted portals and drink of the refreshing fountain of real romance and comedy.

Grauman’s is the name of the oasis, and the title of said enchanting fountain is The Charm School, which is the freshest, most whimsical little comedy you ever saw. Added to which it has those two delightful (please excuse the old word—had to shop in the basement for adjectives today) troupers, Wallace Reid and Lila Lee in the leading parts.

The picture’s a capital comedy about a young man who inherited a young ladies’ school…After he gets it all running nicely with all the parents romping in to enroll their daughters, a will is found which shows he doesn’t own the school after all. But he does have a chance to run a string of banks on the strength of his success so all’s sweetness and light after all.

We can’t go out shopping this year, don’t need to worry about exhausted friends hurling unwanted presents at our heads, or even watch The Charm School (it’s lost) but I’m glad to be reminded that not everything about the usual holiday season is wonderful. Have a safe and healthy holiday!

“Crafts Outlines His Scheme for Government Control of Motion Picture; Says Bill Has Backing of Rockefeller Foundation,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, October 8, 1921, p.1292a.

“Declarations of Reformers Arouse Industry and Public,” Exhibitors’ Herald, January 1, 1922, p. 35.

“Dr. Wilbur F. Crafts, Crusader, Dies At 73,” New York Times, December 28, 1921.

“Herald to Supply Slides for Public Rights League,” Exhibitors’ Herald, October 15, 1921, p.45.

“Industry Splits with Reformer,” Motion Picture World, April 2, 1921, p.464.

“Reform Bureau Determined to Establish Dictatorship Over Entire Film Industry,” Exhibitors’ Herald, April 16, 1921, p.35l

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