One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that an old-fashioned story still had the power to shock censors:
Just what the Province of Quebec, in Canada, wants in their way of film entertainment, it is hard to say, but the fact remains that the Board of Censors there has pronounced against Griffith’s Way Down East, according to word just received. In the meantime thirteen Way Down East prints are doing a business of $191,00 per week in this country. So D.W. Griffith probably isn’t worrying.
Griffith did worry about it enough to issue a statement through his general manager, Albert L. Grey:
“The news that the Quebec censors have condemned Way Down East seems on the face of its record in this country so absurd that I scarcely know what to say. In American the story and its treatment in picture form has been so widely praised by ministers, judges, editors, federal and civic authorities, statesmen, professional men and other good citizens, that I am at a loss to understand the attitude of the Quebec censors. I suppose our only remedy is to take the issue before the courts there…The essence of our story which they have singled out for attack is the very part of the production which the preachers and moral proponents of the presentation have used as illustrations for their praise.” (“Ban Griffith Film,” Film Daily, January 8, 1921, p.1)
However, in Canada the courts would have been no use to him: at the time, the eight provincial censor boards had the last word on what could and could not be shown in film theaters.* All anyone could do was to try and sway public opinion, so Grey and the Griffith corporation’s attorneys traveled North and “placed the matter before the prime minister, and the secretary of the province.” They also showed the film to high school students at Notre Dame and St. Mary’s, and the heads of both schools endorsed it. Additionally, the Montreal Star received hundreds of letters protesting the board’s ruling. According to Exhibitors’ Herald, if none of that worked, they hoped that since the Ontario board had passed it and Toronto was getting to see it, the Montreal public would pressure the Board to change their minds. (“Quebec Censor Board Stands Pat on Ruling,” Exhibitors’ Herald, January 29, 1921, p.44.)
Quebec did eventually get to see Way Down East, but it took an awfully long time. In November, Motion Picture News reported:
Some months ago there was considerable excitement over the decision of the Quebec Board of Moving Picture Censors to condemn Way Down East in its entirety for alleged religious and other reasons. The Griffith production was readily passed in all other Provinces of the Dominion. At this late date, the Quebec censors changed their views regarding the feature, apparently, with the result that it was presented at the Imperial Theater, Montreal, at advanced prices starting October 28th. (“Canada,” Motion Picture News, November 5, 1921, p.2438)
The Montreal Gazette gave it a positive review and found it “quite safe, even for sophisticated modern children, and their elders need entertain no fears for themselves.” They also reported on what actually happened:
It is now said that the real reason for placing the film under the ban when first offered here was due to the precipitate action of those who brought it to the censors. They were, it appears, very brisk men in a hurry who desired that everything be dropped in order to examine the film and allow them to hurry on their journey. They resumed their journey all right, but the censors being accustomed to perform the duties of their office in quiet dignity did not have time to view it between trains. (“Way Down East Has Real Thrill,” Montreal Gazette, October 24, 1921, p.6.)
So they weren’t particularly prudish in Quebec. The film distributors were jerks, and the Board showed them who was boss. Ha!
Nevertheless, just not showing the film at all is better than what Pennsylvania censors did to it, according to a Photoplay article about bad decisions from censor boards in the United States:
Griffith has been one of the heaviest sufferers from censorship because he is a fearless leader and refuses to be bound, come what may. In Pennsylvania they eliminated the basic idea of Way Down East by trimming out the mock marriage. Naturally the mock honeymoon went, too. Likewise, the scene where the heroine tells of approaching motherhood. The board scrapped all hints at maternity and childbirth. Imagine the surprise of Pennsylvania fans when the baby, utterly unexplained, bursts upon the screen just before its death. Altogether, then Pennsylvania board made sixty cuts in the film play in reference to the baby. (Frederick James Smith, “Foolish Censors,” Photoplay, October 1922, p.39.)
Unlike the film industry in the U.S. that eventually convinced most local censor boards to disband in favor of the Hayes Office, in Canada eight out of ten provinces had its own censorship authority until the 1960’s when Manitoba’s board became the first to give ratings instead of censoring films. Eventually the other provinces joined them.
In her review of Her Beloved Villain this week, Kingsley pointed out that American producers much preferred to avoid this kind of trouble and practiced self-censorship:
By the time a French farce reaches either stage or screen in this country it’s apt to be pretty pale stuff—an oyster cocktail without tabasco, a denogged eggnog—because we don’t like quite so much spice on this side of the ocean, or at least we don’t like to admit we like it. But some French farces have piquancy even with the wickedness extracted, and such a one is Her Beloved Villain, adapted from the play La Veglione.
The story is about a youth who wins his bride by telling his rival that she’s a naughty woman and that all her people are entirely too gay. When the bride finds it out, she teaches him a good lesson.
According to the review in Moving Picture World (December 4, 1920) the bride declares “I’ll go home and do all the things he said of me!” but she only pretends to spend the night with her lawyer. I’m guessing that in the original, she didn’t pretend. Naturally, in the end all is forgiven.
Kingsley also had a story that showed the some of the pressure Charlie Chaplin was under:
“Trust Will Rogers to hit the nail on the head. Charlie Chaplin was visiting the Goldwyn studio the other day, and the two comedy kings were treating each other to imitations each of the other. When Rogers commenced to stand with feet turned out, after the famous Chaplin fashion, Charlie called out:
“Hey there, that isn’t the way I stand!”
Quick as a wink, Rogers came back, but with a disarming grin: “Why Charlie, you ain’t made a comedy in so long, nobody knows how you stand.”
It had been quite a while since a Chaplin film had come out: his most recent was A Day’s Pleasure, which premiered on December 15, 1919. However, The Kid was about to arrive. It debuted in New York on January 21st, so everybody could just stop complaining. The Kid went on to be the second highest grossing film of 1921, behind Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Since then, it’s been recognized as one of the greatest silent films ever made. A guy can take a little time to do that.
*Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island relied on other provinces’ boards.