Immoral Or Obscene

Leaving aside for the time being the question of the reasons for elite anxiety about cinema, we can ask now the next obvious question: what strategies did elite groups use in regulating and shaping cinema? Local investigations into the spread of nickelodeons from 1906 on and their effects on vulnerable and dangerous audiences by organizations like the Juvenile Protective Association, the Children's Committee of the Cleveland Humane Society, the Chicago Vice Commission, and so on led to calls for stricter governmental regulation of cinema in a way consistent with a crossover of nongovernmental and governmental power and the establishment of a multi-institutional fabric regulating the social body characteristic of the so-called Progressive Era. Legal regulation before 1907 had been carried out in the main via the imposition of preexisting licensing laws, often those used to control various traveling sideshows and carnivals.66 Zoning regulations, "blue laws" (Sunday closing laws), and fire code regulations were central in this period, but these did not directly attend to the content of moving pictures or to the concerns over the social functioning of cinema after the proliferation of nickelodeons and the association of cinema with a mass public.

A more specific regulatory arena emerged from late 1907 onward, when a police censor board was set up in Chicago in part as a response to the "crusade" of the Tribune and other reform groups in the city (made clearer in 1909 when the constitution of the board was changed to include both police and reform censors, emblematic of the hybridity of nongovernmental and governmental regulation of cinema). Regulation consequently concentrated in the main on the cultural control of cinema, on what could be shown, and on how cinema should function in the social body, rather than the political control of who could show moving pictures and when and where they could be shown. This development signaled in broad terms a shift from a regulatory focus on buildings and space to a focus both on the social function of cinema characteristic of the transitional era and on representations and effects that have subsequently dominated policy discussions of cinema.67

Censor boards proliferated from 1907, including local boards in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Lexington, Dallas, Kansas City, Nashville, Atlanta; and state boards emerged in Pennsylvania in 1911, Ohio in 1913, Kansas in 1914, and Maryland in 1916.68 The policing of moral norms and public order was central to the censor boards. Significantly, the precedent-setting police censor board in Chicago sought to prohibit the exhibition of "immoral or obscene" films and refused permits if a film was "obscene, or portrays depravity, criminality or lack of virtue ... or tends to produce a breach of the peace or riots."69 For the board the (literal) policing of cinema was both about the regulation of "obscene" films and films that could produce public disorder and "riots," this latter concern seemingly referring to those films representing class conflict and political action singled out by the Tribune earlier in 1907 and also frequently targeted by other censor boards.70 Likewise, the state censor boards were predicated on the "police powers" of the individual states enacted to protect the health, morals, and safety of their citizens and were set up explicitly to "conserve the morals and manners of the public" and for the "preservation and safeguarding of the public morals." The boards did so by preventing the exhibition of films that tended "to debase or corrupt morals"; that were "sacrilegious, obscene, indecent or immoral"; that "represented] lust"; or that "tend[ed] to debase or corrupt public morals."71 Extant records from the state board in Pennsylvania show that the members of the board worked hard to nail down the meaning of the terms immorality, obscenity, and indecency, even going so far as to include the circulation of annotated dictionary definitions that defined obscenity as "offensive to chastity, delicacy or decency" and immorality as "inconsistent with moral rectitude" and, furthermore, as "hostile to the welfare of the general public."72 Likewise, a test for those wanting to become censors in Chicago included the difficult question, "What is the meaning of the word 'immoral?'"73

Local, state, and some components of the nongovernmental regulation of cinema tended to manifest what historians have variously termed a "negative environmentalist," "cultural fundamentalist," or "repressive response" to modernity, seeking to close down as many amusements as possible and to vigorously censor potentially offensive material.74 No doubt this repressive response was linked closely to religious groups and ideals, stemming from a long-standing Protestant anxiety about theatrical entertainments and a more contemporaneous disquiet about the cultural practices of the increasingly Catholic working classes. The repressive response was not limited to religious groups, though; it also informed the strategies of secular or semisecular reform groups, such as the Juvenile Protective Association or the Women's Christian Temperance Union, seeking also to police moral and public order. New configurations of religious and secular governance emerged in the period, supporting efforts to establish local, state, and federal censorship of moving pictures.

Yet elite response to cinema was not solely repressive, for proponents of what William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson term the "Arnoldian response" (drawing on Mathew Arnold's influential Culture and Anarchy) embraced the idea that cinema could function within a broader strategy of cultural uplift that would address the cultural and social crisis of modernity. For some "progressive" elite reform groups, then, cinema differed from other cheap amusements like the dime museums, penny arcades, saloons, burlesque, and cheap vaudeville and could function as a "counterattraction" that would draw audiences away from those amusements while morally and culturally up lifting them.75 In this context elite groups frequently encouraged the production of moral, "artistic," and "educational" films. The nickelodeon need not be a "school for crime," this logic ran, but could in fact function as a "people's lyceum" or as a kind of public school.76 It was thought possible that moving pictures could themselves become part of the public school system for the purposes of training children in "good citizenship."

A clear and important articulation of the Arnoldian stance can be seen in the activities of the civic organization the People's Institute. Located in New York City, the People's Institute was a reform-minded association that sought to address the social and industrial problems of urban America principally by supporting a number of cultural and political activities for the immigrant and working classes.77 Late in 1907 the institute, alongside the Women's Municipal League, undertook a report on cheap amusements in New York City, concluding that the "new social force" of nickelodeons was in the main a positive one.78 After this the institute cocreated the National Board of Censorship in early 1909 with film exhibitors and film producers, initiating an important strategy of interaction between some elite reform groups and the film industry that I will delineate further below and in chapter 3.79 The National Board of Censorship was staffed by reformers drawn from the professional middle classes, overwhelmingly women reformers from organizations such as the New York City Federation of Women's Clubs, the Children's Aid Society, the Charity Organization Society, and the Federation of Churches.

Nickelodeon described the board as "the great policing force of the business," and it reviewed most of the films exhibited in the United States in the 1910s, usually working through a process of interaction and negotiation with producers to establish "acceptable" representations suitable for family viewing in order to both uplift the cultural status of cinema and to utilize cinema as a positive social force in reshaping a mass public.80 The board lobbied for an understanding of the positive social function of cinema, arguing, for example, that cinema replaced the negative cultural function of the saloon and countering the claims that moving pictures caused delinquency.81 It circulated definitions of acceptable content through the 1910s that shaped production decisions, helping to locate the "questions of law and morality" that circulated outside and around the cinema "between the pictures."82

Less intent on eradicating cinema, repressively regulating cinema according to licensing and land-use zoning laws, or censoring cinema from the perspective of governmental agencies, the Arnoldian reformers believed that a carefully and productively regulated cinema could enable the cultural and social uplift of vulnerable and dangerous audience groups. Altruism was not always or necessarily the central motivation for these reform groups, though, as Uricchio and Pearson make clear, for the formation of "counter-attractions" was seen as one way to "ameliorate the social crisis, precluding agitation by filling workers' leisure hours with less harmful pursuits."83 In this sense a policing of cinema was reimagined by some as a policing through cinema, for although elite strategies differed, they frequently shared similar goals in what historian Paul Boyer describes as the "fundamental moral control purposes" central to progressive reform.84 Further clarification of this complicated situation will emerge in the detailed chapters that follow.

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