The Lost Art of Showing Dangerous Films.


Kendall R. Phillips

The Lost Art of Showing ‘Dangerous’ Films

T he first public screening of a motion picture occurred in 1895 and within a decade the movie theater had burst onto the American scene in what historians now call the “Nickelodeon boom.” 1905 saw an enormous expansion of movie projectors and a dramatic increase in the number of nickelodeon theaters. These earliest movie theaters were not the palaces that would dominate later decades but more like storefront venues typically located in poor, inner city neighborhoods. Syracuse’s first nickelodeon theater, for example, was built in 1907 by Allen May who added it to his Penny Arcade on South Salina Street (1). For a nickel, a patron could sit in the cool, darkened theater for as long as they wanted and view the on-going loop of short films. In addition to providing a relatively inexpensive space for leisure and rest from the bustle of major cities, early silent short reels appealed to the generally illiterate and often non English speaking patrons. Slapstick comedies and over-the-top melodramas required neither literacy nor cultural sophistication from their audiences.

In the early years of cinema, motion pictures were considered “low culture” and, perhaps not surprisingly, the rapid expansion of nickelodeon theaters was accompanied by a widespread moral panic among cultural commentators and elites (2). These short films of crime, romance and intrigue were viewed as morally suspect and considered especially dangerous since their primary audience consisted of immigrants, the largely uneducated working classes and young children. Three cultural responses to these moral threats would set the stage for much of the history of American film: condemnation, censorship, and self-regulation. As early as 1905, cultural commentators condemned the American film industry in editorials and public speeches. Social worker Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House, joined other reformers in bemoaning the “nickel vice” and its impact on children (3). In 1911, the

Syracuse Herald

reported that no less than William A. Pinkerton, head of the famous detective agency, was blaming the “low picture shows” for promoting violence and crime (4).

These condemnations opened the door for various government agencies to craft legal frameworks for censorship. By 1907 Chicago had enacted a film censorship ordinance and by 1911 Pennsylvania had established the first state motion picture censorship board. Within only a few years, virtually every state and most major cities had established their own official censorship agency. Fear of the economic impact of these efforts – and a more profound fear of the potential for federal censorship – led filmmakers to propose a series of self-regulatory steps.

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Kendall R. Phillips |

The Lost Art of Showing ‘Dangerous’ Films Speaking to a large group in Auburn, New York, in November of 1911, Thomas D. Walsh of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children called for such a federal board while decrying the confusion created by “numerous boards of censorship.” (5) The Motion Picture Exhibitors Association established its Executive Committee on Censorship in 1909, laying the foundation for the most extensive form of self-censorship, the Production Code Administration.

For most of the history of motion pictures, films have been regarded as dangerous. All the moral panicking, government intervention and industry promises of restraint have arisen from an assumption that films could damage the broader social fabric. For much of its history, cinema has been feared for its potential to degrade morality, increase violent tendencies, exacerbate existing social problems and distort the minds of our youth. In contemporary society, however, this fear seems to have subsided – or perhaps, more accurately, been transferred to newer forms of popular culture like video games and Internet websites. This is not to suggest that films no longer provoke public outcry and controversy. For example, in 2004 both the political documentary

Fahrenheit 9/11

movie theaters screening the 1915 film, American culture and politics. and the religious epic

Birth of a Nation The Passion of the Christ

generated public outrage. But we are far removed from the time when thousands of Americans sent letters condemning a proposed biopic of John Dillinger, as happened in 1947, or when the NAACP organized picket lines outside (6). Perhaps Americans have put their political energies into other pursuits. But even as the numbers of protestors outside movie theaters dwindle, we are right to ask where have all the “dangerous” films gone? I want to engage this question about so-called “dangerous” films, to think a bit about how films lost their dangerous edge and what this means for There is, of course, a certain counterintuitive dimension to arguing that earlier American films were more provocative than the current crop of motion pictures. Between 1931 and 1968, for instance, films were released at the discretion of the Production Code Administration – a body of Hollywood appointed censors who could stop the development of a film project, require changes to scripts, force edits or the addition of new sequences, or even prevent a film’s release altogether. Added to this self regulation, Hollywood had to navigate the complicated regimes of local and state boards of censorship. Contemporary readers may be surprised to find that film censorship was not only legal but encouraged but no less an authority than the United States Supreme Court.

RKO Keiths and Lowes State theaters on Salina St.

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The Lost Art of Showing ‘Dangerous’ Films The first case surrounding film censorship to reach the Court was the

Mutual v. Ohio

case, in 1915. The Court’s ruling is generally instructive of the deep cultural fear of film that pervaded America at the time. Writing for the Court, Justice Joseph McKenna argued that motion pictures did not enjoy the protection of the First Amendment because they were merely the products of the entertainment business and, there fore, had not political potency. At the same time, however, McKenna argued that the state had a compelling interest to censor films because of their uniquely dangerous status. The Court reasoned – a way of thinking that has persisted in many quarters (and indeed harkens to Plato’s ancient admonition against the seductive power of images) – that because films entered our minds through the visual medium, they were likely to circumvent our normal moral reasoning and persuade us at an almost subliminal level. Between 1915 and 1952, this ruling was the law of the land, authorizing censorship boards from New York to Kansas to demand cuts or refuse exhibition licenses in their state.

These twin specters of censorship – one self-censorship, the other governmental – did create a clear mechanism for suppression, and there are many good examples of films that were changed – or their production prevented altogether – through one or both of these systems. At the same time, these explicit systems of censorship provoked for a vibrant cultural conversation about motion pictures and their place in our society. For offended viewers, there was a clear sense of where their angry letters and denouncements should be addressed. Social organizations of the time were often the rallying points for these efforts to complain to the studios, to the Production Code authorities or to the state censorship officials. In 1931, for example, the Montclair, New Jersey Kiwanis, Lions and Optimist clubs all issued condemnations of the popular though violent cycle gangster films like

The Secret Six

. The outcry over violent gangster films was also heard in Syracuse when Mayor Rolland B. Marvin declared a ban on all gangster films in July of 1931 (8).

In the end, however, these bans did little to stem the flow of objectionable images from Hollywood. Studios knew they needed creative ways to appeal both to audiences – who, after all flocked to these objectionable films – and to the moral guardians who wanted tighter controls. So filmmakers learned inventive ways to skirt the explicit regulations of the Production Code and other state regulations, all the while continuing to push the boundaries. Interestingly, Hollywood’s “Golden Age” corresponded with the period of these most stringent restrictions; filmmakers were able to tackle forbidden subjects like anti-Semitism in films like

A Gentlemen’s Agreement

, sexual mores in films like Mae West’s

She Done Him Wrong

, and racism in films like

Island in the Sun

, albeit often through innuendo or allegory. Filmmakers and their studio bosses seemed to take some pride in finding ways around the rigid restrictions of censors; indeed, the complicated contest between maker and censor produced some of our culture’s most fascinating works of art.

Largely to legal and cultural changes, the game eventually collapsed. The end of official and industry censorship began in 1948 with the seemingly unrelated Supreme Court decision in

Paramount v. The United States

. For decades, Hollywood had effectively run an illegal monopoly, with the major studios owning the means of production, distribution and many of the major theaters across the country. And the practice of “block booking,” a contractual policy, forced independent movie theaters to buy “blocks” of films from a studio instead of just one. Anti-trust action was eventually taken; in the Paramount decision, the Court forced the studio system to begin dismantling itself. This change did not have an immediate or obvious impact on the Production Code but it would eventually set the stage for more independent action by individual studios. So, for example, when Warner Brothers faced heavy restrictions over their planned production of the 1966 film

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

, the studio was in a position to simply threaten to withdraw from the Production Code rather than be bound to it.

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Kendall R. Phillips |

The Lost Art of Showing ‘Dangerous’ Films The more obvious and impactful Court decision came in 1952 with

Burstyn v. Wilson

. The case involved Robert Rosselini’s short film

Mutual v. Ohio The Miracle

and attempts by the New York Board of Regents to remove its license. Joseph Burstyn, the film’s American distributor, refused to back down and the case eventually found its way to the Supreme Court, where the Justices found that films were afforded First Amendment protection and, further, that many of the concepts in existing censorship laws – including “sacrilege” – were patently unconstitutional. This reversed the legal foundation for most film censorship, established in , and spurred the dismantling of many of state boards of censorship. Importantly, the Court did allow for the condition of “obscenity.” This last remaining basis for censorship lead to the battles over pornography that dominated the 1970s and 80s.

Taken together, the dismantling of both the studio system and the legal framework for state censorship put overwhelming pressure on the Production Code. In 1968 that system collapsed. Cultural values had shifted and the outmoded rules of the Code could not keep up. In 1968 the Motion Picture Association of America replaced the PCA with CARA (the Classification and Rating Administration). The system shifted away from a one-size-fits-all Code approval to a system designed to alert patrons to an individual film’s age appropriate ness. The new system – combined with the rapid growth in independent theaters and distribution networks – allowed for films to be released without a rating at all.

Not surprisingly, the most concentrated period of provocative, transgressive and incendiary cinema came in the years immediately following the collapse of the censorship networks. The Seventies saw filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese creating provocatively “dangerous” films: crime dramas like

Taxi Driver

, violent parodies like from gory horror films (

Clockwork Orange Night of the Living Dead

and , and anti-war films like

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Apocalypse Now

. In addition to more mainstream directors, the period also saw an explosion of independent films that ranged ) to blaxploitation films (




). And for a brief moment, explicit sex also entered mainstream cinema. Low-budget pornography films like

Deep Throat


The Devil in Miss Jones

were widely distributed and began drawing mainstream audiences. Even higher-budget productions (

Last Tango in Paris



) entered into wide release.

The mainstreaming of adult films set up the last great censorship battle. Politicians and prosecutors went after pornography, its producers, distributors and even, at least in the case with

Deep Throat

officials. The Syracuse Commission waged several public battles against films like , some of its actors. While the legal battles tended to eventually favor the filmmakers, the call for stronger anti-obscenity rules spread from local municipalities all the way to the federal government. Even the city of Syracuse established the Greater Syracuse Anti-Pornography Commission, a partnership between city and county

Oh Calcutta!

and the Danish film


. [8]. While the Commission’s power was mainly the bully pulpit of public condemna tion, it was consistently in the news in the late 1960s and early 1970s. © Stone Canoe Journal -

Kendall R. Phillips |

The Lost Art of Showing ‘Dangerous’ Films Syracuse was not alone in its organized opposition to the expansion of pornography into mainstream culture. In January of 1966, Phyllis Blackmer, chair of the Syracuse Commission, called on citizens to support legislation being proposed to establish a Federal Commission to “halt this burgeoning business which particularly threatens our young people.” (9) In 1969, President Johnson initiated a President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography and, later, President Reagan created the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography (popularly known as the Meese Commission), which issued its report in 1986. Reactions against pornography came from both conservative politicians and the Left. The City of Minneapolis commissioned feminist scholars Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon to frame anti pornography ordinances based on the violation of women’s civil rights instead of on cultural standards like obscenity. But these ordinances, along with most of the socially conservative efforts, were ultimately deemed unconstitutional, so the legal doors for increasingly provocative and dangerous films seemed wide open.

And yet, beginning in the 1980s and continuing into our day, much of mainstream popular American cinema has moved in a remarkably conservative direction. In spite of overcoming all the various structures of censorship set against it, American films have become more staid and inoffensive. So, we are left with the question: what happened to “dangerous” films?

In some ways, the question is not so much what happened to the perception that some films are “dangerous” as where did they go? Part of the answer is that “dangerous” films have gone underground – into DVDs, websites and other private forms of media. For many in society this is probably a positive development. In the long history of public outrage over films and other media, people have rarely objected to the existence of offensive objects so much as to their public display. As long as the film depicts consenting adults, the tacit cultural agreement is that if kept out of sight, it won’t cause trouble.

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Kendall R. Phillips |

The Lost Art of Showing ‘Dangerous’ Films Of course, what we’ve lost is the public expression of outrage and the opportunity to engage questions of taste, decorum and morality with each other. In other words, public outcries over the immorality or degeneracy of films are rarely just critiques of the films themselves. Inevitably they are a means for citizens to engage their own collective sense of values and norms. The debates over pornography, for example, implicated wide-ranging issues related to gender, sexual orientation, and governmental intervention into our private lives. Of course, we still have public disputes over these and other issues, but the advantage of debating films is their relative safety. Debating the aesthetic or even political legitimacy of a work of art is infinitely less dangerous than debating the cultural or political legitimacy of a group of people or their cultural practices.

So, perhaps one of the reasons we’ve stopped protesting and disputing films is that as a culture we have withdrawn from each other, into our own private enclaves. This does seem to make sense, especially in relation to our mediated experience of the world. We no longer watch the same broadcast newscasts or even the same situation comedies. Instead, we watch cable news tailored to our own political affiliations or get our entertainment from specialized websites catering to our cultural sensibilities. But, in a way, this retreat into the private confines of an increasingly complicated set of media “narrow casts” still begs the question of why we no longer have “dangerous” films. There are still, after all, popular films – films that we flock to and still watch in enormous multiplexes surrounded by numerous strangers. But the films we watch together are, as noted, often increasingly inoffensive, safe and uninteresting. So, where have the “dangerous” films gone?

Part of the problem here is that the movie theater has become a safer space – indeed, one might argue a space so safe as to have been drained of any provocation or edge. One of the principal culprits here is the consolidation that has occurred in the modern film world. Those movie theaters where we do still come together to view films are increasingly controlled by a small number of movie theater chains. The consolidation of American movie theater chains means more than fifty percent of the theater screens are owned by just four theater chains, and these chains own almost all of the screens in choice locations like suburban malls (10).

The overarching economic model of Hollywood films exacerbates this consolidation. In the current model, major, big budget “tent pole films” sustain the studios. They are called “tent poles” because they are designed to make enough profit to cover other potentially less profitable films. The studios make most of the money from the initial weeks of release, but the theater chain makes more of the box office for subsequent weeks. So, the current economic model of filmmaking in America comprises a few films with huge opening box office numbers – making the studios profitable – and staying power to keep making money over the full six-week run so that the theater makes its money. There is, therefore, a market incentive to put all the hype behind a handful of big-name films and to show these films on as many screens as possible to maximize the short-term profit.

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Kendall R. Phillips |

The Lost Art of Showing ‘Dangerous’ Films While some level of “controversy” can propel a film to strong box office – films like

Passion of the Christ


Fahrenheit 9/11

– most provocative or “dangerous” films run the risk of alienating portions of the big audience needed to insure a film’s financial success. Added to this are the generally conservative policies of the movie theater chains, who also want to avoid the disruption and embarrassment of picket lines or boycotts. The current economic model of American filmmaking discourages “dangerous” films and those films that still push boundaries – and buttons – are inevitably relegated to the few remaining independent movie theaters, to the direct-to-DVD market, or to film festivals. In the past few decades, we have reconstituted a new version of the studio system, with some important exceptions. The Production Code has been replaced by an economic system that encourages aiming for mass-appeal with little room for risk or innovation. Perhaps even worse, the studio bosses have been replaced by marketing experts and accountants. Where once studio heads like Louis B. Mayer or Samuel Goldwyn had the personal pride to want to produce films that made a cultural impact, the modern movie studio is one small cog in an enormous media conglomeration – like Disney or Time Warner – where short-term investor desires govern the bottom line, not the legacies of individual producers or directors.

Blaming the movie theater chains or the studios only goes half of the way. The real answer to the lost art of showing “dangerous” films belongs to us – a culture that by and large has become too willing to accept mass-produced monotony and too lazy to search out those few remaining independent voices. We are the ones who have let the mega-plex overrun the local, independent movie house and let popular magazines – typically owned by the same media conglomerations as the studios – establish our cultural aesthetics. But there is still time. Independent movie theaters still exist, as do independent production companies, and the small festivals are increasingly seen as havens for provocative filmmaking. We can still chose to pursue challenging films, to vote for provocation with our ticket-buying dollars and to choose to be uncomfortable in our pursuit of culture. Lost arts, after all, can always be found.

1. See Norman O. Keim with David Marc,

Our Movie Houses: A History of Film and Cinematic Innovation in Central New York

(2008), 22.

2. See Lee Grievson, 39 (1999), 09-112.

Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early Twentieth Century America

4. “Crime and Moving Pictures,”

Syracuse Herald

5. “For Better Shows: Censorship is Favored,” (August 3, 1911), 8.

Syracuse Herald

(November 17, 1911), 39.


3. See J.A Lindstrom, “”Almost Worse than the Restrictive Measures’: Chicago Reformers and the Nickelodeons,” Cinema Journal 6. The point is even more dramatically made when we recall that protestors demonstrated against a screening of

Birth of a Nation

at Rome, New York’s Capitol Theatre last April. See Alaina Potrikus, “Silent Movie to Speak Volumes,”

Syracuse Post-Standard

(April 17, 2010), A3.

7. “Rochester Theater Heads see Humor in Gang Film Ban,”

Syracuse Herald

(July 6, 1931), 4.

8. “Pornography Fight Group Lauds Move,”

Syracuse Post-Standard

(September 26, 1970), 6.

9. Phyllis M. Blackmer, “Support Smut Control,”

Syracuse Post-Standard

(January 1, 1966), 4.

10. Stephen G. Hannaford,

Market Domination! The Impact of Industry Consolidation on Competition, Innovation, and Consumer Choice

(2007), 133.

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