The Battle Against Censorship in Early Sound Films

1929 was a huge year for films, a year of transition. Talking pictures were rapidly becoming the must-see attractions, putting an end to silent films very quickly. But with that transition came a lot of decisions, a lot of growing pains and a lot of uncertainty.

Take, for instance, the kind of technology that was to be used. Debate raged on as to what would end up being the preferable way of playing sound: sound-on-film, or sound-on-disc. So many aspects of technology were still in play in 1929, as well aspects like production costs, just as an example.

Another battle was fought in 1929 when sound entered the equation. This one, although not well known now, had major ramifications for free speech in early talkies. It also found its way into many courtrooms and state houses throughout the country. It is the issue of censorship of early talkie films, and whether or not the government could intervene in those matters.

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It appears that the first major instance of occurred at the start of 1929, with the release of Sal of Singapore. The film, released originally as a silent in 1928, later was re-edited to include new talking scenes. And that’s when the New York censors stepped in and tried to set quite the precedent. The censors tried to block the film, based on a perceived power to censor sound and dialogue in films.

Production company Pathé wasn’t about to let that slide, though. After getting a temporary reprieve from the censorship, they then sought to have a court battle over the issue—which they did, beginning that same month in January. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t the first time Pathé went to bat for freedom of speech in film. Several years earlier, 1923, Pathé successfully won a Supreme Court battle stating that newsreel footage could not be subject to censorship.

For its part, the film industry offered unanimous support against censors wiping out dialogue. In quite the odd turn of events, even Will B. Hays was outspoken against the censorship. Hays, who was just a short a way from enforcing his namesake code that put a stranglehold on Hollywood freedom, said that “no reasonable person could claim there was any need for censorship.”

The result of this specific case in New York is a little hard to track down. Although it was a for a time the biggest story Film Daily covered, the forming of 20th Century Fox soon dominated the headlines, pushing this specific film censorship case aside.

But this was not the only battle for free speech in talkies that year. There were many, many more throughout the country. Also in New York, legislation to further regulate sound in films to pass. In Pennsylvania, a high court actually ruled in favor of more censorship control. Censorship laws also failed to pass in Kansas.

And the most interesting state of all in this battle may be Ohio. Much like in other states, legislation failed to pass in the state house. Specifically, the powers that be in Ohio wanted to be able to censor lines of dialogue as they wish. Although in most states it ended there, things in Ohio went to extreme measures. Of particular contention was a Clara Bow talkie The Wild Party. There were apparently some bits of dialogue censors wanted cut out. But since they didn’t have that power, in some showings the screen just went black. Whole scenes were cut out, since they couldn’t censor individual lines of dialogue.

Of course, this battle over the censorship of films didn’t continue on, and there was no need to. Hollywood’s own regulations thanks to the Production Code would soon get rid if the kind of content censors were wringing their hands over.

All the same, the battle that took place in the early days of sound is still important. These legal fights set an early and always important precedent: that government can’t regulate the content of film. And in this time of transition, the fight wasn’t easy–but it had the right result.

Recommend an Obscure Film: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock

This is part of an ongoing series looking at obscure/little talked about good films.

Frequent readers of this blog are well aware of the fondness I have for Harold Lloyd. His films still stand out as some of the funniest and most charming of all time, and watching more of him only makes that more obvious. He made some successful sound films too, but ultimately chose to retire. Today we’re going to talk about the one film he made when he came out of retirement. It has a troubled history and is rarely mentioned now, but it shows just now talented Harold Lloyd was.

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If you happened to see The Sin of Harold Diddlebock around the time it came out, you probably know it under a different name, Mad Wednesday. That’s because the film as originally made was barely seen by anyone. Producer Howard Hughes panicked after early bad reviews and pulled the film from theaters quickly. It then took him years to release it under that different title, and with a shorter runtime. With a history like that, things aren’t looking good for this film. Add to it that the film when badly over schedule and over budget, and this sounds like it must have been a disaster.

In reality, it wasn’t a disaster on film, even if it was a disaster in production and release. On paper alone, it looks like the film should work as a great comedy. After all, Preston Sturges is directing Harold Lloyd here. Indeed, it was Sturges that convinced Lloyd to come out of retirement for a loose sequel to The Freshman. Does the combination of these two working together turn out well?

It sure does. Sturges clearly knew how to create a Harold Lloyd-like film. It certainly feels like one, particularly with a typical zany, dangerous climax. The film has a tough act to follow considering it opens with the final ten minutes of The Freshman, but the material is strong enough to work.

And Harold Lloyd is strong enough too. As with his other talkies, this film makes it clear that sound different hurt Lloyd’s charm or abilities at all. Lloyd, still looking as youthful as ever, brings the same kind of presence and performance found in his silent films. In fact, the best extended scene in the film relies partially on Lloyd’s voice supplying a huge punch line. He’s still the same comedic genius, delighting as always. This film really hammers home how unfortunate it is that he chose to retire.

And it’s also unfortunate that Lloyd’s swan song has been mostly written off or ignored. While some stars met with sad ends where they didn’t have it any more, that is clearly not the case with Lloyd. What we have in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock is Lloyd proving to still be at the top of his game, all these years later. A couple more classic Lloyd moments can be found here, along with one final great comedy.

Roller Disco and the Unexpected Fun of Cheesy Films

I have a confession to make.

By now, I think my tastes in films are pretty well known. We’ve covered silent films and early talkies here extensively enough that it’s very obvious I have a great interest in that era. But my tastes aren’t that limited, though, of course. And everyone has their guilty pleasures in movies, music and TV. Now, let’s take a look at one if my own guilty film pleasures. It, can of course, only be one thing:

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Roller disco films!

Roller disco films skated their way into my heart when I first saw Roller Boogie. Sure, part of that was because Linda Blair was absurdly charming in it, but who wouldn’t be charmed by her in this film? It also helps that Jim Bray is incredibly talented and showcases his skills incredibly well. Because of that, the film features honest to goodness great musical numbers. The rest of it is just cheesy retro fun, and isn’t that just the thing you need sometimes? The vintage 70s fashion is sometimes wacky and sometimes adorable, and the songs to go along with it are fun too. It has just the perfect cheesy plot, too: young people wanting to save a roller rink as if it’s the most important thing in the world. It’s just cheesy fun that left a smile on my face the whole time.

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Next came the much maligned Xanadu. I came into this knowing that the film carries with it quite the reputation. And it certainly is a different experience than Roller Boogie, because Xanadu is just so out there. It sounds bizarre on paper, but it’s even more bizarre in reality. Above all else, it’s still very fun. The musical numbers are still enjoyable to watch, along with the added bonus that anything can happen at any time. And boy, does it ever happen. To me, the film’s out of left field weirdness is precisely what makes it so charming. It’s wacky and bizarre, and the whole time that just makes it very unique and fun trip.

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There was only one other entry into the Roller Disco Holy Trinity left: the never officially released Skatetown USA. And the fact that it will never be released is such a shame, likely due to a soundtrack featuring a bevy of hits. Although the film never strays far from the roller disco hall, it packs the same “bizarre around every corner” punch that Xanadu has. From a white Afro wearing DJ to a roller skating Uncle Sam, one never knows what sparkling surprises Skatetown USA will deliver next. In fact, it may be the most cheesy fun of them all, thanks also to an all star cast and total nonstop roller disco action.

By now, it’s obvious what all these films have in common, aside from just roller skating. The other common theme is that they’re incredibly cheesy and incredibly fun. Just as watching a swinging roaring 20s party on film makes me want to be there, so does a roll around the rink to an ABBA song. Everything from the disco tunes to the hair and the music is like stepping into a time machine. It’s a brief slice of life into a scene in the 70s, and every moment of it is pure up adulterated joy. Are these films good in many of the usual metrics at which we judge movies? Often, no. Does that make them any less entertaining? No.

Sometimes all we want from a film is a fun escape, something to put a smile on our face. That’s why I have always been enchanted by musicals in general, for the joy and pleasure they give when a spectacular musical number is going on. These roller disco films provide that same kind of fun– just with hot pants, roller skates and high socks thrown in the mix.

Give these films a chance if you’re so inclined. You might just find yourself dreaming of rollerskating too. In the meantime, I’m off to look for a satin jacket.