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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.

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2 responses to “The Battle Against Censorship in Early Sound Films

  1. Marcy Elliott-Rupert ⋅

    I read this with great interest. I don’t know nearly enough about the impact of early film. Plus I love facts and numbers paired together. Nicely done, Shane.

  2. Nice post! It’s very interesting to track the course of what’s permissible in film (and TV) over the years. Says a lot about our society, I’ve always thought.

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