MOVIE CENSORSHIP: The Scandal You Take For Granted
Canada’s eight censorship boards, which include exbarbers and doctors’ wives, sometimes ban a film without ever seeing it. The red-tape tangle of their arbitrary and potentially dangerous decisions adds half a million dollars a year to your theatre tickets
GEORGE HILLYARD ROBERTSON
UNLESS you live in Newfoundland or Prince Edward Island there is a man in your province who has the power to prevent you from seeing any film, or any part of any film of which he, personally, does not approve. Although his salary is paid by your taxes he may refuse to tell you the name of the pictures he forbids you to see, and he doesn’t have to give you any reason for his actions. Although his salary may run anywhere up to six thousand dollars a year he requires no
specific qualifications to perform his duties. He got his job either through the provincial civil service, or as an unabashed political handout. And, quite apart from what he costs you to maintain him in his position, he and his counterparts across the country manage to add half a million dollars annually to the price of Canadian theatre t icket8.
Although the average Canadian movie-goer probably isn’t aware of the fact, let alone appreci-
ative of it, he is one of the most ardently protected entertainment seekers in the world. He is also the victim of one of the most arbitrary, unnecessary and expensive systems of motion-picture censorship ever devised.
Eight of Canada’s ten provinces maintain moviecensorship boards ranging from two-person teams, as in Saskatchewan, to the seven-man board employed by the Province of Quebec. (Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland get their pictures after they have been censored by either New Brunswick or Nova Scotia.) No other non-totalitarian country can boast as great a number of official film censors or censorship regulations. Even the United States, the largest movie producer in the world, has censor boards in only six states.
In spite of the fact that they are all public agencies Canada’s eight boards operate almost as a law unto themselves. Although they may occasionally divulge information to an individual it is their official policy to refuse the public any information on the number or titles of films banned. Their decisions, while subject to appeal under certain circumstances, are fully binding and backed by the full force of the law, even though no legal opinion is ever enlisted in making them.
THESE MOVIES AND MANY OTHERS GOT EITHER THE
Under chapter 36, paragraphs 207 and 208 of the Criminal Code, the citizens of this country are fully protected from immorality, indecency or obscenity appearing in any newspaper, magazine, book, play, radio program or motion picture, with appropriate penalties for anyone found guilty of an offense. All information, entertainment and cultural media operate and take their chances under this statute—all, that is, except motion pictures. Instead of being subject to the normal laws of the land, movies are first subjected to scrutiny by exbarbers, erstwhile stenographers, retired clergymen, tombstone makers, doctors’ wives, local politicians and career civil servants who alone are empowered to decide what it shall be legal to exhibit in a public cinema. Unlike the executors of the Criminal Code, who work under a single and uniform act, each of Canada’s censorship boards has an act of its own, incorporating it under such portfolios as the Department of Labor (Saskatchewan), the Department of Public Utilities (Manitoba), the Treasury Department (Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia), the provincial secretary (Alberta) or the attorney-general (British Columbia and Quebec).
Ostensibly, all censorship offices operate for the same general purpose— to protect the public from
films or scenes displaying obscenity, lewd ness, excessive violence or brutality, infidelity, etcetera. But each defines its precise function in a slightly different way. For example, the B. C. Moving Pictures Act, in addition to the above taboos, describes “any such films as may be considered injurious to morals or against public welfare, or which may offer evil suggestions to the minds of children, or which may be likely to offend the public.” The Saskatchewan regulations give even more latitude with the words “which, for any reason, the censor or censors consider injurious to public morals or opposed to the public welfare.”
Legally these assorted censorship laws give censor boards the absolute power to ban any picture for any reason they wish. Subject to direct political control by the cabinet minister in charge of their department they could easily become the instrument of any political attempt to suppress general or specific ideas contrary to those held by the party in power. While such a possibility may seem inconceivable to many Canadians there have been enough indications of this kind of thinking to justify some fear in the matter.
Probably the most flagrant example of direct political censorship happened a few years ago when
Mitchell Hepburn, at that time Premier of Ontario, took exception to a news story about himself published in Time magazine. As a retaliatory measure he ordered the banning of the monthly movie short The March Of Time from Ontario screens, a ban which lasted for more than a year. In this instance the censor board did not even see the banned films—the distributor was simply told not to go to the expense of submitting them as they would not be acceptable in any form.
On another occasion the Ontario chief censor, O. J. Silverthorne, was told by the deputy minister in charge of prisons to ban a feature called Women In Prison. Because the film had been passed by every other censor board in the world the decision became a matter of some embarrassment to the Ontario censor board, which did not know whether t he official was legally able to order the ban or not. Fortunately for all concerned the protesting deputy retired a few months afterward and his successor okayed the film for release. But the incident serves to illustrate what can happen.
Nor has Ontario been the only offender in this regard. In 1947 J. Bernard Hughes, chief censor for British Columbia, banned a Russian-produced war film, Diary of a Nazi,
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SCISSORS OR THE AXE FROM CENSORS ACROSS CANADA
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which had previously passed the Ontario censor board without a murmur. Hughes described it as “purely Russian propaganda ... a coldly sadistic picture, depicting the Nazis at their worst.” The ban raised a considerable furore hut an appeal hoard consisting of a Catholic barrelmaker, community worker and a doctor’s wife upheld the ruling until the distributor, in 1949, made sufficient cuts to satisfy the hoard’s sensibilities.
Alberta’s former Provincial Secretary, A. J. Hooke, under whom the Alberta movie censor operated, declared in 1946 that the motion picture industry in the United States was dominated by Communist thought and that Alberta intended to examine films more closely for “undemocratic propaganda.” Accordingly, he instructed his censor “to watch carefully for any materialistic, undemocratic, un-Christian propaganda disguised as entertainment.” He cited as examples three shorts on racial tolerance, among them Frank Sinatra’s singing one-reeler The House I Live In and the National Film Hoard’s documentary Everyman’s World. Although these films weren’t banned Hooke did forbid the showing of an English-produced short in Alberta’s schools “because it does not fit into the curriculum.” The picture was Man—One Family, another racialtolerance feature with a commentary by the former head of UNESCO, Julian Huxley.
With eight different sets of personal prejudices at work, what is considered to be censorable in one province will not necessarily be regarded as such in another.
Of the four films banned by Manitoba and Saskatchewan censors during 1950—Caged, The Threat, Kansas Raiders and The Snake Pit—only Caged was banned in both provinces. The Snake Pit, the film in which Olivia de Havilland won an Oscar portraying the inmate of a mental hospital, was banned by the Saskatchewan censor, Rev. D. J. Vaughan, fora reason known only to him. The picture was later cleared for release by a Regina appeal hoard, with the proviso that a trailer be shown with the film to indicate that conditions shown in the picture did not apply to Saskatchewan institutions or the nursing profession in the province.
Regional sensitivity has had other interesting effects on the banning of films. A reissue of the great film classic All Quiet On The Western Front was withdrawn from Nova Scotia theatres for two months in 1950 during a recruiting drive, for the obvious reason that it didn’t present army life in particularly rosy colors. New Brunswick censors object to two hanging scenes in another classic, The Oxbow Incident, so the film has never been released in that province. A picture about the rejuvenation of the Ku Klux Klan, The Burning Cross, was turned down by the British Columbia censor hoard because of a tar-and-feathering episode which was later voluntarily cut “for reasons of good taste” by the distributor. Green Pastures, based on the celebrated stage play about a Harlem heaven, was banned in Ontario until then-Premier Hepburn hastily formed an appeal hoard and had it passed.
In addition dozens of other films have scenes chopped from them each year depending on the whims of provincial censors. In Ontario, for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire have both been cut. (One “objection-
able” phrase cut from Streetcar was “Kiss me on the mouth.”)
In 1946 Quebec’s Premier Duplessis, under whose attorney-generalship the Quebec censor board falls, blasted the National Film Board for producing shorts with alleged Communist content. Four years later he ordered the Quebec Film Bureau, a provincial agency, to stop distributing all NFB products during a period of “study, research and taking stock.” Critics pointed out that if he chose he could just as easily have instructed his censors to ban all NFB pictures from Quebec theatres.
Must Kiss Your Own Wife
Film censorship as practiced in Quebec is one of the most advanced examples of the direction which statecontrolled censorship inevitably takes. The seven-man hoard of censors has recently been given the additional duty of censoring all magazines sold in the province. The board is composed entirely of Roman Catholics and, although there is nothing written into their code to cover it, all members recognize an automatic submission to the church in matters of film censorship. Quebec’s chief censor, Alex Gagnon, an ex-member of the editorial staff of the newspaper Le Devoir, admits quite frankly, “We are a Catholic province, and we will not permit anything to be shown which does not conform to the Catholic idea.”
In effect this means no film shown in Quebec can contain scenes of direct killings, kissing another man’s wife, suicide, or scenes condoning the idea of divorce. Although none of these are specified in the code the board automatically terms such situations “immoral” and cuts accordingly. The resulting product is in itself sometimes of dubious morality.
Films like September Affair, with Joseph Gotten and Joan Fontaine, have undergone a remarkable transformation at the hands of the Quebec censors. This particular love story presented a married man and a single woman who decide to take advantage of their supposed death in a plane crash to run away from the world in general and the man’s wife in particular. In the uncut version they decide that only by his returning and divorcing his wife, then marrying the second woman, can the two live at peace with their consciences. The Quebec version succeeded in offending all religious groups for, with any suggestion of divorce cut, the couple suddenly appeared recon-
ciled to living the rest of their lives together but unwed.
Quebec also puts an additional restraint on the film maker by refusing to deal with any obvious adaptation of a forbidden hook. Although the code specifies nothing in this regard, no film hearing the title of a book listed in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (a list of books which the Catholic Church forbids its members to own or read) has ever appeared on a Quebec screen. F)ven Hollywood’s tame version of Forever Amber was ruled off on this account although the distributor was confidentially advised it might be reconsidered if the title were changed. A new title meant too many publicity problems, so Quebec audiences remained Am her less.
It seems that this particular han has even occasionally worked against original screenplays. Paul Muni’s portrayal of the French novelist Emile Zola, which was okayed by America’s Catholic Legion of Decency, was never shown in Quebec Zola’s works are on the Index.
Any suggestion of criticism of the clergy is also strictly forbidden in Quebec theatres. Charlie Chaplin’s last film, Monsieur Verdoux, which suffered at the hands of censors everywhere, got particularly rough treatment in Quebec. The story concerns a dapper French traveling man who, during the great depression, marries, then murders a series of rich spinsters to support his crippled wife. In Quebec as in most regions of North America his peroration to the trial jury, in which he justifies his actions, was completely cut. Later, in the death cell, he disputes with a priest who comes to deliver the last rites. This scene, which originally ran several minutes, was trimmed to less than thirty seconds, with Chaplin and the priest jumping about between the cuts like characters out of an original Chaplin two-reeler. In spite of this it played to capacity houses for weeks in Montreal.
The history of Monsieur Verdoux is an interesting example of the screening process through which we in Canada have our movie fare filtered. The original film was turned back twice by the Motion Picture Association office, which administers Hollywood’s rigid and fiercely moralistic code of ethics. This code, written by two Catholics—publisher Martin Quigley and Jesuit Father Daniel Lord—is applied to every film produced in Hollywood and no picture may he released by the Motion Picture Association of America until it has passed this office of self-censorship.
Still, with this exacting test and the
further protective provisions of Canada’s Criminal Code, we are told the movie makers cannot be trusted to exhibit their wares without first undergoing the scrutiny of government officials.
Of course quite often the objection to a film is for reasons distinctly divorced from the actual product. Such was certainly the case with the celebrated Bergman Rossellini effort, Stromboli, where pressure groups objected not so much to the picture as to the private lives of the participants.
'1 he protests, however, were not without their effect. The Americancontrolled Famous Players Canadian Corp., Canada’s largest theatre chain, declined to distribute the film even t hough in the normal course of events it would have. John J. Fitzgibbons, president of Famous Players, said his chain refused to handle the film because of the controversy surrounding it. Stromboli died a quick and unprofitable death in second-rate houses.
Pressure groups form an interesting adjunct to the official censorship setup in Canada. One example of their power lies in the case of Ways of Love, a European art film which was recently subjected to unprecedented attacks by the Catholic Church in New York City. ’The film, an adaptation of three short stories by prominent European writers, contained a story called 'The Miracle, which New York’s Cardinal Spellman branded as sacrilegious. After much litigation the film’s attackers finally succeeded in having it suppressed. Apparently as a result of the attendant publicity the Ontario censor board banned the film without seeing it.
Both distributors and censors seem reluctant to get involved in any sort of legal battle which might raise the question of the censor boards’ constitutionality. Suits have been threatened or started but none has ever been pressed to the legal limit.
The reason for the amicable truce between the distributor and the censor is fairly obviously financial. To the provinces the censorship-fee arrangement means a clean-cut source of revenue amounting to something over three hundred thousand dollars annually (Ontario alone netted more than a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars in 1949). To the distributor it amounts to a form of “protection” money which takes the responsibility for a picture’s acceptability from his shoulders. By paying censorship fees he is assured that his product will never get him personally into any kind of legal trouble and, considering that he passed the cost on to the movie patrons anyway, it’s a fairly satisfactory arrangement. The only person
who should be unhappy is the customer —who must, in the end, pay for it. But he rarely has occasion to think of if.
The distributors’ attitude toward censorship in Canada stands in strange contrast to their fierce and militant position in the United States. There the same companies spend millions annually fighting every attempt to increase existing censorship. They point with pride to their Hollywood production code. ’They demand the same freedom which is accorded the press, the stage, radio, television and other entertainment media.
One prominent Canadian movie man cynically explains the anomaly by suggesting “Freedom is something you fight for only in your own back yard. Canada is a foreign country to the people who control our movie industry. Here their concern is profits, not freedom. It's a case of making a deal with the tribal chief.”
'The tribal chief might be confident of sailing along serenely for an indefinite period were it not for the impending arrival of television in Canada. TV presents the film clippers with a situation that threatens to topple their whole profitable undemocratic arrangement like a transmitting antenna in a hurricane.
Under the various provincial acts no motion picture may be shown publicly in Canada without first being approved by the local board of censors. Yet, as soon as it has a network operating, CBC television will be telecasting programs across the country from a single originating point, programs which will undoubtedly consist largely of motion pictu res.
Each Man His Own Censor
Censors are already worried that if the CBC can “play” films without first submitting them to censorship the commercial theatre operators would then be entitled to do the same. Further, they can be sure the CBC will not look kindly on the cost and inconvenience of having each of its television films passed by eight separate censor boards before telecasting it coast to coast. While CBC will give no oti.eial indication of what its attitude will be it is altogether likely it will attempt to proceed without ever recognizing the existence of provincial censorship.
In such an event, if the provinces challenge the right of the CBC to evade censorship, they open up the whole question of their constitutionality. If they choose to do this they will be up against a legal precedent which almost foredooms their chances. In 1931 Quebec challenged the validity of the Radiotelegraph Act, under which the federal government regulated and controlled radio communication. ’The case was finally taken to the privy council in London which ruled that Canada’s parliament had “jurisdiction to regulate and control radio communication, including the transmission and reception of signs, signals, pictures, and sounds of all kinds by means of hertzian waves.” If such a judgment were reaffirmed by Canada’s Supreme Court it would probably mean the end of some of the easiest, largest and most comfortable annual revenue now enjoyed by the provincial governments.
’The people who stand to gain from such a situation are those who prefer to judge for themselves what movies they will or will not see. As for protection, they would still have the various European and American production codes, the laws of Canada, the exhibitors’ business sense, and their own right of choice to protect them from any indiscreet film makers. iy