The National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures was formed in 1909 in New York City. At first, it was just applicable to the pictures in the state of New York City as the New York Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures. In 1908 films were criticized mostly for being too violent. At the time, the motion picture business was targeting the family as an institution. The manufacturers from 1910 to 1915 were very cooperative with the National Censorship Board. The Board itself was operating on the pretext of an "unwritten law" (St. John III et al., 111). In other words, the moral sense deciding the approval of one picture was not something definite. The different individuals making up the board had differing opinions in most cases.
The manufacturers nevertheless submitted their pictures to be reviewed by the Board and implemented the necessary recommendations when called to. It is understandable that the manufacturers were looking into the future. They wanted to have a regular attendance for future pictures, and a go-ahead on current films would serve as an excellent precedent. However, the National Board of Censorship was biased and too conservative in their assessments.
Going to the theatre to watch a motion picture in 1908 was pretty much a family business much like going to the circus. The whole morality versus art in the motion pictures started in 1907, Chicago (Fisher, 149).
In 1907, the Chicago Police Chief George Shippy received reports that some pictures were of the "vilest type" after peak hours. These pictures were described by the enthusiasts as "blood and thunder pictures" to mean they were very action-packed (Smith et al. 76). Mayor Fred Busse mandated Chief Shippy to investigate into the matter of the vilest motion pictures, and he created a task force. The task force mode of operations included undercover officers walking in the theatre as part of the crowd and noting the pictures being shown, the ages and gender of the people in attendance and so on. The task force was majorly concerned with criminal elements being shown in the pictures and the mayor mandated them to influence the life of such pictures. One picture affected by Shippys task force is The James Boys of Missouri, a popular blood and thunder type. The picture was based on the real tales of infamous outlaws and bandits, and the public had already encountered the same in favorite magazines.
A theater owner Jake Block took Shippy to court for stopping the showing of the James Boys of Missouri and Night Riders, both of which were outlaw pictures. Shippys task force argued that these films encouraged rebellion against the law. The films had no nudity, and so it was appropriate for children based on that respect. In 1909 Block vs. The State of Illinois, the theatre owner, argued that the picture the James Boys of Missouri which was a historical account of one of America's band of outlaws. According to Block, the morality was beside the case, but Judge James Cartwright was concerned that the film would incite outlaw activities and be a negative influence on younger viewers. Hence, this account shows us that the early film industry was being taken too seriously by influential parts of society in this case a Chief of Police and a Judge. Nobody asked the public for their opinion on the James Boys of Missouri. In the early 1910s, it seems the entertainment factor of the film industry was overlooked over the moral lesson. Movies like the James Boys of Missouri were cut off from public viewing even though they were trendy.
In March 1909, exhibitors and theatre owners were so much worried about the state of public and media scrutiny that they approached the New York People's Institute which promoted the affairs of the family. The association of exhibitors wanted the People's Institute to give them a directive on the way forward. The People's Institute proposed a censorship program on a voluntary basis which would become the first official board of censorship in the country. The issue of "morality" defining a motion picture would prove to be a challenge to the budding industry. The Censorship Board was not objective in their censoring and banning of films based on morality.
1910s America was very conservative. Even the most influential people had very conservative views- most of the politicians, the entrepreneurs, and prominent Christian leaders were not the most progressive people on the planet. The first unofficial board in New York City was composed of volunteers- among them teachers, preachers, and city politicians and so on. The criteria for deciding whether a picture had passed muster or whether it was not up to standard was somewhat subjective; the primary concern that the directors had. Defining morality in a majorly creative and artistic industry was setting an unnecessary glass ceiling.
It was not until 1916 that the Board changed its name to the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures (NBRMP) after a significant policy change, the directors and manufacturers could breathe easy (Daniel, 6). The NBRMP would no longer dictate morality on motion pictures. It would only educate the public and review the movies taking into account language, violence, sexual content, and nudity. Thus was set the current rating standards used up to today. The National Board of Censorship failed in this respect.
Czitrom, Daniel. "The Redemption of Leisure: The National Board of Censorship and the Rise of Motion Pictures in New York City, 1900-1920." Studies in Visual Communication 10.4 (1984): 2-6.
Fisher, R. (1975). Film Censorship and Progressive Reform: The National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures, 1909-1922. Journal of Popular Film, 4(2), 143-156.
Smith, Michael Glover, and Adam Selzer. Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the US Film Industry. Columbia University Press, 2015.
St. John III, Burton, and Robert Arnett. "The National Association of Manufacturers' Community Relations Short Film Your Town: Parable, Propaganda, and Big Individualism." Journal of Public Relations Research 26.2 (2014): 103-116.
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