Film Censors

Film Censors

In all the story of films, there is no man so much attacked as a film censor—whatever the country in which he works. Systems and rules differ all over the world; our contributor here studies the methods used in Great Britain and in America.

by John K. Newnham

P^ILMS are the world’s most strictly censored form of entertainment. -*• Theatre censorship is far more lax. Wireless programmes are left entirely to the discretion of the broadcasting companies. Books may be published with very little fear of police orders for withdrawal.

But every film that is generally released has to be passed by a board of censors, whatever the country, whatever the type of film.

There are no hard and fast rules governing film censorship. They vary in every country ; in America they vary in every state. Even one censor may appear to vary his views from time to time, passing one picture, yet refusing to pass another dealing with the same subject.

There can be no fixed rules, for the simple reason that so much depends on the way in which a subject is handled. Nowadays, film directors are getting more and more adept in making daring scenes with such ingenuity that they get past the censor.

So far as England is concerned, the British Board of Film Censors is the only actual censorship board, though local authorities also have the power of rejecting pictures or passing those not given a certificate by the censor.

The British censorship board is an entirely independent and impartial unit, although it was formed by the film industry itself. That was in 1913.

No members of the film trade are permitted to work for this board. The examiners who view the pictures must never have worked for a film company nor must they be related to any such member. These precautions are necessary in order that there shall be no risk of prejudice or favouritism on the part of the men seeing the films.

Moreover, the board is self-supporting. A nominal price is charged for viewing every film, and the fee works out at £2 per thousand feet for general films (cheaper for short travel pictures).

The average feature film is about 6,000 feet in length. About six million feet of film is handed over to the censor for viewing every year. To be precise, in 1931 (the latest statistics compiled up to the moment), the total footage of film submitted amounted to 5,585,908, comprising 1,951 subjects. The previous year, 1930, the amount of footage was even more, totalling 7,209,306 feet, covering 2,275 subjects.

Thus the censors are not directly dependent on the trade for their wages.

There are four examiners at the censor’s office. Examiners are chosen, not because of any particular knowledge of films but for their sound common-sense. They must be educated and must be able to use their own discretion.'

The board has had only three presidents. The first was Mr. C. A. Redford ; on his death he was followed by Mr. T. P. O’Connor ; and when “ T. P.” died, the present president, the Right Hon. Edward Shortt, took his place.

The president himself rarely finds it necessary to view a picture. This happens only when the examiner refuses to pass a film and the film company makes an appeal, in which event the film is referred to the president.

Films, however, are rarely rejected, and you may be sure that a member of the censorship board is likely to be annoyed if anyone refers to films he has rejected. For the president is the only man able finally to reject a picture. As a general rule, when a picture is turned down, the film company is merely informed that the censor does not consider it fit for public exhibition.

The film company may then make certain alterations, and re-submit the picture. The censor (this term is the one invariably used when referring to the censorship board) is usually very reasonable. Scenes to which objection is taken are pointed out and it is often quite a simple matter for these sequences to be cut out without harming the continuity of the story.

Films are shown in a private theatre at the censor’s office. In addition to viewing the film on the screen, the examiners have a script of the story to help them. In the very early days of the talkies they had no sound apparatus and they were compelled to rely entirely upon this script for their guidance. But this defect was soon remedied.

Incidentally, it is rather interesting to note that, to the English film censor, there is no such thing as a talkie. While newspapers the world over have argued about the use of this term for sound films, the censor has decided the matter for himself and all talking pictures are termed “ auditory films.” Even talking picture apparatus is officially called the “ auditory projector.”

List of “Must Nots "

There is a long, but very elastic, list of subjects to which the censor takes objection. The elasticity of this list has caused a great deal of confusion among those people who imagine that the censor works under a rigid set of rules.

In one picture an examiner may object to “ vamping.” And immediately this art of Eve becomes one of the list of “ mustn’ts,” though obviously it applies only in very exceptional circumstances.

One picture containing a bedroom scene may be given a certificate ; yet another one, also containing a bedroom scene, may be turned down. This has happened more than once and on the surface it has appeared that the censor has blundered. He has not necessarily done so at all. In one film of recent showing the bedroom scene was quite innocuous; but in another shown at the same time a similar scene had to be cut out because the dialogue immediately made this sequence suggestive.

There are certain subjects which are entirely taboo. Under the heading of “ Religion,” films have been refused certificates because they have shown

the materialized form of Christ ; blasphemy, and comic treatment of religious subjects ; irreverent quotations of scriptural phrases ; sacred rites and ceremonies and travesties of religious rites ; themes portraying the hereafter ; and the Salvation Army shown in an unfavourable light.

Under the heading of “ Political,” films have been returned for alterations because of references to royal personages ; offensive political propaganda ; and the representation of living personages.

Exception has been taken, under the heading of ” Military,” to British officers and forces shown in a disgraceful light ; British officers in equivocal situations ; and uncivilized acts of warfare.

Many scenes have had to be cut from films because they have offended the social code. These subjects have included: drunken women and gross drunkenness of men ; ” orgy ” scenes ; indecorous dancing ; habitual youthful depravity; accosting and soliciting ; unacceptable vulgarity ; unpleasant details of medical operations ; immodest scenes of girls undressing ; companionate marriage and “ free love.”

Several film scenes have been cut out because they have infringed the censor’s rules by introducing hanging scenes, preparations for suicide, and methods of crime open to easy imitation; murderous gang fighting (remember that Scarface had some difficulty in being passed in many countries) ; and severed human heads.

Many other incidents have met with the disapproval of the censor, including such scenes as human sacrifices ; cruelty to animals and birds ; scenes of torture ; agonizing scenes of martyrdom ; self torture with knives ; and prolonged and gross brutality and bloodshed.

These are not hard and fast rules. Each incident I have mentioned has actually been introduced into pictures and cut out by the censor’s orders.

Several such incidents have been allowed in other films, probably because of different treatment. But the list I have enumerated gives a broad idea of the large number of items that the film producer should avoid if he wants his films to gain a certificate.

It must be remembered that the censor is bearing in mind a large public of all types, from sophisticated Londoners to children. He gives the picture an ‘‘ A ” (adult) certificate if he considers it suitable only for grown-ups and not for children. This picture is technically not supposed to be seen by a child unless accompanied by an adult. If the picture is deemed suitable for grown-ups and children alike, it is given a ” U ” (universal) certificate.

The censor’s decision, however, is not legally final. Local councils have the last say in the matter. As a general rule, they accept the censor’s decision without question. Sometimes a local watch committee will step in and demand to see even' picture due for local showing. This happened in Beckenham, Kent, during 1932, much to the amusement of press and public. Films which had passed the censor with ease were sometimes rejected entirely. Even a Mary Pickford film was criticized and allowed to be shown only after the word “ rat ” had been expunged from one scene !

On the other hand, films which have not passed the censor maj' be shown if permission can be obtained from the local council. Thus, the Barbara Stanwyck film, The Miracle TYoman, did not obtain a certificate because it

turned stately hymns into jazz (it was a skit on Aimee McPherson). Yet this picture was shown in many towns and cities throughout England and was a great success.

One of the most amusing cases on record is that of a certain English watch committee in a district where there was a cinema for sale. Four members of the committee wanted to buy it; one of them was victorious. Whether the subsequent events were deliberate or merely coincidence, is hard to say ; but the fact remains that the very first picture booked for this cinema was frowned upon by the watch committee. For a time, it looked as if it would not be passed for local showing. The film company putting out the picture, however, succeeded in getting it passed.

Another strange story of local “ censorship ” concerns the cinema manager who booked a film at a figure which he afterwards regretted. It was too high. But the bargain had been made and it seemed certain that he would have to pay the price.

Then he heard that there were certain scenes in this film at which the censor had rather frowned before passing. He seized his chance. He told the local chief constable, who has the power of banning a film. In this case, this one did so.

The film company objected. They took the matter to the watch committee and demanded that the film should be seen by them. The watch committee saw the picture and cancelled the ban. The film was shown at another cinema.

Nowadays, the English film-producing companies find that it pays them to submit the scenario to the censor before actually producing the picture. From October, 1931, to October, 1932, 74 scenarios were submitted. In one or two instances, certain alterations were suggested. As a result, not one of those 74 pictures had any trouble with the censor.

Although local authorities in England sometimes complicate English censorship, the question of censoring films here is not so involved as in America.

First of all, there is the Organization of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, with Will Hays (popularly called the “ Tzar " of Hollywood) as its president. This organization was founded by the film people themselves for their own interests. Producers go to Will Hays for guidance when contemplating pictures dealing with subjects which might meet with some opposition.

Will Hays' word is law. If he hears of a company making a picture which will be harmful to the Hollywood interests, he forbids it. Thus, an independent producer once conceived the idea of making a picture featuring all the girls in Hollywood who resembled Garbo. The whole thing was to be in the nature of a skit on this famous star. Will Hays heard about it, said “ No "—and the film was never made.

Most American pictures seen in England bear a small sign at the bottom of the opening title. This reads : “ Passed by the National Board of Review."

This means that the film has received the approval of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures—a voluntary, citizen organization reviewing films in New York City with associate and advisory members, and affiliated citizen groups throughout the United States.

It was founded in 1909 by the People’s Institution. It is opposed to legalized censorship, and in favour of the constructive method of placing emphasis upon and building patronage for the finer and more worthy films.

Although it is not official, its decisions are regarded seriously by the film producers. Its review work is conducted by trained review groups chosen from a committee of over 250 members, representative of many professions and walks of life. Decisions are reached by majority ballot.

Next, there are the official censors. Every state has its own censor and state censorship varies to a bewildering degree. In one state, scenes showing women smoking are cut out; another state bans " horizontal ” kisses, but permits them " vertically.” Some states refuse to allow love scenes between white and black or yellow races ; and in more than one state, drinking is severely frowned upon.

Canada has its own censors and here there is a definite pro-British atmosphere. This led to the classic Hell’s Angels being rather amusingly cut. The Toronto censors insisted that the leading characters should change their nationality. Originally they were British ; but when the film was shown in Canada they were American.

The reason was because a British airman was shown as a coward. The censors insisted that he should become an American, so all the leading characters had to become American. They became Americans rather abruptly. For a long time it was made to appear that they were English, going to an English school and living in England. Then suddenly a sub-title was flashed on the screen bearing the announcement that they were Americans and that a hectic party was typical American entertainment.

These sub-titles remained in the film when shown in England. But in Canada the censors went even further. They insisted on several dialogue changes, with the result that the characters’ voices changed now and then during the picture.

American films are also “ censored ” by the Women’s Freedom League, who send out to all their members circulars commenting on pictures. A film " rejected ” by them is opposed all over the States and invariably has to be withdrawn.

Censorship, of course, varies the world over, according to local conditions. Thus Tell England was banned in Palestine, although it was shown in England and other parts of the Empire. The film had to be withdrawn from Palestine cinemas because it caused intense anti-British feeling among the Arabs.

This is an extreme case ; but it is an example of the difficulties which face film censors in every country, every state, every city, and every town. Local conditions vary so much that there can be no standardized rules, and even in such a small place as England it becomes necessary for local authorities to have the last word in censoring films.

The world film encyclopedia, 1933

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