March 30, 1999
by R. Bruce Brasell
Today, when confronted with the issue of film censorship, most open-minded people would laugh with scorn at such a regressive idea, after all what about freedom of speech and consumer democracy. During the past two decades, film censorship has become typically associated with minority groups protesting the negative images of them portrayed in Hollywood films. For example, in some cities across the country, women groups protested against Dress to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980), gays and lesbians against Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980), and Asian-Americans against The Year of the Dragon (Michael Cimino, 1985). But then there were also Christian groups protesting against the portrayals of Christ in Monty Python's Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1980) and The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988). Although advocates of censorship across the twentieth century share a common belief in the representational power of film images, these contemporary concerns contrast sharply with earlier efforts; they are more often than not concerned with Hollywood's perpetuation of stereotypes while earlier attempts framed the concern around the issue of morality.
A whole field of study has emerged exploring film censorship, which has plagued the cinema almost from its beginning. The first major attempt in the country occurred during 1907 in Chicago, resulting in the implementation of the first film censorship board in the United States. This was followed by a proliferation during the 1910s of censorship boards all across the country, most of them at the municipality level but a few statewide. During the silent-film era (from film's beginning up to the introduction of sound in 1928), two attempts were made by some residents of Mobile to pressure the city to establish a film censorship board. The first attempt occurred in May 1915 when two local clubwomen requested a meeting with the city commissioners to discuss the matter. Four operators of local movie theaters also participated in the meeting. The second effort occurred in March 1921 and, unlike the informal first one, resulted in a full-blown public discussion at a city commissioners' meeting. Although the same two women were involved in these two incidences, the second attempt was framed as a concern of the Mobile County League of Women Voters. This time, instead of calling themselves "clubwomen" with the implied connotation of being a busy body, they identified themselves through their recently acquired right to vote: they were concerned voters.
The beginning of the twentieth century was know as the age of reform. Although today we would not associate such issues as film censorship and alcohol prohibition as "progressive" thinking, at that time they were attributed as the cause of a number of societal ills and were associated as inhibiting the working class from ascending to middle class values, the social values of most reformers. Therefore, reform measures such as the removal of alcohol and the censor of motion pictures were viewed as necessary to "uplift" the working class poor and to protect children. The Mobile women reformers based their argument for censorship on the need to protect children; the class element did not appear. The theater operators counter-argued that children acquire their morals in the home, not the movie theater. Ironically, the movie operators made a family-based argument against censorship while the women reformers made a societal one for it.
In both attempts the city commissioners refused to enact a film censorship law or establish a film censorship board as most cities of significant size across the country were doing at the time. For example, Birmingham, Alabama established a film censorship board in 1921. Although the city's obscenity ordinance did not specifically mention motion pictures, the commissioners held that the obscenity ordinance applied to them as well so no additional ordinance was necessary. They did, however, as a result of the March 1921 incident pass a resolution which stated that upon complaint from a citizen, the chief of police would inspect a film and, if it was found to violate the city's obscenity law, arrest the movie exhibitor. The city commissioners assumed what we would call today an anti-censorship position. The mayor at the time, Harry Pillans, when explaining in correspondence why the city never adopted a film censorship board, stated that "it was so subject to abuse that it was a dangerous experiment to try it." And in another correspondence he stated that "while remedying some evils, [film censorship boards lead to] the production of others." This anti-censorship position was framed as a support for participatory democracy, as illustrated by the headline on the front page of the Mobile Register announcing the city commissioners' 1921 decision: "Public To Act as Censor for Movies."
Whenever inquiries were made by outsiders about whether the city had a film censorship board or ordinance, the city proudly responded "No" in correspondence. The 1921 resolution adopted by the city commissioners was similar in content to the film censorship ordinances adopted by those cities that chose not to trod down the path of a censorship board. The resolution can be viewed as a conciliatory gesture toward the League women, a political maneuver to show they were actively responding to their concerns, yet to do so in such a manner that ultimately had no legal substance. If one remembers that absences speak as loudly as presences, then the continual lack of official legal action by the Mobile city commissioners on censorship is a symbolic affirmation that can be read in a number of ways. On the one hand it is an affirmation of freedom of choice, of anti-censorship, and of resistance to excessive governmental regulation and interference. Yet, on the other hand, it can be read as an affirmation of a pro-business bias and of support for economic boosterism.
When the issue of film censorship in Mobile is viewed on a continuum throughout the twentieth century, an unusual picture emerges. Concerted efforts were initiated by local citizen groups to prod the city government to establish a censorship board and/or enact a censorship ordinance during the teens, twenties, forties, fifties, and sixties. The efforts during the teens and twenties have been reiterated above. Unlike these earlier attempts, during the forties, fifties, and sixties community groups typically resorted to the usage of a particular film as the focus of their efforts at film censorship, resulting in a call to ban Forever Amber (Otto Preminger, 1947), Baby Doll (Elia Kazan, 1956), and The Fox (Mark Rydell, 1968). The city resisted such urges until the sixties when its five decade stance of resistance to film censorship was reversed and it undertook a legal battle to ban the showing of the Baby Doll. And accompanying this change of position in the 1960s emerged, for the first time in the city's history, specific ordinances related to the censorship of film.
In April 1946, while petitions were flooding the city commissioners requesting the adoption of a film censorship board, the Mobile Parliamentary Practice Club, a local women's organization, sponsored an open forum on the question: "Should Mobile Have Censorship of Film?" Similar to 1921, the front-page headline of the Mobile Register, reporting on the results of the forum, declared: "No One Advocates Local Censorship of Picture Films." And the headline in the Mobile Press exclaimed: "Film Censorship Left to Public." A year and half later, in October 1947, the chief of police viewed the first screening of Forever Amber along with representatives of the Mobile chapter of the Catholic based Legion of Decency organization. The police chief, much to the outrage of the local Bishop, declared the film violated no city ordinances. And in January 1957, the city organized a preview screening of Baby Doll for a cross section of citizens to vote on whether the film should be shown in town. A majority of those present recommended that the film be allowed to open as originally scheduled because they believed the citizens of the city should be provided the opportunity to make up their own minds about whether they wanted to view the film. Then in March 1968 a group of concerned citizens, lead by a delegation of religious leaders, met with the city commissioners during their regularly scheduled weekly meeting and requested the establishment of a censorship board to prevent the showing of "obscene" films in Mobile. They were upset over the recent showing in town of The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967), a film they all condemned.
As mentioned above, the one major attempt initiated by the City of Mobile during the twentieth century to censor a Hollywood film centered around Baby Doll in December 1968. This action by the city was the result of the efforts of one particular person, a city commissioner, Lambert Mims, who felt obligated to prohibit anything he perceived as obscene because of his "Christian" morals and values. As an outspoken born-again Christian, Mims felt obligated to use the city's resources to force his "Christian" standard on the whole community. And his efforts included not only motion pictures. In July 1968 he forced the closing of a University of South Alabama (USA) play, America Hurrah, and in July 1970 attempted to prosecute five USA students for selling the alternative newspaper, Rearguard. And throughout the early 1970s he continually pushed for prosecution of downtown newsstands for selling nude magazines. Mims' actions upon close inspection reflect a definition of obscenity as anything with which he politically or socially disagreed.
After the Baby Doll debacle in 1968, the focus of the city turned away from Hollywood films and toward hardcore pornography. It is as though the rise of hardcore pornography during the 1970s distracted attention away from Hollywood films, letting them off the hook of anti-sex moralists by the end of that decade. And as might be expected given the rise of video during the 1980s, accompanying the city's turn of its attention from Hollywood to hardcore pornography was another turn, that from film to video, resulting in the now infamous Badge 69 trial in May 1987, which luckily the city lost. Similar to the response of the preview audience for Baby Doll, the jury of the Badge 69 trial decided that although some individuals in the city might find the video obscene, "the community as a whole would not." So the city made one major attempt to censor Hollywood films in December 1968 and one major attempt to censor videos in May 1987, losing the legal battle in both cases.
Diachronically, the effort during the late 1960s to enact film censorship in Mobile was an exception in the city's history. One distinction between the 1920s and the 1960s was the frame of reference the city's leaders used to approach their job. The businessmen of the past were replaced in the 1960s with, to put it crudely, a religious fanatic who conflated his civil and religious duties as one and the same, ignoring the separation of church and state. But even Mims did not attempt to establish a film censorship board because the city commissioners in the late 1960s held a general belief that such an action would not be "readily acceptable by the public," the citizens of Mobile. So instead Mims chose to use backroom tactics and the police department to enforce a version of what he considered obscene onto the whole community.
A number of changes occurred during the twentieth century in the configuration of the community groups calling for film censorship in Mobile. In the 1910s and 20s, women's reform groups beseeched the city to enact film censorship. But starting in the 1940s the focus changed to religious based groups ran by men, in this case, the Catholic Legion of Decency. And then in the 1960s the born again Protestants came onto the scene. The first major transition occurred in the 1940s as the pro-censorship forces underwent a philosophical transition from a secular reform bases to a religious one followed by a gender transition from female to male leaders. Accompanying this secular to religious transition was also a change from a concern with violence to one with sex. The second major transformation occurred in the 1960s as this religious element underwent a transformation from Catholic to Protestant accompanied by a change in the city's stance of 50 years as it actively began to pursue film censorship rather than resist it. (As long as the city maintained an anti-censorship position there was no need for local groups to vocally call for censorship because that was the established norm.)
And we have two very different configurations of the City of Mobile's reaction to film censorship during the twentieth century. On one hand we have an anti-censorship position enacted by players in an "old boy" network who, although concern with the freedom of individual choice, were also concerned with not imposing any potentially harmful restrictions on their business cohorts. On the other hand we have a pro-censorship position enacted because of religious self-righteousness. Although the anti-censorship position of the city prior to the 1960s may be tainted by the ulterior motive of pro-business boosterism, at least it empowered residences of the city with the ability to decide for themselves what films they wanted to view. Instead of continuing this trend, Mims sought a reign of imposition as he attempted to bend the movie exhibitors to his will and not to the demands of local film consumers.
Writer's Note: This is a brief summary of some of the findings of a much longer and more detailed project that I am working on concerning film censorship in Mobile during the twentieth century.