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Board of Review - Review from Kansas History, Autumn 1999

Collection Review

The following review appeared in the Autumn 1999 (Vol.22, No. 3) of Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains.

Reel 2. Eliminate scene of men forcing Dora to drink poison in the House of Blindness.

So reads the recommendation made by the Kansas State Board of Review after watching the 1920 film The House of Blindness. The section of film wound up on the cutting room floor, another casualty in the struggle Kansas waged against the latest encroacher upon civic virture, the motion picture.

Kansas was not alone in its attempt to control the burgeoning and potentially "debasing" new medium. Virginia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio as well as approximately fifty cities had also created boards to review and censor movies. In its earliest existence, the board was required to " Approve such film reels, including subtitles, spoken dialogue, songs, other words or sounds, folders, posters and advertising materials which are moral and proper" and to censor films that were " cruel, obscene, indecent or immoral, or such as tend to debase and corrupt morals." The board accomplished this daunting task by requiring that all films to be shown in the state first be passed by a board of three censors. This board had the power to remove any scenes that it felt met the aforementioned criteria. The board also could ban films in toto (as it did with D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation from 1915 to 1923 for " inciting racial hatred and sectional bias"). After being reviewed and edited, the film was then tagged with a unique serial number that identified the film as having been reviewed and passed.

The films could then be distributed throughout the state for public showing. Initially, the board relied on County Attorneys to monitor theaters for compliance. Later, however, the board employed an inspector that traveled extensively making surprise inspections (records from the mid 1950's reveal that the inspector traveled over 12,000 miles in one year). Penalties for violations ranged from a substantial fine to thirty days in the county jail.

As might be expected, the Board of Review met with substantial resistance from the motion picture industry which was forced to pay for the initial review and any subsequent edits. Motion picture companies most often challenged the constitutionality of the legislation on which the board was founded, but also spent significant sums lobbying legislators and trying to influence local elections. In some cases movie houses would promote anti-censorship candidates on the big screen itself. Over time the forces arraigned against the board, as well as widening public tolerance, slowly eroded support and court rulings began to undermine the authority of the board. A 1954 U. S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed the board to censor for obscenity only, not the aforementioned list which was much wider in scope, sounded the death knell of the board. The final blow would come 12 years later in a decision by Shawnee County District Court Judge Marion Beatty who cited the 1965 U.S. Sureme Court Freedman v. Maryland case in ruling that the board unduly jeopardized protected expression and was therefor unconstitutional. Beatty's decision was upheld later in 1966 by the Kansas Supreme Court.

The records of the Kansas Board of Review are housed in the Kansas State Historical Society's Center for Historical Research and are available to researchers with no restrictions. Published library materials, particularly a collection of newspaper clippings, are a good place to begin researching the Board of Review. The clippings cover the entire life of the board and provide important editorial insights into its activities. Also contained within the library collections are a series of volumes (1915-1966) produced annually which listed all films reviewed and divides them into the sub-categories of passed, passed with deletions and rejected. The consistently decreasing number of rejections (45 in 1915, 4 in 1940) probably reflects the consolidation of the movie industry, growing public tolerance and the decreased stature of the board. Also of interest in this grouping are two editions of the Laws and Rules of the Kansas State Board of Review. These nicely summarize the activities of the board in 1937 and 1948.

Non-published archival materials are rich sources of information as well. Eight cubic feet of fee registers, enforcement officer sheets, correspondence, monthly financial statements, and board minutes are helpful for the period 1948 - 1966. The fee registers list each film by title, how many reels, and date reviewed which can give the researcher a picture of the daily activities of the board for this period. Of particular interest will be the enforcement officer sheets which were used by the roving inspector to insure that local theaters were showing only approved films. These list theater, location, manager, films showing, and additional remarks. Finally, the correspondence and board minutes provide a widely varied view into the work of the board. The correspondence includes petitions to the board for censor, notices to movie companies pertaining to portions of films to be deleted, as well as general correspondence regarding the composition and mission of the board. A weakness of the collection is the lack of correspondence predating 1948, which would be a valuable assest to the researcher. The board minutes (1923-1966), while often frustratingly brief, do give the researcher some sense of the admistrative structure and concerns of the board.

The keystone of the collection, however, is the complete run of review cards. These cards are arranged variously by date and genre and therein alphabetically by title. They include the title, sub-title, in some cases star, motion picture company, date and whether passed, passed with deletions, or rejected. Those passed with deletions include detailed information on precisely what was removed. These deletions include everything from removal of scenes, to the cutting of certain words from subtitles and "bleeping" of dialogue (which was sometime done by placing lacquer on offending portions of the soundtrack). Cutting was much more prevalent in the early years, therefore these cards provides a much more thorough glimpse into board attitudes than do the later cards which contain few deletions.

The records of the Board of Review contain much that make them worthy of closer attention. The just mentioned review cards provide a glimpse into generally accepted standards of public morality and how they changed with time. As is often the case, however, the glimpse is blurred by the racial, gender, and class biases of the board members who were, for an overwhelming majority of the board's existence, white women. Further, the ordered deletions and the detailed descriptions of them will also be very instructive for those examining gender, views of ethnicity, and the emerging field of "whiteness" studies. These deletions include references to white women in physical danger at the hands of villainous "leering Chinamen," "German spies, " and "Mexicans assaulters." Chastity had to be upheld as well and views of miscegenation had to be avoided at all costsû"Eliminate scenes of black looking apprasingly at girls figure." The implicit assumptions in these deletion statements as well as a study of film titles could be examined longitudinally to provide a picture (though an incomplete one) of white middle class social and moral assumptions and how they changed over time.

Those interested in the history of film and the film industry might use the fee registers and correspondence files to determine who the most pervasive film companies were over time and how they reacted to the board's activities. Also, the enforcement officer sheets would allow those interested in the history of movie theaters in Kansas to get a rough idea of the number that existed and where they were located. These records might also be used to determine if there were regional differences in the movies shown and what this might tell us about those living there.

Finally, those whose research interest is censorship and the protection of freedom of expression will find a plethora of information here. The newspaper clippings and correspondence would be helpful in this case. Particularly ambitious researchers might also compare the Kansas State Board of Review with boards in other states. The correspondence between the Kansas board and others like it would be especially helpful here.

In sum, this unique collection helps us document a significant portion the cultural landscape of Kansas over a fifty year period, a vitally important period that signalled the rise of the mass media-technolgy culture in which we live today. By using this collection we can see how our predecessors dealt with censorship and the role of government in regulating emergent technologies and standards of public decency. Issues as urgent at this writing as they were in 1915 when Kansas took on the movies.