Curves, cussing and beer: Ontario film censorship in the 1940s

Many of the obituaries published in the wake of Hollywood star Jane Russell’s death in February mentioned the heated censorship debate over her sultry appearance in The Outlaw. Produced in 1943, the film began a two-week run at Toronto’s Loew’s Yonge St. Theatre on December 5, 1946.

It was also among the first films in Ontario to receive the new “Adult Entertainment” designation, restricting admittance to anyone under the age of 16.

O.J. Silverthorne, Ontario’s chief censor since 1934, had certified The Outlaw in May, claiming that “with the cuts that have already been made in the U.S. and some of our own, we couldn’t see anything objectionable about it.” At the time, The Outlaw was still banned in several American states and was rejected in Quebec.

The first film in Toronto to advertise the new designation was The Blue Dahlia, released on June 1. Other notables were The Postman Always Rings Twice and Scarlet Street, released in July and September, respectively.

Long before the 1911 creation of the Ontario Censor Board, film regulation had its roots firmly cemented in protecting children from the “corrupting and immoral” influence of the flickers. Although Silverthorne’s designation set a nation-wide precedent for future classification systems, it was enacted under significant pressure from non-governmental associations.

The road to restriction

Beginning with the Ontario Theatres & Cinematographs Act of 1911, children under the age of 15 were restricted from attending a movie-house unless accompanied by an adult. For 1914 only, the act specified the adult “must be of the same household.” Regulations are loosened in 1919 when Saturday and holiday matinees are permitted as long as the theatre employs a matron to patrol the aisles.

Silverthone’s 1945 annual report to the Premier stated that films should be “clean and wholesome, and that features that tend to debase moral or influence the mind to improper conduct shall be eliminated.” After a film or its promotional material was sanitized and approved by the censors, its scheduling was generally at the discretion of exhibitors.

The call for more protective measures came in January of 1946 when members of the Toronto Board of Education accused Silverthorne and his merry band of scissor-wielding censors of not doing enough to keep children from seeing “adult” content.

Dr. Kenneth W. Rogers, head of Toronto’s Big Brother association, claimed that kids of the 1940s got “all the information about how to conduct their crimes from radio and movies and are constantly being fed on pictures presenting gangsters living in fabulous luxury and the one feature of crime pictures they think false is the moral that crime doesn’t pay.” Among others, Rogers singled out The Thin Man Goes Home, a screwball-mystery flick which was tame even by 1940s standards.

But for the most part, Silverthorne agreed with Dr. Kenneth Rogers. In April, Silverthorne appeared before a meeting of the League of Women of Toronto on Sherbourne St., echoing his 1945 report’s findings on the socio-economic links to juvenile delinquency: “It is regrettable that in sections of the city where social agencies are working the hardest, the movie house owners are showing the type of films that are most dangerous…”

The exhibition industry, however, said the claims were subjective. Morris Stein of Famous Players Canada said that pictures unsuitable for children are “withdrawn on Saturday morning matinees, when most children attend theatres.” Stein also felt that film exhibitors were being singled out and that magazine sellers and radio broadcasters weren’t receiving any blame.

While valid, Stein was perhaps unaware that a similar campaign was underway against news-stand magazine and comic book distributors; that same month, church groups and educators were calling on the Ontario government to create a literary counterpart to the Ontario Censor board, one that would deal with “salacious literature.” (Such a thing already existed, albeit under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of National Revenue, which oversaw customs and imports.)

When announcing the new certification, Silverthorne told the Daily Star it would exist as a one year experiment, but it stuck permanently, eventually leading to more categorical classification in the 1950s.

But did it solve anything?

It seems the “Adult Entertainment” classification wasn’t enough for some church-going busy-bodies.

Representing various church ministries in 1948, Rev. McGrath demanded cuts to two “evil and pernicious” scenes in Summer Holiday, based on Eugene O’Neill’s play Ah, Wilderness! The two scenes included a “beer drinking Fourth of July contest”; and in the other, an adolescent boy is introduced to “one of the chorus girls, a lewd woman.” Silverthorne acquiesced, although interestingly, some prints escaped the shears and were screened uncut, igniting further condemnation from the church.

When Alred Hitchcock’s Rope hit Toronto and Windsor theatres, although heavily censored, objections were still raised by the Local Council of Women. “We thought it was an unwholesome picture and thought many would be susceptible to its influence,” wrote Council president Mrs. F.C. Brunke — echoing Rogers’ comments from 1946 without inferring to children. In a letter to Warner Bros., Silverthorne mentioned the Council of Women had sent a delegation to his office. “Of the dozen who came,” he noted that “only three or four said they had seen the film, so I had it screened for them. After the showing, I don’t think all the ladies were in agreement about the picture.”

Silverthorne didn’t win them over entirely; the film was temporarily withdrawn and further cuts were made, once again showing the influence the public lobby held over the censors.

Silverthorne the censor

O.J. Silverthorne from 1974 edition of the Motion Picture Pioneers Yearbook.

Retiring in 1974, the first two decades of Silverthorne’s tenure were, as Malcolm Dean points out in his book “Censored! Only in Canada,” dichotomous at best; modern and progressive — he was the first censor to judge films based on their own merits — yet sometimes bull-headed. In 1936, despite rave reviews from the church, he rejected the Warner Bros. film Green Pastures on the grounds that it was sacrilegious. In 1947, he was accused of rejecting the U.S. civil rights documentary Native Land for being “too American” — something that would have concerned his predecessors whose mandate was to promote pro-British attitudes.

But his level-headedness was often apparent, like in 1943, when he stood his ground against church groups as well as American and British censors who objected to the words “damn, bloody, hell and bastard” in the war film In Which We Serve. Historically, the board objected to those words, but in this case Silverthorne did not object since they were spoken by, you know, men facing death as a British naval vessel is sinking.

He also had a quirky, showman-like sense of humour. While presenting dull educational films from various provincial ministries during the 1948 Exhibition, Daily Star columnist Jack Karr said Silverthorne mixed things up during the Health Department’s allotment “by separating educational films on heart disease and cancer with a short on the life of Stephen Foster.” For the Treasury Department’s slot, Silverthorne instead played a musical short. “No use trying to entertain the public with money matters,” quipped Karr.

Toronto Daily Star, January 8, 1946; February 1, 1946; April 10, 1946; May 1, 1946; May 29, 1946; May 18, 1946, December 5, 1946; September 5, 1947; August 4, 1948; December 10, 1948.
Dean, Malcolm. Censored, Only in Canada. p. 81, Virgo Press, 1981.
Rasky, Frank. “The muddling malarkey of Canada’s movie, book censors,” Liberty Magazine, May 1956.
Moore, Paul S. “Now Playing: Early Movie-going and the Regulation of Fun.” SUNY Press, 2009.

Images from top: Toronto Star, December 5, 1946; West End Theatre, Mavety St. Archives of Ontario; O.J. Silverthorne from 1974 edition of the Motion Picture Pioneers Yearbook.

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