Restricted: Ontario film censorship in the 1950s


While rummaging through the Revue Cinema’s projection booth in preparation for a recent Silent Sundays screening, I found this old “Adult entertainment” sign buried under some obsolete  electronics.

As we recently examined, Ontario was the first Canadian province to enact “Adult entertainment” film designations, reflecting the public’s reaction to the changing mores in Hollywood and European film-making. With their playful italics and authoritative bold type, these signs dangled underneath a theatre’s marquee or canopy — seen here at the Mavety Theatre showing The Tender Trap in 1956 — leading pre-pubescent boys to imagine what restrictive fun they were missing out on unless accompanied by an adult.

By the time Frank Sinatra’s film hit the west-end theatre, two other rating designations existed in Ontario’s 427 cinemas and 82 drive-in theatres: “General,” open to all, and “Restricted,” enacted in 1953, admitting those 18 and over.

Silverthorne on the Theatres Act in the 1950s: “probably the most dictatorial act on the continent.”

But in the mid-1950s, cinemas were no longer the only place to see a film, and the kink in the neck of theatre exhibitors — otherwise known as television broadcasters — realized they weren’t under the jurisdiction of the Ontario Board of Censors and ceased submitting films for approval, prompting chief censor O.J. Silverthorne’s call for a federal film censorship board.

“What good is it for us to have one of the best Theatre Acts on the continent in this province, apply it conscientiously and carefully to all films shown in theatres, and then have television stations able to show any film they want without coming near us?” he asked the Toronto Daily Star outside the Board’s Leaside Ave. office on November 2, 1957.

Silverthorne had yet to witness anything licentious on Ontario airwaves, but there was “always that chance,” added the Chairman, who, at least weary of the power held by his office, once referred to the Theatres Act as “probably the most dictatorial act on the continent.”

Calls had previously been made by the clergy in censoring CBLT-Toronto, the CBC’s television service, prompting Public Relations spokesman Ron Fraser to defend the public broadcaster’s self-censoring methods. If something wasn’t in good taste, “it got the axe,” Fraser told the Daily Star. “As for the variety shows — sure, we might show girl dancers swinging their skirts or wearing brief costumes. Surely that isn’t indecent.”

Back at the Board of Censors, Rock & Roll movies were another problem faced by Silverthorne at the half-century mark. Socially conscious films like The Blackboard Jungle (1955), which featured Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, led to teenpics like Rock, Rock, Rock (1956) and Sweet Beat (1957). Silverthorne, whose censors and five inspectors regulated theatres province-wide, saw the B-grade filler as having a harmful effect on kids. “The rock and roll era has not helped our work one bit and most of the films using it as a theme are full of hoodlum goons,” he said.

Teenpics, however, would be the least of Silverthorne’s worries. As the decade progressed, more European products — a few of which featured the supple curves of Brigitte Bardot or Gina Lollabrigida — made their way into Ontario theatres. Silverthorne’s 1958 report to the Premier showed a decrease in the amount of films shown overall, but a 30% increase in non-British imports — a natural supply and demand reaction to the broadening multi-culturalism of the 1950s — saw the emergence of a new kind of censorship.

Many of the European films censored that year weren’t done so to shield the eyes of puritanical North American audiences from any salacious material, but to prevent the perpetuation of what Silverthorne called the “misunderstanding of American life” shown in the immigrants’ countries of origin. With the new influx, Silverthorne’s broadening of cultural borders shows faint irony, given that overt American patriotism was once shunned by his predecessors.

The Toronto Daily Star, January 10, 1956; November 2, 1957; May 8 1959.
Liberty Magazine, February 1957, pp.32-35
Archives of Ontario, RG 31-2, Silverthorne’s 1958 annual report
Above image of O.J. Silverthorne from Toronto Daily Star, November 2, 1957.

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