The Last Laugh: Banned in Ontario

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on December 5th, 2012 by Eric Veillette

Released in 1924, Murnau’s film was not screened in Ontario until 1928.

During the winter of 1925, F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece, The Last Laugh, was shown to a very exclusive group of Ontario movie-goers.

The audience was the Ontario Board of Censors, and while they were no doubt impressed by the film’s dazzling cinematography and lack of subtitles, the film was banned simply because it was made in Germany.

Murnau’s film was screened in other provinces and shattered box office records in the United States, but provincial treasurer W.H. Price, under whose authority the censors sanitized cinema, maintained that with the scars of war still too fresh, Ontario’s movie-going public did not want to see German films.

“Before we came into office,” he told the Daily Star, “there was a rule against the showing of German-made films. We have simply continued that policy. I do not believe that the people of Ontario want German films,” said the provincial treasurer of a policy enacted during a national conference of censors in 1919. “No doubt time will come when we will import German pictures just as we do other goods of German manufacture, but at the present time the public temper as I sense it does not call for them.”

Asked whether or not there was propaganda in German films, the provincial treasurer said he didn’t know, “but you never can tell what there might be.”

It would finally be shown at Shea’s Hippodrome in February, 1928. By then, the film’s lead actor, Emil Jannings, had become a star in Hollywood, which led to a softening in attitudes toward German films.

A passionate plea

The Last Laugh was not the first German film to cause controversy in Ontario. In 1921, several social groups, including the Women’s Liberal Association and the Daughters of the Dominion, urged the government to ban public screenings of Ernst Lubitsch’s Passion.

While The Last Laugh deals with the dehumanizing aspects of rank and uniform in post-war Germany, Passion had nothing to do with the country whatsoever – it was an account, told through the lens of a German film-maker, of the French revolution.

Originally released in 1919, the film had been certified by the Board of Censors some time before the Allen chain planned to screen it in February, 1921. Amid the controversy, Censor Board chairman Alex Hamilton released a statement to the press: “While the film Passion was passed upon by the Board of Censors as formerly constituted it has not been seen by the present Board. Upon inquiry we find that it was presented for censorship, and dealt with in the way which was customary by those who were responsible for the censorship at the time.”

Despite the certification, the protests circumvented the Censor Board’s jurisdiction, and the police – who acted as censors in the pre-Censor board days – were now being asked to prevent its public presentation.

Sgt. Moncur, a veteran of the First World War, asked the Board of Control: “Have we fought in vain? Have I fought in vain? Has my son been murdered in vain? Has my other son been gassed in vain. If this film is produced here it is a disgrace to Canada and to the British Empire. There is nothing uplifting in the subject whatever.”

“It is demoralizing in its teaching,” agreed Controller Hiltz of the Board of Control. “There is too much killing and on the platform they are actually shown cutting heads off. I do not see any good in showing it at all.”

The press, and the film’s supporters – which included the Moving Picture Operators Union, as well as a veteran’s association representing 16000 soldiers – were quick to note the hypocrisy at hand, citing that no concerns were raised over the $700 000 worth of cutlery, toys and other products imported from Germany during the month of November. “This does not come into competition with anything made in Canada,” said J.B. Clonk of the Allen Theatres chain. “It is not underselling Canadian goods or cutting Canadian workmen out of employment.”

An ad for Passion in the Arizona Daily Star, October, 1927.

At Massey Hall, one of the city’s biggest stages, German operas and plays were often shown without incident.Passion’s story, about Madame DuBarry, had been presented on stage in the past without a whisper.

Defending British honour
Nevertheless, the board voted that the film be banned. Mayor Tommy Church added: “The police commissioners will take it up on Friday at two o’clock,” when the film was scheduled to preview at the Allen Theatre, located at the corner of Richmond and Victoria.

With Passion now banned, the Allen chain filled the spot with another historical drama, The Romance of Lady Hamilton, which they inexplicably billed as “the British version of Passion.”

But it seems the whole affair was doomed from the very beginning. “Scarcely has Toronto recovered from one attack of “Passion” when another outburst threatens to overwhelm it,” reported the Daily Star on February 12, 1921. The Navy League was now “up in arms” over the way the film treats the honour of Horatio Nelson.

 The Allen chain released a statement: “British decency is not soiled, British honour is not flecked, nor is British gratitude minimized in the story of TROLH. Surely Canadian patriotism is not superior to the patriotism of the Brit producers of this film, and if the Navy League of Canada saw fit to exhibit the former story of the life of Lord Nelson, there can be no insult intended or gathered from the present production.”

The film played without further incident, and the Allen’s advertising for the film paid off – the chain’s flagship theatre at Richmond and Victoria was packed throughout the British film’s week-long run.

Regarding The Passion incident, it would seem, through the press at least, that the role of chief censor would not become the public-facing role it would later be under O.J. Silverthorne, Donald Sims and Mary Brown, the latter often enforcing her draconian views onto the movie-going public.

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Restricted: Ontario film censorship in the 1950s

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on November 30th, 2011 by Eric Veillette

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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One hundred years of film censorship in Ontario

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on September 22nd, 2011 by Eric Veillette

Since 2011 marks the centenary of the creation of the Ontario Board of Censors, we present the first in a series of articles examining film censorship in Ontario.

There was a time in Ontario when film versions of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were too violent or too racy for the public good.

In February 1910, one Staff Insp. Kennedy seized a print of Hamlet. The Daily Star quoted this arbiter of public morals about how how he “witnessed a moving picture show of Hamlet, written I think by Shakespeare, this week. . . .That’s all very well to say it’s a famous drama, but it doesn’t keep from being a spectacle of violence.”

Weeks later, Kennedy deemed a film adaptation of Romeo & Juliet inappropriate for Toronto the Good.

Periodical Jack Canuck mocking the Ontario Board of Censors, July 1912 (courtesy Paul Moore)

Despite a self-censorship agreement between film distributors and the province, Toronto’s police force, in those early days of cinema, had the power to decide what would offend strait-laced church-goers. They also inspected theatres for fire safety.

Janet Robinson, who today chairs the Ontario Film Review Board, occupying bright, sparse headquarters at Yonge St. and Sheppard Ave., sheds some light on Kennedy’s decisions: “In those circumstances, all murders and love affairs, even those in Shakespeare’s plays, had to be censored.”

The province created a board of censors in 1911 with the drafting of the Ontario Theatres and Cinematographs Act. Distributors now had to submit their films, both old and new, for approval.

One of the board’s mandates was to defend a pro-British attitude, and Hollywood’s offerings that promoted jingoistic American nationalism often suffered under the censor’s scissors.

Today, at the Ontario Film Review Board, censorship is a four-letter word, at least to Robinson, a former nurse at the Toronto Star, and chair since 2004. The board has “members” not “censors” she insists. Films are no longer snipped and sanitized, merely classified.

Its hands-off approach is a far cry from that of the original censor board, which gathered in 1914 to publicly burn 40,000 feet of rejected nitrate film. That display of bravado was captured in a newsreel by William James, a prominent early Toronto photographer.

Since 2001, the year the review board came under fire after refusing to pass Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, films have been rated in five categories: General, Parental Guidance, 14A, 18A or Restricted. The latter category is generally reserved for adult sex titles, of which there have been 2,810 – more than half the 4,577 films classified in the 2009-2010 period.

The board’s 17 members (soon to become 20) spend four days a month watching films submitted for classification. Most of the members are seniors and women. They monitor the number of foul words, assess risqué or violent scenes, and slot the films into a category.

“At the end of the day, we’re here to protect the children and give the parents informed knowledge about what’s in a film,” says Robinson.

Ever since film transformed the world of entertainment, Ontario’s public authorities have struggled with how to guard against potentially corrupting influence, particularly impressionable youth. Moving pictures were, after all, the first form of mass-entertainment to include children alongside adults.

“On the one hand, a moral panic using children as an excuse can lead to draconian measures,” says Paul Moore, a Ryerson University sociologist and author of Now Playing: Early Movie-going and the Regulation of Fun. “But on the other hand, when movies first appeared, until the censor board was created, children really had free access to them. It was the Internet of its day, without any parental controls or restrictions.”

Screen-shot from a 1914 William James newsreel documenting the original censor board burning approximately 40 000 feet of rejected nitrate film. Credit: Library & Archives Canada.

A ratings system was introduced in the 1940s by O.J. Silverthorne, who became chief censor in 1934, remaining until 1973. Affectionately known as “Silver-shears,” entire scenes were excised from Hitchcock’s Rope, and in A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh, the line “kiss me on the mouth” was snipped. Brando, as delinquent leader, was also fodder for the censors in The Wild One, released in 1953 (it was banned outright in B.C., Alberta, and Quebec).

But in the 1970s, Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, featuring a portlier Brando, would pass the censors. Silverthorne recounts that “we just closed our eyes and ears and let it go” in Malcolm Dean’s book, Censored! Only In Canada!

Film censorship in the 1960s reflected a generational gap, says Moore. “It was less that Silverthorne was out of touch than everyone over 30 was out of touch,” says Moore, who adds that I Am Curious (Yellow), which was cut along with Ulysses and High, was notoriously risqué for its time.

But Moore argues the 1970s and early 1980s are a different story: “The youth revolution should have been over by then, and the generation gap long past.”

Pretty Baby, starring Brooke Shields as a child prostitute, was banned in 1978. In 1980, The Tin Drum was refused approval without heavy cutting. Even the National Film Board could not escape its scrutiny, when Not A Love Story, a documentary critical of pornography, was rejected because of scenes depicting hardcore pornography.

In 1980, Mary Brown became chief censor and locked horns with the likes of artist Michael Snow. In 1983, she lamented in a speech before a group of anti-pornography crusaders how “the film industry has changed drastically since The Sound of Music provided role models which reinforced values and attitudes taught in the homes and classrooms.”

“Brown’s name became synonymous with censorship as she seldom hid her views on what should and should not be seen in theatres, and with the advent of VCRs, in peoples’ homes,” says Moore.

Brown’s tenure ended in 1986, when the Liberals took control of the Ontario Legislature, ending 47 years of Conservative rule. The Ontario Censor Board was disbanded, replaced by the Ontario Film Review Board.

Today’s process still has its critics. John Porter, a Toronto filmmaker at odds with the board since 1979, when it was cracking down on unapproved screenings in performance spaces, thinks the board still has too much power.

“They think it’s a big liberalization, but the words are interchangeable. Compulsory classification is still censorship,” says Porter. He argues that independent filmmakers do not have the funds to pay for the classification, which costs $4.20 per minute of film.

“For the non-profit sector, having our films rated was never a concern, because most films shown, ironically, have no sex or violence in them.”

An art gallery or a film festival can bypass the classification process by obtaining a de-facto Restricted rating, meaning nobody under 18 can attend.

At the Legislative Assembly in 2005, Porter recalled a 1983 incident where his 9-year-old nephew was turned away from a screening of his films at an art gallery in Peterborough because he had not submitted them for approval.

Porter suggests the American system of voluntary classification would work much better. If not rated, a film cannot receive a wide release.

“That suits me fine,” he says.

Robinson insists she seldom receives complaints about the current rating system.

In May, she received a letter calling for content advisory for homosexual “behaviour,” but “we’re not about to turn back the clock — that’s discrimination.”

As for another complaint about a 14A rated film showing a young couple frolicking under blankets: “You saw nothing. We know what’s going on. And I’m quite sure a 14-year-old today knows what’s going on.”

This article was originally published in August, 2010, by the Toronto Star under the much wittier headline ‘The day Shakespeare was banned.’ With thanks to Alfred Holden and Ellen Moorhouse.

Image sources from top: Auditorium Theatre (later the Pickford), Queen St.W, opened in 1906 (City of Toronto Archives F1244_it0320c); Jack Canuck mocking the Ontario Board of Censors, July 1912 (courtesy Paul Moore); Screen-shot from a William James newsreel documenting the original censor board burning approximately 40 000 feet of rejected nitrate film. Video courtesy of DJ Turner, National Archives)

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Ontario Film Censorship: Then & Now

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on August 27th, 2010 by Eric Veillette

In case you missed it, I wrote about the history of film censorship in Ontario for the Toronto Star last weekend. I was surprised to learn from a few friends who didn’t know we still had censors (nowadays known as the Ontario Film Review Board), but the truth is that Ontario has had constant film censorship, certification, review — whatever you want to call it — for nearly a century.

I originally set out to contrast the puritanical outlook on film exhibition from the board’s inception in 1911 to its latter days in the 1980s with today’s “hands-off” approach, but judging by the article’s positive reaction, from academics to art gallery owners to theatre exhibitors, many people out there think the Ontario Film Review board still has too much power.

If you’re curious to know more about the early days, I heartily suggest Paul Moore’s book Now Playing: Early Movie-going and the Regulation of Fun and for modern-day battles with the OFRB, have a look at Taryn Sirove’s dissertation “Freedom, sex power: Film and Video Regulation in Ontario.”

Up top: the original Ontario Board of Censors burning 40 000 ft. of rejected nitrate film for a newsreel shot by William James in 1914. Library & Archives Canada.

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