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.”
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 honourNevertheless, 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.