The Censor's Triumph

The Censor's Triumph
by Floyd Dell

Written in 1915. First published in The Masses, a socialist magazine published in New York City in 1915.

It has been a reproach against the arts hitherto that they were immoral. Beginning with the work of Phidias, who “made Aphrodite without any nightie,” sculpture has been notoriously in 1’ ii iiunlng just as bad. Poetry has encouraged any amount of naughtiness; there was the case join and Francesca, for Instance: two well1 nht up young people who would never for a Jiiimt ha even thought of doing anything t hadn’t been put into their heads; but n ‘eading the poem about Lancelot and I tu, &md well, as Dante says, “in the book Ii I’ nl no more that day” Even music has I I up crilutions with which perfect gentlemen a u1Ily LuIic’ would not othcrwise be afflictei •• I lvi novels and plays, everybody knows how ‘iihil ILnun and Shaw and Zola have been, Yes, Ifl hivc encouraged wickedness; that is, the ii thi p vit have done so. A new art has, r1 bun created which is free of this rePure fwm the beginning, it stands alone j Ii amlul sisters as the only moral art—the In Iitures.

The trouble wid the other arts, of course, is that they were allowed too much freedom; it was not strictly insisted upon that they limit themselves to a view of life in conformity wth the conventions. Sculpture and painfng were allowed to represent men and women in a state which the proprieties distinctly forbid. ‘iothing like that is permitted in the movies, Poetry and music are allowed to goin convincing detail into the subject of sexual passion. In the movies that is, of course, touched on as lightly as possible; at the crisis of a love episode the movie hero and heroine exchange a fraternal kiss, and then the attention is quickly drawn to something else.

The difierence in this respect between the movies and drama or fiction is less otwious, but it is even more profound. The harmfulness of book. and plays has lain in the fact that thy were permitted to ascribe good motives to bad actions, and bad motives to good actions, and general!) to mix up right and wrong until people were led to doubt whether right and wrong ‘were two perfectly distinct things. This has all been put a stop to in the movies. Good people are good and bad people are bad, and anybody can tell the difference.

Moreot er, to ensure all this i -‘opriety, the movies have instituted a self-censorship. in this respect they are unlike all the other arts, whidi have wantonly desired freedom, and chafed under restraint The movies, on the contrary, pay d e expenses of a National Board of Censorship, to which they invite moral experts to belong, and to which they voluntarily submit their productions. Anything improper is cut out of the reel. If a kiss is too realistic. several hundred feet are expurgated right out of the middle of it.

Unfortunately, the movies are dependent to a great extent on those tainted arts, fiction and the drama, for their materials. Movie-scenario writers cannot write fast enough to supply the demand, so books and plays have to be drawn upon. The public, moreover, has not yet been completely weaned away from these dangerous sources of enter. tainment, and they like to see famous books and plays done over in the movies. This fact is responsible for the slight suggestion of reality, with all its attendant demoralization, that has crept into the movies. However, this difficulty is beginning to be met—successfully and subtly.

It has been found possible to preserve the outlines of a story or play, the characters, the scenes, and most of the incidents, and yet rob it entirely of those qualities which made it dangerous. This may be illustrated b) the case of Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” which has been turned into a movie-play.

Ibsen was an immoral writer. He didn’t believe in morals, and he wrote this play to discredit conventional morality. He made it dear in his play that the reason why Obwald went insane was that his mother was such a puritan that she drove his father out to seek pleasure in the company of syphilitic prostitutes; and he points out, and makes the woman realize, that if she had eloped with Pastor Manders, as she wanted to, this would not have happened. The pastor’s injunction, “Go back to your husband,” and the whole theory of Conventional marriage which it implies, is made by Ibsen to seem hateful and stupid.

Well, all that is changed in the movies. Oswald is there, his mother is there, Regina is there (elevated considerably in the social scale, but still recognizahle)—afl is there, but it is not the same. Instead of being a normal pleasureloving young man who is wrecked by an unsatisfactory marriage, Os wald’s father is shown as a scoundrel who marries knowing that he has a transmissible venereal disease; and he teaches his innocent little boy to drink beer, which ]caes no doubt that he is really a bad man, The wife is a saint and martyr, and no one would ever guess that Ibsen thought he was to blame. The great scene in the play is that which shows the doctor hurrying up hill and down dale breathlessly to the church in which Oswald and Regina ‘ire to be wedded, arriving just in time to hold up his hand and say impressively: “1 forbid this marriage!” In the final scene, as Ibsen wrote it, Oswald’s mother gives him poison with her own hand. That would never do! It might suggest the idea to many a hitherto innocent mother, and an epidemic of slaughter might occur in our best families. So in the movies Oswald wriggles across the flour, making faces, toward the bottle of rat- poison, while his mother and the pastor are hurrying —up lull and down dale, of course—to save him, Finding the dead body, his mother swoons in the good man’s comforting arms, pitied—and respected— by everybody.

All the harm, the fever of thought, of doubt, of inquiry which Ibsen’s play might set up in impressionable minds, is thus eliminated. The husk is preserved, and those who have seen it will think they have seen Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” as advertised outside, Thus is art robbed of its sting. truth of its victory.

Another movie-drama whch illustrates what can be done to fiction, is “Manon Lescaut.” Some opera versions of this story exist, but they all represent Manon as being incidentally unfaithful to her young lever, while nevertheless loving him dearly. Probably it was thought that this characteristic of hers, this curious combination of faithlessness and devotion, was the heart of the story, and the secret of the charm of the book, But that view does not hold in the movies. Manon is a virtuous heroine. The Chevalier does not cheat at cards, either, in the movies. It is made into a story of persecuted innocence.

These changes are no doubt due in part to the fact that the virtuous ladies and pure-minded gentle men who rearrange and enact thece stories for the movies, are genuinely unable to believe that the original authors could really have intended a sweet mother to poison her boy, and a beautiful and charming girl to leave her lover for a rich old man, They are too innocent to understand such things, so they leave them out. But they have an eye to their Censors, too, and if they forgot and let a woman (who wasn’t a prostitute) smoke a cigarette in one of their pictures, they would be gently reminded. The cigarettesmoking lady would be cut out of the reel, “It is our policy,” say the Censors, “not to show a good woman doing anehing which is contrary to the moral standards of the community,” and they adduce the cigarette example. Good women do not smoke cigarettes in the movies—nor do anything else improper, depend upon that.

Fiction and drama ha e always maintained the right to represent good men and women as behaving in ways contrary to the moral standards of the cornrnunity. (Thomas Hardy even went so far in his defiance of conventional morality as to label that hussy, Tess Durbeyfieid, ho was no model for our young womanhood, as “A Pure Woman,” right on the title-page.) This only means, of course, that fiction and drama are habitually and constitutionally and altogether hopelessly immoral. But the defect is being remedied in the manner descrbed, We care not who writes the books and plays (because nobody reads or sees them any more), if we can turn them into movies. Thus, steri1ied, emasculated, completely innocuous, they can safely he pre sented to the public.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1969, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.