By Elias Savada.
Baltimore filmmaker Joe Tropea tackles a not very pressing subject with his new film. It’s an admirable history lesson and enjoyable examination of Maryland’s long-deceased era of film censorship, a period that extended from 1916 to 1981. Most people don’t remember the state’s control over all film content that would play on any movie screen. Those of us local cineastes over 50 should recall seeing the censor board seal of approval at the front of a screening anywhere from Elkton to Oakland, or from Hagerstown to the northern tip of Assateague Island, as all theatre exhibitors were required to present approved product that the board deemed decent unto itself. If you saw a film in the Chesapeake Bay State during this time, there was no guarantee you were seeing the whole film. The version of Caligula (1979) that played here – I’ve lived in the state for more than 40 years – was nowhere close to what played in other parts of America. Nor was the Oscar-winning documentary The Sky Above, The Mud Below (1961). One for sex, the other for the indigenous Africa natives who wore no clothes. The latter tale of cinematic castration is comically told through the horrified eyes of Alan Shecter, the son of a censor board member.
When I was working at The American Film Institute in the early 1970s, on its cataloging project which documented features produced and released in the United States in numerous decade-long volumes, specifically the 1960s – which contained a large amount of pornography – staffers often used the slim annual brochures crafted by various states (including Maryland) that listed all the films clipped or banned by the censors that year. These text-only volumes provided other interesting details about what was snipped, particularly the sex titles. As this was about 25 years before the internet started making such research easier, the catalogers would use the date an obscure film was passed or banned by the board as a close guess to its release (although it most likely would have already played in New York or other larger cities). Today, a website such as newspapers.com can track a film’s release so much easier.
Tropea, who co-wrote Sickies Making Films with Robert A. Emmons Jr. (who also edited), fashions the work as part 100-movie clip show, part case study, and part talking head project. Among the latter are several local authorities, like Robert Headley, author of Motion Picture Exhibition in Baltimore; Pat Moran, who runs the city’s Charles Theater; State Senator Howard Denis; and, as any good Baltimore production should – especially on such a taboo subject – director/provocateur John Waters. Interspersed among the multitude of clips is archival footage of several of the censor board members (grandmothers, wives of business executives, people who watch movies – a stern and loyal bunch) politically appointed to the board.
The filmmakers add in newspaper clippings, tv news stories, and tales of various U.S. court decisions interpreting censorship back in its more prudish days. Ample time is spent uncovering the heavy coating of detritus tossed on the 1933 Czech art film Ecstasy, an immoral tale of love, lust, and infidelity that introduced (an occasionally naked) Hedy Lamarr to American audiences. It was banned in many countries and had one heck of a time getting released in America. Social and racial upheaval, as exemplified in the 1949 Oscar-nominated release Pinky – in which a light-skinned African-American woman (Jeanne Crain) passes for white – also saw efforts by various boards to ban the film. Religion had its day in court as well. Crazy times.
Historical perspectives are nicely illuminated in Sickies Making Films, irregularly sprinkling a segment or two as light animated fare. The film more than adequately chronicles the rise of film as mass media entertainment and the role that select political and religious organizations had in creating various city (Chicago, 1907) and state bodies (Pennsylvania, 1911) that would offer “useful” cuts to films that offered up “useless brutality” or lawlessness. The officials who foisted shears to nitrate were convinced they were watchdogs for the greater good. Generally the boards were outgrowths of local police departments, where cops would visit theatres and witness inflammatory images they felt deserved taking the exhibitor to court.
Interesting enough, there were not a lot a states that set up official boards. Others included Ohio and Kansas in 1913, New York in 1921, Virginia a year later, and lastly Massachusetts in 1926. And hundreds of municipalities chimed in. Violence, lascivious behavior, nudity, disrespect for the law, and over-passionate love scenes were but a few of the reasons that the Maryland censors could act on any production offered for review.
Mary Avara, one of the more belligerent censor board members who took to the talk show circuit during the 1970s, spun her own rating system: GP (Garbage Production), R (Rotten), and BR (Beyond Repair). “If it’s real bad, 4 R’s. Rotten, Rotten, Rotten, and Rotten.”
Useful or not, the censor board ultimately proved too much of an embarrassment for the state, particularly after exhibitor Ronald Freeman, owner of the Rex Theater (an exploitation house at the time) in Baltimore, decided to buck the system and show a film without the board’s seal. Despite twice losing his case in state court, he prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court. Maryland’s Attorney General, Thomas J. Finan, called the decision “the Armageddon of motion picture censorship.” Despite the loss, Maryland rewrote its law and that withstood closing the board for another 15 years. On step forward, two steps back.
Sickies Making Films won’t appeal to everyone, but its exhaustive look at this slice of cinema life that existed way beyond its expiration date. Art and ideas didn’t need to be neutered by those who held the scissors to many of the more than 40,000 films screened before the three-member board. In its final decade, the Maryland Censor Board was a laughing board that existed on financial fumes. Fumes that eventually suffocated it.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).