While the Internet provides easy access to the darkest corners of the imagination, the concern about decency in media is not new. Years ago Maryland's civic leaders believed they could control their community by monitoring the movies. The film industry was going through a transition in 1916 when Maryland established a board of censors. The nickelodeon boom was ending, and the studio era was on the rise. Movies were extremely popular, and the stories they showed were becoming more sophisticated. Wary of this new mass media, authorities charged film police with previewing all pictures to decide whether they were "moral and proper."
One of the first films to be banned was a pacifistic picture with a daring message called "War Brides" (1916). In the film, a king orders his soldiers to impregnate townsfolk to build up his army. One woman protests, and in the final moments cries out, "If you will not give us women the right to vote for or against war, I shall not bear a child for such a country!" She kills herself, her body landing at the king's feet. State censors knew that this film, released during World War I with an anti-authority message, had to be silenced.
Banning a political picture was rare. Maryland's morality militia was mostly concerned with suggestive scenes, titillating images and illicit passion. Drinking, gambling and glorified criminal action were also red-flagged and blue-penciled.
By the 1940s, one colorful censor, Helen Tingley, felt that the real trouble with motion pictures wasn't immorality. In her words, "It was stupidity." Viewing eight films a day, she became jaded by bottom of the bill B-movies. After watching Shirley Temple in a late-career stinker, Tingley remarked, "We can reject pictures that are sacrilegious, obscene, indecent, immoral. … Too bad we can't bar this little gem for inhumanity to the audience."
Tingley had a sense of humor, but the subject of censorship was deadly serious. Motion picture regulators used their authority to maintain conservative values in a rapidly changing world.
In 1960, a new censor stepped in: Mary Avara. Avara enthusiastically exercised her authority to cut, edit and ban films. "I made up my own ratings," she announced during a guest spot on the Johnny Carson Show, "G for garbage and R for rotten. How else could you describe such filth?"
But under Avara's watch, the censor's power diminished. A documentary called "Naked Amazon" focused on tribal life in the South American rainforest. It was banned for nudity, but the decision was overruled by Maryland's Court of Appeals. Next, a naturalist travelogue, "Have Figure, Will Travel" followed three women along the intercostal waterway to a nudist resort. The censors found that nakedness improper. Once again the Maryland court overturned the decision. When Russ Meyer's "Lorna" came to town, the king of "nudie-cuties" found his film blocked. He convinced the court that the exploitation flick was not obscene, however, and it played on. From cornfed pinups to indigenous cultures, Maryland's censors helplessly watched a new era of values emerge.
The harshest blow came in 1965 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state's film law unconstitutional in Freedman v. Maryland. It wasn't the issue of free speech that was the problem; rather, the high court found the film commission's long, complicated administrative process deprived filmmakers of due process and timely responses.
Although their power was weakened, Maryland's censor board reclaimed some authority as the pendulum swung a bit too far toward the wild side. A darker current was emerging in American culture. Avara, still commanding Maryland's film board, was determined to hold it off as long as possible. An S&M Nazi-themed sexploitation film entitled "Love Camp 7" was deemed obscene in 1970 and banned. Maryland's moral authorities successfully stopped "Deep Throat." The darkest entry in the sex and violence genre, a film called "Snuff," was also banned in Baltimore.
Movies have the power to vividly illustrate the warp and woof of the world we live in. Some may not be in the best of taste, but banning them — or books — for content that falls short of illegal is antithetical to our First Amendment rights. We should remember that as we discuss what we'll tolerate online.
Jeremy Geltzer (MrGeltzer@gmail.com) is a Los Angeles-based attorney and the author of "Dirty Words & Filthy Pictures: Film and the First Amendment" (University of Texas Press).