Listening to the recent episode 362 of the B Movie Podcast, Vince Rotolo and Nic Brown mentioned an opening title card in their review of He Who Gets Slapped (1924). Just after the MGM logo, there was a card that read “Approved by the Kansas State Board of Review”. Being from Kansas, I immediately became intrigued. It didn’t take much research before I found out exactly what this was all about. Censorship my friends, right here in our very own B movie theatre.
In the early days of cinema, individuals took it upon themselves to censor the films to protect those with “delicate sensibilities” and uphold the strong moral fiber of our state against the evils of Hollywood. Such censorship was approved by the state legislature in the form of the Kansas State Board of Review.
Although formed in 1913, it wasn’t until 1915 that state funding was provided, which allowed a small and elite group of concerned citizens to preview and edit all films wishing to be shown in Kansas. Now, other states had similar such groups and they too had legal support. Some people agreed with such acts while others, dare I say the more sensibly minded, opposed such crushing of the freedom of expression. Original board members included the Superintendent of Public Instruction, W.D. Ross, along with the Rev. Festus Foster and Miss Carrie Simpson. They would charge a film company upwards of $1 or more per reel of film, while cartoons and educational films were only charged $.25. Of course, a theater could go ahead and show a film that wasn’t approved but at a cost of $25 to $100 for the first offense and $100 for every day after that. Needless to say, it was smarter to go along with the will of the government.
A film company could appeal any such edits made by the board. The official Appeal Board consisted of the state governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state. It is mind boggling that our government officials had nothing better to do with their time. Edits to film would be done by removing titles card or frames of film during the silent era. With sound, they would actually use lacquer over the sound portion of the film strip. While most film companies were initially willing to subject themselves and their filmmakers to such censorship, some studios would grow weary of the practices over a period of time. Warner Brothers became the first to protest after The Outlaw (1943) ran into issues. They decided not to show their films in Kansas. Other companies would agree to the censorship and then send an unedited film to the movie theatres. There’s always a way around censorship.
The Kansas State Board of Review grew in importance over time, moving into larger buildings and receiving more and more state funding. Of course, being a board member had its perks. You were able to see every movie coming into the state absolutely free. That is where some of the controversies began to appear. Film companies accused board members of showing films to family and friends for free. Many also began to accuse the board of imposing their outdated morals upon a society that was changing. The questionable qualifications of board members over the years would also come unto public scrutiny.
There would be various appeals over the years, some of the more noteworthy included Birth of a Nation (1915) and a 1937 newsreel that did not project the correct political side to suit the board. It was other acts such as these that would come into play in 1954 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that states could only censor films for obscenity and not for what may go against their own personal morals. The times were beginning to change and the Kansas State Board of Reviews power was greatly diminished.
While an attempt to shut down the board in the early 50s was eventually sidelined, it was only a temporary reprieve. The board limped along for another decade with reduced power. By 1965, Kansas remained one of only two states with a film censorship review board. Columbia Pictures decided to test the waters by not submitting two of their films for review, Bunny Lake is Missing and The Bedford Incident. The Kansas State Board of Review would challenge the act but a local court ruled against them. An attempt to have the Supreme Court rule in their favor failed as well. The Kansas State Board of Review was given sixty days to shut down.
In the end, the Kansas State Board of Review surrendered all property back to the State of Kansas, with a little less than $15,000 of its’ remaining funds turned over to the film companies would had been paying for the censorship for decades. The freedom of expression was restored, or at least left to Hollywood to determine what was decent enough for the sensitive constitutions of the film going public.
Special thanks to the Kansas Historical Society for making this history public knowledge, along with all of the original film notes. And, if you were wondering, He Who Gets Slapped was controversial in that the film contained smoking and a questionable title card about a woman’s alluring figure. Thank goodness innocent Kansans were spared the shock back in 1924.