Laemmle in 1918. Click to enlarge.
It was clever move on the part of Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle — and it would ultimately have mixed results.
With a rough cut of a new, $1 million blockbuster in the can, and tired of having to chop up his films six ways from Sunday to appease a hodgepodge of state and local film sensor boards that started cropping up before World War I, each with its own ideas of what was acceptable — some were harsher on extramarital sex, others on firearms, others on anything that made politicians look bad — Laemmle figured a backstage view of the movie-making business might persuade them to see things differently. So, in August 1921 he invited them to Los Angeles where he wined and dined them, took them to the beach, introduced them to celebrities, went all-out at Catalina, and got his box-office star Harry Carey to throw open his ranch in Saugus for a day of Wild West entertainment. Laemmle even took care to schedule religious services for these arbiters of decency.
It might have worked. After Laemmle showed them a nearly 4-hour version of the eventual 2-hour Erich von Stroheim picture, "Foolish Wives," the censors adopted a resolution which the Los Angeles Times (Aug. 19) characterized as expressing appreciation for Laemmle's efforts to work through the differences of the censors and film producers. According to film historian Richard Koszarski (1990:205), Laemmle used the resolution as justification for claiming, months before the film's 1922 release: "Censors Approve 'Foolish Wives.'"
But the timing couldn't have been worse. The censors had barely returned home when Hollywood superstar Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was accused of the rape and murder of would-be starlet Virginia Rappe. Not only did the allegations and high-profile trials kill Arbuckle's career; they also exposed Hollywood's underbelly and ushered in the Hays Code — a new set of moral guidelines for filmmakers. No more husbands and wives sharing the same bed; no taking the Lord's name in vain; no scenes of illicit drugs, white slavery, nudity (even implied), childbirth (even in silhouette), and more. Established by Will Hays (on orders of President Warren G. Harding), the code was enforced by his Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) organization officially until 1968 when it was supplanted by the Motion Picture Association of America's film rating system (G, PG, R, etc.). Adherence to the Code was technically voluntary, but a noncompliant, unapproved film would have about the same appeal as a Not Rated (NR) film today, and it wouldn't play in general-run movie houses.
As for "Foolish Wives," where a con man (Von Stroheim) attempts to seduce the wife (Miss Dupont) of an American diplomat (Rudolph Christians), "the state sensors did a double-take" after the film was released. "After first approving the film, the New York board ordered it withdrawn from exhibition for further cutting" (ibid.:206).
Laemmle (pronounced LEMM-lee), who created the star system (marketing actors as celebrities), made more than 400 pictures by the time he and his son, Carl Jr., were driven out of Universal in 1936 in a dispute over the cost of making "Show Boat." He spent his final years navigating the complex U.S. immigration system to save hundreds of Jews from his hometown of Laupheim, Württemberg, Germany, where he was born in 1867. He died in 1939, three weeks after the outbreak of Hitler's war. The city of Laupheim dedicated the entire year 2017 to his memory — his 150th anniversary year — and held 70 workshops, lectures and events to tell the story.
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Film Censors Coming Here.
Ankles and Too-Long Kisses Face Screen Fade-out.
Old-Fashioned Girl Stealing Vamp's Popularity.
Eastern, Canadian Boards to be Laemmle's Guests.
Los Angeles Times | August 10, 1921.
Members of the official censor boards of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and of the cities of Detroit and Kansas City, assembled in Chicago as guests of Carl Laemmle of the Universal Film Company, will leave today for Los Angeles.
The party will arrive in Los Angeles at 2:40 p.m. Sunday, August 14, over the Santa Fe. Harry M. Berman, general sales manager of Universal, will be in charge of the delegation.
After a brief reception at the station at which Mr. Thalberg will welcome the members of the commission to Southern California in behalf of Carl Laemmle, the party will be motored to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Stanley Anderson, managing director of the hostelry, will participate in entertaining them. Following a dinner at the hotel, the censors will receive Los Angeles newspaper writers, representatives of the motion-picture trade publications and correspondents of news services.
First Day's Plans.
Festivities during the first day of the censors' stay include a luncheon at the studio, a tour of Universal City, a trip to Santa Monica, sea bathing and a barbecue. In the evening the members will be the guests of the Emanuel Presbyterian Brotherhood at a meeting of particular interest to those concerned in censorship.
Tuesday will be devoted to a personally conducted tour of other picture studios, where the censors may see for themselves just how things are done, and to a luncheon at Beverly Hills Hotel, followed by a motor trip through Pasadena.
As by this time the censors should be in high, good humor, they are to experience the "great moment" of their visit. They're going to be allowed to take a peek at Eric Von Stroheim's "Foolish Wives."
Wednesday will be a gala day. The guests will be conveyed to Universal city early in the morning for an animal circus at the Universal City arena. A.C. Stecker, chief animal trainer, will put on a thrilling animal act. On the same day the censors will meet such celebrities as Priscilla Dean, Harry Carey, Gladys Walton, Frank Mayo, Eddie Polo, Marie Prevost, Art Acord, Eileen Sedgwick, Lee Moran, Bert Roach and the battalion of noted Universal directors.
Guests On Ranch.
This event will lead up logically to the entertainment at Sunset Inn of the noted guests, with no less seductive a person than Priscilla Dean as hostess. And just as if this weren't enough merriment for one week, the censors will be the guests next day of Harry Carey at his western ranch.
Once more "Foolish Wives" will be shown the censors, this event happening on Thursday evening, when the guests will be asked to comment on the picture. Eric Von Stroheim will be present, too, and will make a little talk.
If there is anything in the picture' the censors don't like, it is likely to be forgotten next day, when they will be taken on a trip to Catalina Island, where they will be the guests of William Wrigley, Jr., and Sunday will be devoted to religious services according to the preference of the visitors.
Scenes on the silver screen without pistols, knives, ankles and too-long kisses! That is the cinema of the future picture by these men. Freckles for girls, they say, are coming back; the vamp is dead; modesty will be the style this fall. The old-fashioned girl, after a decade, will again be celebrated on the magazine covers and the boulevards. And the 5-cent "movie" is gone forever. All this, of course, without the consent of the film fans.
"Motion pictures are the weather-vanes that point to the fashions which will sweep across the continent," said Maj. Alexander S. Hamilton, film censor of Toronto. "What cinema actresses wear, say, do, or look like today — just that will American and Canadian girls do tomorrow. The films set the styles. And the trend in the films right now is toward the wholesome, apple-pie sort of girl. Theaters which show this rougeless type of girl are doing business, vamp films are languishing. Freckles now are a stamp of approval.
"Toronto has a law which makes it impossible to show a gun on the stage, as children are heavy patrons of the shows. In Toronto they see good shows, every day they see better shows, as films are constantly becoming more educational. There are more front porches on the screen and fewer bedrooms. As censors we make no effort to 'cure' motion pictures. We are not reformers; we are out to help the pictures."
Chicago, the Canadians intimated, turns purple, green and yellow spot lights on pictures where the sedate dominions use the blue pencil.
"Yes," added Walter L. Hill, representing a picture concern, "this country has an epidemic of Main streetitis right now. The successful films are depicting the small town romances, the quietly dramatic life of the American home, the 'John and Mary' stuff. Plays with a sex tinge are frowned on. The Countess Du-Barr has gone to work as a milliner's assistant. The bedroom drama is bankrupt."
And, to satisfy the curiosity of the screen clientele, the motion picture censors were asked what they were snipping from the celluloid strips these days.
"We try not to spoil the continuity," said the censors. "In the past, too many films were utterly ruined by the injudicious cutting out of scenes that were necessary for the telling of the story. Now, if a part, in our opinion, is slightly undesirable, we will let it stand if the story demands it.
"Are young girls given the impulse to go wrong by the 'heavy films'? We don't believe it. They may think it is very naughty to slip into the 'for adults only' shows, but if anything, such pictures have sobering effect. And boys are not made gunmen and robbers by the westerns. Criminals are bred on the streets, in the vicious pool halls — not in the cinema theaters. Parents, not the palaces, are to blame when boys and girls go wrong."
News story courtesy of Tricia Lemon Putnam.
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Censors Enjoy Varied Views of Studioland.
Los Angeles Times | August 18, 1921.
Manner of diversions from an animal circus to a carnival of the dance was enjoyed by the motion-picture censors who are the guests of Carl Laemmle, of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company yesterday. The day was given over to pleasure, with the exception of a brief meeting between the picture producers and the censors in the afternoon at Beverly Hills Hotel, at which the furtherance of the plan for co-operation in censorship of pictures was discussed.
At Universal City the visitors beheld the Universal animals go through their paces under the supervision of A.C. Stecker, the chief trainer. They also watched the stars at work on picture productions.
The evening was given over to a dance at Sunset Inn, at which Priscilla Dean, the Universal star, and the censors were honor(ed) guests.
Today the visitors will enjoy a carnival of the West at Harry Carey's ranch, and in the evening will, it is announced, view Erich Von Stroheim's production "Foolish Wives" at a private preview.
News story courtesy of Tricia Lemon Putnam.
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Censors Show Their Talents in Acting.
Los Angeles Times | August 19, 1921.
Motion-picture censors will have an opportunity in the near future to pass upon pictures of themselves, for as one of the features of a day's entertainment at Harry Carey's ranch a number of views of the visitors were taken by the film camera. The censors also enjoyed a barbecue and an impromptu wild west show, and saw various scenes filmed for Carey's picture, "The Fox."
At a formal meeting in the morning a resolution was adopted in appreciation of Carl Laemmle's enterprise in endeavoring to overcome the difficulties and differences which have existed between censors and producers, through the meeting in this city. It is anticipated that this meeting will bear permanent fruit in an organization which will regulate such differences in a systematic way. Carrying out of the project, it is understood, will be done by correspondence.
In the evening at Beverly Hills Hotel there was a special showing of (Erich) Von Stroheim's picture, "Foolish Wives," at which the censors were present. The film was shown in eighteen reels, the length to which it has been cut to date.
Today the censors will leave at an early hour for Catalina Island, where they will remain until Saturday night.
News story courtesy of Tricia Lemon Putnam.