Snippets 189. An early name for a film camera was a “bioscope”, and the name was chosen for a film journal during the silent era of film, published in London. It ran from 1908 to 1932. The Bioscope was aimed at the trade rather than the general public, but it still carried a range of articles that are absolutely fascinating from an historical perspective. One such article comes in the form of a “letter from America” in the 14th January 1909 issue, concerning a pressing issue at the birth of cinema, which still echoes on today: the need for censorship. Nowadays we have age classifications to indicate the level of objectionable content in a film. In 1909 a man cooling his posterior in ice could cause an audience to walk out…
Were any proof needed of the importance of keeping within the limits, it would be found in the news from America which is given on another page. Mayor McClellan, of New York, has started a campaign against bioscope theatres, and the matter is still before the courts. Primarily the chief magistrate of the city of New York based his order revoking all licences on grounds of public safety, but our own correspondent says that questions of morality also entered into consideration; and that this is so may be gathered from the fact that at the hearing before the courts the manufacturers offered to pay for the services of a censor. The offer was a tactical blunder, to say the least of it, and as we have said, censorship is the last thing to be desired. Yet some steps had to be taken, as those acquainted with the conditions in America will realise. There were many exhibitors blind to their own interests and totally unable or unwilling to discriminate between the rough element and the decent class of patron. When showing silly films, such as one of a drunkard sitting down on a cake of ice to cool himself, one-third of the audience would laugh and two-thirds, disgusted, would quietly walk out of the place; and the showmen say: “This is what the public wants” because they hear the laughter of the one third. This is an actual illustration, and it could, we fear, be matched in some parts of England. Humour and vulgarity are not very clearly separated in the minds of some people, and from vulgarity to absolute coarseness is an easy step. At the same time we must not be thought to be on the side of the gentleman who objected to a bioscope show on the ground that the tunic worn by Julius Caesar was short. We are pedantic enough to prefer Caesar in a short tunic to Caesar in a respectable frock coat.
Mayor George B. McClellan Jr served as Mayor of New York from 1904 to 1909. On Christmas Eve 1908 he cancelled all moving picture exhibition licences in New York, affecting around 550 establishments. This was done nominally on the grounds of inadequate fire exits and highly flammable rolls of film. The Moving Picture Association of New York was hastily formed to address concerns of safety and censorship and to fight the licence revocations legally. The appeal was successful, and most theatres were only closed for a few days. However, the case of Julius Caesar and his short tunic continued to entertain the worldwide press for a long time after the theatres had reopened.
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