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Board of Review - Agency History

Agency History

Sample card from Board of Review movie indexThe Kansas State Board of Review was established by the Legislature in 1913, replacing the Moving Picture Censorship Committee. The board was given no financial support at that time, making the inspection of films in Kansas impossible initially. However, in 1915, the law allowing for the inspection of films was amended, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, W.D. Ross, served as the Board's first chairman. In February, 1915, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State of Ohio's film censorship law (Mutual Film Corp v. Industrial Commission of Ohio), making film censorship constitutional. This further strengthened the validity of Kansas Board of Review.

By April 1915, the Board was up and running. The three members of the Board, Ross, Rev. Festus Foster of Topeka, and Miss Carrie Simpson of Paola (both appointments of Gov. Capper), worked to keep out of Kansas's movie houses images of drunkenness, debauchery, murder, robberies, and anything shocking to the "most delicate sensibilities." The Board initially charged distributors who wished to have their films shown in Kansas $2 per film. Over the years the fee would change to $1 or more per reel for feature films, and $.25 for cartoons, scenic and educational films. Any theater caught showing films that had not gained the stamp of approval or films that did not comply with the eliminations the Board called for were fined from $25 to $100 for the first offense and $100 for every day after that. The Board of Review saw approximately five hundred reels of film per month; 1% of which were rejected completely. If a film company disagreed with the decision of the Board, they could appeal. The film in question was viewed once again by the Appeal Board, made up of the governor, the attorney general, and the secretary of state.

When the Board of Review was established it was not given office space. The first weeks of its existence were spent in a nearby theater where the members of the board spent their mornings reviewing films and afternoons filing reports. One year later the board received access to two projectors; this, along with office space Ross arranged for in the sub-basement of the State House, allowed the censors to break their dependence on local movie houses. However, the offices Ross arranged for were not up to snuff with the state's safety standards. The two projectors, though specially equipped to decrease the chance of fire or explosion (a common occurrence), were still a threat to safety. Paul McBride, the state labor commissioner, pointed out a need for booths to contain the projectors. In addition to this infraction, the sub-basement lacked proper ventilation and an outside staircase, making the offices unfit. Shortly after this defeat, the Board moved its headquarters from Topeka to Kansas City, Kansas, where a majority of film distribution companies were located.

Reaction to the Board was mixed. Theater owners were pleased with the formation of the Board; a majority indicated they would be willing to pay to show films that had passed the Board. Film distribution companies were not initially worried about the organization; they felt films that were passed on in Kansas would be shown elsewhere and the state of Kansas would be the loser in the end. By 1947, this attitude had changed little. Most of the larger film companies played by the rules enforced by the Board; only Warner refused. When The Outlaw was deemed questionable by the board, Warner withdrew the film and announced they would no longer show their films in the state. Smaller companies who had less to lose than the big name distributers were more likely to try to fool the Board. They would submit a film for review, make the required change, and then give the original, uncensored version to the theaters in the state. The general public had mixed feelings about the organization. Some were glad to see what they felt to be unsuitable kept out of theaters while others felt they should decide for themselves the merit of a film. One source stated Ross, "never in his life had an original idea and . . . is of a caliber that would make a good ward heeler. The people of Kansas must have their morals looked after by a 30-dollar a month country school teacher and a broken down preacher who can't hold a job in the pulpit but thru some political pull."

The board had its share of controversy from the start. One of the earliest controversies pertained to Rev. Foster, who felt his life work was to "safeguard the public morals." A Topeka paper accused Rev. Foster of allowing his sixteen year old daughter and her friends view the films up for review with him. Foster immediately denied the accusation, stating that while his daughter (who was twenty, not sixteen) and her friends were present for the viewing of certain films, it was without his permission. Foster was also criticized for this practice by film executives. They argued his practice of allowing crowds of people see the uninspected films at no charge was unfair.

Foster continued to be the center of controversy while on the board. In 1916, Foster criticized the lack of morals in a French film, Madame La Presidente, focusing not only on the plot but also the film's star, Anna Held. Madame La Presidente tells the story of a young single woman who is turned out of her hotel at the suggestion of the town's justice. When she learns the wife of the man responsible for her homelessness is away, she sneaks into his home. Once discovered by the Justice she uses her feminine charms to avoid being turned away. The justice is paid an unexpected visit by his supervisor; Held impersonates the justice's wife. Hilarity ensues. The original ruling by the BOR was challenged and the Appeal Board reversed the ruling. Still, Foster criticized the loose morals of the film, stating it "misrepresents the married man and will have a tendency to shake the confidences that women have in their husbands." Foster argued the film's lesson was that men can not be trusted. He continued his condemnation, stating "Miss Held displays her lingerie and a little too much of her personal charms. She does it with the intention of stirring masculine passions. That condemns the picture. A woman's charms are not to be displayed in public." Miss Held was quick to respond to the attack, calling Foster an "old fogy." She continued, "What harm is there in a little spice if the human heart is buoyant. To laugh at things a bit suggestive in not harmful." Held suggested instead of encouraging distrust of men, the film renewed feelings of tenderness towards the wife or sweetheart. Held then challenged Foster, asking " . . . what have you done to uplift humanity?"

A second controversy surrounding the BOR pertained to the film Birth of a Nation. The film received critical acclaim from across the board, yet the BOR refused to approve the film. The BOR argued that the film inspired "Race Hatred" among in the audience of the film. Further, the film's historical accuracy was questioned, an offense apparently worthy of rejection. The Appeal Board agreed with the BOR, and refused to overrule the rejection. Again, public opinion was mixed. The Grand Army of the Republic, who had condemned the film based only on its reviews, were pleased by its rejection. C.A. Meek, a representative of the GAR, argued the production was disrespectful; it suggested the North was wrong and the South was right in the Civil War. Birth of a Nation, Meek continued, glorified the Klu Klux Klan. The wives of state officials were among the dissenters. When questioned by the press after viewing the film, the wives of many of the Reviewers, including the wife of Foster, reported no feelings of "race hatred." In fact, each of the women interviewed commented on the excellence of the film.

By 1919 Foster and Ross were no longer a members of the Kansas State Board of Review. Carrie Simpson, the school teacher from Paola remained and was joined by Mrs. B.L. Short of Kansas City and Mrs. J.M. Miller of Council Grove. Never again would the board consist of a majority of men. In fact, only once more in the board's history would a man serve as inspector. In 1921 Simpson left the board and was replaced by Dwight Thatcher Harris, a Topeka journalist. Miller, who served as chair of the committee at the time of Harris' nomination by Gov. Allen, relinquished her position in favor of the man.

In 1937, the board was caught in another controversy, this one bringing them nation wide attention.. In an April, 1937, newsreel Sen. Burton Wheeler, a Montana Democrat, criticized FDR's proposal to increase the number of Supreme Court justices. The Kansas Board of Review, lead by Mae Clausen (a Democrat and supporter of FDR), ordered Sen. Wheeler's speech cut from the newsreel before it could be shown in the state. When asked to defend the decision, Clausen stated simply that, "We feel this dialogue is partisan and biased." When the Montana Senator learned of the act, he stated it " . . . ought to qualify the governor of the state for dictatorship of the United States." Members of the Kansas Legislature immediately condemned Clausen's actions, calling it an attack on free speech. Rep. E.A. Briles of Stafford pointed out that all of the opinions shown on the newsreel were "partisan and biased," and that Clausen's actions would lead to censorship of newspapers if not rectified immediately. Gov. Huxman broke his silence several days into the controversy. Sen. Wheeler's once stricken comments were restored to the newsreel by the Governor's direction. Clausen apologized for any embarrassment her actions might have caused.

The BOR was at the height of its power prior to 1954 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that states could ban motion pictures only for obscenity, not the laundry lists some boards used as a justification for censorship. While this did not dissolve the Board entirely, it did greatly decreased their authority. Prior to this decision, films containing nudity; drunkenness; gambling; "loose conduct between men and women;" infidelity; "prolonged and passionate love scenes;" comedic portrayals of religion, religious sects, or race; violence; criminal acts; prostitution; or "ridicule or facetious remarks about motherhood or scenes pertaining to childbirth," were all cause for ban. Following the Supreme Court's ruling only scenes of nudity and "extreme lustfulness" could be cut. Profanity was no longer a cause for elimination; the board could request the objectionable language be edited out, but film companies were not required to oblige. Tolerance for the form of censorship practiced by the Kansas State Board of Review was dwindling in Kansas.

One year after the Supreme Court's decision, Gov. Fred Hall signed the bill which abolished the Kansas Board of Review. It was slated to take effect June 30, 1955. A variation of the bill was introduced in 1951, but eventually died. However, the author Howard Bentley (R-Kinsley), a strong opponent of the BOR continued to work for the agency's end. First he tried to cut the appropriations of the group to $1 for the coming year, but this was unsuccessful. The board brought in about $28,000 per year; from this sum the salaries of the three board members ($2,400 for the chair and $2,100 each for the others), along with the the salaries of the projectionist, law enforcement officers, and maintenance The bill finally passed when attached to another bill calling for the repeal of an obsolete motor vehicle law. The bill was contested by supporters of the board. They stated the legality of the bill was questionable because it dealt with two subjects in one bill. The Kansas Supreme Court concurred, ruling the bill null.

By November, 1965, the state of Maryland's censorship law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, making Kansas one of only two states that still allowed the censorship of film (Maryland subsequently rewrote their censorship statute to bring it in line with the recent decision.) The Columbia Picture Corp. challenged the BOR when it neglected to submit two films, Bunny Lake is Missing and The Bedford Incident, neither of which contained what could be deemed "obscene," for review before the films were shown in theaters. This was meant as a test of the constitutionality of the state law. Former Governor John Anderson, Jr., was to be the lawyer for Columbia. Within two months the case went before the Shawnee County District Court. The final ruling on the legality of film censorship in Kansas was not in the BOR's favor. Judge Marion Beatty cited the Supreme Court's ruling in Freedman v. Maryland in his final decision. Within days of the decision, Attorney General Robert Londerholm, asked the State Supreme Court to reverse Beatty's ruling. The Supreme Court struck down the 48 year old law, stating that it was violated "the constitutional guaranty of freedom of expression . . ." The BOR was given sixty days to close its doors. The property belonging to the BOR went to various state agencies, while the $20,000 remaining in the BOR account was returned to the general revenue fund. The $14,285 collected by the BOR as review fees were returned to the film corporations they came from.