Manitoba History: Reminiscences of a Manitoba Film Censor: An Interview with Locksley D. McNeill

by James M. Skinner
History Department, Brandon University

Manitoba History, Number 17, Spring 1989

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Clichéd though it may be, the phrase “spry octogenarian” describes Locksley D. McNeill very well. Retired from public service since 1969 after almost forty years connection with the provincial government, he has continued to work at a hectic pace having invented, or rather reinvented the games of Crockinole and Noughts and Crosses as Shotte Ball. These are played with lead-filled tennis balls and thrown at a board. They are particularly suited for the disabled and chair-bound since they can be played from a sitting or reclining position. Mr. McNeill has copyrighted his games and sold them throughout Canada and overseas. However, we are concerned here with his tenure as chairman of the Manitoba Film Censor Board in 1934 and 1935 which predated his appointment as Deputy Clerk of the Executive Council and Executive Assistant to Premier John Bracken from 1935 until 1943. This interview was conducted in the early spring of 1988 by James M. Skinner of the History department at Brandon University.

Locksley D. McNeill

Locksley D. McNeill

J.S.: Can you tell me of the circumstances that led to your being appointed to the Censor Board?

L.McN.: When I graduated in law in 1930, things were starting to get very bad. I was working with the firm of Richards, Sweatman, Fillmore, Riley and Watson, acting as junior counsel for Mr. Fillmore. But in July, 1933 I was told that the firm could no longer afford to keep me on account of declining business. Well, for the next six months or so I struggled along on my own and put in an application to the Attorney General’s department for work as Crown Counsel. Then, early in 1934, the man who had been chief censor suddenly resigned. I cannot recall his name. [It was T. A. D. Bevington, J. S. ]. He was a man in his fifties.

J.S.: Did he quit under what you might call “suspicious circumstances”?

L.McN.: Yes. I heard stories about what had happened but they were never confirmed and so I shouldn’t repeat them. Anyway, I was called in by the Civil Service Commissioner who said I was being recommended for the censor’s job.

J.S.: How much did it pay, then?

L.McN.: Salaries had been whittled down during the Depression by a certain percentage each year until they were twenty-five per cent lower in 1934 than they had been in 1930. My recollection is that I was paid $2,400 a year but in fact got only $1,800. Mind you, at the time that was a good salary.

J.S.: Was there any comment on the fact that you were a relatively young man to be given a position of some authority?

L.McN.: John T. Haig, later Senator Haig, rose in the House and said that he very much doubted that a thirty year-old bachelor from Roblin had the capability of deciding on the morality of pictures to be shown to the people of Manitoba. But that was the only negative comment there was. Anyway, I got married that year! So I started work on February 1, 1934. The board consisted of myself, Mrs. (V.) Patriarche and Mrs. Luther (Gertrud) Lennox. Mrs. Patriarche was a very competent person who was a writer with the Winnipeg Tribune. She would speak in a very harsh voice when we got into an argument over a film but I respected her judgment. Mrs. Lennox, on the other hand, was very pliable and usually took my side in an argument which upset Mrs. Patriarche. Then there was the chief projectionist, William Moffat, and his assistant.

J.S.: Were these two ladies government employees as well?

L.McN.: Oh no. Mrs. Lennox eked out her income by having an international affairs club. She gave talks on current affairs and charged an admission fee. As I recall, she also took in boarders. Her husband was a lawyer but he didn’t have much of a practice and there were four children to feed. Her fee from the Censor Board was only fifty dollars a month.

J.S.: The projectionist did more than just show the films in those days.

L.McN.: Indeed. Mr. Moffat had the job of cutting the pictures, taking out scenes or bits of talking that we felt should not be there. He was very good at it and I think the film companies in the city—there were seven of them at that time—were very pleased at the end result.

J.S.: How did the Board operate on a day-to-day basis?

L.McN.: We operated out of the basement of the Legislative Building. We shared our accommodation with the Saskatchewan censor and his secretary. In my time he was a Major Gordon, an ex-army man from the First World War. He would sit in with us during the showing of all the pictures and make his own decision as to what category they should be placed in, Adult or General. We usually started at 9:30 in the morning with the coming attractions, the trailers. Then we would see two big pictures, features, followed by the newsreel and then finish off with a cartoon or short subject. This would take us until lunch time, around 1:00 or 1:30 in the afternoon. Every single film had to be seen. We worked forty-nine weeks in the year with three weeks for holidays. In addition to censoring the films, I was what you might call a policeman. Afternoons and evenings I would visit the theatres in Winnipeg and check on the pictures and the posters. Sometimes [with a laugh] the posters showed far more than there was in the pictures. I would also make a point of going to see the films we had just cut to make sure they were not substituting another version. On Saturday mornings we would check the cuts that Mr. Moffat had made for that week.

J.S.: But there was no inspection of theatres outside Winnipeg, as is the case today?

L.McN.: No, no. Just in the city itself. There were lots of picture houses in downtown Winnipeg in those days.

J.S.: What percentage of films would you have cut and banned during your period in office.

L.McN.: We turned down a lot of pictures in 1934, and we cut a lot, too. But then the Catholic Church was very effective in bringing about a change. By the time I left things were very different.

J.S.: I’m sure that was because of the appearance of the Legion of Decency [a Catholic organization which had its own rating system and would advise members to boycott films rated “C” for condemned].

L.McN.: Yes, I’m sure it was on account of the Legion of Decency. It certainly did a good job in cutting down the number of unacceptable films. As to how many we would not accept, I would say the figure was at least ten per cent, and we made cuts in more than ten per cent of those we did accept.

J.S.: Did you work to any set of rules or have any kind of guidebook?

L.McN.: No, just by doing what mother told us was right! We would cut out individual words, swearing, that kind of thing, and this meant taking out just a few frames of the print here and there.

J.S.: I’m sure that just about every movie shown in Manitoba today would have been cut or banned in your day. Can you think of any specific examples?

L.McN.: I remember, in particular, Anna Karenina which had Greta Garbo in it and which came to the city in 1934.

J.S.: Why would you cut it? I’ve seen it recently and it strikes me as being totally innocuous.

L.McN.: Well, we thought she was coming too close to giving in ...

J.S.: When I was researching the records of the Manitoba Censor Board in the 1930s, I found that there was a lot of correspondence from the German embassy after 1933 asking that certain anti-German films not be shown in the province and protesting against bans on its own. Did you encounter any trouble from this source?

L.McN.: Yes, indeed. I remember the German consul in Winnipeg [Dr. H. Seelheim] who wanted to bring in a film whose title I forget. [Perhaps Echoes of Home J.S.]. He was a real Nazi with slashes down both cheeks, duelling scars I suppose they were. We watched the film with him and rejected it outright as Nazi propaganda for their way of life. Mrs. Patriarche and this man had a real set to and both lost their tempers.

J.S.: If the film you are talking about is Echoes of Home, you asked a German-speaking member of the RCMP D section to watch it first. This would have been in the summer of 1935.

L.McN.: And it never was shown. And then I recall the visit of the burgermeister of Heidleberg who arrived sometime in late 1935 or early 1936. I drove him around and at the end of the day asked him if I could take him to the German Consulate; but he refrained from going and told me that he was not in sympathy with the government they had had since 1933.

J.S.: When you made cuts or banned a film outright were there any complaints?

L.McN: Oh, just occasionally from the distributors. But at the time we felt pride in the work we were doing. We were giving the public good, clean films. It was unheard of in those days to hear talk about infringement of freedom or anything like that.

J.S.: Most of the movies that came to Manitoba would have been censored and screened elsewhere prior to your getting them.

L.McN.: They mostly came from Ontario and, of course, they were mostly American films. After 1934 we had little trouble because the church had done its work. There was an appeal board that would listen to complaints from film companies who thought they had been hard done by, but it is my recollection that there was not a single appeal while I was on the censor board.

J.S.: A tribute to the fairness of your decisions, then. How did you come to leave the Board?

L.McN.: There was a Clarence Jackson who had been Mr. Bracken’s personal assistant since the previous election. When T. A. Crerar was elected federally, in 1935, he asked Jackson if he would go down to Ottawa and work for him. Jackson agreed. I was then told that the premier, Mr. Bracken, wanted to see me. I had never met him, personally, before, but he told me he wanted me as his assistant and that I could start the following Monday. I left the Board in November. My salary went from $2,400 to $4,000 which was very good in those days, only a few hundred dollars less than that paid to a deputy minister. Of course it was subject to the twenty-five per cent cut still in force.

J.S.: And you remained in this position for some time?

L.McN.: Until 1943 by which time Mr. Bracken had become leader of the Conservative party, federally, in Ottawa.

J.S.: What do you think of today’s films in theatres and on television? I imagine it’s hard to conceive how huge the change has been in the past twenty-five years.

L.McN.: That’s right. But I saw enough movies when I was on the board to last me a life-time. We don’t watch much on television or anywhere else any more.

Page revised: 15 December 2021