Manitoba History: Clean and Decent Movies: Selected Cases and Responses of the Manitoba Film Censor Board, 1930 to 1950 [1]

by James M. Skinner
Brandon University

Manitoba History, Number 14, Autumn 1987

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

The Board shall not approve any film or slide depicting scenes of an immoral or obscene nature, or which indicate or suggest lewdness or indecency or marital infidelity, or showing the details of murder, robbery or criminal assault, or depicting criminals or heinous characters; and the Board shall refuse to approve any other picture which it may consider injurious to public morals, suggestive of evil to the minds of children, or against the public interest. [2]

Such were the wide parameters under which the Province of Manitoba’s Film Censor Board was established, in 1923, by an act of the legislature. With debate raging over current Federal government plans to control certain aspects of motion picture content, it may be instructive to judge such legislation in the context of what applied a half century ago. The terms of reference cited above may seem extraordinarily harsh and all-encompassing to today’s more liberal consciences but they were to remain the law of the province for the best part of forty years. Only with the growing popularity of television in the ‘fifties, and the film industry’s response by way of more outspoken fare did the iron hand of censorship relax somewhat. Until then, it would be true to say that motion picture exhibition in Manitoba was encased in a girdle of chastity, enforced by a government-appointed Board of three persons. The task, Herculean in its magnitude, of viewing, cutting, classifying and banning was entrusted to a chairman and two assistants. Some idea of the scope of their operation may be gauged by examining a typical year’s operation. In its annual report to the legislature for 1945-46, the Board revealed that the trio had watched a total of 2,256 separate items, ranging from feature-length films to cartoons and trailers. [3] Since every inch of footage had to be scrutinized, this was a time-consuming process which demanded attendance five, or sometimes six days per week for forty-nine weeks of the year for each member. Nevertheless, the three individuals who dominated the censorship scene during this period do not appear to have succumbed from exhaustion. By 1947, the chairman, Cecil Rice-Jones, and Mrs. D. L. McLeod had been watching for ten years, while Mrs. Gertrud Lennox had just retired after nineteen years of uninterrupted service. [4]

Cecil Rice-Jones

Cecil Rice-Jones
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Mrs. G. L. Lennox

Mrs. G. L. Lennox
Source: Archives of Manitoba, University Women's Club Collection

The legislation under which the Film Censor Board operated was revised in 1931, and remained unchanged in its essentials until the late 1950s. It introduced a classification system whereby films were categorized as “Adult” or “General.” This was intended to serve as a guide for parents; but juveniles could not be excluded from Adult-rated pictures. An attempt to limit child attendance at Adult movies was introduced in June 1931 but dropped by the government in January 1932 at the request of distributors and theatre owners who claimed that it was discriminatory. Distributors also had the right to challenge a Board decision to cut, classify or ban a specific title by requesting that the movie in question be referred to a Board of Appeal. This comprised twenty persons, also appointed by the Provincial government, drawn mostly from business, service clubs and government bodies. [5] Only five persons were required to sit in judgement on any title, and their decision was final. The Appeal Board exhibited a lively independence from time to time, not infrequently overturning original verdicts. This, in turn, caused the censors to lament that too many Appeal Board members were infrequent cinema goers and therefore apt to be entertained, if not wholly captivated, by movies they ought to have been viewing with a more critical eye. [6]

With the advent of the Great Depression in 1930, the motion picture business suffered like most others. Hollywood sought to retain its share of an increasingly impecunious audience by offering more and more salacious fare. Ignoring the precepts of the Production Code Administration (popularly known at the Hays Office, after its founder, Will Hays), filmmakers became increasingly reckless in their pursuit of this shrinking dollar. Despite Code prohibitions to the contrary, women lost their virginity before the wedding night; mothers became prostitutes to obtain money for food for their hungry families; and partial nudity or complete nakedness in silhouette were not uncommon. By 1933, permissiveness on the screen had reached a peak with the phenomenal popularity of Mae West whose dialogue was peppered with innuendo and double entendres.

The reaction of the Manitoba Board was to suggest to the government that the Amusement Act be amended to exclude all juveniles from pictures rated Adult. In making this request, Mrs. Lennox noted that pictures had been “at their most outrageous in 1933 resulting in the rejection of twenty-eight titles and excisions in three hundred and fifty-eight.” [7] No action was taken; but the situation improved somewhat the following year with the appearance of the Legion of Decency. This was the offspring of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. In addition to binding its millions of members to observation of its precepts, it formulated a ratings system consisting of six categories, to be applied to all films from whatever origin exhibited publicly in the U.S.A. It ranged from “Class A-1, morally unobjectionable for general patronage” to “Class C, condemned.” Films given the last mentioned rating were to be boycotted. From the pulpit and from parish notice boards the Legion’s decisions were made known. Any film given the dreaded “C” rating stood to lose a potential audience of twenty million in the United States alone; and there were many in Canada and elsewhere who faithfully followed the precepts of the Legion.

The motion picture industry’s response was one of compliance. Rather than risk financial disaster at the box office, producers now began a massive task to bowdlerize the content of scripts. Entire subjects were deemed unfit as the industry went to great lengths to satisfy those moral guardians of the screen. The lament of one New York theatre owner that “... no three ... should tell millions of people what they should or should not see ...” could have applied equally to the Manitoba situation. That, however, would have been a minority opinion. The right of the Board to wield its collective scissors was accepted by the bulk of the population; and an overwhelming volume of correspondence to the Board was in favour of such action. Indeed, negative comments were occasioned mostly by perceived leniency or moral turpitude of Board members when exercising their mandate to allow only fit and proper entertainment.

Nor were pressure groups lacking to point the way. In 1935 a Cinema Committee was formed by the Local Council of Women in Winnipeg to agitate for better movies for children. [8] Calling on men’s service clubs and kindred women’s organizations for support, it met with cabinet ministers and presented briefs to the Board from time to time. One of these typically condemned the film industry for its lack of moral principles while “... thousands of Winnipeg boys and girls are every week coming under most unwholesome influences in the picture houses.” [9] Again, the old demand to exclude children from adult fare was emphasized. On occasion, the Quebec example—a total exclusion of under-fourteens from all films—was held up as an ideal. Religious groups, too, had their concerns. The Catholic Church in St. Boniface deplored the fact that the Legion’s rating system was being ignored by the Province, and that “C”-rated pictures were sometimes seen by juveniles. [10] Father Derocher of the Catholic Tribune felt that Black Narcissus (1946) had no place on Manitoba screens because it was derogatory to nuns, even though these were Anglican nuns in this British picture. [11] Adults, as well as children, sometimes needed protection. In May 1950, for example, the Clerks of Session of two of Winnipeg’s largest congregations sent telegrams to the premier, D. L. Campbell, about the imminent premiere of Stromboli in the city. This Italian drama starred Ingrid Bergman who, amid much publicity, had left her husband during filming to begin an affair with the director, Roberto Rossellini, and bear his child. Her behaviour, the telegrams insisted, was “an insult to all people who try to observe standards of morality and decency.” The premier was asked to use whatever influence he had to have the picture (and possibly others by the same woman) banned from the province. [12]

However, it would be erroneous to think of movie censorship in Manitoba in this period exclusively in terms of limitations on sexually reprehensible fare. The 1930s and ‘40s were tumultuous decades, politically speaking, and the power of the visual medium to influence audiences and inculcate beliefs led to the politicization of censorship. As early as 1928, the Board had been receiving memoranda from the RCMP on the content of Soviet films which were scheduled for distribution throughout the prairie provinces. One such report, on Sergei Eisenstein’s classic, Potemkin, which deals with a successful mutiny by sailors of the Black Sea fleet in 1905, had been viewed by an officer who opined that “... any display of the film would be highly undesirable.” [13] From Hitler’s Reich, by way of its ambassador in Ottawa, a steady stream of complaints reached the Board, beginning in 1934 and continuing, unabated, until the outbreak of the Second World War. These were part of a campaign which encompassed all of North America. In March 1934, for example, the German ambassador in Washington had prevailed on Colonel Herron of the Hays Office to order six cuts in Captured, a Great War drama in which British officers were insulted and tortured by their German captors. The German consul in Winnipeg was at pains to point out that only copies of the revised version, with excisions, should be exhibited in Manitoba. [14] The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War drove the diplomatic representatives of the Third Reich to even greater energies. The three year conflict attracted massive coverage from newsreel companies and fictional filmmakers alike. While the newsreels managed, by and large, to tread the fine line between propaganda and straight reportage, a number of deeply committed individuals, mostly supportive of the Republican cause, produced several anti-fascist works. [15] Some encountered opposition in the USA and Canada from non-government agencies. Spain in Flames, a feature-length documentary of the first year of the war compiled from Soviet and Republican newsreel footage had been banned in Ohio and Connecticut after objections by local chapters of the Knights of Columbus. [16] It was also kept off Quebec screens where allegations that it was disrespectful to the Catholic Church and incited religious hatred were accepted by the provincial censor. In December 1937, the German ambassador in Ottawa complained that most films from Spain were biased and ought to be banned. Of Spain - 1936, Spain in Flames and The Spanish Earth he wrote:

... the psychological effect (is) that Communism is creative and opposes war, while National Socialism and Fascism are destructive and endeavour to reach their goals through war. In view of the facts that these films tend to create unfriendly feelings against Germany, I should be grateful if you would see to it that they are not shown in your province. [17]

The Manitoba Board’s response was invariably cordial but non-committal. Not all of the documentaries were screened commercially, and even when they were, they were consigned to small, specialist theatres. Still, a reading between the lines would indicate that the Board was ever mindful of its status as a government agency and, as such, was not prepared to show excessive deference to the wishes of the Nazi regime. When the European situation took a turn for the worse with the Munich crisis of 1938, German diplomats found themselves on the receiving end. Now it was their movies which were subjected to scrutiny. By the summer of 1939, a complete ban had been imposed on a monthly newsreel, Monatschau, which had been exhibited by German-Canadian cultural groups. In imposing the interdict, Rice-Jones wrote of their frankly propagandistic nature:

We cannot see that it would do any good, in fact that it would be opposed to the right policy for us, to present these films to German-Canadian citizens and to German-Canadian youth since they represent an ideology that we do not believe. [18]

With the outbreak of the war in September 1939, the Board affected an ever more zealous application of its presumed mandate. Movies with pacifist themes were ordered withdrawn, among them Lest We Forget and two classics intended for reissue, Journey’s End and All Quiet On The Western Front. But it was this policy when applied to Beau Geste that stirred controversy. This, the second screen adaptation of P. C. Wren’s novel about life in the Foreign Legion, starred Gary Cooper as the hero and Brian Donlevy as the sadistic Sergeant Dagineau. It had been submitted to the Board on 24 August at which time it had been passed without cuts or comment. Meanwhile, the French government had been making representation to Paramount in the US for its withdrawal, and it was about to launch a concerted attack in Canada through its consuls-general in each province. A verbal protest to the Board opened the campaign on 11 September. The gist of the French complaint was that Beau Geste portrayed a segment of the French armed forces in such a false and negative light as to be detrimental to the nation’s image abroad. Further, public exhibition of the film would be harmful to recruitment to the army at a moment in history when France needed every available man. Having already removed anti-war films from Manitoba screens, Rice-Jones was quite sympathetic to the request inasmuch as it had come from an authoritative source and Canada and France were now allies. Its certificate of approval was withdrawn. [19]

Paramount’s reaction was predictably swift. Its theatrical division in Winnipeg, Famous Players Ltd., sought legal advice in order to present its case to the Minister of Municipal Affairs under whose aegis the Board then operated. It maintained that cuts made in the original print in Hollywood had satisfied the French embassy in Washington, DC which now had no objection to the film playing anywhere in North America. [20] Anticipating some kind of response, the Board sought to bolster its position by seeking an opinion from W. S. Thompson, director of the recently-established Dominion Censor Board in Ottawa. This federal agency was charged with overseeing the content of radio, films and the press for the duration of the war. Any hopes that it might intercede were dashed when Thompson replied that the Beau Geste case had arisen in all the provinces, and that it was a matter for them to resolve individually, although he did feel, personally, that Manitoba’s course of action was justified. [21] This bolstered the Board’s confidence to the extent that it airily dismissed the Famous Players complaint, noting that Washington was not Winnipeg and that the United States was not at war with Germany whereas Canada was. As for the charge that several provinces had reconsidered their ban, that was their prerogative. When the present war was over, and not before then, favourable consideration would be given to restoring the certificate. [22]

There the matter rested for the winter, with Paramount complaining that it was losing between $30,000 and $40,000 in revenue because of an unfair decision. [23] Then, on 15 March 1940, the company tried a new tack. It decided to appeal the September decision. In requesting this procedure, the Paramount spokesman noted that Beau Geste was playing in Britain and the other Dominions without incident. To further strengthen its case, the management of the Metropolitican theatre (where it was due to reopen in the event of a successful outcome) arranged a press interview with two deserters from the Foreign Legion who attested to treatment every bit as brutal as that meted out to Gary Cooper in the screen version. [24]

The five person Board of Appeal viewed it on 3 April and unanimously approved restoration of the certificate provided the phrase “and spit on it” was removed. [25] The French consul might fulminate, but time and events were running against him. When Ontario relaxed on its ban on 8 May, it left Quebec as the sole province where an interdict was still in force. Perhaps there was a feeling in the country that what was occurring in France was rendering the affair redundant. Her armies were collapsing before the German onslaught and the Dunkirk debacle was only weeks away. Real or imagined slurs contained in Beau Geste were irrelevant by this time. Nevertheless, the Board accepted the decision with ill-concealed anger, believing its patriotic stance to have been undermined. In a final note to Henri Bourgarel, the recently-arrived French consul, Rice-Jones commiserated thus:

I can assure you that we are in entire sympathy with your feelings in this matter and regret exceedingly that there did not seem any way in which we could legally hold the picture from showing any longer. [26]

The Second World War and its immediate aftermath elicited another statement of policy from the censors that seems curiously authoritarian in retrospect. It concerned the spate of horror movies where the villain was not infrequently a deranged psychiatrist or medical doctor. So many of these were being submitted in 1945 and 1946 that an official form was prepared to be submitted to those companies whose movies had been refused a certificate. Behind this move was the notion that returning servicemen would have physical and mental problems whose treatment depended on the medical profession. Such films undermined confidence in it. A preamble noted the social responsibility of filmmakers to ensure that “morbid pictures” not be considered as fit themes. It continued:

The villain is usually made darkly diabolical behind his scientific or professional facade and all his treatments or experiments are actually deliberately evil practices (phobia of psychiatry resulting). Today there are thousands of veterans needing scientific treatments where confidence in the doctor is of vital importance in psychotherapy. And films such as—breeds [sic] the opposite in distraught, suspicious minds. It seems completely crazy that, at this time, when a general understanding of the subject is so greatly desirable, our screens should be burdened with pictures which confuse and sensationalize, and that the public should be made the unthinking victims of irresponsible commercialists. [27]

Even the venerable Dr. Frankenstein did not remain unscathed, although the censorial knives were wielded with greater abandon on contemporary, clinical dramas such as Shock (1946) which was banned outright. In this particular instance, the Board took the unusual step of having the province’s deputy minister of Health and Public Welfare, F. W. Jackson and the head of the province’s psychiatric department, Dr. T. A. Pincock view it. Both agreed with the ban and added that no appeal should be allowed. [28]

Film censorship is invariably associated in the public mind with sex, crime and violence; and it would be correct to say that the bulk of the Board’s efforts was directed towards controlling those elements. Allusion has already been made to the limits placed on American mainstream filmmaking by the Hays Office and, indirectly, by the Legion of Decency. Yet the vigilance of Hays and the ratings of the Legion were not always sufficient to control the industry and placate the censors. In Manitoba a year seldom passed without a ban being imposed on regular commercial features from reputable studios. Warner Brothers’ Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) fell foul of the Board because of its alleged glamorization of crime. This account of a Brooklyn-born gangster, played by James Cagney, who is admired for his bravado by a gang of slum children, the Dead End Kids, and befriended by a local priest, Pat O’Brien, was refused a certificate. The Board argued that the villain’s volte face in the final reel, where he pretends to be a coward on his way to the electric chair so that the boys will not follow in his footsteps, was insufficient to balance the immorality of what had gone before. [29] Those same Dead End Kids, renamed the Bowery Boys, were again kept off Manitoba screens when they appeared in the comic-honor Spook Busters (1946). This title was also rejected unanimously by the Appeal Board which opined that the Boys had been “... removed from their traditional role of police helpers and community benefactors to be exploited in a meaningless, furtive spectacle of criminal and horror mechanisms.” [30]

Nevertheless, it was independent filmmakers, outside the main stream of American commercial cinema, who caused the censors their greatest headaches. The majority of those, known collectively in the trade as the ‘Forty Thieves’, came from an itinerant, carnival background where they had run sideshows - striptease and sensational vaudeville acts. Turning to the movies after the First World War, they were to produce an endless stream of exploitation pictures which featured sex themes, “daring” subjects and occasional nudity. The most lurid of these seldom came to the Canadian prairies. However, the Forty Thieves learnt early that, by attaching some kind of cautionary message to their material, the censors’ objections could often be met. They went to great lengths to assure boards of their own moral rectitude, and claimed that, by showing these films, they were performing a necessary social service to the community. Two of the commonest genres were known as “white coaters” and “clap operas” which dealt, respectively, with pregnancy and venereal disease. Given the woeful ignorance of the public on such matters, the sensational movies may, indeed, have served an educational purpose beyond their exploiters’ imaginings. An age grown jaded by illustrated material on every conceivable sexual practice finds it hard to credit the naiveté of earlier generations. Yet, the Hays Office and the Legion felt an obligation to perpetuate it. Homosexuality was not permitted as a theme, although there were sometimes veiled references to “queers” who were equated with the criminally insane. Movie love scenes ended with a kiss or an embrace; married couples slept in separate beds; and pregnancy was signalled obliquely and in some circumlocutory manner by the mother-to-be to a surprised husband. The narrowness and prudery of censors of half a century ago is legendary. [31] And so, alongside pictures in the National Geographic magazine, these films provided a rare opportunity for the one sex to see what the other looked like undressed.

The ingenuity of the Forty Thieves knew no limits. Careful plans were laid well in advance of a movie’s submission. There were letters from bogus clergymen and physicians lauding their value. “Eminent hygiene commentators” were to introduce the films and “nurses”—women paid the going rate of five dollars a show to dress in uniform—were on hand throughout each performance lest what was on the screen might cause faint hearts to fail. The Manitoba Board viewed these antics with suspicion; but it never seems to have gauged fully the extremes to which they were carried. When Birth of a Baby (1942) came before it, cuts were demanded in the sequence where the baby’s head appears. Rice-Jones was informed by a Dr. Nadelhoffer of the American Committee on Maternal Welfare, Inc. which promoted the film that such a cut was unacceptable, whereupon the chairman wondered aloud whether there was not “something fishy” about an organization which viewed a part of the birth scene as crucial to box office success. [32] At first, the Board was adamant that the scene would have to go if a certificate was wanted. Since this would rob Birth of a Baby of its raison d’etre, the producers dug in their heels and it was eventually passed uncut for showing at the Metropolitan to an adult audience, with a strong recommendation that children not be admitted. The Board also took the opportunity to register its displeasures at the “highhanded and uncalled-for attitude of the company,” and maintained that, “actual showing of the birth will be of no educational benefit to the public, and not a single person will be better educated because the scene is left in.” [33]

The furor occasioned by Birth was minimal in comparison to that created by Mom and Dad. It was to exercise the energies of the Board off and on for the best part of five years (1946-51) and generate more correspondence than any other film. Mom and Dad is unquestionably the Gone With The Wind of sexploitation movies. Accurate estimates as to how many people saw it are impossible because of scanty financial records; but a figure of forty million (American) dollars has been quoted which, if true, would make it one of the top one hundred grossing pictures of all time. It was the work of Kroger Babb, one of the Forty Thieves, and of his wife, Mildred, who wrote the script. Shot in Los Angeles in 1944, it tells the story of a small-town high school girl who becomes pregnant because her puritanical mother cannot bring herself to explain the facts of life to her daughter. The two of them go to a city in the east to escape the shame and stigma which the community will inevitably impose. At this point in the proceedings, there is an intermission during which the “famous hygiene commentator, Elliott Forbes” gives a short lecture. This is followed by the sale of pamphlets—on birth control to women, and on the dangers of venereal disease to men. The film’s second part includes scenes of child-birth and a few segments from informational documentaries on the ravages of syphilis.

The public campaign to inform Manitobans about Mom and Dad began in September 1946 with the news that it would be shown to segregated audiences - women at the two o’clock and seven o’clock performances, and men at nine. The obligatory “nurses” would be in attendance to minister to those who might succumb from watching the stark images, and to sell the booklets during the intermission. Advertising was predictably lurid: “Women Cry, Men get Fighting Mad! You’ll gasp, you’ll wince, you’ll shudder! But you’ll see truths and you’ll learn facts!” Since its formidable reputation had preceded it from Ontario, the Board decided that special procedures were called for. Rather than view it in isolation, the three members invited six-teen officials connected with health and welfare matters in the province to a private screening on 12 October. [34] Insulated from the carnival atmosphere that inevitably accompanied public presentations, the group agreed that it was informative, with only one dissenting voice. [35] A majority suggested that a Caesarean delivery scene was unnecessary, and the Board agreed to pass it with that cut.

It was the arrival of the dollar booklets on the censors’ desk that complicated the situation. At the time, the government viewed the dissemination of birth control information by any private group with grave suspicion. Rice-Jones asked for a ruling from the Minister of Health and Public Welfare as to the propriety of distributing such literature in a movie theatre. [36] The matter was raised in cabinet at which time the minister stated that his department was not prepared to endorse the contents of the two booklets; nor could it approve the lecture which accompanied the presentation. [37] Meanwhile, the Canadian distributor, George Altman, was demanding that his picture be allowed to open at the Garrick, arguing that the Board had no jurisdiction to prevent delivery of a speech or the sale of literature. [38] Rice-Jones refused to submit. He approached the Chief License Inspector and Commissioner of Taxation to ascertain whether Altman required a licence and whether the City of Winnipeg could refuse one. [39] He also discovered that Hygienic Productions of Canada was not registered either in the province or federally, with Ottawa. [40] Throughout November and December the question continued to be discussed by cabinet. On January 4, 1947, a judgement was handed down by the Commissioner of Taxation which effectively ended any chance Mom and Dad might have had of being seen in the city. It quoted a section of the revised Amusement Act of 1940 by which the licence of a movie theatre which failed to comply with a ministerial decision could be revoked or suspended. This put the onus on the Garrick which was not prepared to jeopardize its future over an independent production. Furthermore, the minister was to be the sole judge of what was in the public interest in making that decision. Altman might show his film; but the paraphernalia of nurses, lectures and booklets was forbidden. The Garrick management would ignore the decision at its peril. [41] The offer was declined. The Board must have heaved a sigh of relief, especially since it had just learned that the company was in the process of publishing more pamphlets to accompany its newest releases, all medical problem movies—Cancer May Get You!, Only Heaven Knows and Seeing is Believing. A second attempt to bring Mom and Dad to the city in 1948 met the same determined resistance, bolstered by support from the Health League of Canada. [42]

As the 1950s progressed, it became clear to anyone associated with the motion picture industry that an age of permissiveness was at hand. The main reason was a startling decline in the number of cinema admissions for which television was largely to blame. From an expensive and mechanically unreliable toy before the Second World War, the TV set was fast becoming a fixture in homes. The industry fought back in a variety of ways, with more colour, spectacles, wide-screen projection and short-lived experiments in three dimensional movies. The ace card proved to be racier films. What television could not dare offer because it was family entertainment was adult, explicit fair. The movies began to take advantage. In the mid-’50s, Otto Preminger challenged the Legion and Hays Code with profitable titles—The Moon is Blue and Man With the Golden Arm. European pictures had always had a reputation for being more daring than their North American equivalents. In this same decade Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren became established stars on this side of the Atlantic. The Board strove to stem the tide. [43] But it was becoming obvious, even to the most casual observer of the scene, that the family audience was a declining commodity. The Board was forced to make its first significant change in the system in 1959 by instituting a new category—Restricted Adult. This excluded those under seventeen from titles so classified while still permitting those under that age to attend Adult-rated ones.

When we look back across those decades at the hundreds of films which were banned or cut by the Board for reasons which now appear trivial in the extreme, it is natural to view their actions as a residue of puritanism which liberal, more permissive times have all but dispelled. All the same, we should not consider the Film Board in isolation. Its activities were part of a general tendency that demanded obedience to and respect for authority. Church and school alike reinforced the idea that individuals had to be controlled to protect them from their baser selves. It would be equally erroneous to conclude that the impetus for movie censorship came exclusively from above. Rice-Jones and his colleagues might grant or withhold their permission to screen in an imperious manner, but the tone was set by the population at large, seeking in films a scapegoat for juvenile delinquency and falling moral standards. Without general support, the organs of power cannot even be established. Society’s desire to have a conformist, moral, God-fearing environment lay behind the existence and the actions of the Board. Manitobans, in common with others throughout the North American continent in those years, accepted bland, noncontroversial entertainment as the price that had to be paid for a decent, right-thinking community. They abrogated their individual rights to groups who insisted on the sanitaization of screen fare. The Appeal Board, no less than the Censors’, was composed of men and women respected in the community. If, collectively, and by their constant vigilance, they created suspicion, bordering on outright hostility to what was realistic, raw or outspoken, they did so in a favourable social context.

By the ‘sixties, and for reasons which lie beyond the scope of this study, the mood was changing. The screen, like society at large, began to break free from long-established moral restraints. When freedom of expression was demanded by filmmakers, it was part of a general movement against unquestioned authoritarianism. The wind of change sprang up suddenly and it blew away the usages of the past with incredible speed. Barely a dozen years separated the routine excision of the word “slut” and Linda Lovelace’s demonstration of her remarkable oral talents. In 1972, Manitoba became the first and, to date, the only provincial jurisdiction to abolish censorship of the screen and permit only classification. The change did not sit well with those who had become accustomed to being moral guardians of the cinema. Their forced transition from censors to classifiers is a theme that deserves attention.


The author wishes to thank the Manitoba Heritage Federation Inc. and the Bandon University Faculty Research Council for their financial assistance researching and preparing this article.

1. The holdings of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba on the subject of provincial film censorship comprise two main items: Record Group 8, Manitoba Civil Service Commission Records B 1, 1900-63 and Record Group II, A 1, Box 2, Manitoba Censor Board, 1937-1952. However, the latter contains materials from before and after these dates. The author, formerly Vice-Chairman of the Manitoba Film Classification Board, discovered ten boxes of unclassified material relating to the Censor Board and dating from 1928.

2. The Amusements Act, 1923, Cl. 1, S 1 was slightly amended by the Theatres and Cinematographs Act, 1931, C 70, S 1, to take talking pictures’ dialogue into account.

3. Press release by Information Office, Legislative Building, Room 226: 9 May 1947.

4. Cecil Rice-Jones, born 1881 in Sussex, England. Organized Alberta Farmers’ Co-operative Elevator Co. Moved to Winnipeg, 1919, as general manager, United Grain Growers. Member, Winnipeg City Council, 1932-1936. Appointed Civil Service Commissioner, September 1937 which appointment also included chairmanship of the Censor Board. Replaced C. M. McCann. Retired 31 October 1937. Mrs. Gertrud Lennox, born 1879 in Port Huron, Ontario. Graduated from Universities of Manitoba and Columbia. Taught English and Modern Languages in Brandon and Winnipeg high schools. Appointed to Board, 16 March 1928. Officially retired 8 February 1944 but remained as adviser until October 1946. See, especially, Provincial Library of Manitoba Biographical Scrapbooks.

5. In 1938, for example, the Appeal Board comprised five members of the Men’s Canadian Club, four from the Women’s Canadian Club, two from the Central Council of Social Agencies, three independents including a physician and a member of the Winnipeg Free Press board, and one each from the National Council of Education, the Manitoba Teachers’ Federation, the Manitoba Trustees Association, the Local Council of Women, the Women’s Institutes of Manitoba and the United Farm Women of Manitoba. M(anitoba) and F(ilm) C(lassification) B(oard). Appeals file, 1938-41.

6. P(rovincial) A(rchives) of M(anitoba), RG 11, A 1, “Appeals, 1947-52”.

7. Ibid., Board to Municipal Commissioner, 5 June 1934.

8. Ibid., Deputy Commissioner’s File, 1937-40.

9. Ibid. Saturday afternoon serials were condemned since they “usually concluded with the most harrowing climax with an imagination strained beyond reason, looking for the next instalment.”

10. Ibid. Joint letter to Attorney-General James McLenaghan from Narcisse Fournier, President of Local Section, l’Association d’Education des C-F du Manitoba, Ulric Lambert, President, le Cercle Ouvrier Saint-Joseph, Henri Deschambault, President of la Societe St. Jean-Baptiste de St. Boniface, Jean Trudel, President of la Societe Saint Adelard. 30 March 1941.

11. MFCB, file on Black Narcissus: Derocher to Board, 4 October 1947.

12. PAM, RG 11, A 1. R. Schofield, Westminster United Church to D. L. Campbell, 28 February 1950. Also, J. J. McLennan, Riverview United Church to Campbell (undated). M. B. Newton, chairman of the Board responded by arguing that it would be impossible for the Board to screen the private lives of actors and actresses starring in all films entering the province. The film was passed for showing as Adult and screened without further incident at the Dominion from 20 March 1950.

13. MFCB: “Russian Propaganda” file. W. P. Lindsay, Supt. to Provincial Secretary, 2 June 1928.

14. Ibid., “German Consulate” file. L. Kempff to Board, 17 March 1934.

15. For example, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos collaborated on the script of Spain in Flames. Blockade was written by John Howard Lawson, later to gain fame, or notoriety, as one of the so-called “Hollywood Ten” and imprisoned in the U.S.A. during the McCarthy era.

16. Edward de Grazia and Roger K. Newman, Banned Films (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1982), pp. 214-15.

17. MFCB: “German Consulate” file. E. Windels to V. Patriarche, 2 December 1937.

18. Ibid., 11 June 1939.

19. PAM, RG 11, A 1, Memorandum to Deputy Municipal Commissioner, 3 April 1940.

20. Ibid., R. Green to W. L. Major, 20 September 1939.

21. Ibid., W. S. Thompson to Gertrud Lennox, 27 September 1939.

22. Ibid., 3 November 1939.

23. Ibid., Rice-Jones to William Morton, Minister of Public Utilities, 20 November 1939. Paramount put its total loss of revenue in Canada at $1,750,000 because of decisions by various provinces to keep it off the screen.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid., Deputy Commissioners’ Office to Rice-Jones, 4 April 1940.

26. Ibid., Rice-Jones to Bougarel, 15 May 1940.

27. MFCB: “Shock” file.

28. Ibid., Rice-Jones to J.D.M. Griffin, Medical Director, National Committee for Mental Hygiene, Ottawa, 7 November 1946. Also, Rice-Jones, “Personal Report to the Hon. William Morton”, 9 May 1946.

29. Ibid., “Deletions, 1938-39”.

30. PAM, RG 11, A 1, Report of Appeal Board, 9 October 1946.

31. A good introduction to the subject is Raymond Moley, The Hays Office (New York: Bobbs Merril, 1945).

32. MFCB: “Birth of a Baby” file: Rice-Jones to F. W. Jackson, Deputy Minister of Health and Public Welfare, 19 March 1942.

33. Ibid., Rice-Jones to E. Couture, Director, Division of Child and Material Hygiene, Ottawa, 11 July 1942.

34. Ibid., “Mom and Dad” file: Rice-Jones to Morton, 21 October 1946. The lurid story of the Forty Thieves is the subject of two recent articles in Film Comment, “The Wages of Sin” (David F. Friedman interviewed by David Chute: Vol. 22, No. 4 and 5, July-August and September-October, 1986).

35. The negative vote was cast by W. Pratt of the Department of Education.

36. MFCB: “Mom and Dad” file: Rice-Jones to R. B. Baillie, Commissioner of Taxation, 14 October 1946.

37. Ibid., Baillie to Board, 7 January 1947.

38. Ibid., Rice-Jones to Morton, 21 October 1946.

39. Ibid., Rice-Jones to Baillie, 5 November 1946.

40. Ibid., Rice-Jones to C. Proud’homme, 20 October 1946.

41. Ibid., F. W. Jackson to Altman, 5 January 1947.

42. PAM, RG 11, A 1. Memorandum from M. B. Newton (chairman) and A. M. Young to Morton (undated). The film was reviewed and rejected in September 1948. Altman still demanded to have the lecture given and the pamphlets sold.

43. Ibid. A tally of figures from Board reports shows a gradual rise in the number of films rated Adult, from an average of 30% in the period 1945-52 to 48% in the period 1953-1959. As far as the writer can establish, every feature starring Mlle. Bardot was cut.

Page revised: 20 December 2011