There was a time in Ontario when film versions of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were too violent or too racy for the public good.
In February 1910, one Staff Insp. Kennedy seized a print of Hamlet. The Daily Star quoted this arbiter of public morals about how how he “witnessed a moving picture show of Hamlet, written I think by Shakespeare, this week. . . .That’s all very well to say it’s a famous drama, but it doesn’t keep from being a spectacle of violence.”
Weeks later, Kennedy deemed Romeo & Juliet inappropriate for Toronto the Good.
Despite a self-censorship agreement between film distributors and the province, Toronto’s police force, in those early days of cinema, had the power to decide what would offend strait-laced church-goers. They also inspected theatres for fire safety.
Janet Robinson, who today chairs the Ontario Film Review Board, occupying bright, sparse headquarters at Yonge St. and Sheppard Ave., sheds some light on Kennedy’s decisions: “In those circumstances, all murders and love affairs, even those in Shakespeare’s plays, had to be censored.”
The province created a board of censors in 1911 with the drafting of the Theatres and Cinematographers Act. Distributors now had to submit their films, both old and new, for approval.
One of the board’s mandates was to defend a pro-British attitude, and Hollywood’s offerings that promoted jingoistic American nationalism often suffered under the censor’s scissors.
Its hands-off approach is a far cry from that of the original censor board, which gathered in 1914 to publicly burn 40,000 feet of rejected nitrate film. That display of bravado was captured in a newsreel by William James, a prominent early Toronto photographer.
Since 2001, the year the review board came under fire after refusing to pass Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, films have been rated in five categories: General, Parental Guidance, 14A, 18A or Restricted. The latter category is generally reserved for adult sex titles, of which there have been 2,810 – more than half the 4,577 films classified in the 2009-2010 period.
The board’s 17 members (soon to become 20) spend four days a month watching films submitted for classification. Most of the members are seniors and women. They monitor the number of foul words, assess risqué or violent scenes, and slot the films into a category.
“At the end of the day, we’re here to protect the children and give the parents informed knowledge about what’s in a film,” says Robinson.
Ever since film transformed the world of entertainment, Ontario’s public authorities have struggled with how to guard against potentially corrupting influence, particularly impressionable youth. Moving pictures were, after all, the first form of mass-entertainment to include children alongside adults.
“On the one hand, a moral panic using children as an excuse can lead to draconian measures,” says Paul Moore, a Ryerson University sociologist and author of Now Playing: Early Movie-going and the Regulation of Fun. “But on the other hand, when movies first appeared, until the censor board was created, children really had free access to them. It was the Internet of its day, without any parental controls or restrictions.”
A ratings system was introduced in the 1940s by O.J. Silverthorne, who became chief censor in 1934, remaining until 1973. Affectionately known as “Silver-shears,” entire scenes were excised from Hitchcock’s Rope, and in A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh, the line “kiss me on the mouth” was snipped. Brando, as delinquent leader, was also fodder for the censors in The Wild One, released in 1953 (it was banned outright in B.C., Alberta, and Quebec).
But in the 1970s, Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, featuring a portlier Brando, would pass the censors. Silverthorne recounts that “we just closed our eyes and ears and let it go” in Malcolm Dean’s book, Censored! Only In Canada!
Film censorship in the 1960s reflected a generational gap, says Moore. “It was less that Silverthorne was out of touch than everyone over 30 was out of touch,” says Moore, who adds that I Am Curious (Yellow), which was cut along with Ulysses and High, was notoriously risqué for its time.
But Moore argues the 1970s and early 1980s are a different story: “The youth revolution should have been over by then, and the generation gap long past.”
Pretty Baby, starring Brooke Shields as a child prostitute, was banned in 1978. In 1980, The Tin Drum was refused approval without heavy cutting. Even the National Film Board could not escape its scrutiny, when Not A Love Story, a documentary critical of pornography, was rejected because of scenes depicting hardcore pornography.
In 1980, Mary Brown became chief censor and locked horns with the likes of artist Michael Snow. In 1983, she lamented in a speech before a group of anti-pornography crusaders how “the film industry has changed drastically since The Sound of Music provided role models which reinforced values and attitudes taught in the homes and classrooms.”
“Brown’s name became synonymous with censorship as she seldom hid her views on what should and should not be seen in theatres, and with the advent of VCRs, in peoples’ homes,” says Moore.
Brown’s tenure ended in 1986, when the Liberals took control of the Ontario Legislature, ending 47 years of Conservative rule. The Ontario Censor Board was disbanded, replaced by the Ontario Film Review Board.
Today’s process still has its critics. John Porter, a Toronto filmmaker at odds with the board since 1979, when it was cracking down on unapproved screenings in performance spaces, thinks the board still has too much power.
“They think it’s a big liberalization, but the words are interchangeable. Compulsory classification is still censorship,” says Porter. He argues that independent filmmakers do not have the funds to pay for the classification, which costs $4.20 per minute of film.
“For the non-profit sector, having our films rated was never a concern, because most films shown, ironically, have no sex or violence in them.”
An art gallery or a film festival can bypass the classification process by obtaining a de-facto Restricted rating, meaning nobody under 18 can attend.
At the Legislative Assembly in 2005, Porter recalled a 1983 incident where his 9-year-old nephew was turned away from a screening of his films at an art gallery in Peterborough because he had not submitted them for approval.
Porter suggests the American system of voluntary classification would work much better. If not rated, a film cannot receive a wide release.
“That suits me fine,” he says.
Robinson insists she seldom receives complaints about the current rating system.
In May, she received a letter calling for content advisory for homosexual “behaviour,” but “we’re not about to turn back the clock — that’s discrimination.”
As for another complaint about a 14A rated film showing a young couple frolicking under blankets: “You saw nothing. We know what’s going on. And I’m quite sure a 14-year-old today knows what’s going on.”
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star’s Insight section on August 20, 2010.