Content Discontent

The Ann Arbor Film Festival opened this week at the Michigan Theater, following a controversy over its adherence to guidelines that applied to funding from the state of Michigan. This year’s AAFF did not apply for that funding.

The debate has given the AAFF the opportunity to find new sources of funding and community support. It’s made a lot of people think about the meaning of independent film. How does that independence take shape? Content? Sources of funding? Sources of control?

The controversy has also made people ponder the worth of film censorship. A little research proves this has been a long-running debate. For many years, both filmmakers and filmgoers have asked questions like: What is honest? What is necessary?


My research for the Looking Back column of this web site has immersed me completely in the “pre-code” era of the early 1930s that preceded the tightening in 1934 of the Production Code. This self-regulation by the motion picture industry came in response to threats of boycott because of questionable film content (especially from the Catholic Legion of Decency).

In the March 6, 1932 Detroit News, Monroe Lathrup reported that “British censors promise to slash pajamas, cocktails, bedroom episodes and gangster crimes from Yankee films.” Also, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs had launched “a campaign to clean up risque and vulgar short subjects.”

The Movies on Trial, a 1936 book of essays edited by William J. Perlman, looked at different sides of the debate over movie content.

“…I feel that the public is capable of choosing its own screen entertainment without the guidance of self appointed moralists,” wrote Edward G. Robinson (“The Movies, The Actor, and Public Morals”). “An audience is intuitively repelled by a play, movie or novel that is suggestive or prurient without rhyme or reason.”

In another essay (“The Movies and the Community”), John Haynes Holmes asserted, “I cannot take seriously an art which makes of the human story one uninterrupted round of seduction, fornication, adultery, racketeering, crime, and terror; and I tremble at the thought of the influence which such a presentation of the story must make upon the minds of those, adult and adolescent both, who are actually writing its unfolding chapters in the world of real experience.”


In late 1956, the Production Code was made less restrictive. “The major changes lift completely the code’s prohibition against subjects having to do with illicit narcotics practice, illegal operation, kidnapping and prostitution,” wrote Al Weitschat in the December 12, 1956 Detroit News.

For example, the revised code said that illegal operations “shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned.” Weitschat also noted, “On the entire matter of race relations, the new rules specify that derogatory terms should be avoided.”

Syndicated columnist Bob Thomas wrote that the old code was enforced by studio-owned theaters.

“The situation changed when the government made the theaters and studios divorce for anti-trust reasons,” wrote Thomas (The Ann Arbor News, December 18, 1956). “The studios were still committed to the code, but the theaters weren’t necessarily.” This opened the theater doors for films that were refused a code seal (like The Moon is Blue and The Man with the Golden Arm).

“Warning to Hollywood against films which jeopardize the morals of youth is sounded by the Michigan Congress of Parents and Teachers,” reported Marjorie E. Porter in the March 23, 1957 Detroit News. “A resolution demanding ‘decency and good taste’ in motion pictures will be submitted to delegates for approval at the state convention in Traverse City April 22-25.”


It’s surprising to look at a Detroit Free Press or Ann Arbor News of the early 1980s and see adult movies prominently displayed in the movie sections. The Detroit News did not publish such ads.

A March 7, 1982 Ann Arbor News article about the 20th Ann Arbor Film Festival showed that controversy has been with the festival for a long time. In the article by Rich Quackenbush, festival director Ruth Bradley noted that George Manupelli, director for the festival’s first 19 years, “had seen the festival evolve in a period when the nature of experimental films could raise eyebrows in the community.”

According to Bradley, Manupelli “developed very strict policies about festival screenings. No more than one night’s worth of films could be in a projection booth at a time, and very few people were allowed to know where festival films were stored.”

So this open debate continues in this open society. Newspaper content guidelines and web sites like and give audiences more information than ever about determining what is best for themselves and their family.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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