In December of 1908, in the era before motion pictures were given much notice by a snooty The New York Times, New York City’s Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. bowed to political pressures from Tammany Hall and moral watchdog groups. Seizing on the excuse of public safety and the precedent of so-called Sunday “blue laws,” he revoked the business licenses of all nickelodeons in greater Manhattan.
Insiders dubbed his action “The McClellan Massacre,” for it came right at the start of the lucrative Christmas season. The whole competitive film industry was already dependent on the revenue from the holiday trade.
Fortunately, McClellan’s order did not remain in effect for long. Within days the Edison Trust lawyers won an injunction in court to have it set aside. However, the repercussions were dramatic and long-lived.
All affiliated studios of the Edison Trust were forced to accede to New York’s first Board of Censorship. Producers agreed to submit all subsequent feature films for certification before they went to the exchanges for distribution.
Among that first batch of films submitted to the board was the Biograph Co.’s “temperance lecture,” A Drunkard’s Reformation. The timing was propitious, because it gave Biograph a moral seal of approval that helped boost its public profile at a vulnerable time.
The new state board was the industry’s first attempt at self-regulation, a forerunner of the Hays Office and the Production Code of the early 1930s. It may not have had any teeth but it headed off the need for government regulation and censorship. It also put motion picture makers on notice. They had best be able to defend their releases in light of mostly undefined “community standards.”
As with all attempts at censorship to come, the New York board did not stop producers from depicting sin and human weakness on screen. But it did challenge picture makers to exploit immorality in more creative and sophisticated ways.
My novel The Designated Virgin is set in the first half of 1909, in that crucial period following the McClellan Massacre. It is a serio-comic dramatization of the pressures that came to bear on the first generation of movie-makers.