Canada Censorship News

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Americans are Coming! The Americans are Coming!

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The Ontario Government created a Board of Censors in 1911. That same year saw boards established to the west in Manitoba, to the east in Quebec, and to the south in Pennsylvania. Major cities had censors for stage plays, and with purpose built theatres showing ever longer and more depraved movies, something needed to be done about the movie menace.

The original guidelines were short and clear: "no picture of an immoral or obscene nature, or depicting crime or pictures reproducing a prizefight shall be passed". Only 1 in 4 films passed this high standard. Films that passed could still be cut, or have an offending image such as the American flag, blacked out. The Board Chair, George Armstrong, wrote an open letter to film distributors in a trade magazine, explaining that gratuitous displays of the American flag would not be permitted. When the Great War began in 1914, Canadians were even less tolerant of literal and thematic American flag waving in movies. The United States eventually joined the Allies in 1917, and promptly began producing films which supported the war effort but completely ignored the sacrifices of Canada and other nations.

In 1925, Maclean's magazine published "What the Censor Saves us From." The pro-censorship anti-american rant featured a brave reporter venturing across the border to see American films in all their shocking uncensored glory, as well as attacking the American film industry in general for its obsessions with loose morality, depictions of crime, and portrayals of frontier justice. Memories of the American late entry into the war were not forgotten: The reporter criticized American films for freely using Canadian locations yet ignoring Canada's war efforts.

While censors did their best to protect Canadians from American films, the government regularly considered quotas to ensure proper British films were shown, and the British film industry supported. Of course, theatre owners were opposed. M. J. O' Brien, of the Ottawa Valley Amusement Company, operating the O'Brien Theatres in Pembroke, Renfrew, Arnprior and Almonte, wrote to the provincial Treasurer in 1931, protesting one of the last airings of a possible quota. He included the text of a telegram he had just sent:
Understand legislation being considered to force theatres of province play twenty per cent British films stop ... have tried British pictures our circuit with disastrous results stop pictures are poorly made stop box-office receipts affect tax receipts stop ... you may censor what people want to see but you cannot force them to pay to see pictures they don't like.
Quotas were never introduced, and the tables soon turned. By the late 1930s, the Production Code was in full effect in the United States, and the cleaned up pictures were a relief to Canadian censors. In 1937, Board Chair Omri Silverthorne stated in Variety that American films required fewer cuts due to language than British films. The next two decades were peaceful times for censors.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The King's F* Speech

I recently attended The King's Speech with my two oldest sons. This was significant for a number of reasons. The last film we attended together was the muddled Tron: Legacy, and I have fond memories of being up all night with my oldest when he couldn't sleep, watching Toy Story over and over again. So a bit of a milestone - first grown up film. Or rather, first grown up film with no nudity, no violence, no shoot outs, and no explosions. Just an intelligent story well told, with a modest PG rating here in Ontario.

My oldest actually listens when I talk, and knows that a film rated PG in Ontario is limited to three uses of the dreaded F word (yes, I am aware of the irony of censoring a blog on censorship). So, during a scene where the King launches a string of expletives, exceeding the three count limit, my son leaned over and asked how the film managed the PG rating. Fortunately I was ready with the answer: "...guidelines may be set aside at the Panel's discretion (where social, historic, and documentary significance warrants)." Had the panel not exercised its discretion, children under 14 would need to be accompanied by an adult to see the film. Not a huge problem, perhaps, and doubtless there will be complaints to the board, but still, kudos to the board for exercising common sense. The rating includes a warning that "Language May Offend."

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) originally rated the film as "15," roughly the same as Ontario's "14A," but the distributor appealed. On appeal, the rating was reduced to "12A," with the warning: "Contains strong language in a speech therapy context." Children under 12 would need adult accompaniment to see this film in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, in the United States, the MPAA rated the film "R" for language, meaning anyone under 18 needs adult accompaniment. Quite a difference, and all over the use of one little word.

Do people even care?  Yes, they do. Christian Spotlight on the Movies discusses the swearing, and consequently notes that the film is not recommended for children, even though the reviewer admits that the language is not gratuitous. Commentators on the review also discuss the language.

With all the minor fuss over the language, did it really need to be there? Couldn't we just gloss over that little incident, for the sake of our children's precious minds? But if we did that, then we would be guilty of hiding them from the real world, or limiting what adults can view in the name of protecting children. And besides, this language had "social, historic, and documentary significance." Or did it? Little is known about what Lionel Logue actually said to the King or anyone else. His grandson denies the informality of the relationship as presented in the film. So maybe the swearing was just a cheap laugh....and some free publicity.

Update: The distributors have prepared a version with all that foul language muted, and earned a PG-13 rating from the MPAA. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/awards/2011/02/mpaa-awards-pg-13-rating-to-alternate-version-of-the-kings-speech.html
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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dire Straits Money for Nothing Ban

In a blog that is supposed to cover censorship issues in Canada, I suppose I should mention an issue that has received a lot of attention.  On the other hand, precisely because the issue has received a lot of attention, there's not much I can add.

A year ago one person in Newfoundland made a complaint to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), about one word in some versions of the Dire Straits song Money for Nothing. The CBSC considered the complaint, and determined that song versions containing the offensive word should not be played on the radio. That's all. Some radio stations have openly defied the ban, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)  has asked the CBSC to reconsider the ban.

Meanwhile, anyone is free to listen to or buy any version of the song they wish. As censorship issues go, this is very minor, and very public. We should be more concerned about the censorship we don't know about.