The five years in Chicago when movies were forbidden

from Exhibitors Herald,
via Wikimedia Commons

Today, we learned about a truly bizarre moment in film history that we want to share. For as often as you hear people (usually wrongly) claiming censorship of media, you’ve never lived through anything like the reign of Major M.L.C. Funkhouser, film censor of the city of Chicago.

As The Chicago Tribune tells it, in 1913, Funkhouser was appointed by the Chicago police as a “censor of public morals,” which allowed him to crack down on antisocial behavior. Instead of looking at public drunkenness, prostitution, gambling, or any of the other traditional public vices, Funkhouser focused all his attention on motion pictures.

Funkhouser abused his powers in absurd degree. He banned movies depicting dancing, arguing that they could lead young people to go to bars and drink. He nixed comedies that made fun of authority and required film producers to edit or rewrite the movies to allow them to play. At one point, Funkhouser even rejected a film about the Revolutionary War because it could potentially undermine national interests in World War I.

Filmmakers ridiculed the censorship almost immediately. Their films, stripped of objectionable content, were apparently incomprehensible. And through all this, none of Funkhouser’s actions seemed to have any impact on the city apart from aggravating producers and audiences. After five years of this nonsense, the new mayor of Chicago found an excuse to suspend Funkhouser, closing the book on a dark age for expression on film.

To learn more about film censorship in Chicago, check out the article “Reel Life, Real Censorship” from the Chicago History Museum. We’re still in disbelief that this happened.

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