Sixty years of Milwaukee movie censorship

Who knew?

For almost 60 years, movies in Milwaukee were censored.

Rebel without a Cause was clearly the mostly widely known movie that they censored,” says Matthew Prigge, author of a new book on the Milwaukee Motion Picture Commission. “In that one, they cut out the opening title sequence, with James Dean in the gutter. Anybody who saw that movie here would have seen it start with the second scene, where he’s being taken to the police station, with no credit sequence at all!”

Prigge — author of Outlaws, Rebels & Vixens: Motion Picture Censorship in Milwaukee, 1914–1971 — says censorship is an issue that’s as hot as ever. History shows it’s a typical response to new media technology.

And movies once were new.

“The growth of motion pictures was stunning,” he points out. “The first stand-alone movie theater in Milwaukee opened in 1906. By 1910, there were 40. That’s growth along the lines of social media or smartphones in an era when people really weren’t used to exposure to new technology.”

The power of the new medium was unknown — and caused alarm.

In response, local governments started to flex their muscles.

“There were dozens of state movie censor boards and city movie censor boards,” says Prigge, a Milwaukee-based historian and author.

Outlaws, Rebels & Vixens is likely the first history of a city censor board. Prigge came upon the subject while researching the history of Milwaukee’s adult cinema. “There was this long, weird history (of censorship) that few people had ever managed to look into,” he says.

Milwaukee’s censor commission

For better or worse, Milwaukee can claim to have one of the earliest and longest-lived censor boards, lasting several years after the Motion Picture Code ratings system was introduced. “Local censorship was pretty unique in terms of how they were able to build power when most of these boards were dying off,” Prigge says.

Films subjected to Milwaukee censorship included classics such as The Public Enemy starring James Cagney (1931), Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw (1943), Death of a Salesman and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (both 1951), Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) and A Farewell to Arms (1957).

Private parties showing stag films were even raided.

Milwaukee movie censorship
1913’s “Traffic in Souls” was one of a number of “white slave” films initially barred by the MMPC. However, the genre was such a proven moneymaker for local exhibitors that “Souls” and several other white slave films were permitted to play to adults-only audiences.

By the 1960s, the censorship commission “morphed into a small group of citizens imposing their will on the city at large,” Prigge says. “The positions on the board became thank-yous for political patronage.” Besides the honor, film commissioners could visit any cinema in the city — for free.

But earlier censors at least meant well. The commission began in the era of silent film with a small group of civic-minded business leaders, including a few in the motion picture industry, appointed by the mayor. They formed the Citizen’s Commission on Motion Pictures. They were eventually given brass badges with six points, like a sheriff’s.

Always about the sex

Sex was a concern from the start. The commission’s first act was to complain of shots of a woman’s legs in a 1914 film, The Dalton Boys. But another film that year demonstrated a more high-minded concern, as the commission banned a Fatty Arbuckle short, Rebecca’s Wedding Day, because of its “poor reflection on the Jewish religion.”

Later, the 1939 rerelease of the first notable American feature film, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), produced by the Aitken brothers of Waukesha, was banned because it was “racially incendiary.” Its original release led to riots nationwide and a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

“They had this sort of vague idea of bettering the movies, to uplift moviegoers,” Prigge says of the early censors. Scenes of harmful acts that a child might imitate were removed. Lest the wrong conclusion be drawn, onscreen criminals always paid for their acts. “It’s one thing to kind of look at this and think, ‘Oh, these people were so uptight’ or that the censors were just funny relics of a time when people didn’t really know what’s going on,” says the author. “But if you look at their positions in the context of their times, a lot of it starts to make more sense, especially in the really early days of the board.”