Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Writing for the Censors [Part 1]

November 25th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today: Writing for the Censors [P. 83]:

Photoplay writers must observe national censorship regulations, for while scenario editor, star and director may all find your story to be a masterpiece, if at the last moment some one recollects that the big scene will not pass under Regulation No. 9847261, Series of 1919, it’s all off.

No producer will take a chance on a story which may be disapproved entirely or mangled by the cutting of important scenes after it is completed.

Two systems of censorship prevail–first, the National Board of Censors to whose regulations the larger companies have bound themselves for the betterment of motion pictures, and, second, the innumerable local boards which have sprung up like mushrooms in small towns and provincial communities.

While no human mind can remember the innumerable conflicting rules of these small town boards, since each local censor has his own ideas of what constitutes morality, the scenarist should at least follow the National Board’s regulations, which are consistent and reasonable.

Fascinating to note that censorship was an issue for American filmmakers as far back as 1920. Not even three decades into this new form of expression and there were all sorts of moral codes laid down at a national and local level. Indeed things got even worse with the advent of the Hays Code in 1930 which held sway until — believe it or not — 1968!

While contemporary filmmakers in the United States don’t have to deal with censorship per se, there is the oftentimes mystifying MPAA ratings system. TV writers on the other hand, especially on broadcast networks, literally do have to deal with censorship. More on that next week along with a list of regulations laid down by the National Board in 1920. It’s a list you won’t want to miss. Plus we’ll be talking about various permutations of the F-word as it relates to modern day movie ratings.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

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