Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Writing for the Censors [Part 2]

December 2nd, 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. 83-84]:

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. The National Board will usually disapprove:

1. Pictures in which a character triumphs by virtue of immorality alone as in the case of a woman who takes the easiest way and achieves thereby greater success and happiness than her honest sister.

2. Scenes of filthy debauchery.

3. Stories written for the sole purpose of featuring some unique and shocking crime as cold blood murder.

4. Scenes showing the technical methods of committing crimes. For example, it would be thought unsafe to let the public know exactly how bombs are made or how safes are opened. This does not prevent realistic representations of burglaries such as one finds in good melodramas.

5. Stories which might incite impressionable persons to mischief by virtue of mental suggestion. This classification includes lynching scenes when laid in the present, scenes which emphasize suicide as a means of ending one’s troubles, cruel practical jokes especially when perpetrated by youngsters, and pictures in which deadly weapons constantly appear.

6. Unpatriotic themes.

7. Stories which would encourage Bolshevism or anarchy.

8. Stories tending to justify the unwritten law as an excuse for murder.

9. Libels on persons places or industries

Imagine trying to write a screenplay today with that degree of censorship. Tarantino would have to move to Mars to get a movie made!

But unlike many of the previous posts in this series where I’ve been struck by the similarities between screenwriting in the past and present, here we have a case where things are considerably different. Indeed there has been a significant embrace of antiheroes, both in movies and TV, in the last decade or so, and with it a much darker view of the universe.

And yet screenwriters today still have to deal with certain subjects which are considered taboo, at least insofar as mainstream audiences are concerned. Perhaps I’ll post something on that to see if we can generate a list of such areas.

Next week: More screenwriting advice from 90 years ago.

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

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