To make the better film: movies, women's clubs and the fight over censorship in the American South, 1907-1934

UNCW Author/Contributor (non-UNCW co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
William Davis (Creator)
The University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW )
Web Site:
Kathleen Berkeley

Abstract: At the beginning of the twentieth century, the motion picture industry and its allies waged a long battle with the political and religious establishment over control of the content of the motion pictures. The new medium relied on titillation and violence to attract and hold massive audiences. Religious and civic organizers reacted to this content by applying political pressure to censor or reform the pictures. Their concerns led states and municipalities to create censor boards and other legal instruments to monitor the movies. In the early days of this battle, the film industry lost a series of political and legal fights to pro-censorship forces through the North, Midwest and West. The only region where the pro-censorship forces had not gained traction was the South. In order to maintain this status quo, the motion picture industry and allies like the National Board of Review of Film built alliances with southern women’s clubs. These clubs lobbied local legislatures against censorship, created volunteer film review boards and acted as advocates for the motion pictures in their home communities. This thesis examines the creation, nurture and ultimately disintegration of the alliance between the women’s clubs and the motion picture industry. These alliances succeeded because the nature of the pro-censorship argument in the North and West, which often relied on anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic biases, did not have the same social resonance in the South. In the South, theater owners and patrons came from the business and middle classes. Religious and civic leaders found it more difficult to arouse widespread support for censors, but this did not deter religious lobbies from courting support from southern congressmen and attempting to spread their ideas through lectures and meetings with community leaders. The social climate in the South allowed the movie industry’s agents to have some success in sending agents to lecture against censorship, with the industry allied New York-based National Board taking the lead. The National Board founded its own local women’s clubs, known as the Better Films Committees, to speak out against legal censorship. Members of the clubs gained prominence through their public work on behalf of the industry and rose to positions of responsibility as local censors. With the coming of sound film and the industry’s reliance on risqué content in the 1930s, the Better Films women and other industry allies revolted against the content of movies. Their criticism, combined with new financial pressures from the cost of wiring the nation’s theaters for sound, convinced the industry to embrace self-censorship in the form of a Production Code.

Additional Information

A Thesis Submitted to the University of North Carolina Wilmington in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
Language: English
Date: 2009
Motion pictures--Censorship--United States--Southern States, Motion pictures--Production control, Women--United States--Societies and clubs
Motion pictures -- Production control
Motion pictures -- Censorship -- United States -- Southern States
Women -- United States -- Societies and clubs

Email this document to