September 25th, 2008

carole lombard 04
  • vp19

The matter with Kansas

We've occasionally discussed film censorship issues here, but generally in terms of industry self-policing, such as the banning of the above publicity still from Carole Lombard's film "Twentieth Century" ( But truth be told, most of Hollywood's censorship problems during the Golden Age weren't internal, but external -- specifically involving state boards of review. Standards varied from place to place; a scene that might not be allowed on the screen in New York City might pass muster across the Hudson River in Jersey City (and vice versa).

One of the states with the longest-running and most active film censorship boards was Kansas, which should come as no surprise to many of you. The Sunflower State has had a long history of conservatism on social issues, going back to the days of the temperance movement (and continuing into recent times with controversy over creationism and related topics).

The Kansas State Board of Review was founded in 1913, but didn't actively review films until 1915, after the Supreme Court ruled in an Ohio case that state film censorship was constitutional. Interestingly, the Kansas board did not approve D.W. Griffith's controversial epic "The Birth Of A Nation," saying it was both historically inaccurate and inspired race hatred. The Kansas board lasted for more than half a century, until it was finally declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 1966.

For most of its existence, the Kansas State Board of Review could rule on subjects such as nudity; drunkenness; gambling; "loose conduct between men and women;" infidelity; "prolonged and passionate love scenes;" comedic portrayals of religion, religious sects, or race; violence; criminal acts; prostitution; or "ridicule or facetious remarks about motherhood or scenes pertaining to childbirth." However, in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could ban motion pictures only for obscenity, meaning nudity or "extreme lustfulness," a decision that drastically reduced the Kansas board's power.

The Kansas State Historical Society has acquired the records of the Board of Review and has put them online, making it a fascinating resource for research. An overview of the board's history can be found at

Even better, the society has enabled one to search by film, company, years, "specific elimination" (what the board recommended be cut) -- and star. So I decided to use the index ( to check Carole Lombard. I was a bit surprised to find changes were demanded in but two of her movies.

We'll list the later film first, "Vigil In The Night" (1940):

On Feb. 20, 1940, the board requested that in reel 3A, "Eliminate all dialogue regarding monkey glands after words." Perhaps this hit too close to home for many Kansans.

Some years before, a doctor in the state, John R. Brinkley, made a fortune by implanting testicular glands of goats in his male patients (more than 16,000 such operations were done). Brinkley claimed the glands would boost energy and virility, although no proof of such was ever documented.

Brinkley also became a radio pioneer, founding one of Kansas' first stations, which he used to promote his controversial practice. By 1930, he had lost both his medical license (after 43 deaths were attributed to his "cures") and his broadcast license. The following year, he moved to Del Rio, Texas, on the Mexican border, where he set up a "border blaster" station in Mexico and began selling medical items through mail order. He made millions, but again ran afoul of the U.S. government -- especially after he began selling time to sympathizers of Nazi Germany. By 1941, Brinkley declared bankruptcy and died the following year.

Then, there's "Supernatural" (1933) -- and we're running it second because there's a spoiler alert ahead:

On May 1, 1933, the board, citing "cruelty," ordered the elimination of "all but a flash of the silhouette showing the mindreader hanged" in reel 7.

One wonders if records from other states' censorship boards are also available, and how their standards might differ. Any suggestions?
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