Power of early film: crime, sexuality and censorship

Early filmmakers did not take long to realise the potential power of film as a medium for storytelling. By the 1920s, film had proved itself to be an extremely effective forum for the ‘hot topics’ of the day. Popular films focused on significant moral issues, the depiction of crime and, to some extent, the shaping of a national identity.

One of the earliest feature length narrative films made in Australia (and possibly the world) was The Story of the Kelly Gang. The film, made in 1906, was of course inspired by the Kelly gang’s notorious bushranging exploits and the famous shoot-out with police at Glenrowan in Victoria. So powerful was the film that it reputedly inspired a gang of children in Ballarat to break into a photographic studio and hold up another group of children at gunpoint. 1

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1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang
1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang

Photo courtesy of http://aso.gov.au/

It was precisely this ‘power’ of film which prompted, on many occasions, an official response in the form of censorship. The Story of the Kelly Gang was swiftly banned in Benalla and Wangaratta, known to authorities as strongholds of support for Ned Kelly. Indeed, the entire bushranging genre was banned in Victoria in 1912. 2

According to The Argus,

The power the pictures wield is greater than literature (there are those who think that in time they may supersede literature to some extent), greater than the stage, and greater event than the pulpit, because of the stupendous numbers they reach who go voluntarily to absorb the impressions they dispense. 3

The regulation of film in this period was still uncertain and had only been formalised in New South Wales in 1916. Previously in the hands of local police, the regulation of film was then delegated to an official board of censors. Intensified efforts at regulation were symptomatic of the perceived increasing influence of film on the morals and general behaviour of the population.

The power the pictures wield is greater than literature... greater than the stage, and greater even than the pulpit. The Argus, 30 May 1921

Apart from glorifying crime, the authorities were concerned about the depiction of sexuality and morality on the screen. In Australia, during the early part of the twentieth century, these issues were being debated openly in an unprecedented way.

Topics of the day included:

  • the decline in the population, and the increase in infant mortality
  • the greater use of birth control, abortion and infanticide to limit family size
  • the increase in women’s participation in the work-force after World War I

Women were inextricably tied to these social changes and much of the response of society was directed toward them. Pro-natalists, particularly, reacted to shifts in the traditional family structure by imbuing domesticity and the role of woman as devoted wife and mother with great value. As a responsible mother, the woman was expected to bear the children – the future of the nation – to safe maturity. Even feminists and suffragists who were responsible for increasing women’s participation in public life maintained a strict emphasis on the sanctity of motherhood and marriage.

Women’s sexuality was tightly bound with maternity. Outside of motherhood and maternal feeling, women were expected to be pure, virginal and innocent. In a resurgence of Victorian standards of behaviour, women were told they should conform to a virtuous ideal – a ‘queenly’ woman. This harkened back to sentiments of Ruskin, writing in 1865:

Queens you must always be…queens to your husbands and your sons…before the myrtle crown and the stainless sceptre of womanhood.4

All these considerations brought morality into the forefront of debate. These topics not only figured prominently in films of the day but also attracted the eye of the censor.

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State Theatre, Sydney 1929
Crowds gather at the State Theatre, Sydney 1929

Photo: https://flic.kr/p/anE5a1

An early film to be banned outright in Victoria in 1919 was the film Damaged GoodsThe film, in part a response to the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases during World War I, was educational in nature. Damaged Goods however also made the claim that venereal disease afflicted the lower classes, and was the sole result of feminine weakness caused by drunkenness or deliberate seduction by ‘fallen’ women. 5

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Damaged Goods Advertisement 1914
Damaged Goods Ad (1914) reissued 1919 Moving Picture World

By American Film Manufacturing Company via Wikimedia Commons

By 1922, Australia’s censorship regime was in place with the appointment of the Chief Censor, R.S. Wallace. Wallace felt that censorship would properly ‘raise the standards of the film industry which he considered in general to reflect a poor morality’. 6 He considered the following, in his 1926 report, to be grounds for excision of the scene from a film:

  • Women in the act of undressing, or engaged in the toilet
  • People sitting down to dinner in bathing costumes; and
  • All honeymoon scenes 7

This, he insisted, was not a matter of personal like or dislike, rather of ‘trying to interpret public opinion’. 8

The relationship between issues of sexuality in society and as portrayed on film is a fascinating one. Annette Kuhn has written extensively on the subject in the British context in Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 1909-1925 9 As she points out, just as film cannot be regarded as merely the effect of historical moments or relations of production, neither can it be read as if the meanings available from them were innocent of social, cultural and historical formation. 10

This is as true today as it was in the early part of the 20th century.


Main image: Filming of “The Romance of Runnimede”, Sydney, 1927 (Photo: Sam Hood, State Library of NSW, https://flic.kr/p/6AUvKK)

Show 10 footnotes

  1. ‘Story of the Kelly Gang’, National Film and Sound Archive, website retrieved 5 Jan 2016
  2. Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, p 3
  3.  The Argus, 30 May 1921, p3
  4. Ruskin quoted in Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot, Chivalry and the English Gentleman, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1981, p199
  5. Eric Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999
  6. Quoting Coleman in Robert Cetti, Offensive to a Reasonable Adult: Film Censorship and Classification in Australia, Apr 2014, p 28, accessed 13/01/2016, http://www.robertcettlebooks.com/product/offensive-to-a-reasonable-adult/
  7. Robert Cetti, Ibid., p29
  8. Bertrand quoted in Robert Cetti, Ibid., p29
  9. Annette Kuhn, Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 1909-1925, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1988
  10. Annette Kuhn, The Power of the Image, Essays of Representation and Sexuality, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1985, p96

About Sara Cousins

I am a Melbourne-based creative producer and writer interested in storytelling across all media. I have worked in digital education for many years. I am particularly interested in helping people to create and share their own stories.