Censored! What The Movies Couldn’t Show In 1921

An Incredible List of Things That Movies Were Not Allowed To Portray In 1921

Annette Kellerman the first "star" to do a nude scene 1916 "A Daughter of the Gods"

Famous swimmer, Annette Kellerman was the first “star” to do a nude scene 1916 “A Daughter of the Gods”

Looking at what was prohibited in the state of Maryland from being shown on movie screens in 1921 is overwhelming in its restrictiveness. It includes, but is not limited to: indecorous dancing; over passionate love scenes; exhibition of feminine underwear; gruesome murders; birth control; disrespect for the law; use of opium or other habit forming drugs; executions; profanity; excessive drunkeness especially in women; and maternity scenes.

The complete Maryland censorship rules is a laundry list of vice and of how people really behaved. Basically real life was prohibited in the movies.

Because there was no film industry set of standards, individual states set up their own board of censors to either insist on cuts to movies or block films from being exhibited entirely within that state.

In 1921 there were only six state censorship boards, and that number would greatly expand throughout the 1920’s. What was okay in one state, may not be playable in another. This set off a quagmire of problems for producers of films who needed to be able to show their films to the widest possible audience without having to make special edits to satisfy each state’s censorship board.

Rather than risk the creation of a national censorship board, the film industry eventually self monitored and created its own censorship code and a board to enforce the rules.

One of the last pre-code films. 1933 Roman Scandals with a young Lucille Ball in the chorus as a slave girl

One of the last pre-code films. 1933’s Roman Scandals with a young Lucille Ball in the chorus as a slave girl

The Hays Code (1930) and Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration  standardized censorship rules and staved off an official national censorship board.

But even after the Production Code went into full effect (1934), local authorities or the Legion of Decency could still condemn a film and keep it from being exhibited. The city of Boston was a prime example of banning films with objectionable content.

Below is the complete list of Maryland’s censorship restrictions. Some of these rules may seem  arcane today. Back then they were taken completely seriously.

Standards of Maryland State Board of Censors, 211 N. Calvert St, Baltimore

Improper exhibition of feminine underwear.

Bedroom and bathroom scenes of suggestive and indecent character.

Offensive- vulgarity and indecent gestures.

Women promiscuously taking up men.

Indelicate sexual situations.

Nude figures.

Indecorous dancing.

Attempted criminal assaults upon women.

Excessive drunkenness, especially in women.

Over passionate love scenes.

Men and women living together without marriage and in adultery.

Prostitution and procuration of women.

Excessive use of firearms.

Disrespect for the law, third degree scenes.

Doubtful characters exalted to heroes.

Maternity scenes, women in labor.

Infidelity on part of husband justifying adultery on part of wife.

Sacrifice of a woman’s honor held as laudable.

Justification of the deliberate adoption of a life of immorality.

Disorderly houses.

Use of opium and other habit-forming drugs (instructive details).


White slave stories.

Drugging and chloroforming victims for criminal purposes.

Gruesome murders; actual stabbing and shooting of persons.

Seductions and attempted seductions treated without clue restraint,

Burning and branding of persons.

Profanity in titles.

Salacious titles and captions.

Advocacy of the doctrine of free love.

Scenes indicating that a. criminal assault has been perpetrated on a woman.

Suicide compacts, suicide scenes.

Executions, lynchings and burlesques of hangings.

Deeds of violence, lighting and throwing bombs, arson, especially to conceal crimes, train wrecking,

Modus operandi of criminals.

Birth control, malpractice.

Suggestions of incest.

Morbid presentations of insanity.

Prolonged and harrowing death scenes.

Venereal disease inherited or acquired.

Irreverent treatment of religious observances and beliefs.

Inflammatory scenes and titles calculated to stir up racial haired or antagonistic relations between labor and capital.

The motion picture industry: producers, directors writers and actors were against censorship as a whole. Their feelings can be summed up by producer William A. Brady who said, “I am against legalized screen censorship in any form – national, state or municipal. It is distinctly unAmerican and as such has no place in this country. Its rejection by thirty-four state legislatures during the past year is significant. The only successful form of censorship is that which is exerted by the public itself.”

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