When Humphrey Bogart Tackled Movie Censorship in 1941

Humphrey Bogart - H - 1941

"While people are always quick to take up the cudgels against censorship of the press, or radio, any crackpot can advocate new forms of censorship for the movies," the screen star wrote, "and not a voice is lifted in protest."

In October 1941, weeks after the fall release of his noir classic The Maltese Falcon, silver screen star Humphrey Bogart wrote an essay addressing critics of movie violence and those who've called for censorship in studio productions. Bogart's original essay in The Hollywood Reporter is below. 

The blanket of censorship covers practically every country in the world these days, except our own. And, judging from the editorials, whenever the threat of censorship rears its head in this country, most of us seem agreed it is the Number One enemy of a free democracy.

This is where my pet peeve comes in. While people are always quick to take up the cudgels against censorship of the press, or radio, any crackpot can advocate new forms of censorship for the movies, and not a voice is lifted in protest. There's something illogical about this indifference to censorship of the movies. After all, it's just as much a medium of public expression as are the radio and newspapers.

My own type of film has shown me how wrong and unfair advocates of censorship can be. For several years now, various groups have urged the banning of crime pictures on the ground that they influence youths to turn to crime. When Jimmy Walker was minority leader of the New York legislature, there was a censorship fight on the floor of the House. A powerful group of pious bluenoses wanted to bar from circulation good books that dared to mention certain well-known facts of life. The bluenoses said the books were indecent, bawdy, lascivious and would lead their young and innocent daughters astray. Jimmy stood the debate as long as he could, then he said, "I have been around a good deal, but I have never heard of a woman's being seduced by a book." That killed the censorship bill.

I have never heard of any youngster going wrong, turning to crime, because of the movies. It simply isn't possible. Our relation to crime is, in a sense, the same as the prison warden's. We don't create it. We deal with it after it has happened, and we always make the criminal look bad.

When I went to college, I studied under a professor of geology who wanted to make us understand how the different peoples of the world got the way they are, their racial tendencies and characteristics, dark-skinned Africans and fair-haired Swedes. He cited geography and climate and food and opportunities, and he summed it all up with the phrase: "We are what we are largely because we are where we are."

The proof of the argument can be found in the Uniform Crime Reports and the Department of Justice. The spot maps of cities show it. Not so long ago, I examined some maps showing juvenile delinquency, diptheria, tuberculosis and murder quotients in a number of cities from New Orleans to Los Angeles. The maps all looked alike. Disease, crime and delinquency were invariably grouped in the same parts of the cities — in the slum districts. That is the cause of crime, not the motion picture.

About ten years ago, I was a guest at a little dinner party in Hollywood, and my hostess' son, a boy of about nine, sat across the table from me. He was an obnoxious little brat. His manners were very bad. He was hard-boiled, truculent and talked out of the side of his mouth. His mother finally whispered to me, "Don't pay attention to him now, but he is your greatest admirer. He thinks you are wonderful, sees all your pictures, and he's acting for you."

That didn't make me happy. I made friends with the boy and took him over to the studio one day. We rode along in silence for a little while, and then he said, "Say, Bogie, are you bad in this new picture?" I had a good part in the film, so I replied, "Why, no, as a matter of fact, I think I'm pretty good."

"Aw, nuts," said the kid. "Don'tcha smack anybody down?"

He felt better when I admitted I did put a couple of guys on the spot, and his next suggestion was that we ought to stick up the First National Bank, and when he grew tired of that we talked about baseball. The boy turned out all right, in spite of me and my bad acting. He came from the right kind of home, had the right kind of parents, and he attended the right kind of school. His environment was right, and no amount of motion pictures could have made a criminal of that boy. He could take the Cagneys and the Rafts and Bogie, or leave them alone. (He'd better not miss my latest epic, The Gent From Frisco.)

Movies don't cause crime any more than prison wardens cause crime. It has been charged against the motion picture industry that we take a sympathetic attitude toward gangsters, thugs, racketeers and criminals. I deny that. After the things that have happened to me and my fellow screen heavies, I don't see how they can say that. So many criminals get killed in The Maltese Falcon that there's a special announcement at the end of the film saying, "If any persons are alive in this picture, it is purely coincidental."

There are groups that would like us to show the criminal always outmatched, poorly armed, and all policemen a good six inches taller, armed with tear gas and tommy guns, while the poor, dear, miserable rat of a gangster has to fight it out alone with only one measly little pistol. The object would be to de-glamorize the gangster.

That's all right, but it seems to me they are asking us to go about it in the wrong way. It seems to me that disarming the gangster tends to add glamour rather than to remove it and, in some instances, even makes him seem gallant. What these critics forget is that the sympathies of the crowd are always with the underdog.

It is better, I think, to deglamorize His Excellency the Rat as we do it at Warners, by showing him well-armed, with an up-to-date arsenal, with smokescreens for his automobile, expensive short-wave radios and other good equipment for the art of murder and arson. When we show a criminal on the screen like that, there is no doubt in the mind of the weakest low-grade moron who the hero is. The hero is unquestionably your friend and mine, the cop.

I have dealt with only one phase of the attempt to impose censorship on the movies. It is the phase with which I am most familiar. But there are men who advocate even more dangerous types of film censorship, and if America is to continue to have freedom of the press and radio, as well as every other type of freedom, these insidious enemies of freedom must be empathetically discouraged. Because once the movies are gagged, these men will move on to the other mediums of public expression. We have seen it happen in other countries, and it can happen here. — Originally published on Oct. 31, 1941.