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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011

Banned in Cream City!

When the Milwaukee Motion Picture Commission censored films

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Forty years ago this summer, the Milwaukee Motion Picture Commission (MMPC), one of the last municipal movie censor boards in the nation, voted unanimously to dissolve after a federal judge ruled the commission's power was an unconstitutional restraint of free speech. For the first time in 58 years, the city of Milwaukee would have no hand in the censorship of motion pictures.

The MMPC had no official authority and no theater was legally obligated to obey it. Still, the commission was the final word in local movie exhibition for most of its existence. Established in 1913, the nine-member board reviewed all films booked to play in Milwaukee. It could approve the film, suggest cuts, or recommend that it not be shown in the city.

Even without the power to enforce its rulings, theater owners disregarded commission recommendations at their own peril. The commission operated as an advisory arm of the mayor's office, and the mayor had the power to revoke a theater's license. To cross the commission could mean the shuttering of your theater. Theater owners, the commission would later report, were "very cooperative."

The initial aim was to make movies safe for children. Aside from tales of sin and vice, the commission targeted the morally ambiguous. In the MMPC's eyes, dashing villains or unpunished crimes were too dangerous to be presented to impressionable minds. The same went for films showing the details of wrongdoing too explicitly. These "instructional" scenes were struck from films regularly during the silent era.

After Hollywood largely stemmed the flow of tawdry material during the 1930s and '40s, the MMPC faded from public view. Furthermore, Mayor Daniel Hoan quickly grew irritated with the commission's political in-fighting and gave them minimal backing.

All that changed in 1946 when Howard Hughes unleashed The Outlaw, the first major studio production to ignore Hollywood's own system of self-censorship, whose highlight was the generous neckline of starlet Jane Russell. A scintillating publicity campaign made the picture a sensation before it was even released. In Milwaukee, the newly renovated Towne Theatre (717 N. Third St.) booked it for their grand reopening.

Anticipating a fight, Hughes personally called the head of the MMPC to make his case for approval. Two weeks later, however, it barred the film, and the Towne scrambled to find a replacement.

From this victory, the commission re-emerged bolder. Frank Zeidler, elected mayor in 1948, provided the MMPC with the strong backing it had lacked under Hoan. Zeidler, progressive on most fronts, was decidedly prudish when it came to the movies. In 1954, he claimed not to have been to the movies since 1926, when he walked out of a gangster picture because it was too violent. Foreign language films, with "strange" plots and "communistic" leanings, were targeted and several were kept from the city. Major studio material like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause were banned because of their depiction of teenage hoodlumism, although both later played with MMPC-approved deletions.

In the 1960s, the commission shifted its focus to sex. In 1963, the Princess Theatre (738 N. Third St.) became the first house in the city to show films with female nudity. The theater also was the first to regularly flaunt the commission, running smut pictures while the MMPC howled.

Soon, a half-dozen Milwaukee theaters had joined the Princess in the skin game. When a Downtown theater opened I, A Woman, Part II in 1969, the MMPC urged the district attorney to charge the operators of the theater with displaying an obscene film. The news surrounding the bold move increased Woman's box office receipts tenfold. And a federal court axed the case, saying the picture was not without redeeming social value.

The MMPC had been in a yearlong fight to pass an ordinance granting them the legal authority to enforce their rulings when the Woman case came down. The ruling was something of a public neutering for the commission, as more and more theaters began to openly defy their dictates. Nonetheless, they launched a publicity campaign that found many supporters. Between contentious debates on the issue, the commission issued cryptic warnings about the coming of films filled with lesbianism, bestiality and interracial sex.

In late 1970, despite warnings from the city attorney that the ordinance would never stand, the Common Council passed the MMPC's bill. Within days, theater owners sued. A federal judge issued an injunction preventing the law from taking effect. Six months later it was struck down.

Although the MMPC never actually revoked a theater's license, it managed to keep hundreds of films from showing in the city and struck thousands of scenes from movies that did play. Forty years after its collapse, the MMPC has been almost entirely forgotten. But there was a time when no Milwaukee moviegoer could avoid it.

Matthew J. Prigge is a freelance writer/historian and the co-founder of Hey Man, Cool! Digital History Productions. He is currently writing a master's thesis on the Milwaukee Motion Picture Commission.