Who knew? The actors in those century-old silent movies were actually cussing up a storm. The lip readers knew about it, of course, and some were in high dudgeon as a result, demanding censorship. And who can blame them? While watching the hero profess his undying love to his maidenly ingenue, for example, it would be a bit disconcerting to discover he was actually swearing like a lumberjack on Saturday night.
Santa Rosa learned about photoplay profanity in a 1910 Press Democrat editorial, where Ernest Finley called it “one of the strangest stories of the year,” apparently because he was astonished that such a thing as lip reading existed.
But it is a bit of surprise (at least to me) to find that salty language was common in films so early. Movie cussing was well known and acknowledged as a problem during the roaring part of the 1920s, and headed the list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” compiled by the studio execs in 1927. Some films – particularly “What Price Glory?” released the previous year – made no effort to rein in the actors; a review at the time noted, “Victor McLaglen takes the honors in acting and unbridled profanity, and the film leaves no doubt as to what words are being used.” (Those interested in exercising their lip reading skills can practice on this clip, starting at around the 5:15 marker.) Movie controversy of the 1920s is off-topic here, but for anyone wanting more info there’s a cinema blog that has an enjoyable discussion with clips from other movies. I’ll only add that, wow, Gloria Swanson really had a mouth on her.
The PD didn’t publish the original wire service story, but it’s pretty easy to find in other newspapers, given its sensational nature. It seems Mrs. Elmer Bates of Cleveland, a “noted deaf mute instructor and lecturer,” visited a half-dozen theaters and found “shocking language was used in all the shows visited.”
Mrs. Bates made a tour of the downtown shows yesterday accompanied by a reporter who wrote down the picture talk, and at times the language was so vile that she had to stop…Curses, vile names and vile comments are indulged in by the performers while being photographed, often without the least semblance of relation to the play being performed. The profanity and obscene language seem to be addressed by members of the companies to one another on the spur of the moment.
Mrs. Bates tried to get the mayor to do something, but he passed the buck to the Humane society. (Meaning the American Humane Association, not today’s Humane Society of the United States; the Association’s activities include the protection of children as well as animals.) The Association told her it wasn’t for them and she should take it up with the movie studios. Her protest presumably faded there.
Obl. Believe-it-or-not twist to the story: Mrs. Bates’ husband was Elmer E. Bates, a famous Cleveland sportswriter. He was best known for covering the disastrous 1899 season of the Cleveland Spiders (later renamed the Indians) when the National League team lost 134 games, which still stands as the worst performance in baseball history. Had Mrs. Bates visited the ballpark with her husband during those games, I’m certain she would have heard language far, far more ripe than anything shown in one-reel melodramas and slapstick flickers.
One of the strangest stories of the year comes from Cleveland, Ohio. The deaf-mutes of that city have protested against certain of the moving pictures exhibited in the theaters there. None but deaf mutes can detect anything wrong with those pictures, but to them they are objectionable. By reason of their affliction, the deaf become proficient in what is known as “lip reading.” This proficiency enables them to derive more enjoyment and profit from moving pictures than their neighbors get who are endowed with good hearing. That is, if the actors stick to the text of the play. But it has become a common thing for the performers whose “stunts” are photographed for the moving films to vary the text to suit their own moods and minds, and where the practice is allowed they have numerously lapsed into profanity and obscenity, meanwhile keeping up all the “stage business” so that to any but a lip reader their acting is correct. But to the deaf mutes the silent profanity is as real as vocal profanity is to the rest of mankind, and the mutes in Cleveland ask that the city authorities have the reels censored by a lip-reader before they are exhibited in public.– Press Democrat editorial, December 25, 1910