In April 1914, the Pasadena Star reported that city officials were seeking censors “who are not extreme in any direction” to head a panel ensuring cinemagoers would not be exposed to lewd or immoral films.
Though theater owners may have been dismayed, Pasadena’s censorship program delighted the moral watchdogs of the city. By March 1915, Orrin G. Cocks, advisory secretary for the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures, declared that Pasadena had the best motion picture ordinances in the country. “We have had the ordinances printed and have had copies sent out to a great many places,” he told the Pasadena Star.
The censorship law became a thorn in the side of theater proprietors. Those who tried to exhibit banned films often found themselves in court facing hefty fines. By 1921, Jensen’s Raymond Theater decided to test the ordinance by showing The Affairs of Anatol, a film about a man who seeks sexual adventure outside of his marriage. Warned that they would be arrested, the owners issued a statement challenging the law.
“We intend to have the courts decide whether Pasadena is to see the same pictures that New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other large cities see,” they wrote. Fearing a protracted legal battle, the censorship board backed down and the film was begrudgingly approved.
Nevertheless, things grew stricter when C.V. Cowan, a former Methodist minister, became head of the censorship panel in 1927. Under him, it became known officially as the Board of Review and targeted print as well. Cowan took pride in personally visiting 60 different Pasadena newsstands a month to purge them of “salacious magazines.” (Editor’s note: there were 60 newsstands in Pasadena then!)
Film censorship took on an obsessive quality under his reign. In 1929, the Pasadena Star-News wrote that he had cut “seventy feet from ‘The Godless Girl’ showing the inhuman treatment accorded to a boy and a girl in a reform school; five feet of knock-down and drag-out fight in ‘Shadows of the Night’; six feet of brutal treatment of a consumptive boy in ‘Ridin’ Wild,’ and ‘seventy feet showing the killing of a woman and a fight in ‘The Test of Donald Norton.’”
“Mr. Cowan reports there were a number of western pictures depicting early day civilizations with saloons and gambling dens,” stated the paper. “Where there were scenes of prolonged drinking and gambling [...] deletions were made to prevent such things from appearing attractive to the young.”
Cowan even tried to prohibit films based on their stars’ personal lives. After Charlie Chaplin went through a sensational divorce in 1927, Cowan ordered all films by the silent star banned in the city, declaring, “Chaplin’s moral attitude is no example for young people.”
Cowan faded from the scene eventually, but many generations of censors succeeded him, ensuring that films as varied as Rashomon, La Ronde, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover; as well as a 1933 film about a nudist colony and a 1950s documentary about narcotics, all were subjected to censorship.
In July 1961, the Board of Review was abolished, leaving censorship decisions exclusively in the hands of cinema owners. “Pasadena was one of only a handful of cities in the United States which still expressed its fear of films with a law permitting prior censorship,” noted the Pasadena Independent at the time. “This practice was dictatorial and undemocratic, and anyhow it didn’t work.
“Pasadena has taken an important step toward growing up,” concluded the paper.