In the years before 1920, film exhibition represented a burgeoning industry and did not always screen in purpose-built theatres. During this time, all Australian States laid the groundwork for some form of legislation to ensure public health and safety at places of public gathering due to safety concerns regarding fire and public panic in an emergency (Bertrand, 1978, 9). Such legislation shifted to regulate not only the architecture of cinemas, but the content of films. For example, the first legislation to address the cinematograph came into effect in 1909 to address health and safety. The New South Wales (NSW) Theatres and Public Halls Act 1908, enforced a licensing system. Sydney would remain a significant site for censorship via restrictions on importation as the main port from which films produced in the U.S. arrived into Australia. There was concern about the effect of the cinematograph on young audiences and the Act was amended in 1912 to establish the following restrictions on film content that could appear in this state:
Scenes suggestive of immorality or indecency.
Executions or murders or other gruesome scenes.
Scenes of debauchery, low habits of life, or other scenes such as would have a demoralising effect on young persons.
Successful crime, such as bushranging, robberies, or other acts of lawlessness, which might reasonably be considered as having injurious influence on youthful minds
(Public notice in Government Gazette, 1912)
Films that showed how to commit crime or sympathy for criminals were thought to be objectionable material with the potential to corrupt the young. Such guidelines dampened the Australian bushranging genre that had begun with The Story of the Kelly Gang (Tait, 1906). This film documents the exploits of real-life folk hero Ned Kelly and his gang who hanged in 1880 for crimes including the murder of Police officers, a film from which the above still has been taken. At over 60 minutes long, The Story of the Kelly Gang has recently been recognised by UNESCO as the first narrative film to be produced, signalling the beginning of the feature film format. In 1912, the guidelines were enforced by NSW Police, who required exhibitors to furnish them with a synopsis of the film a minimum of 24 hours before the movie was due to screen in order to suppress any objectionable matter (Bertrand, 1978, 39). A Censorship Board for the state of NSW was established in 1916 and, a year later, the Commonwealth Board of Censors was also constituted in Melbourne, Victoria. The censorship process of reading the film’s synopsis was initially followed by the Commonwealth Board who employed deputy censors to read and flag any films for screening by the Board (‘Censoring “The Movies”’, 1919). The Commonwealth Board prohibited content that was “blasphemous, indecent or obscene” (see the post on Damaged Goods for full Commonwealth guidelines).
After the establishment of the Commonwealth Board, the NSW Censorship Board remained with the capacity to overturn federal censorship decisions and make their own decisions on locally produced films – something the Commonwealth Board of Censors working under Customs law lacked the power to do. In 1919, the guidelines of the NSW Theatres and Public Halls Act read as follows:
Scenes (including titles or subtitles) suggestive or immorality or indecency or which can be regarded blasphemous or obscene.
Scenes of debauchery, low habits of life, or such other scenes as might have a demoralising effect of upon young or impressionable minds.
Indelicate sexual (including marital) relations or sexual exposition of eugenic doctrines.
Scenes laid in houses of ill-fame, views of prostitutes, or the procuration and prostitution of girls.
Executions, gruesome murders, or other revolting scenes showing brutality to people or lower animals.
Successful crime, such as bushranging, robberies, other acts of lawlessness, &c., and scenes showing the methods of operation of criminals which might be considered as having an injurious effect upon youthful minds.
(Public notice in NSW Government Gazette, 1919)
– Rachel Cole
Image from National Museum of Australia, https://www.nma.gov.au/__data/assets/image/0009/547128/Story-of-the-Kelly-Gang-Still-Image-1400w.jpg
Book. Bertrand, I. (1978) Film Censorship in Australia, University of Queensland Press.
Public notice of legislation. “NSW Theatres and Public Halls Act 1908”, Government Gazette, 27/11/1912, accessed through Trove database.
Public notice of legislation. “Regulations under Theatres and Public Halls Act”, NSW Government Gazette, 11/04/1919, accessed through Trove database.
Newspaper article. “Censoring ‘The Movies’”, The Sun (Sydney), 24/09/1919, p4, accessed through Trove database.
Webpage. National Film and Sound Archives (NFSA), n.d. “Restoring the Story of the Kelly Gang”, https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/story-kelly-gang