‘Damaged Goods’: Social hygiene propaganda and film censorship

Timelines: All, Australia Categories: 1910s, 1920s, Australia, Classification, Country, Decade, Film, Media ‘Damaged Goods’: Social hygiene propaganda and film censorship
Date: 1919


Commonly known as ‘social hygiene propaganda’, such films depicted stories about sex, unwanted pregnancy and venereal disease, often with a moralistic narrative. Such films were popular with audiences but posed a challenge for censorship authorities. Social hygiene films acquired early forms of age classification by restricting screenings to audiences over 16, but could also separate male from female audiences and ensure they were screened only in medical lecture theatres, for example. These were ‘special conditions’ put on films screened in Australia in the first half of the twentieth century.

Films specifically about venereal disease not only served as a significant challenge to the bounds of ‘obscenity’ in film, they also posed a challenge to Australian film censorship as under the remit of State and Federal jurisdictions. Unsatisfied with the federal process of the simply reading film synopses, the Chief Secretary of New South Wales created a State Censorship Board in 1916. The first film they reviewed and banned was a white slave traffic film Smashing the Vice Trust (Melville, 1914) and a film on childbirth Twilight Sleep (produced by the Mothering Education Society in the USA in 1916) (Bertrand, 1998, p.35-37).

In 1917, a Commonwealth Board of Censors for film was established under the Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations. The regulations stipulated that films could be banned from importation on the following grounds that a film, in the opinion of the Board:

(a) is blasphemous, indecent or obscene,
(b) is likely to be injurious to morality, or encourage or incite to crime, or
(c) is likely to be offensive to any Ally of Great Britain, or
(d) depicts any matter the exhibition of which is undesirable in the public interests

(s9, Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations)

Based on a Eugene Brieux play, the film Damaged Goods (1919) was a British production produced by Alexander Butler with a social message about eugenics and abstinence. The film depicts a story of George Dupont, a man of wealth and class, who is due to marry another woman of his social stature, but pays for sex before the wedding and contracts syphilis. George does not want to delay his wedding and seeks help from a disreputable doctor who does not provide the proper treatment, which ultimately leads to the infection of his wife and newborn child. After a period of estrangement, George seeks proper treatment and is reunited with his wife and child (Kuhn, 1988, p59-60). When the Commonwealth Board of Censors passed the film in 1919, the Director of the Board of Health in Victoria attempted to prosecute an exhibitor for the screening of Damaged Goods in the state of Victoria under the Police Offences Act which specifically prohibited works dealing with venereal disease as under the terms of ‘obscenity’. The charges were thrown out as the picture was not deemed obscene, but educational according to a medical professional (‘”Damaged Goods” film, prosecution fails’, 1919). The film was protested against by the National Council of Women who declared the film unfit for children to see and the Lord Mayor cancelled screenings of the film at Melbourne Town Hall (‘”Damaged Goods” The film condemned’, 1919). The obscenity case was reviewed in 1920 and the exhibitor prosecuted when Damaged Goods was found to be indecent. The difficulty of prosecuting film exhibitors for ‘obscenity’ through state obscenity laws or Police Acts was compounded by determination of some social hygiene films as “educational”. The campaign against Damaged Goods began a campaign for more robust film censorship in Victoria, and particularly to protect children from immorality and instances of implied sex on screen. The case also signalled film regulations did not have the same recourse for ‘artistic merit’ as literature censorship of the time (‘”Damaged Goods” film’, 1920).

Information about the film Damaged Goods: https://www.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/4ce2b6a84cf6d

Notes: There were two versions of the film with the same title produced in the U.S. by Richard Bennett in 1914 and a British remake in 1919. The featured image is from the American production advertising sourced from IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0003815/mediaviewer/rm2798132736

Further reading:

Book. Kuhn, A. (1988). Cinema, censorship and sexuality, 1909-1925, New York, Oxon: Routledge.

Journal article. Bertrand, I. (1998) ‘Education or exploitation: The exhibition of ‘social hygiene’ films in Australia’, Continuum, 12, 31-46.

Newspaper article. ‘Damaged Goods film’, Horsham Times (VIC), 20 February 1920, Trove database.

Newspaper article. ‘”Damaged Goods” The film condemned’, Daily Telegraph (TAS), 29 November 1919, Trove database.

Newspaper article. ‘Damaged Goods picture film’, Geelong Advertiser (VIC), 9 January 1920, Trove database.

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