“The Birth of a Nation” comes to Phoenix, Part 2

Part 1 is here

After the municipal elections, which had supposedly been influenced by anti-censorship white voters, the makers of Birth of a Nation tried again to crack open the Phoenix market. In April, just over a month after the movie’s rebuff in March, the Arizona Republican published advance man Walter T. Murphy’s announcement that Birth would soon be in Phoenix – and it would be a hit, Murphy added. The movie men put more publicity in the pages of the Arizona Republic and announced that the movie would premier at the Elks Theater.[i]

This was soon followed by the state G. A. R.’s call for a ban on the movie.[ii]

Again the black residents of Phoenix mobilized to censor the picture. Again, the city Commissioners met to consider to movie, meeting on May 1, one day after the movie’s premier. Again the Commissioners transmogrified themselves into a board of censors, with the legally-required addition of the mayor, rhe City Manager, and Chief of Police George O. Brisbois.[iii]

After hearing from Ella White and other citizens, the censors met secretly for a few hours. They either saw the movie at this point or, more likely, they’d already seen it at the Elks theater. By majority vote, the censors issued a report accompanied by an order. The document explained the censors’ view of their authority – not to police movies for “good taste” or to suppress debate on “politics, religion or social questions, but to prevent breaches of the peace in the form of riots or other disturbances of like character growing out of race differences, or which may be so grossly immoral as to be indecent, obscene, lewd or suggestive.”[iv]

The censors said the movie would not be “objectionable,” provided one specific scene were removed which “tend[ed] to arouse and excite race prejudice.” In this scene, a “renegade negro” named Gus (Walter Long) chases the virginal white girl Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh), trying to rape her. Flora plunges off a cliff to her death while trying to escape. If the movie were exhibited with that scene, the exhibitors would be subject to prosecution, but if the scene were cut the rest of the movie could be shown. Chief Brisbois delivered the order to George Purdy Bullard, attorney for the movie management.[v]

Walter Murphy, the manager, vowed defiance. The Gus-and-Flora scene was essential to the integrity of the whole movie, Murphy claimed. The music score was timed to correspond with the action on screen, and the score would have to be totally redone to adapt to the missing scene. Murphy pledged to keep showing the uncut movie until the courts could decide whether the censors had legally issued their order. The May 1 showing went ahead with the prohibited scene included. The Republic reported: “To offset a petition liberally signed by the colored people of this city against the showing of the film, the management has upwards of one thousand cards signed by those who have seen the film and who have voted approvingly of the film and against its suppression.”[vi]

The Elliot and Sherman Film Corporation, through attorney Bullard, sued the city government to let the movie run in uncut form. The legal complaint, ironically enough, invoked the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution, product of the hated Reconstruction era. The city of Phoenix, the complaint said, had deprived the filmmakers of their business property contrary to due process, which was protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Adding an additional layer of irony, the complaint also cited the Equal Protection Clause, which had been included in the Fourteenth Amendment to protect blacks from discrimination.[vii]

Finally, the complaint mentioned an awkward circumstance. The censorship ordinance had recently been renumbered, but the Phoenix censors’ order had referred to the ordinance by its old number.[viii]

Maricopa County Superior Court judge Rawghlie Clement Stanford (a future governor of Arizona) issued a temporary injunction against government interference with the film until there could be a trial. Before they could receive official notice of the injunction, the censors issued a new censorship order, phrased like the first order but this time citing the correct number of the ordinance. Bullard modified his complaint to describe the new censorship order, and Judge Stanford ordered a hearing at 1:30 the same day, May 4.[ix]

Judge Stanford heard the testimony of A. E. Jones, who managed the film on behalf of the Elliot and Sherman Film Corporation. While the white court spectators generally segregated themselves from the black ones, the representatives of Jones’ company sat near the black spectators. Jones said it would destroy the value of the film reel containing the controversial scene if the scene were cut – a loss of $1,200. As paraphrased in the paper, Jones said “the effect of the agitation had been telling here on the box [office] receipts,” presumably in a negative way. Jones said the movie “has never created any race disturbance or race difficulty.”[x]

Judge Stanford promptly lifted his injunction, meaning that the contested scene would have to be cut after all. The decision of what to censor belonged to the censorship board, not the court, said Stanford. This decision was along the same lines as the Supreme Court’s decision the previous year concerning movie censorship. Judges should let the censors do their thing.[xi]

Police Chief Brisbois attended the movie’s showing on the evening of May 4, supposedly in a private capacity. Defying the reinstated censorship order, the movie continued to be shown with the Gus-and-Flora scene. There were no arrests.[xii]

Although the censorship order was back in force, the uncut movie continued to be shown. Night after night large audiences came to see the show, and night after night Gus chased the innocent Flora to her death.[xiii]

The city attorney, Richard E. Sloan, was not in Phoenix for many of these nights, but after he came back the authorities decided to finally clamp down on the defiant movie people. On May 8, 1916, A. E. Jones, manager of the movie, and William Freyer, manager of the Elks Theater, were both arrested under the municipal censorship ordinance for showing the banned Gus-and-Flora scene during seven showings of the movie. Freyer and Jones were released on “nominal bail” and scheduled for a hearing on the next day.[xiv]

By the time of the hearing, the previously-defiant defendants had cut a deal with City Attorney Sloan. Six of the seven charges were dropped for both Jones and Freyer and they each pled guilty to defying the censors on one occasion. They each paid a $50 fine. In exchange for this leniency, Jones and Freyer agreed not to have any more showings of Birth of a Nation in Phoenix. Through this agreement, they may have avoided having to go from celluloid to cells.[xv]

Jones promised to refund the tickets of patrons who had not yet seen the film. While some patrons were waiting for their refunds outside the Elks Theater, they heard that the movie had been relocated to nearby Mesa, and they broke into cheers. An ad by the moviemakers in the Arizona Republic announced the move while proclaiming that “THE CENSORS HAVE FORBID US THE PLEASURE OF FURTHER SHOWING IN PHOENIX.” Bill Menhennet, manager of Mesa’s Majestic Theater, arranged to take over the exhibition of Birth in Mesa. The original plan was to show Birth at the Mesa Opera House on May 10-12, Wednesday through Friday, since at first Menhennet thought his own theater was too small. The Friday showing had to be cancelled because of a conflict with the opera house’s prior schedule. Menhennet then managed a Friday showing at the Majestic instead – the logistical problems apparently overcome.[xvi]

A large public meeting on Friday in Phoenix was postponed until the next Tuesday because “the high school play and ‘The Birth of a Nation’ were being given Friday night.”[xvii]

On Saturday morning, the Arizona Republic, in an article resembling a press release, said that the movie had been playing to overflow houses, including many audience members from Phoenix, and that the Saturday matinee of Birth would be the “last opportunity” to see the film, “for it is doubtful if it will ever again visit this valley.”[xviii]

The Mesa Tribune complained of the fact that black people in Phoenix had been able to get The Birth of a Nation censored: “with the Mexicans taking the places of white laborers; Orientals monopolizing the restaurant and laundry industries, and negro censors passing upon the moving picture films, it begins to look as though the white people of Arizona had very little to say in the conduct of their own affairs.”[xix]

At the end of the year, the promoters of Birth of a Nation made a new attempt to come to Phoenix. An article/press release in the Arizona Republic in December 10 promised that there would be a three-day showing of the movie starting December 17, with two showings per day, at the Columbia theater. As they had several months previously, black residents protested against the showing of the film. Again, the censorship board ordered the Gus-and-Flora scene to be cut. Again, the movie’s sponsors and the theater manager – this time George Mauk – refused to make the cut. Mauk said the proposed cuts would “emasculate the film.” However, there was no drawn-out struggle between Phoenix and the movie people as had been the case earlierin the year. Mauk said he didn’t have the inclination to fight the censors in court, so he cancelled the showings in Phoenix. He had theaters in other towns where he promised to advance the scheduled showings.[xx]

Sources:

[i] “The City Primary,” Arizona Republican, March 6, 1916, p. 4; “’Birth of a Nation’ Coming to Elks,” Arizona Republican, April 9, 1916, p. 12. The Republican ran publicity for the movies every day from April 22 to April 29.

[ii] See Part One.

[iii] “The Birth of a Nation Opens at Elks Theater This Afternoon,” Arizona Republican, April 30, 1916, p. 16; “Censor’s Order is Ignored by Film Manager,” Arizona Republican, May 2, 1916, p. 3; “Our Chiefs,” Phoenix Police Museum, https://phxpdmuseum.org/our-chiefs.

[iv] “Censor’s Order is ignored.”

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “Censor Board is Enjoined,” Arizona Republican, May 3, 1916, p. 4.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid., “Amended Bill in Censorship Case,” Arizona Republican, May 4, 1916, p. 5; “Gov. Rawghlie Clement Stanford,” https://www.nga.org/governor/rawghlie-clement-stanford/.

[x] “Jurisdiction is Declined,” Arizona Republican, May 5, 1916, p. 12.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] “Film Managers are Arrested,” Arizona Republican, May 9, 1916, p. 4.

[xiv] Ibid; “Birth of Nation is Withdrawn,” Arizona Republican, May 10, 1916, p. 5.

[xv] “Withdrawn.”

[xvi] Ibid. Ad in Arizona Republican, May 10, 1916, p. 9; “Mesa Gets Birth of a Nation,” Arizona Republican, May 11, 1916, p. 10; Jay Mark, “Mesa Memories: How the Movies Came to Downtown Mesa,” azcentral.com, May 7, 2014, https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/mesa/2014/05/07/mesa-memories-movies-came-downtown-mesa/8802751/.

[xvii] “Details of Mass Meeting,” Arizona Republican, May 14, 1916, p. 8.

[xviii] “Final ‘Birth of a Nation’ Today,” Arizona Republican, May 13, 1916, p. 11.

[xix] “Shall the White Man Rule?” Mesa Tribune, reprinted in The Snowflake Herald (Snowflake, Arizona), May 19, 1916, p. 2.

[xx] “’Birth of a Nation’ Coming to Columbia,” Arizona Republican, December 10, 1916, p. 9; “Commissisn [sic] Stops Birth of a Nation,” Arizona Republican, December 15, 1916, p. 7.

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1 Response to “The Birth of a Nation” comes to Phoenix, Part 2

  1. Douglas Miller says:

    an extremely interesting article. Though i know a lot about Birth of a Nation, it is hard to find stories of how Blacks and whites fought together against it.
    Of course, the worst part was that Southerner President Woodrow Wilson loved it and thereby helped to promote it.

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