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Monitoring the Movies

Monitoring the Movies
The Fight over Film Censorship in Early Twentieth-Century Urban America

This deeply researched history investigates how Progressive-era activists sought to encourage the creation and consumption of high-quality films while lobbying against state-supervised motion picture censorship.

December 2017
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216 pages | 6 x 9 | 14 b&w photos |

As movies took the country by storm in the early twentieth century, Americans argued fiercely about whether municipal or state authorities should step in to control what people could watch when they went to movie theaters, which seemed to be springing up on every corner. Many who opposed the governmental regulation of film conceded that some entity—boards populated by trusted civic leaders, for example—needed to safeguard the public good. The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures (NB), a civic group founded in New York City in 1909, emerged as a national cultural chaperon well suited to protect this emerging form of expression from state incursions.

Using the National Board’s extensive files, Monitoring the Movies offers the first full-length study of the NB and its campaign against motion-picture censorship. Jennifer Fronc traces the NB’s Progressive-era founding in New York; its evolving set of “standards” for directors, producers, municipal officers, and citizens; its “city plan,” which called on citizens to report screenings of condemned movies to local officials; and the spread of the NB’s influence into the urban South. Ultimately, Monitoring the Movies shows how Americans grappled with the issues that arose alongside the powerful new medium of film: the extent of the right to produce and consume images and the proper scope of government control over what citizens can see and show.


Finalist for the 2017 Richard Wall Memorial Award for an exemplary work in the field of recorded performance

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Origins of the Anticensorship Movement
  • Chapter 1. The Lesser of Two Evils: Debating Motion Picture Censorship, 1907–1912
  • Chapter 2. “Critical and Constructive”: The National Board’s “Standards” and City Plan for Voluntary Motion Picture Review, 1912–1916
  • Chapter 3. “An Historical Presentation”: The Birth of a Nation and the City Plan, 1909–1917
  • Chapter 4. “Is Any Girl Safe?” White Slave Traffic Films and the Geography of Censorship, 1914–1917
  • Chapter 5. “Whether You Like Pictures or Not”: The General Federation of Women’s Clubs and State Censorship Legislation, 1916–1920
  • Chapter 6. Southern Enterprises: Building Better Films Committees in the Urban South, 1921–1924
  • Conclusion: Censorship and the Age of Self-Regulation, 1924–1968
  • Appendix: A Partial List of Cities Cooperating with the National Board of Review, 1918
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Amherst, Massachusetts

Fronc is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. She is the author of New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era.


“Not unlike Facebook, the nascent movie industry resisted regulation; it fought back with self-imposed guidelines aided by the rhetoric of civil libertarians. Ranged against the studios were Puritans and Progressives, a coalition of moralizers, women’s groups concerned with the effect of movies on children and culture warriors who linked movies with the medium’s lowlife origins as burlesque sideshow attractions. . . Fronc has written an engaging and balanced account of questions whose debating points remain relevant today.”
Shepherd Express

“Jennifer Fronc provides a needed history of the most far-reaching, and successful, organization to regulate motion pictures in the early 20th century: The National Board of Review...Fronc’s careful historical work reminds us that even among people who shared political sentiments—Progressive reformers, labor organizers, animal rights activists, and clubwomen—there was considerable disagreement about whether and how society should regulate motion pictures.”
Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television

“A comprehensive and meticulously researched study...Fronc's book brings considerable scholarship and insight into the politics of efforts to regulate early American cinema and to their lingering effects on efforts to circumscribe the effects of film on what those prone to regulate viewed as vulnerable audiences.”
Journal of American History

“Fronc has made a well-researched contribution on a fascinating period of tug-of-war over early films. Film and free-speech historians will find Monitoring the Movies a comprehensive analysis of the censorship debate during the Progressive era and would welcome this impressively detailed book on the shelf.”
Journal of Intellectual Freedom & Privacy

“This is an extremely important book, a major, highly readable, well-researched contribution to the scholarship on the history of movie censorship and regulation in the Progressive era. Fronc provides a rich and diverse portrait of the social matrix that informed the shape, success, and limits of the National Board of Review’s efforts to encourage better films and defeat censorship laws.”
Matthew H. Bernstein, Emory University, author of Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television

“A terrific, well-argued, and engaging book that will appeal to readers in American history and film history. By mining primary sources from institutional records, Jennifer Fronc is able to provide the first account that really gets inside the workings of the National Board of Review.”
Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, University of Texas at Austin, author of At the Picture Show: Small Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture


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