Did you ever wonder how we got from a moment in which almost everything on film could be censored (the Progressive Era) to the moment in which nothing on film could be censored (today)? From the Nickelodeon to Deep Throat? The answer is provided by Laura Wittern-Keller and Raymond J. Haberski in their wonderful new book The Miracle Case: Film Censorship and the Supreme Court (University of Kansas Press, 2008). You’ve probably never heard of “The Miracle” or the case it launched in 1949. It’s a short film by Roberto Rossellini about a deranged women who, having slept with a man she believes is St. Joseph, gives birth to a child in a deserted mountain church. Fellini has a bit part (as “Joseph”). Critics generally liked it; Catholics in New York generally didn’t. The Church mounted a campaign against the film and the authorities relented: “The Miracle” was banned on the grounds that it was “sacrilegious.” In 1949, those were fine grounds. Not for long. The film’s distributor–the feisty Joseph Burstyn–fought for the right to exhibit it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1952. And he won. Between 1952 and 1965, the states got out of the film-censorship business and we entered a new era of free-speech absolutism when it comes to film. One wonders if that’s a good thing.
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