By Charlie Lambert
A few months ago I wrote an article for this blog about the personal life of Lloyd T. Binford,. notorious film censor of the Memphis Censor Board from 1928 to 1956. I wanted my first article to focus on the lesser-known aspects of his life, many of which were notable and praiseworthy. Now, I’d like to write more about his public life as a censor, his national reputation, and the effect he had on the town across the river, West Memphis, Arkansas.
Much has been written about the specific films Binford banned from Memphis theatres, concerts he had closed or cancelled, and speakers he forced to abandon their plans to appear in Memphis. I think it is significant that his wrath fell on individual players he did not like, any mixing or aggrandizing of the black race in any form, and any subject matter that portrayed anything he considered “lewd, or immoral”. His restrictions were unfathomable and relentless. He hated Charlie Chaplin because he considered him a “guttersnipe and Communist”. Thus Chaplin films could not be shown here. 1926’s KING OF KINGS didn’t try to blunt the roles Jews played in persecuting Christ (a political statement that might hurt then Memphis political leader Edward Hull Crump’s getting local Jewish votes in an upcoming election). That was one of the first films to be banned. This arbitrary censoring of films went on for decades starting with the first censor board in 1927 with 4 members).
Mayor Watkins Overton persuaded retiring insurance executive Binford to join the Board in 1928 at the behest of former mayor and political boss Crump, a Binford crony (read “clone”). This was the beginning of talking pictures and so simultaneously the city created a censor board to monitor undesirable products from Hollywood. The Board appointed in 1928 included Mrs. M. V. Smith (attorney), Milton Picard (attorney), and Binford. There was one other member, as well. From its inception, the 1928 Board was dominated by Binford. He was newly retired and full of energy to pursue new endeavors with plenty of time and money on hand. Over the years he was usually the sole member who could devote most of his time and energies to censorship. A new Board was appointed annually by the mayor. Binford soon became active in selecting new members, excepting himself from roll-over as its chairperson, one vital to ensuring continuity of purpose and constancy of enforcement.
Years passed, and with the exception of the period from 1931-35, Binford dictated what could and could not be shown in Memphis. Such notable Memphians as labor leader Fred Morton, TV personality and etiquette arbiter Beth Marsh, attorney Eugene Bearman, Mrs. Richard Towne, and even Mrs. Wyeth Chandler held positions on the Censor Board. Famous local lawyer and wit Lucius E. Burch dubbed the Board the “Friday Morning Club ” since they met to do their censorship and view films on that day every week. Note: sometimes only Binford showed up and made the decisions without counsel from his peers. He saw every film that came before the Board and never took any other member’s word to make the decision about the film’s acceptance.
By the 1950’s the courts had all but banned Censor Boards as meaningless and without any real power to ban anything. Binford kept his claws out until 1956 when he was old, sick, and almost blind. He tried and failed to ban a film called BLACKBOARD JUNGLE because of the equality of the races portrayed therein. He resigned and died later that year. 1960’s Censor Board chair, Mrs. Judson McKellar warned, “Stay home, keep your children at home, write Congress”. Local lawyer Frank Gianotti, well-respected by all, told the Board their narrow, rigid standards would no longer hold up in court By 1963 local federal judge Bailey Brown ruled the Board unconstitutional but then Mayor Henry Loeb, ( a conservative who later instigated the garbage strike during which Martin Luther King was killed) insisted on appointing new Censor boards as late as 1968. Mrs. Laurie Polk was chair of that last Board, which consisted of seven members. It was called the “City Board of Review”. It was aimed at protecting children from undesirable films. That same year the Motion Picture Association created the various levels of allowable viewership for all American films. The levels went from “G” for all audiences, “PG” for parental guidance, “R” restricted to people over a certain age, and “X” for adults only. They have modified these levels, redefined them, and enhanced them over the years, adding a PG-13 rating for young adults.
On a lighter note, Binford and his merry band were infamous all over the country in their later years. Celebrities like critic and book editor George Jean Nathan called the Binford era “non-compos Memphis”; actors Alfred Lunt and his wife Lynne Fontaine were banned from appearing on Memphis theatre stages without prior script approval from Binford; while columnist Hedda Hopper and movie moguls Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer made heady fun of the Memphis censors. Binford reveled in the notoriety and often commented back to their various barbs directed toward him. Studios sometimes contacted Memphis film distributors to inquire whether it was worth booking local theatres in light of the Censor Board during its prime. All that, because of the radical, unbridled views of one inimitable man over three decades.
ONE CITY’S LOSS, ANOTHER’S GAIN
Next, I’d like to explore the effect of Lloyd Binford’s censorship beyond the bounds of Memphis, namely its effect on West Memphis, Arkansas, across the Mississippi River. Memphis itself being a medium-sized U.S. city found ways to overcome censorship beginning in the 1930’s. A simple car ride across the river accomplished that for countless embittered citizens who resented being told arbitrarily what they could and could not see on the movie screens in the city.
The Crittenden Theatre on Missouri Avenue in West Memphis opened in 1937 in the early days of Memphis censorship. Owners Packard and Rhodes packed their 700-seat auditorium with films deemed too indecent or unorthodox to play in the Bluff City. By 1945, a second theatre emerged, one built for black audiences in the days of segregation of movie houses where the overflow audiences from the Crittenden could see banned films such as OUTLAW, DUEL IN THE SUN and other such nationally acclaimed hits that Binford pre-empted from his domain. Indeed, Binford called David Selznick’s DUEL, “the most indecent film ever made”. Audiences at the Crittenden ate it up and saw it multiple times.
A live vaudeville, burlesque theatre opened in the late 1940’s. The Joy Theatre on West Broadway held 1000 patrons on the mezzanine and more on a balcony. The West Memphis sheriff deemed that live performances by girls and women in brief costumes too risqué and shuttered it for two years. That venue reopened as the Avon Theatre in 1952, where the overflow audiences from the Crittenden could see banned films such nationally acclaimed hits that Binford pre-empted from his domain. By then, M.A. Lightman (founder of the Malco chain of theatres in Memphis) owned both the Crittenden and Avon.
Finally, in 1950 the viewing of naughty films (by Binford standards) became even easier to view across the river. The 532-car Sunset Drive-In Theatre showed up on East Broadway. Most of its audiences crossed over the river to see films in the comfort (privacy) of their cars and avoided being seen in one of the regular theatres by people who might recognize them. The logic of being seen by someone at a banned movie called to question who would see you unless they were there as well.
The Sunset became known as the most popular venue for “Binfordized” films from 1950 until 1955 when stark censorship was dealt several lethal blows by courts around the country. Besides, by 1956 Binford was retired from the censorship business and died that year. But during that five-year period it was considered trendy to cross the bridge to see a film. The Memphis papers highlighted films playing in West Memphis, often elaborating about the fame of the actors, directors, etc., in the process. After the Binford-era the market for banned films ceased to exist and West Memphis lost all its once-popular theatres.