Australian film censorship in the 1920s

…no official encouragement whatever should be given to moving picture promoters to attempt to make a hero of a criminal.

In the early 1920s, a small Australian company produced a film on the Kelly gang entitled ‘When the Kelly’s were out’. In accordance with the relevant regulations, the film had to be submitted for approval by the Censor Board. As this correspondence shows, despite some differences of opinion, permission to screen the film for the public was not granted, even though the company had made a number of changes following initial rejection by the Board.

The authorities were well aware that the exploits of the gang endured in the public imagination, despite the passage of forty years. The Board’s concerns about the possible glorification of outlaws (and consequent ‘corruption of public morals’) meant that it could be difficult to obtain permission to screen any film that featured bushrangers, particularly the Kellys.
The public screening of films expanded dramatically from the 1920s onwards, and film censorship became an increasingly significant aspect of the work of the Chief Secretary’s Department. This activity was governed by the 1922 Regulations under the Theatres and Public Halls Act, 1908. Under the heading Prohibition of Objectionable Cinematographic Pictures, the Regulation stated:
(k) No cinematographic picture shall be exhibited in any licensed theatre, public hall, or temporary structure which represent or include
6. Successful crime, such as bushranging…, which might be considered as having an injurious effect upon youthful minds.
These provisions were usually invoked when the Board was required to make decisions on films such as ‘When the Kelly’s were out’.

Source: NRS 905 Chief Secretary Special Bundles 1826-1982: Australian films – Censorship, 1922-50. Correspondence re banning of ‘When the Kelly’s Were Out’. Letter from Higgins and Southwell, 14 April 1923, re changes made to film. Letter from Inspector General of Police, 24 April 1923, re further inspection of the film [12/4190.2]

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