Tantalizing Bits of Chicago History with Block Cinema

This Thursday, April 2, Block Cinema will screen The Navigator (1924), starring Buster Keaton and featuring live musical accompaniment from David Drazin. That same David Drazin, along with Carol Seymour and Robert Loerzel, recently discovered that Chicago’s censorship office, which was run by the police department, demanded cuts to The Navigator before allowing it to be played in the city. Below are two censorship cards from their research in the Chicago Police Censorship Files at Northeastern Illinois University.

The board required four cuts in The Navigator. All four cuts were to the sequence where “foreign agents” kidnap John O’Brien, a wealthy robber baron (Frederick Vroom). They read, for example, “Cut [the scene with the] binding [of a] man in [a] room on [the] ship.”

Why did Chicagoans in 1924 get to see less of the film than we see today?

The violence against John O’Brien is hardly the only violence in the film. For example, the censorship board did not demand any changes to the climactic battle with inhabitants of a small island whom the lead characters decide are cannibals.

Perhaps, considering the 1920s labor climate, the censorship board felt it was better to limit the violence against the wealthy. Slapstick comics appealed to working class tastes. With their comic mishaps at work and their sometimes-deliberate sabotage, their misadventures often mirrored the strategies of organized labor.

The First Red Scare would also have cast a large shadow over the early 1920s. After the Russian Revolution, there was a growing popular fear across parts of the United States that support for organized labor would lead to a communist or anarchist takeover of the government. Keaton had already lampooned these fears in Cops (1922), where his character is mistaken as an anarchist bomber.

The Navigator smuggled in a hidden reference to the Red Scare: the boat that was called the Navigator in the movie was actually the USS Buford. On December 21, 1919 the USS Buford, nicknamed the “Soviet Ark” deported 249 U.S. residents to Russia, including noted speaker and anarchist Emma Goldman.

If only the censorship board had known. Or maybe they did.

These little insights are only partial glimpses into the past. If David, Carol and Robert find the censorship cards for Cops, we might have another clue. As Robert pointed out recently in a blog post, the censorship board also had an aversion to showing any local violence or tragedy. So, perhaps, there was something about the kidnapping of the fictional John O’Brien that felt very Chicago.

Don’t miss your chance to see The Navigator on Thursday, April 2 at 7pm at Block Cinema. Tickets are only $4 for Block members, students, seniors, and Northwestern faculty and staff; and $6 for the general public. Doors open one hour prior to showtime. Seating is limited.

By Will Schmenner, Interim Curator, Block Cinema

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