Prohibiting the Movies, or the 87th Amendment
by Ellis Parker Butler
When I returned to the United States in 1930, after having been marooned in Patagonia for ten years, I was not surprised to learn that motion pictures were prohibited under the Eighty-Seventh Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Even before I left so suddenly there had been whispers that the Association for Prohibiting Everything and the Old Women's Mind-Other-People's Business Union had discovered that numbers of persons were securing some amusement from motion pictures, and I had feared the worst.
I admit that motion pictures, in 1920, were not all they should have been. The lesson taught by the large pumpkin pie that hit the comedian in the face was not so uplifting as it might have been. The lessons taught were not always noble; in fact, some of the suggestions were such that the weaker individuals were led astray.
I remember the case of my cousin Dudley Batts. Dudley was not a strong character. He had a weak, imitative nature and was easily led astray, and one evening he went to see a motion picture in which an actor named Charles Chapin, or Chaplin, or some such name who was then rather well known, was shown on the screen.
In the course of the picture this Charles Chapin (or Chaplin) whose only desire seemed to be to amuse, seated himself on a cactus, immediately after which he appeared to exhibit signs of an extreme sprightliness and vivacity, especially of the legs and arms. Had the picture been what it should have been this Mr. Chapin, upon sitting on the cactus, should have shown a certain regret for the errors of his past life, combined with a meek resignation to the blows of misfortune, thus giving those who saw him an uplift of soul and leading their thoughts to higher things.
Alas! the effect on my cousin Dudley Batts was quite other than this. I was sitting beside him at the time and no sooner did Mr. Chapin (or Chaplin) sit on the cactus in the film and become imbued with pepper -- as the slang phrase was -- than cousin Dudley Batts began to move uneasily in his chair, while his eyes glowed with a wild, devilish spark. I put my hand on him to control him, but it was useless. He leaped from his seat and rushed from the theatre, and I knew that the evil lesson of the screen had had its natural vile result, and that cousin Dudley Batts meant to find a cactus and sit on it.
For days and weeks after that night cousin Dudley Batts did not return to his home, but ran wildly about the streets seeking cacti and sitting on them, and immediately showing the same sprightliness and vivacity of legs and arms that had been shown by Mr. Chapin (or Mr. Chaplin, as the case may be).
It was only after several weeks that we were able to coax cousin Dudley home, and then only because he could find no more cacti to sit on, but the moment he entered the house he saw his wife's new spring hat, with eight hat pins in it and, with a yell of eager delight, cousin Dudley rushed across the room and sat on the hat.
Naturally, this caused his wife to upbraid him and, although she did it gently, he was so angered that he got the axe and killed her. Then he killed his eight children, and six policemen who came to arrest him, and the mayor, and seven members of the City Council, and one Baptist minister and three-quarters of the fire department, and one census-taker and himself. He killed himself last. After that he was dead and did not kill any more.
The whole affair made a deep impression on me, as was natural. If I had not been a man I might have been cousin Dudley's wife (if I had not been his cousin) in which case I would now be dead, and it is most annoying to be dead when you don't want to be. I saw clearly how harmful motion pictures could be, and I was not surprised, on my return in 1930, to find they had been prohibited.
I am not opposed to prohibition. I believe that whenever three people get together any two of them have the right to tell the other one what he shall eat or drink or wear. If two of us do not like green socks we have a right to decree that none of us shall wear green socks. From that moment green socks become a sin and a crime. This is quite proper. Green socks, of poor quality, if worn to excess, might poison the feet.
I expected that motion pictures would be prohibited, when everything else was, and I never expected to see one again, so I was surprised when my Uncle Kegley Morris, of Fort Lee, New Jersey, with whom I was stopping for a few days, gave me a wink and asked me, in a whisper, if I would like to see a movie, in exactly the same tone he would have used in asking me if I would like a nip of brandy.
We stole from the house quietly and through the woods. I remember that he told me, as we went along, about Roger Muffins and his wife and their sad fate.
He said Roger and his wife were taken ill not long after they were married, Ardelia -- that was his wife -- had stomach trouble and took soda for it, but Roger had a high fever and had to have an alcohol rub every three hours. For weeks and months they rubbed Roger with alcohol, and for weeks and months they gave Ardelia soda.
"It was very sad," said Uncle Kegley.
"What was?" I asked.
"All of it. The whole affair," Uncle Kegley said. "They rubbed so much alcohol into Roger, and Ardelia took so much soda, that when their baby was born the Government ruled that it was a brandy-and-soda and confiscated it. Do you like Mary Pickford?"
"I did. I used to," I said.
"It's a Pickford picture we are going to have tonight," Uncle Kegley said with a snigger of wickedness. "Don't ever say anything about it or we'll all land in jail for life."
The way was becoming more difficult. We pushed through underbrush and crawled over rocks. We reached the edge of the Palisades and here a rope hung down to a ledge far below. We slid down the rope and reached the ledge and crawled through a cave-like hole in the rock.
Inside was a huge hall or room, dark as pitch, but I could hear the whisper of hundreds of men -- men keyed high by vicious excitement.
"We cut this hall out of the solid rock with our own hands,' Uncle Kegley whispered. "We old stagers must have our movies. Here are a couple of seats. We're lucky -- they are just beginning."
I seated myself and stared into the dead darkness ahead of me. The whispers died to utter silence. Behind me somewhere began the rapid clicking of a motion picture projector.
But nothing appeared on the dead, black wall before me.
It was as black as before. I saw nothing. I heard nothing but the cautious, tense breathing of the crowd. I smelled nothing but the dampness of the cave. The clicking stopped and began again.
"Great, isn't it?" Uncle Kegley whispered.
Then suddenly the clicking behind me stopped again and finally. The men arose and moved to the cave entrance, talking excitedly in undertones.
"Is it all over?" I asked.
"All over," said Uncle Kegley, "and it was great, wasn't it?"
"But I didn't see anything," I protested.
"See anything? Of course, you didn't see anything;" said Uncle Kegley. "We have no films -- how could you see anything? We have to imagine it all. That's the fun of it; that's the sport of it; that's where the jolly wickedness of it comes in. You can imagine anything you want to."
I considered this awhile.
"But why," I asked Uncle Kegley, when we had climbed the rope, "did you bother to dig that cave? Why can't you sit right at home and imagine it quite as well?"
"Hush!" he said fearfully. "Don't mention such a thing. We would not dare to do such a thing. Imagination is prohibited by th Eighty-Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.