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Putting a Muzzle on ‘Spirit of ’76’

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jan 17, 2018

Today freedom of speech again seems to be under attack. Most people feel it is a protected right, but a close look at our history can make you worry. One hundred years ago a man by the name of Robert Goldstein was involved in a long-forgotten court case, but it can be used as a warning bell of what complacency can bring. The story starts with a June 24, 1916, article in The Moving Picture World.

“Another film company has been started in Los Angeles. The ideas and prospects of the firm, as outlined by the president, Robert Goldstein, well-known coast costumer, are broad. It is the intention of this company to produce a new motion picture production in twelve reels, the title of which is to be, ‘The Spirit of ’76,’ to reproduce the American Revolution, including the picturization of the causes which led up to it – the production to be perfect as to historical accuracy and detail, with an entirely original and sensational story closely interwoven.”

As Goldstein worked on his epic, the United States drifted toward war with Germany, which was declared in April 1917, just as the film was ready for release. The May 1, 1917, Chicago Tribune carried Goldstein’s advertisement.

“The American people cannot view the Revolution thru a mirage. The marks of the birth-pangs remain on the land; its struggle for breath was too terrible, its scars too deep to hide or cover. … The faint hearted who failed are judged by us as though they failed before the nation yesterday; the brave are re-enshrined. … Into our horizon, too, move terrible shapes – not shadowy or lurid, but living, breathing figures, who turn their eyes on us. … We cannot veil our history, nor soften our legends. Romance alone can justify a theme inspired by truth; for ROMANCE is more vital than history. . ..We SEE them all in ‘THE SPIRIT of ’76’ the $500,000.00 patriotic photospectacle romance, written and produced by ROBERT GOLDSTEIN, which will be shown in ORCHESTRA HALL, beginning MONDAY night, MAY 7th.”

The problem was that in order to show a true picture of the American Revolution, you might offend the British, who were our enemy but now were one of the allies fighting against Germany. At the time, municipalities, including Chicago, had censorship boards that had the power to ban or edit a motion picture. The opening of the “Spirit of ’76” in that city was delayed until a permit was granted.

The May 16th Tribune reported, “Robert Goldstein’s picture, ‘The Spirit of ’76’ opened at Orchestra Hall last night – but not for the public. There were about a score of men and women at the special performance; every one was a critic.

“There were present Judge Jesse Baldwin, before whom Mr. Goldstein, through his counsel, applied yesterday for an injunction seeking to restrain the second deputy of police, the Mayor, and the police department from stopping a public exposition of the film.”

Goldstein had already made changes.   

“Certain features of the film had been cut out. As a result the production, according to the general opinion of those present, was rendered highly innocuous. … The consensus of unofficial opinion expressed during the performance was that there was no pro-German trend to the film. In fact, it appeared to be rather the reverse … after portraying (with) more or less historical correctness the trials and tribulations of the American colonies, which resulted in the birth of the United States of America.”

He had also made an attempt to please the critics.

“Fade out. Show intertwined flags of America, England, and France. Fade to statue of liberty. Fade to stars and stripes, orchestra vamping on ‘America.’

“The audience stood up half a dozen times during the performance, while the orchestra played the national anthem. … Judge Baldwin was asked … ‘The music was excellent,’ he said. He will render his decision in the morning. The general trend of opinion voiced was ‘Let it live; it is harmless.’”

After several more changes were made, the movie was released. Tribune critic Mae Tinde wrote on May 30, “The censors have carefully eliminated the alleged disease supposed to have so infected ‘The Spirit of ’76’ as to make it a dangerous member of cinema society. Purged, purified, a little weak in its convalescence, it comes to us and we advise you that it is worthy of kindly consideration.

“Is it unpatriotic? It is not. Those who have been making all the fuss, suspecting the perturbed Mr. Goldstein of ulterior motives, may, of course, be right. Personally I think them wrong. The producer thought he had a stupendous idea that would picture stupendously. So he went with it. I don’t believe however, he ever dreamed of the cataclysm the working out of the idea would bring on his devoted head, dreaming not that anybody would think he deserved it.”

Finally, what of the finished product? Should the public be allowed to view it?

“Mr. Goldstein takes the ambitions of a half Indian girl, ‘ex-left handed wife’ of George III, to become Queen of America as the nucleus of his picture. As the reels revolve he then presents us with rare pictorial reproductions of the ride of Paul Revere, Lexington, Valley Forge, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, etc., all of which draw frantic applause from an audience that would surely not applaud did it suspect for a moment that its patriotism was being seduced. … The hand of the censor has been especially felt in the captions. There have been insertions and cutouts galore, and it will be a pugnacious Englishman, indeed, who feels himself intentionally slurred.”

A sampling of other Chicago newspapers showed they seemed to agree.

“The Chicago American stated, ‘Chicago is honored by being the premier city for the showing of ‘The Spirit of ’76.’ Never before has there been screened a history, romance, adventure, story picture in such perfection. It is a stage classic. It is the very heart of what our patriotism is based on.’ The Chicago Examiner claimed, ‘It breathes freedom.’ The Exhibitor’s Trade Review noted, ‘it has some wonderful moments and should cause the red blood of any American to tingle,’ and that ‘Everything is action, action, action. … The picture is a succession of thrills.’”

In June 1917, with victory in hand and censor approval, the movie was ready for wider distribution. What Goldstein didn’t know was that the United States government had other ideas. On June 15, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act of 1917, making it a crime “For any person (a) willfully ‘make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere’ with the military success of the United States or ‘to promote the success of its enemies’; (b) willfully to ‘cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States’; or (c) willfully to ‘obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States.’”

This would be punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The “Spirit of ’76” was about to become illegal.

Next Week: Arrest that man!


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