Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

During the nearly half century of its powerful reign, no one exemplified the Keystone State’s film censorship board more dramatically than Philadelphian Edna Rothwell Carroll (1894-1981), its chairman from 1939 to 1955. Determined, self-possessed, and intensely devoted to her mission – to protect the public from movies deemed immoral – she had been active in Republican Party politics and groomed for public life under the tutelage of the influential Marion Margery Scranton (1884-1960), an officer of both the Republican State Committee and the Republican National Committee and mother of Governor William W. Scranton.

By the time of Carroll’s appointment, the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors, established in 1911, had become known as one of the most severe censorship boards in the country. Moreover, it had regularly provided political patronage positions for the party in power.

Republican Governor Arthur H. James named Edna Carroll chairman, at a salary of forty-eight hundred dollars yearly, on March 20, 1939, after calling for resignations from current board members, appointees of his predecessor, Democrat George H. Earle III. Although she had no apparent experience or association with the film industry, Carroll made a name for herself and served under four Republican governors besides James – Edward Martin (1943-1947), John C. Bell Jr. (1947), James H. Duff (1947-1951), and John S. Fine (1951-1955). She held the position of chairman longer than anyone else in the board’s history.

Before serving on the State Board of Censors, Carroll had enjoyed a long and successful career in politics, and her energetic involvement in Republican Party affairs continued w1abated during her tenure on the board. She was active in Philadelphia Republican Party politics of the late 1920s, with her first political job coming in 1930 when President Herbert Hoover appointed her co­chairman of the United States Employment Service, a federal agency established during the Great Depression. Carroll also founded the Philadelphia Congress of Republican Councils, a GOP women’s organization, in the early 1930s, and remained an active member well into her eighties. She was a member of the State Board of Republican Women for twenty-five years, president of the Women’s Republican Club of Pennsylva­nia; and vice president of the Republican State Committee. As vice chairman of the Republican City Committee, she helped secure the 1948 Republican National Convention for Philadelphia. During the early fifties, Carroll was president of the Philadelphia Congress of Republican Councils.

That Carroll’s appointment came through patronage was consistent with the history of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors. From its earliest members, named in 1914 by Governor John K. Tener who signed the bill creating the board, appointments were politically controlled. Dr. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer served on the board during its formative years, from 1915 to 1921, and was one of its most influential and important members. He openly acknowledged that he had been appoint­ed as secretary of the Board in 1915 at least in part because of his friendship with Governor Martin Grove Brum­baugh. “One day,” he wrote, “I was called upon the long-distance telephone by a friend [Brumbaugh] lately inducted into the governorship of my state. He wished to ask me if I would take a place upon the board which had control of the motion picture …. I knew little indeed about the motion picture … but I said that his tender of the office pleased me …. ”

By the time of Carroll’s appointment, Pennsylvania’s State Board of Censors had become one of the most active and influential of its kind in the nation, banning films that depicted illicit love, nudity, violence, profanity, and acts considered sacrile­gious. As the United States verged on entering the Second World War, the board’s authority over war propaganda films became an issue. Movies heralding the beginning of Germany’s blitzkrieg across Europe were making their way to Pennsylvania, as the censors reviewed a film released by RKO Radio Pictures entitled The Ramparts We Watch. Pro­duced by Louis de Rochemont, it was meant to show how World War I affected small-town America and to urge citizens to prepare for America’s involvement in World War II The board certified the film without change, issuing a seal of approval on August 9, 1940. Not long afterward, Carroll read in a motion picture trade magazine, Box Office, that the German-made film Baptism of Fire, which depicted Ger­many’s invasion of Poland from a Nazi perspective, had been inserted into The Ramparts We Watch. She immediately ordered Charles Zagrans, Philadelphia Branch Manager of RKO Radio Pictures, to re-submit the reels in question. The censors reviewed the offending addi­tions to the film and revoked their original approval, ordering screenings of the movie to be halted in Pennsylvania until all scenes from Baptism of Fire were deleted. Included in the controversial footage were the spraying of a building with gasoline and a radio commenta­tor’s remarks: “The American is no soldier. The inferiority and decadence of the allegedly new world is evident in its military inefficiency.”

After several legal appeals by RKO failed, Zagrans and the State Board of Censors held a meeting to discuss The Ramparts We Watch. Both parties reached an agreement for new eliminations, and the board re-approved the film. The episode demonstrated the power of the censors not only to control politically charged war movies but also the willingness of Carroll and the board to work with the film industry to bring motion pictures in line with regulations.

Unlike many film censors of the day, Carroll was a self-proclaimed movie lover – her favorite genre was the Western. How did she feel about her involvement with the censorship of motion pictures? In an interview in 1941, she proudly claimed that, as censors, “we try to clip all language, incident and sound that is offensive to our national way of living.” She believed that censorship was necessary to uphold morality in Pennsylvania. “Morals,” she said, “are the difference between the right and wrong way of life – a conduct of living.” In a newspaper interview several years later, she remarked: “Only a very few pictures that comes [sic] our way need a rap on bad taste …. I would say ninety-eight percent are safe for family audiences. It is the two per cent that gives us our headaches. For the way I look at it, it is the censor’s duty to stand between industry and pressure groups. We are the traffic patrolmen watching the movie makers to see that no one runs wild.”

Her attitude reflects the climate that gave birth to state censorship. As movies, first shown in nickelodeons, became more and more popular, they also gained a reputation for inciting bad behavior, particularly in children. At the turn of the century, for example, a Chicago judge wrote that nickelodeons “cause, indirectly or directly, more juvenile crime coming into my court than all other causes combined.” In 1909, New York Mayor George B. McClellan ordered the closing of all movie houses. His action was provoked by the large number of complaints that his office had received regarding the morality of films. The ban was not lifted until a group of New Yorkers proposed to review films before they were shown to the general public – an early example of the type of censorship called “prior restraint.”

Pennsylvania became the first state to legislate official censorship of motion pictures. The original 1911 law provided for two censors: a chief censor (a male), and an assistant censor (a female), and authorized the censors to review aJl films and stereopticon views intended to be shown in Pennsylvania. Amended four years later, the law called for three board members: two men and one woman, with majority ruling when there was a difference of opinion. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania certified the constitutionality of the film censorship law in 1915, expressing the opinion that “the promotion of public morals and public health is a chief function of government to be exercised at all times as occasion may require.”

The board required each film to be accompanied by a script. Staff members first made sure that the scripts matched the titles and sequences in the actual film. This initial check of the film also helped to identify possible problems with content The film was next viewed by board members and an assistant. The assistant followed the film in script and marked deletions as they were called out. After screening, a film fell into one of three categories: “approved,” and a seal of approval issued; “approved with eliminations,” requiring deletions before the board would issue a seal of approval for the film to be shown in Pennsylva­nia; and “banned or disapproved film entirely and prohibiting its showing anywhere in the Commonwealth. Due to a heavy workload, the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors maintained offices in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. Most film screenings took place in the Philadelphia office on Vine Street. Fiscal supervision of the board was handled by the Harrisburg office, and seals for films being shown in western Pennsylvania were issued at the Pittsburgh office.

Despite Carroll’s obvious enthusiasm for her job, or perhaps partly as a result of it, a steady decline in the powers of the State Board of Censors was about to begin as television took hold in America. In 1949, Carroll called for official state censorship of television movies, stating that the films “must not be projected by television in Pennsylvania unless first approved by the Board.”

This new state regulation was quickly challenged in the District Court of the United States by five Pennsylvania television stations: WDTV, Pittsburgh; WGAL, Lancaster, and WPTZ, WFIL and WCAU, Philadelphia. The defendants in the case were Chairman Carroll, Vice Chairman John C. Fisher, and Beatrice Z. Miller, Secretary of the Board of Censors. The challenge to the Board of Censors’ regulation of television films was based on the concept that television was considered part of interstate commerce which was already regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). On October 26, 1949, the Federal District Court struck down the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors’ television regulation, with the judge ruling that it would place an undue burden on interstate commerce in television broadcasting. The case was carried to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the District Court’s ruling.

In spite of this defeat, Carroll did not back down quietly. As the board’s powers were repeatedly challenged in court, she solicited assistance from local ministers in the Philadelphia area and helped organize them into the “Committee of Clergy.” She also sought the support of the National Legion of Decency (NLD) in the fight to counter the relaxing standards of the Motion Picture Association (MPA). To the executive secretary of the NLD she wrote: “I have recently read that the MPA has revoked its policy on censorship of [films related to] drugs and drug addicts. … The Pennsylvania Board has not changed its policy concerning films about drugs and drug addicts and the advance publicity causes us grave concern. I want you to be advised about the attitude of the Pennsylvania Board in this matter. Would you suggest a local representative of the Legion of Decency to support us in this action if we find it necessary?” Carroll’s attempt to increase the power and authority of the board made her nationally famous.

On May 26, 1952, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that states may not ban movies on the grounds that they are considered sacrilegious. The decision reversed a prior judgment by the New York State Court, which had upheld a ban on The Miracle. The Italian film is about a simple peasant girl who becomes pregnant after being seduced by a shepherd who she mistakenly believes in Saint Joseph. She imagines that she is carrying the second Christ. Outraged religious groups accused the filmmakers of mocking the sacred birth of Jesus Christ. In the Supreme Court’s decision, Justice Tom C. Clark noted that, “We hold only that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments a State may not ban a film on the basis of a censor’s conclusion that it is ‘sacrilegious.'” Special Deputy Attorney General Abraham J. Levy, in fact, told the Pennsylvania Board of Censors that the United States Supreme Court’s decision of 1952 so limited its duties that only obscenity consummated on the screen and sustained finding of fact could uphold a decision to withhold approval of a film. The Miracle case, according to censorship scholar Frank Walsh, effectively “crippled the state censorship boards.”

The waning powers of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors only seemed to heighten its determination to shield the public from immorality. Throughout the Commonwealth local police grew more zealous in their prosecution of obscene films, literature, and photographs. On June 11, 1952, in a well-publicized case that occurred in Philadelphia – the censor board’s own backyard – police broke up a large pornography ring.

Carroll was proud of the board’s work, and said that she rarely received complaints that it was too aggressive. On the contrary, she noted, if people complained about anything it was rather to question an apparent lack of vigilance. She encouraged individuals who were upset with diminishing censorship in the early 1950s to write to politicians protesting the curtailment of censorship powers by the courts.

State legislators themselves wrote letters to the State Board of Censors bewailing what they perceived as an epidemic of movies crying out for censorship being shown in the Common­wealth. “So many of my constituents have brought the matter to my attention recently that I found it necessary to write to you for clarification,” wrote Represen­tative Thomas J. McCormack, of Philadelphia, to the board in February 1953. “It seems there has been a rash of immoral motion pictures being shown in this area in the past several months. I call your attention to two in particular, namely, Street Corner and Because of Eve. My constituents are rightfully incensed and highly indignant that such trash is allowed to be shown in the theatres of this great Commonwealth …. I personal­ly know of no reason why pictures such as the above are permitted to be shown.”

Edna Carroll responded to missives of this type by encouraging continued correspondence from the public regard­ing the lack of censorship in the State. “With curtailment of [the board’s] duties,” she noted, “many of these matters are now in the hands of a people’s censorship and you are right to be indignant and bring the matter to us …. With such material in writing we hope to prevent further encroachment on this most important moral Act.”

In November 1954, Pennsylvanians elected a new governor, Democrat George M. Leader. Carroll made a plea to clergy members to petition the incoming administration to continue censorship in Pennsylvania. By early 1955, a stalwart Democrat and Secretary of Internal Affairs for Pennsylvania, Genevieve Blatt, proposed new Democ­rat appointees to the Board of Censors. The Leader Administration accepted her nominations, but the new board never had an opportunity to serve; Republican senators blocked the confirmations. On March 13, 1956, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, in Hallmark Productions, Inc. v. Carroll, declared the Pennsylvania Motion Picture Censorship Act of 1915 unconstitutional. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, following the lead of the Supreme Court of the United States, which had made a similar ruling in Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, found that the act violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

After her stint as chairman of the State Board of Censors ended in 1955, Carroll became president of the Business and Professional Woman’s Club of Philadelphia, and, for a brief time, worked as a freelance movie reviewer. From 1956 to 1959, she was director of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Philadelphia. In 1959, she was appointed dean of Philadelphia’s Junto School, an institution for adult education founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1727. Carroll served as dean until she retired in 1973.

Edna Carrol was married to Frank Carroll, a business consultant, for fifty­-nine years, and they had one daughter, Rosemary. Carroll was slowed down in later years by eye problems. She and her husband moved from Philadelphia to Oak Park, Illinois, in 1979, to be near their daughter. Edna Carroll passed away on January 4, 1981, at the age of eighty-six. She left behind a legacy of a lifetime of conscientious civil service.

Edna Rothwell Carroll was first and foremost a politician. Her career on the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors is unique for its longevity. Her seventeen­-year tenure is an amazing feat, considering that her position was so publicly visible. The type of work the board conducted under her leadership naturally courted controversy, and her training as a politician dearly was a great asset to her as board chairman. She was able to deftly negotiate compromis­es with film producers, while at the same time keeping religious groups satisfied with her implementation of the board’s strict moral standards. Her longevity also benefited greatly from her prominence in Republican Party politics. As late as 1976, she was still called by some “The Grand Old Dame of the Grand Old Party.”

She came into office during the Great Depression and saw the board through the uncertainty of World War II and the Second Red Scare in the early 1950s. These upheavals in American society­ – and, by extension, in the movie industry itself – were faced by Carroll and the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors with calm resolve and grim determina­tion.

“In a democracy,” writes Murray Schumach in The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, “the more popular the art form, the greater the demands for censorship of it. .. the quality of the art has little to do with the matter … [and]. .. those who arrogate to themselves the privilege of exercising censorship may or may not be cultured, unbiased and/or sincere.” The case could be made that Carroll was the consummate censor for her time: an astute politician with an inherent ability to find allies and seek compromise with the movie industry while maintaining the moral standards she felt obliged to keep, she seemed largely able to please a public that was rapidly adjusting to a whole new world of entertainment. Edna R. Carroll was a formidable shepherd of legislated morality in a rapidly changing era.


Sampling of Film Censorship in Pennsylvania

Year Title Company Board Action
1916 War Brides L.J. Selznick Productions Eliminations Ordered
1934 Tarzan and His Mate Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Eliminations Ordered
1936 Ecstasy Eureka Productions Inc. Banned
1937 False Shame Jewel Productions, Inc. Banned
1939 White Savage Box Office Attractions Eliminations Ordered
1940 The Mark of Zorro 20th Century Fox Film Corp. Eliminations Ordered
1941 The Blood of Jesus Sack Amusement Enterprises Eliminations Ordered
1944 Virgins of Bali Albert Dezel Roadshows Eliminations Ordered
1946 Daniel Boone Motion Pictures Ventures Eliminations Ordered
1947 The Outlaw Howard Hughes Productions Eliminations Ordered
1949 Batman and Robin #7 – The Fatal Blast Columbia Pictures Corporation Eliminations Ordered
1950 My Pal Trigger Republic Pictures Corporation Eliminations Ordered
1951 Native Son Classic Pictures Inc. Banned
1951 Oliver Twist Eagle Lion Classics Inc. Banned
1952 Because of Eve Essanjay Films Banned
1952/53 Aventuera Azteca Films Inc. Banned
1953 Problem Girls Columbia Pictures Corporation Banned
1953 Striporama Fine Arts Films Inc. Banned
1954 French Live RKO Radio Pictures Inc. Eliminations Ordered
1954 Top Banana United Artists Corporation Eliminations Ordered


For Further Reading

Balio, Tino, ed. The American Film Industry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Carmen, Ira H. Movies, Censorship, and the Law. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966.

Ernst, Morris L, and Pare Lorentz. Cen­sored: The Private Life of the Movie. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1930.

Ernst, Morris L., and Alan U. Schwartz. Censorship: The Search for the Obscene. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964.

Hunnings, Neville March. Film Censors and the Law. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1967.

Jowett, Garth. Film: The Democratic Art. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976.

Oberholtzer, Ellis P. The Morals of the Movie. Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Company, 1922.

Schumach, Murray. The Face on the Cutting Room Floor: The Story of Movie and Television Censorship. New York, Da Capo Press. 1974.

Walsh, Frank. Sin and Censorship. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.


This article is based on research undertaken by the author for his master’s thesis on the history of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors.


Richard C. Saylor, who joined the staff of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1991, is currently assistant archivist for the agency’s division of archives and manuscripts, Pennsylvania State Archives. Since joining the Commission, he has served as curatorial assistant; assistant curator of military, political, and industrial history; and assistant registrar. The author received his undergraduate degree in history from Elizabethtown College in 1990 and his master’s degree in American studies from The Pennsylvania State University in 1999. His article entitled “George Hay and the Search for Militia Arms” appeared in the Winter 1992 edition of Military Collector and Historian, the journal of the Company of Military Historians.