In the United States, movies and religion have virtually always been at odds. One early point of contention between the motion picture industry and religious people, mostly Protestants, comes in the form of blue laws.
What Are Blue Laws?
Blue laws prohibit certain activities, such as going to the movies, on Sundays. Their purpose? To promote the observance of a day of worship or rest. While presumably outdated in the 21st century (and arguably unconstitutional), blue laws are still in effect in states like these that prohibit selling alcohol on Sundays before noon.
How Did Blue Laws Affect Movies?
As you might imagine, in cinema’s early days, theatre owners and other prominent industry members were NOT fans of blue laws. The same goes for many theatre patrons, whose grueling work schedules allowed them to enjoy movies and other recreational activities only on Sundays. As a result, citizens in and outside the industry protested and petitioned for the laws to be abolished. Even the 1921 movie Blue Sunday, produced by Carl Laemmle (whom we celebrate in our virtual tour Chicago’s Jewish pioneers), tackles the subject. This silent film comedy led exhibitors to market the movie, rather hilariously, with “exploitation ideas” like putting public stocks outside their theatres to match those in the film (picture above) and creating silencer masks for patrons (below).
How Did the Movie Industry Fight Back?
In the early 1920s, the Chicago-based theatre chain Fitzpatrick & McElroy repeatedly called on producers, distributors, and exhibitors to protest blue laws because they “threaten[ed] the stability of the entire motion picture industry.” Fitzpatrick & McElroy was reportedly the first to start an organized national campaign to kill this legislation. In 1921, the company’s 16,000,000 Club—named for the number of petitions it intended to send to Congress—was positioned to be renamed the 50,000,000 Club. Evidently, people were supportive of this cause! The protests were perhaps also gaining traction because participants were not only against the closing of the theatres on Sunday, but they were also against any blue Sunday legislation "intended to curb the happiness, pleasure, and innocent pursuits of the American people.”
Did Protests Work in Chicago?
In 1923, a headline in Exhibitors Herald reads: “Public Protest Brings Early Demise for Blue Law Measure in Illinois.” Senator James E. MacMurray of Chicago—rather oddly—both introduced and killed the bill. An Illinois newspaper clarifies: Senator MacMurray “was opposed to the bill and introduced it only at the request of Rev. W. S. Fleming.”
Wait, Is that the End of Blue Laws?
Blue law regulations arose in the U.S. movie industry until roughly the 1940s. As you might expect, many more protests and petitions followed suit. As professor Gary Rhodes points out in The Perils of Moviegoing in America: 1896-1950, "Changes in state laws did not necessarily prohibit individual towns or cities from enforcing their own Blue Laws" (193). It took nearly four decades of disagreements and demonstrations, but after WWII, in most states, movies would play every day of the week.