Abstract: This essay provides a case study of the extended conflict between an animal welfare organization, the American Animal Defense League, and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) that took place between 1923 and 1925. The essay distinguishes among actual cruelty inflicted on animals during production; "suggestive" cruelty, which appeared on screen but could have been achieved through filmmaking techniques without actual harm to animals; and general negligence of animals living under the care of studios. Drawing extensively on MPPDA archival records and historical newspapers, the essay foregrounds the importance of animal cruelty as a concern of the American film industry and provides an early demonstration of MPPDA president Will Hays's strategies for negotiating with pressure groups as well as the press.
In 1923, a new animal welfare group formed in Los Angeles. Calling itself the American Animal Defense League (AADL), the group's stated purpose was to combat cruelty "in the training of animals for vaudeville, circus, and motion-picture entertainments." (1) Despite its small size, the group had a few major assets. One was the apparently deep pockets of its president, Fannie T. Kessler. Another was the allegiance of a very well-connected humanitarian: Percival P. Baxter, then governor of Maine. But the AADL's biggest asset--and, arguably, its chief liability--was its tenacious vice president and de facto leader, Rosamonde Rae Wright, whose knack for generating adverse publicity rubbed most of the motion-picture industry the wrong way. During her campaigning, Wright managed to irritate not only the industry but also the much larger and more powerful Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LASPCA), which took her accusations of animal cruelty in Hollywood as insults to its own work and eventually joined the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and its sister organization, the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP), in efforts to silence her.
At the core of these struggles were questions of what actually constituted animal cruelty, which groups or individuals got to make those decisions, and the film industry's right (as well as its ability) to self-regulate. The AADL's anticruelty campaign began in 1923 and was not resolved until 1925, when the Association of Motion Picture Producers agreed to a self-regulation strategy that, while apparently sincere in its desire to rid the industry of cruelty, nevertheless left producers plenty of room to plausibly deny their own culpability. (2) As one of the earliest prolonged batdes fought by the MPPDA, the AADL case was a telling test of William H. Hays's ability to navigate the tricky triumvirate of the studios, motion-picture pressure groups, and the press. Douglas Gomery has described the MPPDA as a "classic trade association, in which the members of the oligopoly acted as one, for all their common interests." (3) It would, of course, be in the best interests of the film industry not to be accused of animal cruelty. 2b1af7f3a8