Sept. 9, 2012
“Brazen.” “Rowdy … unlawful … raw.” “Salacious and risqué.”
All adjectives that might be used to sell a movie to today’s viewing audiences. You can just imagine such adjectives in big, bold letters plastered beneath the title or across the screen of a coming attraction. From 1928 until 1956, however, these were scathing words used by Lloyd Tilgham Binford as he edited films or banned them outright from being shown in Memphis.
Recently retired from the company he founded, Columbian Mutual Life Insurance Co., Binford wasn’t looking for work in 1928 when he was appointed chairman of the Memphis Board of Censors. He awoke one morning to learn from the newspaper that he’d received the appointment from newly elected Mayor Watkins Overton. Binford accepted the position on a temporary basis for only 90 days “as a favor to the mayor,” his obituary reads.
It was a title he would hold for 28 years, retiring at age 88 in 1956.
Born in Duck Hill, Miss., where he would eventually have a high school named after him, Binford had a simple, religious upbringing that would one day help to inform his decisions when it came to film censorship. He
quit school at 16 and went to work as a railway mail clerk for the Illinois Central Railroad. As a clerk, his train was once held up by the famous train bandit Rube Burrow; as a film censor, he would outlaw films depicting train robberies and the like, including “The Outlaw,” the serial “Jesse James Rides Again” and “Destry Rides Again.” Though opposed to violence of any sort in films, he did allow that “if we stopped every movie with a murder in it, there wouldn’t be any left.”
He went to work for various insurance companies, eventually starting his own in 1917. That company was moved over the course of a weekend from Atlanta to Memphis, where Binford would build a new headquarters, an iconic monument on the Downtown skyline, the Columbian Mutual Tower on the northern edge of Court Square. It was one of the first skyscrapers in Memphis; Binford ran his insurance and censorship empires from a top-floor office. The building would be sold years later and renamed the Lincoln American Tower, but the visages of Binford’s children can still be found carved into the building’s facade.
A millionaire when he retired from insurance, he accepted the chairman position for $200 a month. As a civil servant, he upheld the standards of the state, the city and the Hays Code, a set of guidelines used to govern studio film releases from 1930 to 1968, and named for Will Hays, a Presbyterian elder enlisted by Hollywood to improve the image of its studios. The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was used until 1968 when the Motion Picture Association of America adopted the rating code in use today.
As chairman of the Memphis Censor Board, Binford enjoyed free rein to edit films — known as having been “Binfordized” by Hollywood — or ban them outright. A moral gyroscope in the Crump political machine, he passed judgment on pictures that were “immoral or inimical to public safety, health, morals or welfare.” … (read more)