Monday, September 10, 2012

Hidden Memphis: Lloyd T. Binford

For almost two years, every other month, I've written the series "Hidden Memphis" for The Commercial Appeal. It's a lot of work, which is probably why it hasn't become a monthly series. Coming up with story ideas, researching them, locating experts or descendants or anyone who might have a connection to a 60-year-old building or industry or individual takes a lot of time and research. Looking at it as a freelance writer, it probably takes too much time when you get down to dollars per hour. But I love it. I love learning about little-known characters and finding images from our city's prodigious, notorious, colorful, shameful, hopeful, ill and progressive past, and sharing what I learn with others. And, to be truthful, the amount of time spent on any one story is probably, in large part, my own fault. When I get into the Memphis & Shelby County Room at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and the helpful librarian brings me a stack (it's always a stack, if not a truckload) of newspaper clippings, scholarly papers, letters, photos or marginalia from early last century, I just can't help but read through it all. And when Wayne Dowdy, resident historian and manager of the room, happens by, I can't help but pick his own gray matter file for information and perspective.

Such was the case with the story that ran in yesterday's paper on Lloyd Tilgham Binford, the chairman of the Memphis Censor Board from 1928 until just before his death in 1956. I'd heard bits and pieces, anecdotes, about Binford over the years as I researched Film Row or the long-gone movie theaters of the past, but he was never a major subject in either of those stories so I just filed his name away for later. When my editor suggested Binford for a "Hidden Memphis" topic, I somewhat reluctantly agreed. It seemed to me that everyone already knew about him, how hidden could he be? And how much information could there possibly be on one man who wasn't a mayor or civil rights leader in this town? So I put out a call to all of the usual suspects, and some unusual suspects, that I look up for such stories, packed up my legal pad and pencils and headed to the Memphis Room. And, of course, they had everything I might need: pages and pages of stories and obituaries on Binford. He was quite notorious in his day, and quite often quoted. Perfect.

I pieced a story together through the voluminous wordage published on the commissioner, and talked with his great-granddaughter, Tamara Trexler, and grandson, Fred Trexler. I picked the brains of movie house historian Vincent Astor, University of Memphis professor Danny Linton, film directors Willy Bearden and Craig Brewer, film commissioner Linn Sitler, Malco magnates Michael Lightman and Nancy Tashie, Google and Dowdy. I sent the story in and, as I am wont to do, spent the rest of the week rewriting it in my head. The only problem with newspaper writing, I've found, is the limited space available; this story could have easily been twice as long.

I wanted to be fair to Binford, although being fair to someone when all evidence points to the fact that he banned films from the viewing public for racial reasons, or kept adults from seeing movies he felt to be too racy, both in image and language, is difficult to do. Government censorship doesn't deserve a fair shake. But Binford's background is interesting – a self-made businessman who grew his company from nothing, built an iconic home office that is a treasure in downtown Memphis today, and all with little more than a grade-school education. He also headed the Mid-South Fair from 1928-1931, and gave more than $10,000 to farm youth organizations. He was active in politics and acted as campaign manager for E.H. Crump. He was vice president of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, a member of the board of trustees of the National Council and YMCA, on the board of Baptist Hospital; he was a Mason, Shriner and an Elk. And, according to newspaper accounts and Tamara Trexler, because of his charitable works here and in his hometown of Duck Hill, MS, there were over a hundred children throughout the south who had been named for him.

But then again, he banned movies from being seen because they deal " ... with social equality between whites and negroes in a way that is not practiced in the South." And in an attempt, seemingly, to reclaim - or dispute - his reputation, he was quoted in the Memphis Press-Scimitar on Sept. 26, 1947: " ... I'm one of the few white men in Memphis that got a six-pound fruit cake from negro friends last Christmas. I also received 18 Christmas cards from colored folks – and sent out the same number."

Does that help or hurt his case? Wayne Dowdy and I had discussions theorizing that Binford banned all-white or mixed-race audiences from seeing all-black or mixed-race casts for fear that the white audience members would riot and not for any danger from the black viewers. I looked for any evidence of this, for Binford simply mentioning it in one of the copious interviews he said he disliked to do, yet gave at the drop of a hat, apparently. I couldn't find anything concrete, so it remains a theory.

Regardless, it's the perceived fairness held in his own mind that makes Binford a complex and fascinating person; a real-life movie character himself who was, perhaps, stranger than fiction. The very fact that Memphis had a Board of Censors is strange enough until you place it in context, in a time when blacks and whites couldn't use the same water fountain or bathroom, when people were openly discriminated and physically assaulted for their beliefs. Strange times, indeed, and worthy of study so that they are never, ever repeated.

Banned or 'Binfordized

"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."

Lloyd T. Binford
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."

"The Little Tramp" did not pass muster with Binford. All Charlie Chaplin films were banned from Memphis theaters, Binford telling The Associated Press upon banning "Monsieur Verdoux" in 1947 that "we don't have to give our reasons" before adding that "(the film is) a comedy that makes murder a joke."

But the reasons weren't always found within the frame of a particular film; the character of the actor or actress mattered to Binford as well. He thought Chaplin a "London guttersnipe" and expounded to the Memphis Press-Scimitar in 1952 that "America has been good to Chaplin and has made him rich, but he has not been a good American … (Chaplin) is a traitor to the Christian American way of life, an enemy of decency, virtue and godliness in all its forms, a reputed endorser of the Communist Party."

Ingrid Bergman fell into his cross hairs as well with 1950s "Stromboli" being banned from cinemas. "It would be inimical to the public morals and welfare to permit the public exhibition of a motion picture starring a woman who is universally known to be living in open and notorious adultery," Binford told The Commercial Appeal in February of that year. Bergman was having a public affair with the film's director, and married man, Roberto Rossellini, at the time.

Binford's reach and notoriety stretched as far as Hollywood and New York, and screenwriters would send him scripts and scenarios ahead of time to get his approval and keep their product from being "Binfordized" after the fact.

In an era when movie theaters were segregated between the races with balconies reserved for African-Americans, if at all, or special days when they could attend movies, Binford sought to ban those movies with all-black or mixed race casts. Famously, Binford banned Hal Roach's "Curley" — a re-imagining of his "Our Gang" series — in 1947 for depicting white and black children in school together. United Artists would appeal and the case would ultimately make it to the Tennessee Supreme Court which, in 1949, stated that "the Memphis Board of Censors has no authority to disapprove a picture because there are Negro actors appearing in it."

"We'll just have to pass these pictures," Binford told The Commercial Appeal, though that same year he banned "Lost Boundaries," stating, "It deals with social equality between whites and Negroes in a way that is not practiced in the South. We banned it for that reason."

These are reasons that Binford's great-granddaughter, Tamara Trexler, wishes had not been. A film producer herself ("Charlie's War,"2003; "Dear Mr. Cash," 2005), she also was the Nashville Film Commissioner from 2000 to 2002, and would begin speeches in that capacity with anecdotes of her notorious ancestor. Her great-grandfather was an intelligent man who, though he left school as a teenager, wrote several volumes of his own encyclopedia with information on science, philosophy, religion and politics. And though she might agree with his notion that there is too much violence in films, on the racial issue, she says "that hurts that he did that."

Binford married Hattie Nelson of Memphis in 1895, and the couple had four children listed in his obituary as Mrs. Tom Thrash, Mrs. Fred Trexler, Mrs. Elizabeth Moon and Lloyd T. Binford Jr. Hattie died in 1927, and he married Jennie May McCallum in 1937, living at 1723 Peabody.

Trexler's father, Fred Trexler, is a Southern Baptist minister who recalls visiting Binford in his Midtown home. He remembers his grandfather as "very much an individualist with a very strong personality, that's why he did what he did." More exciting than those home visits, though, were the perks that went along with being Binford's grandson. "My mother and I would be invited on occasion to the Paramount where he previewed his movies."

Though movies might be banned from local theaters, it didn't mean they escaped the eyes of film buffs completely. "His iron thumb saw plenty of movies miss the Memphis market altogether," said Daniel Linton, a professor with the Communications Department at the University of Memphis. "Some of the 'scandalous' movies he banned were screened in West Memphis instead, and so a little booming film market was created in a place that doesn't even have a theater these days."

"It was the Joy Theatre in West Memphis, so I've been told, that showed the movies he wouldn't let play in Memphis," said local movie theater historian Vincent Astor. "It made lots of money."

Linton says: "Many major cities had similar boards, though they weren't always known as 'censor boards' per se ... This all sounds like ancient history, but actually the last one finally disbanded in Dallas in 1993."

Binford died on Aug. 27, 1956, and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery. His legacy lives on in a city that has struggled with issues of equality and acceptance, and has, in recent years, seen a burgeoning film community take shape. From 1928 until 1956, however, Binford always had the last word on the town's big-screen culture.

"I have no regrets about the movies I've banned," he told the Press-Scimitar in 1947. "Take 'Duel in the Sun.' It was unquestionably the dirtiest movie I've ever seen. And I can't say anything too bad about that Charlie Chaplin."

Some Films or Stage Productions Banned or ‘Binfordized’

“Rope” (1948): Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; “brazen and immoral … revolting and repulsive.”

“Annie Get Your Gun” (1947): A Broadway stage musical with a mixed-race cast; the show “is not being allowed to play anywhere in the South, except Texas, and whatever those folks in Texas do doesn’t surprise me.” In addition to the cast’s ethnicity, “the musical score is suggestive, salacious and risqué.”

“Bamboo Prison” (1955): “Unpatriotic”; was to be exhibited by Malco, decision to ban later reversed after suit brought by Columbia Pictures.

“Forever Amber” (1947): “Entirely filthy.”

“Stromboli” (1950): On star Ingrid Bergman: “It would be inimical to the public morals and welfare to permit the public exhibition of a motion picture starring a woman who is universally known to be living in open and notorious adultery.”

“Lost Boundaries” (1949): “It deals with social equality between whites and Negroes in a way that is not practiced in the South.”

“The Wild One” (1954): “That was the worst, the most lawless bunch I ever saw and the most lawless picture I ever saw. There was nothing immoral in it, it was just rowdy and unlawful and raw.”

“French Line” (1954): Binford called police to keep the uninvited from entering a private preview of the movie at Malco Theatre.

“Miss Sadie Thompson” (1953): Banned for a dancing scene by Rita Hayworth; “The whole picture is a travesty on religion and everything in it is raw.”

“Tragic Ground” (1953): Play banned in Memphis that played at the Plantation Inn in West Memphis.

“Monsieur Verdoux” (1947): “a comedy that makes murder a joke.”

“A Song is Born” (1948): “inimical to the public welfare”; cast includes a “rough, rowdy bunch of musicians of both colors … there is no segregation”; “The musicians are raising the dickens … Jazz and the blues were actually born in Memphis anyway, down on Beale Street. There is too much French in New Orleans for jazz. It’s a rough, bawdy, noisy picture dealing with band musicians, in general a mixed-up jamboree.”

“Wedding Rings” (1930): “… the absolute violation of the sanctity of marital relationships …”; Shown at the Orpheum with a stretch of film bearing only the words “Cut out by board of censors.”

Others, banned unless otherwise stipulated:
“The Southerner”
“Brewster’s Millions”
“The Outlaw”
“Duel in the Sun”
“Jesse James Rides Again” (serial)
“Destry Rides Again”
“Jesse James”
“The Return of Frank James”
“The Daltons Ride Again”
“The Macomber Affair” (Hemingway novel, banned until deletions were made)
“Pursued” (censored)

This occasional series profiles people, places and things, past or present, that are quintessentially Memphis. Do you have an idea for someone or something for this series? E-mail Richard Alley at

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