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Art vs. Obscenity

Posted by Bryan Underwood | Feb 17, 2022 | 0 Comments

[Reprint of Article Written for Maysville Connections Magazine]  Efforts to restore Maysville's historic Russell Theatre continue this Summer with movies showing regularly on the 2nd and 4th weekend of each month.  Over the past few years, a group of diehard cinema fans have been showing films on the big screen to highlight the work in progress.  The Russell, of course, is best know for the 1953 world premiere of Maysville native Rosemary Clooney's movie “The Stars Are Singing,” an event that would help earn it a spot on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. For many others the historic significance of the theater lies in its the untold stories.

While searching old newspapers this Winter for ideas of movies to run, I ran across a story from 1972 about the theater's manager being indicted for showing the film Carnal Knowledge, featuring a young actor named Jack Nicholson.  Being a lawyer, I had to dig more into this story. 

The case file was boxed up in the basement of the new Mason County Justice Building.  Apparently, seeing Carnal Knowledge sprawled across the marque offended the delicate sensibilities of the theater's neighbors, including the widow of the Russell's former owner who lived directly across the street.  On the day of its premiere, the Commonwealth Attorney convened a special Grand Jury at 6:45 p.m.  The Grand Jurors assembled at the Russell.  The Commonwealth purchased each a ticket as well as a ticket for the Sheriff and his deputy and the Maysville Chief of Police.  The show was stopped at 9:42 p.m. by Sheriff Robert Case and the film was seized as evidence.  The 14 paying customers in the audience were told that their money would be refunded.  Country Wide Theatres, Inc., and the theatre manager, were indicted for exhibiting obscene material. 

The case was later dismissed upon Country Wide Theatres, Inc., publishing a pledge to the people of Mason County that the following regulations, based on film industry ratings, would be carried out to the best of their ability:

No “X” rated films will be shown at the theatre;

No “R” rated films will be shown as a double feature with a “G” or “GP” film;

No scenes from “R” rated films will be shown as previews at a “G” or “GP” film; and

No person under age 18 will be admitted to an “R” rated film unless accompanied  to the theatre by his or her parent or legal guardian.

Their best must not have been good enough as the Commonwealth, upon learning of the theater's plan to run the film again, immediately brought a civil suit against the theater and the movie's producer claiming that the movie was erroneously labeled as an “R” film when it should be rated as an “X” film.  The Commonwealth again seized the film and was granted an injunction to prevent the showing of the film. 

While this legal drama unfolded in Maysville, a near identical case involving the movie was being prosecuted in Albany, Georgia.  That case, Jenkins v. Georgia, made its way to the United States Supreme Court where the Justices unanimously found that the movie was not obscene material, i.e. it did not depict sexual conduct in a patently offensive way.  After this ruling, Court challenges to “R” rated movies were moot. 

Commonwealth vs. Countrywide Theatres, Inc., languished on the Mason Circuit Court's docket for over a year before eventually being dismissed for failure to prosecute.  The temporary injunction served its purpose, however, and to this writer's knowledge, the film never ran from start to finish at the Russell. The prurient title Carnal Knowledge helped bring 20 million people to the theaters across the nation.  Nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama (Jack Nicholson), Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (Art Garfunkel), and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Ann-Margret), validated the Supreme Court's opinion that the movie involved more than just sex. 

            Perhaps, the movie may finally make its debut at the Russell this season.  A movie line-up for 2016 is still in the works.  Last year's showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show was a huge success and many fans are hoping for an encore presentation this Fall.  Each film requires a sponsor to purchase a license, but admission is free and donations are appreciated.  The Russell will also be the venue for a concert featuring local country music artist, David Tucker of Augusta, on May 14.  The doors open at 7 pm and the concert begins at 8 pm.  Tickets are $10 at the door.  The theatre is within walking distance of the French Quarter Hotel in the historic district of Maysville and its downtown shops, fine dining, pubs and cafes.  Visit the Russell's Facebook page to keep updated on events.

About the Author

Bryan Underwood

Bryan Keith Underwood, Attorney At Law   I enjoy being able to live and practice law in my hometown of Maysville, Kentucky, named one of the most charming towns in America by Country Living magazine.  Our residents, however, deal with the same serious legal issues.  Since 1999, I have successfu...


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