The National Board of Review was established in 1909 by New York theater owners, distributors and leaders of the People's Institute at Cooper Union to censor films by issuing seals of approval and viewing-age recommendations. By 1929, board leaders got PR savvy and decided it would be best to stress the positive attributes of film, so it issued its first list of top 10 American films and top five foreign films in December 1929. Curiously, only two of the titles ("Disraeli" and "The Love Parade") overlapped with ones nominated for best picture by Oscar voters.
Shockingly, the current leadership of the board has rewritten its history to assert that it was created as an anti-censorship group. That's a little like saying the Ku Klux Klan was founded to fight discrimination. Yes, the board was formed to stop Manhattan government leaders from censoring films, but that's because the board wanted the job. In fact, the group's first official title was National Board of Review of Censorship, but you won't find that fact in the history section of the group's website today. In 1916, the group dropped "Censorship" and changed its name to National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, but it continued to censor films. Up until the late 1940s, movies could not be shown in many U.S. cities without that NBR seal of approval. Its legend "Passed by the National Board of Review" can still be seen in the opening credits of such classic films as "Wuthering Heights" (1939).
Over time, NBR evolved into a film-appreciation society that played a key and influential role in the annual kudos derby. It has many detractors, but those tend to be haughty film critics furious that the scrappy NBR members jump ahead of them to issue the first awards every December. Personally, I think it's great that they do so because NBR brings a fresh, sophisticated perspective often contrary to the snooty view of film critics.
In general, I'm a passionate defender of the National Board of Review as it's existed in recent decades, but I take serious issue with the assertions of its current leadership, under President Annie Schulhof, that NBR was founded as an anti-censorship group. I've raised my concerns about this with her, but she persists with that mantra. Why? I've never gotten a reasonable answer. It's historically irresponsible.
Schulhof and her colleagues shouldn't try to rewrite history. Previous leaders of NBR didn't do that, and the current ones should stop. Current leaders should simply explain that NBR is a film-appreciation society that promotes serious discussion of movies and issues awards that have a long history. And NBR does a fine job of it. Period.
Photo: George Arliss won the Oscar for best actor for "Disraeli" seven months after it appeared on the first top 10 list issued by the National Board of Review. Credit: Warner Bros.