Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Deal W. Hudson

3/19/2014 (6 months ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The first in a series of articles on Catholics and the movie culture.

The Legion's original pledge condemned "vile and unwholesome moving pictures" and called upon its members to "unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion." The Legion's gradual slide into moralistic irrelevance is best exemplified by the four films the Legion condemned in 1960, all now considered classics: Breathless, Never on Sunday, Spartacus, and Psycho. I imagine Rev. Daniel Lord, S.J., never thought his Code would be used to bash serious works in the art form called cinema.

Highlights

By Deal W. Hudson

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

3/19/2014 (6 months ago)

Published in Movies

Keywords: movies, films, legion of decency, movie code, film, Catholics and Movie Culture, Deal W. Hudson


WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - In film history, there is a "pre-Code" (1930-33) when films were racier, naughtier, and more suggestive than the films that came after, that is, until after WWII.  This seismic shift was the creation of Catholics who feared the omnipresence of the movie culture was destroying America's morals. 

The Hays Code, itself, had already been instituted in 1930 with the advent of the "talkies" by the film industry to ward off government censorship.  Under its official name, the Motion Picture Production Code was led by Will H. Hays, a former Postmaster General appointed by President Harding. 

Hays, a Presbyterian, had led the Studio Relations Committee since 1922 but was delighted when he received a completed set of standards for movie censorship from a Chicago Jesuit, Rev. Daniel A. Lord, S.J., with the encouragement of Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago and influential Catholic laymen, Martin Quigley and Joseph Breen. 

Along with Breen, Quigley, and several other Jesuits, Rev. Lord had been working on the document for a year.  When Hays was given the Code at the beginning of his new job as chief censor of Hollywood, he said, "My eyes nearly popped out when I read it. This was the very thing I had been looking for." Hays' previous attempts to lead the studios' effort in self-censorship had floundered.

For Rev. Lord it had been the addition of spoken dialogue in films that sounded the alarm, especially about the potential influence on children. Hays, along with several studio heads, including Irving Thalberg, the young genius of MGM, met with Quigley and Rev. Lord in February, 1930 and agreed to the new Code, after some revisions were made.  The first part of the Code was a statement of general moral principles, and the second was their application to the particulars of any film under consideration.

Given its authorship, the Code was not heavy handed or moralistic, at least as seen in its historical context.  Though an attempt was made to keep its authorship a secret, its Catholic perspective was obvious; a scholastic voice sounds throughout its various shades of distinctions.

But the bottom line was this: "that throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right."

Those who ridicule the Code (Motion Picture Production Code) without having read it, may find themselves nodding their heads at the common sense found there, such as in its first line: "If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind." When it came to issues of homosexuality, adultery, and "miscegenation," the Code recognized that "maturer minds may easily understand and accept without harm subject matter in plots which does younger people positive harm."

The films that were produced in Hollywood over the next three years did not bear the imprint of Lord's careful work - although these "pre-Code" films hardly shock us now, they quickly became much bolder and experimental in their depictions of violence (Scarface, 1932), sex (Safe in Hell, 1931), and moral decadence (Baby Face, 1933).  The pressure for external censorship arose not from the government but from America's Catholics.

In 1933, the Vatican's Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani sounded the alarm at a speech in New York City before a large and influential Catholic audience. His demand for the "purification of cinema" was heard by Archbishop John T. McNicholas of Cincinnati. Archbishop McNicholas then founded the Catholic Legion of Decency which was renamed the following year to National Legion of Decency to include the non-Catholics who wanted to join. The Legion's impact on Hollywood over the next 25 years would be substantial.

The Legion's original pledge condemned "vile and unwholesome moving pictures" and called upon its members to "unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion." The Legion condemned many films in 1933 and 1934 including Baby Face, Queen Christina, She Done Him Wrong, The Scarlet Empress, and Madame Dubarry.  Hollywood moguls had to pay attention - the boycotts announced and organized by the Legion diminished not only their bottom line but also the credibility of the movie business itself.

Only five films made it into major theater chains that weren't given at least a B rating - morally objectionable in part - by the Legion for the next thirty years.  It took a full 20 years before any film with a C rating - condemned by the Legion of Decency - made a profit: The Moon is Blue (1953).

As a result, films became tamer but more crafty in their depiction of risqué material, giving rise to the now much-adored genre of the "screwball comedy," such as the groundbreaking It Happened One Night (1934) and the hilarious Bringing Up Baby (1938).

The Legion's gradual slide into moralistic irrelevance is best exemplified by the four films the Legion condemned in 1960, all now considered classics: Breathless, Never on Sunday, Spartacus, and Psycho. I imagine Rev. Daniel Lord, S.J., never thought his Code would be used to bash serious works in the art form called cinema.

This is first in a series of articles on Catholics and the movie culture.

© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

-----
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.



---


Pope Francis: end world hunger through 'Prayer and Action'


© 2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for September 2014
Mentally disabled:
That the mentally disabled may receive the love and help they need for a dignified life.
Service to the poor: That Christians, inspired by the Word of God, may serve the poor and suffering.



Comments


More Movies

SEE IT NOW! 'The Identical' shows that faith and family is the key to a full and happy life

Image of Blake Rayne portrays two characters in the new film

By Robert Mullen (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

"If He is in your dreams, nothing can stand against them," says the tagline of the new movie "The Identical". It's a simple phrase, but in this drama set primarily against the backdrop of the rise of rock and roll through the '50s and the '60s it still manages to ... continue reading


Walt Disney defrosts 'Frozen' for fun new short film this year Watch

Image of The new short,

By Catholic Online - (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Walt Disney Studios is pulling "Frozen," their animated box-office champ of last year for a fun new movie short. In a title that is the quintessence of contradiction, the new film is entitled "Frozen Fever." LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - "Frozen Fever" ... continue reading


The Identical: Reviving Values in Hollywood

Image of

By Caitlin Bootsma

Do you ever wonder why Hollywood stopped producing movies like It's a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, or The Wizard of Oz? These were films that you could enjoy viewing by yourself, but also watch with your children or parents without skipping scandalous scenes ... continue reading


Director Martin Scorsese to helm story of 17th Century Jesuit priest Watch

Image of Andrew Garfield will play the lead role of Father Sebastian Rodriguez, a character based on an Italian priest named Giuseppe Chiara.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

While he's best known for macho, action dramas such as "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and Goodfellas," movie director Martin Scorsese's previous work has always been steeped in the teachings of the Catholic Church. Now, America's finest living motion picture ... continue reading


Asian-Pacific actor and 'Die Hard' star James Shigeta dies at 81 Watch

Image of Actor James Shigeta as he appeared in his first major screen role,

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Actor James Shigeta, whose most recent high-profile acting role was in the original "Die Hard" entry, has passed away at the age of 81. Shigeta was a highly active Asian-American actor who paved the way for others, and had a 50-year-plus career that stretched ... continue reading


'Transformers: Age of Extinction' battering the box office - in China Watch

Image of

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

The "Transformers" film series in the U.S., is based on a childhood toy favorite where ordinary, commonplace things such as trucks turn into giant robots to do battle. Aimed at children, "Transformers" films are aimed mainly at children and are booked in stadium ... continue reading


Relativity Studio's Family Friendly 'Earth to Echo' (In theaters Nationwide July 2) will entertain kids of all ages, and provide lots of laughs for parents too!

Image of Earth to Echo will entertain the whole family!

By Donald Clark

Relativity Studio's Family Friendly "Earth to Echo" (In theaters Nationwide July 2) will entertain kids of all ages, and provide lots of laughs for parents too! We had an opportunity to pre-screen Earth to Echo with 350 children and their parents at the TLC theatre in ... continue reading


Cop comedy '22 Jump Street' takes box office by storm Watch

Image of The comically inept cop comedy duo of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

In spite of the World Cup and the Stanley Cup finals dominating TV airwaves this past weekend, it didn't keep film fans from heading to the theaters in droves. The nation's pick for top flick? The rowdy cop comedy "22 Jump Street," which grossed an impressive ... continue reading


No one ever dies in science-fiction: Sigourney Weaver to return for 'Avatar' sequels Watch

Image of

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

No character that ever died in a blockbuster motion picture can never be ruled out for resurrection for the inevitable sequel or sequels. Such is the case with actress Sigourney Weaver. "Avatar" director says that Weaver will be back before cameras for all ... continue reading


Latest Disney movie performs 'Maleficent'-ly at box office Watch

Image of This time, evil queen Maleficent - as played by Angelina Jolie, tells her side of the popular bedtime tale.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

The motion picture-going public loves a villain on the big screen - and to that end, lines wrapped around theaters to see "Maleficent," Walt Disney's new take on their "Sleeping Beauty" story. This time, evil queen Maleficent - as played by Angelina Jolie, ... continue reading


All Movies News

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Job 3:1-3, 11-17, 20-23
1 In the end it was Job who broke the silence and ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 88:2-3, 4-5, 6, 7-8
2 may my prayer reach your presence, hear my cry for ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 9:51-56
51 Now it happened that as the time drew near for him ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for September 30th, 2014 Image

St. Jerome
September 30: St. Jerome, who was born Eusebius Hieronymous Sophronius, was ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter