Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Deal W. Hudson

3/20/2014 (8 months ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Supreme Court decision marked not only an end to the power of the Code but was also a sign that the cultural clout of Catholics was coming to an end. However, to put it this way is misleading.

The sophistication seen in the original Code written by a Chicago Jesuit, Rev. Daniel Lord, SJ, had been turned into a fear-driven attempt of the Legion to act as parents looking out for a nation of impressionable children. In doing so, the Legion's condemnations showed no appreciation of, or respect for, film as an art form, in the manner contained in Rev. Lord's original Code. The moral of the story? Catholics lose cultural influence when they act like parental arbiters of public taste, especially when they refuse to acknowledge excellence in works of art they find somehow objectionable or dangerous. 

Highlights

By Deal W. Hudson

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

3/20/2014 (8 months ago)

Published in U.S.

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



WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - Catholics of my generation probably remember only dimly the furor provoked among Catholics by films in the 1950s directed by Luis Bunuel, Los Olivados (1950); Roberto Rossellini, The Miracle (1951); Otto Preminger, The Moon is Blue (1953); Elia Kazan, Baby Doll (1956); Roger Vadim, And God Created Woman (1956); and Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot (1959).

Most people tend to think of the "culture wars" as beginning in the 80s, with the Reagan era, but obviously the roots of that struggle can be traced back to the postwar period when filmmakers shook themselves free of the Catholic-inspired Production Code that had ruled Hollywood since 1934.

As I discussed in a previous column, it was fear of government censorship that had led to the creation of the Code in the first place. But it wasn't until its strictures were enforced with boycotts by the Legion of Decency that Hollywood started paying attention, a period that would last through the end of WWII. As the "Mad Men" decade began, filmmakers began to challenge the Legion's cultural power, and won, first in the Supreme Court and eventually among the vast movie audiences in the culture itself. 

It was the 1950 New York City showing at the Paris Theatre of an Italian film, The Miracle (Il Miracolo), directed by Roberto Rossellini, that made its way to the Supreme Court. Shown under the title Ways of Love, the Rossellini film, starring Anna Magnani, won the best foreign language film award the same year from the New York Film Critics Circle. (The scandal caused by Rossellini's relationship with Ingrid Bergman would come several years later.)

The National Legion of Decency denounced the film as "anti-Catholic" and a "blasphemous mockery of Christian-religious truth," giving it the C rating - for condemned - so previously feared by Hollywood studios. The Legion's rating led the New York State Board of Regents, in charge of film censorship, to revoke its license to be shown in movie theaters.

The movie's distributor, Joseph Burstyn, initiated a lawsuit that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court which found in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson that the film's artistic expression was guaranteed by the First Amendment - freedom of speech.

When the same film was released in Italy two years earlier, the Vatican's newspaper Osservatore Romano wrote, "objections from a religious viewpoint are very grave," but there are "scenes of undoubted screen value," concluding that, "we still believe in Rossellini's art."

Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York never saw the film but issued a statement to be read at every Mass in every parish of the New York Archdiocese.  He condemned it as "a despicable affront to every Christian" and "a vicious insult to Italian womanhood," eliciting demonstrations in front of the Paris Theater. Cardinal Spellman's public condemnation of Greta Garbo's 1941 Two-Faced Woman had caused MGM to withdraw and re-release an edited version.

Ten years later Catholic power in Hollywood was on the wane.

The Supreme Court decision marked not only an end to the power of the Code but was also a sign that the cultural clout of Catholics was coming to an end. However, to put it this way is misleading. 

Less than a decade later the United States would elect its first Catholic president, and during the same period a number of Catholic writers would become celebrated among the elites of the literati, including Flannery O'Connor, J. F. Powers, Graham Green, Muriel Spark, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Paul Horgan.

Merely contrasting the work of these celebrated Catholic writers and the Catholic mentality behind the condemnation of films by Bunuel, Rossellini, Preminger, Vadim, Kazan, and Wilder tells most of the story. 

The sophistication seen in the original Code written by a Chicago Jesuit, Rev. Daniel Lord, SJ, had been turned into a fear-driven attempt of the Legion to act as parents looking out for a nation of impressionable children. In doing so, the Legion's condemnations showed no appreciation of, or respect for, film as an art form, in the manner contained in Rev. Lord's original Code.

It was by "crying wolf" too often at important, well-made films, the Legion and its supporters became irrelevant. A simple, one-sentence summary of The Miracle certainly makes the condemnation sound plausible: A poor shepherdess named Nanni who believes herself to be the Virgin Mary is seduced with liquor drink by a wanderer whom she thinks is St. Joseph, played by director and co-writer Federico Fellini.

Yet, after viewing the film itself, The Miracle is precisely what one Catholic critic called it at the time, a story of "unregenerating suffering." And the unforgettable performance by Anna Magnani, as a "holy fool," demonstrates how far a verbal description of a character and plot and their cinematic incarnation can deviate. 

It should be added that the same year, 1950, Rossellini made what is arguably the best film ever made about the life of St. Francis, The Flowers of St. Francis (Francesco, giullare di Dio). Also co-written with Fellini, the film about St. Francis was called, in l995 by the Vatican, one of the 45 greatest films ever made.

The moral of the story? Catholics lose cultural influence when they act like parental arbiters of public taste, especially when they refuse to acknowledge excellence in works of art they find somehow objectionable or dangerous. 

Further reading:
 
Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films, Da Capo Press, 1998.
Peter Bondanella, The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
William Bruce Johnson, Miracles and Sacrilege: Roberto Rossellini, the Church and Film Censorship in Hollywood, University of Toronto Press, 2008.
Laura Wittern-Keller, Raymond J. Haberski, The Miracle Case: Film Censorship and the Supreme Court, University Press of Kansas, 2008

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 December 2014
Christmas, hope for humanity:
That the birth of the Redeemer may bring peace and hope to all people of good will.
Parents: That parents may be true evangelizers, passing on to their children the precious gift of faith.



Comments


More U.S.

A journey to the land of the free: Part One -- Beaten and scared young children flee violence and turn to the United States for hope Watch

Image of Many young immigrants have no more fight in them when they decide to cross the border, they're only trying to survive.

By Abigail James (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Blistered feet and filthy, blood-stained skin is the forlorn image of immigrants preparing to cross the border. With hopeful hearts and anxious minds, immigrants, of all ages, assemble to make the leap into their promise land. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Most ... continue reading


Pope Francis, the real architect behind the U.S.-Cuban thaw Watch

Image of With personal appeals, letters, and hosted meetings, the Vatican and Pope Francis can accurately be called the masterminds behind the recent thaw between the U.S. and Cuba.

By Matt Waterson (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

The thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba took the world by surprise, but perhaps one man was not as shocked as the rest. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - A senior official with the White House reported that Pope Francis made personal appeals to both President ... continue reading


Looking forward to your tax refund this year? Don't hold your breath. The IRS suffers after extreme budget cuts. Watch

Image of

By Abigail James (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Heavily stricken with budget cuts and new tax-related laws, the IRS considers implementing its own temporary shutdown. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Congress has recently cut the IRS budget by $346 million. The IRS' budget has been cut a total of $1 billion since ... continue reading


OBAMACARE DOES NOT WORK! Vermont gives up free healthcare plan as too expensive Watch

Image of Vermont's governor announced that a planned universal healthcare program for the state has been cancelled because the massive tax hikes would devastate the state's economy.

By Matt Waterson (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, announced that he was canceling his longtime dream to create a single-payer health care system for his state. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The announcement came on December 17, citing problems with paying for the Green ... continue reading


The disgusting new fact of American life: More than 46 million Americans on food stamps for 37 straight month Watch

Image of Obama has been in office for about 70 months, and 37 of those months have seen the most amount of Americans on food stamps, ever!

By Matt Waterson (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

It is self-evident that President Obama continues to undermine the abilities of the lower class, enforcing government-reliance on those who can least afford it. The number of Americans on food stamps under Obama has continued along its record breaking path, as, ... continue reading


Faith in the United States' race relations hits a strikingly low point after no indictment verdicts Watch

Image of 57 percent of American's say race relations in the United States are bad, according to the latest NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll.

By Abigail James (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Those are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, a man who fought long and hard for a better today. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - A land where discrimination no longer prevails is a reality that seems no ... continue reading


The Pope, the Pets, the Paparazzi and the Propaganda Media

Image of Pope Francis pets a dog

By Deacon Keith A Fournier

The passing on of this complete fabrication, as well as the embellishment which accompanied it, were not simply a matter of the secular press failing to comprehend this Pope. In fact, religious news sources, both Catholic and Protestant, jumped in. This all ... continue reading


Why is he so upset? Because of the secret Republican time bomb in the government funding bill Watch

Image of The federal government has funding through the 2015 fiscal year, but Republicans will have many opportunities to fight the president's programs in that time.

By Matt Waterson (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

The Senate has approved a $1.1 trillion spending bill, aimed to fund nearly the whole of the federal government through the 2015 fiscal year, ending weeks of drama in Congress and relieving doubts that the government might be shut down again while Democrats and ... continue reading


You know about the 'Bishop of Bling' but do American clergy have the same problem too? Watch

Image of The Bishop of Bling was sacked after he spent $43 million renovating his home.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Pope Francis has called for "a Church which is poor and for the poor." However, not every member of the clergy may have read the memo. A number of high-ranking Church officials in the United States live in lavish homes, sometimes bordering on the scandalous. LOS ... continue reading


Water leak leads to discovery of 1795 time capsule - left by Paul Revere! Watch

Image of A worker holds the time capsule left by the revolutionaries.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Paul Revere, the fearless revolutionary who mounted his horse to declare that "The British are coming! The British are coming!" has left an enduring national legacy - in both deed and actions. Excitement is mounting with the discovery of a time capsule left by Revere ... continue reading


All U.S. News

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

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

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Judges 13:2-7, 24-25
2 There was a man of Zorah of the tribe of Dan, ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 71:3-4, 5-6, 16-17
3 Be a sheltering rock for me, always accessible; you ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 1:5-25
5 In the days of King Herod of Judaea there lived a ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for December 19th, 2014 Image

St. Nemesius
December 19: Martyr of Egypt. He was burned alive in Alexandria, Egypt, ... 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