Catholics and 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.
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.
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