Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry. – book reviews

Henry Herx

FROM the days of the nickelodeon to the era of the V-chip, moralists of all persuasions have regarded films with suspicion, if not outright hostility. At the beginning of the century, the concern centered on keeping lurid images off the theater screens. At the end of the century the focus is on protecting families from sex and violence on the TV screen.

How this moral vigilance manifested itself in the years between is the subject of Frank Walsh’s Sin and Censorship, which details the efforts of the National Legion of Decency, an agency created in 1934 by the American Catholic bishops to uphold the Production Code that Hollywood had adopted in 1930.

The objective shared by both church and industry leaders was keeping Hollywood movies within the limits defined by the Production Code. The book vividly recounts how the success of talking films in 1928 brought with it an increasing number of adult story lines, thereby fueling public protests and industry fears of local and state censorship boards and the threat of federal regulation.

Will Hays, a prominent Republican and upstanding Presbyterian, was hired by Hollywood in 1922 to regain public confidence in an industry beleaguered by sex and drug scandals. In this new crisis, however, the producers were unwilling to accept Hays’s admonitions about toning down sex and violence. In frustration, he turned to the high-minded code of movie morality written primarily by Martin J. Quigley, the Catholic publisher of a trade journal; Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest; and Joseph Breen, a Catholic journalist.

Hays persuaded the movie companies to adopt this Production Code in 1930 but found it difficult to enforce until he hired Breen as the code’s administrator in 1933. To gain some muscle in dealing with the producers, Breen turned to his allies in the Catholic Church. The result was the Legion of Decency, which asked parishioners to pledge that they would avoid patronizing indecent movies and the theaters which exhibited them.

The power of the Catholic boycott was felt directly by local theater managers and measured by the studios in terms of low box-office grosses. Ironically, the producers came to fear the power of the Legion more than that of the Breen Office and sometimes negotiated with the Legion about making cuts in their films before submitting them for the code seal of approval.

Particularly interesting are the examples of the correspondence between Breen, the Legion and individual producers over matters which seem insignificant today but which demonstrate how far we are from the relative innocence of that era.

The code continued to be influential long after World War II when television replaced the movies as the principal form of family entertainment. Though Hollywood tinkered with updating the code in the 1950s, it couldn’t compete with the foreign films that captured the interest of young adults in the 1960s. Not until 1968 did the industry finally drop the code and replace it with a film classification system.

In trying to maintain the code’s standards the Legion increasingly lost credibility with its followers, and the pledge had become an anachronism in Catholic parishes by the end of the 1950s. The Catholic bishops addressed the problem in 1962 by calling on Hollywood to institute an age classification system. In 1985 the Legion’s name was changed to the Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, which was to review as well as rate movies, and foster film education programs as the best means of safeguarding the morals of Catholic moviegoers.

Walsh, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, has woven his research into a lively, engaging account of a time whose standards were far different from our own. Unfortunately, his closing chapter on the Legion’s transformation into a critical and educational agency neglects its ecumenical links with the media efforts of the National Council of Churches and other groups.

Those who believe excessive depictions of sex and violence can be eliminated from today’s movie screens by reinstituting the Motion Picture Production Code and the Legion of Decency need to read this book. As Walsh points out, many good films were made within the conventions of the code, but “for every `Citizen Kane’ there were hundreds of films that would not have challenged the intelligence of the average 12-year-old.”

COPYRIGHT 1996 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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