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Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry
By Frank Walsh.
Yale University Press, 394 pages, $35

Few of the Catholics who in the 1930s and 1940s stood up at mass to pledge their willingness to let the Legion of Decency decide which movies they would not see were in no position to know the complexity of the censoring apparatus they were part of. No doubt many of them have lost interest in the whole issue, but for those who haven’t there is now available Frank Walsh’s well-written and thoroughly researched book. Thanks to the generous availability of religious and secular records, the author, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, is able to take us back to the early years of the century when Hollywood was learning to live with the widespread conviction that the movie theater, as Good Housekeeping put it in 1910, was fast becoming “a primary school for criminals.” Inevitably, large dioceses such as Boston, Chicago, and Detroit reacted to this threat with independent censorship boards of their own. 

The producers, as anxious to make money as movies and mortally afraid of federal censorship, adopted an industry code, the “Thirteen Points” administered by Will Hays’ Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the first of several efforts to convince the public that the industry could censor itself. It was soon followed by a listing of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls”––eleven of the first, twenty-five of the second. 

Apparently, however, Hollywood was still not careful enough for the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae, which in 1929 refused to recommend 49 percent of the 1,472 films and short subjects it reviewed. The Catholic Production Code (1930) and the Legion of Decency itself (1936-1971) were able to reduce this imbalance, in the process probably making Catholics more movie-conscious than they would have been otherwise. In any event, when in May 1971 the Legion ceased to issue ratings, it had previewed and classified 16,251 feature films, in the process obliging the nervously revising producers to deposit thousands of feet of film on their cutting room floors in an effort to bring their creations up to Legion standards. 

Most pledge-taking Catholics understandably thought of their conduct as a response to trustworthy authority, not to an arbitrary censor. A widespread knowledge that the Legion evaluators often couldn’t agree whether a film should be ranked A-II (harmless for adults) or C (deadly poison for everyone) would have demoralized the whole enterprise. We can imagine the consternation of the pledging public if in the early days of the Legion the film critic for Our Sunday Visitor had included in his list of the year’s ten best films two that the Legion had already condemned––as happened in 1970 with A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show

But by that time Vatican II had relaxed the atmosphere in which Catholics watched and thought about movies, and people like the Jesuit John Courtney Murray were even arguing that in a pluralist society “no group had the right to impose its own religious standards on others.” Walsh’s obvious agreement with Murray leads to his hopeful conclusion: “The Catholic Church has realized the futility of a motion picture policy based on codes––which suggests that perhaps we can learn from the mistakes of the past” (just as, he might have added, we once learned from the mistakes of the Inquisition and the Index of Forbidden Books). 

But Catholics are not the only benefactors in this learning experience. Walsh has written a very timely book for Americans generally, concerned as so many of them are with the corrupting effects on the young of all the media. He reminds us of the public reaction to the series of studies released by the Payne Fund in 1933. Declaring that 72 percent of movies were not fit for children, it fed the conviction that movies were responsible for the decline of Western civilization. A half century later the national PTA and groups like the Parents Music Resource Center (“Tipper” Gore, wife of then-Senator Albert Gore, was a dominant figure) were voicing similar complaints about the language and images of popular music and were agitating for a nationwide “Media Watch.” In fact, they wanted a rating system for songs and albums reminiscent of the Legion of Decency, and they gave the National Association of Broadcasters some very uneasy moments. 

Subsequently, the media have kept the subject alive with reports on the National Violence Study and the Communications Decency Act aimed at eliminating violence, indecency, and pornography from television, the internet, and radio. Proponents of the Telecommunications Act want a V-chip that will allow parents to eliminate TV programs they don’t want children to see. This could be an even more effective form of censorship than the Legion’s threat to boycott theaters that continued to show condemned films. 

From the point of view of those who see the whole matter only in the perspective of the First Amendment, the V-chip is the grossest censorship. The Legion people also had to contend with the charge of censorship, but as Walsh puts it for them: “They had merely established a consumers’ research bureau for Catholics. If producers voluntarily changed their films to earn a better rating, that was their business.” 

Given the extent to which V-chippers and Legion leaders saw themselves caught up in a battle for the soul of America, a demonization of the opposition was hard to avoid––including on the Catholic part––some ugly anti-Semitism. Indeed, by now we have ample reason to believe that when Americans get caught up in matters crucial to the well-being of the nation––including, of course, during presidential elections––they will reveal their residual Christian thinking by their dependence on the rhetoric of demonization. J. D. Furnas’ The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum, his 1965 study of the temperance movement, is still a classic example. The temperance people could be just as intemperate as those Legion people who called the movie makers “the Herods of our day” engaged in a “massacre of the innocents.” And for both groups it was sex that was most at fault. 

Frances Willard, creator of the WCTU, saw “intemperance and impurity as iniquity’s Siamese twins,” and thought the proper symbol of female virtue was cold water––which suggests that she might have been as disturbed by “fallen woman” films like Jean Harlow’s Red-Headed Woman as the Legion’s censors were. Frances Willard was no less concerned with the massacre of the innocents in the 1890s than Jerry Rubin was in the 1960s, though his 1969 “Yippie Manifesto” made it clear that they had quite different ideas about what constituted a massacre. For Rubin’s young (who would vote at fourteen), Coca-Cola was more dangerous than marijuana and less likely to keep alive their expectation that to follow impulse was to experience heaven now. Presumably, in Rubin’s Yippie utopia, Congress too would share in the general euphoria: its water fountains would be laced with LSD. In fact, the Yippies seem to have been as convinced as the WCTU, the Legion of Decency, and the Hollywood moguls that if you cannot recruit the young you have lost the only battle that counts. In such exigent circumstances, a rhetoric of demonization was to be expected. 

What was also to be expected were the problems that resulted from the Legion’s initial failure (or inability) to distinguish between, let alone interrelate, the moral and artistic value of movies: it was enough to put them on a black or white list. No doubt in its early years it needed such all-or-nothing tactics for the same reason that the WCTU or Jerry Rubin did. 

Yet as Walsh points out, the Legion learned from the controversies it engendered. Early on, the editor of Commonweal (its record in this business was admirable) was calling “for comprehensive reviews that would alert Catholic moviegoers to a film’s moral and artistic worth.” Such reviews appeared in increasing numbers in the postwar years, with the result that Legion-like groups such as the Fundamentalist Christian Film and Television Commission got little support from the Catholic hierarchy or laity. One might say that they had learned through long overuse the dangers of the rhetoric of demonization: that those who cannot resist its short-term effectiveness are likely to discover too late that it is really the rhetoric of oversimplification in dramatic disguise.

John P. Sisk is Professor of English Emeritus at Gonzaga University and author of Being Elsewhere.

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