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Their annual conferences have passed resolutions. Their clergy have lobbied for censorship bills. Their journals have crusaded. But for all their zeal the churches have accomplished very little,” declared Time magazine in 1934 as it hailed the new Catholic Legion of Decency. The Legion had come into being for a reason.

Filmmakers in the twenties and early thirties were inclined—for dramatic and commercial reasons—to the gritty realism in vogue throughout the arts. There was nudity, although in fleeting glimpses, and there was violence, albeit without gore, and there was anti-Catholic, racist, and “un-American” content in more than a few films. Most of the would-be censors believed that realism, while necessary in art, didn’t justify prurience. They especially did not want children exposed to material that might make the sins portrayed appear to be, if not normative, acceptable.

In 1915, the Supreme Court had ruled in Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that motion pictures were not protected by the First Amendment. Ever since, Hollywood itself had been seeking effective means of self-regulation. This culminated in 1930 with the Production Code (much of it written by Fr. Daniel Lord, S.J.), administered through what was known as the Hays Office. The goal of Will H. Hays, the administrator (and as it happened a Presbyterian elder), was to enforce such moral standards as would render moot any criticism from outside Hollywood.

Although the code identified a list of banned topics, via its “general principles” (“be carefuls”) and its “particular applications” (“don’ts”), the Hays Office couldn’t stop filmmakers from skirting or ignoring its recommendations, which included: no use of profanity or depictions of nudity; no mention of drugs, perversion, prostitution, miscegenation, or venereal disease; no ridicule of clergy or creed, race or nation. (Remnants of its work endure in the familiar ratings of the Motion Picture Association of America: G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17.)

With no actual enforcement power, the Hays Office and its code—greeted initially with hope and fear—became a laughingstock. Thus was the Legion born.

Founded by three powerful archbishops in 1933, the Legion offered ethical consultation to Hollywood and eschewed cooperation in legal censorship with government agencies, but its power came from its influence on the faithful and from its willingness to encourage boycotts whenever Hollywood ignored its ethical appeals.

Unlike the code, which simply gave or withheld its vague “Approved by” seal, the Legion’s strategy was a simple A-B-C: movies rated A were morally unobjectionable; B films were morally objectionable in part; C stood for condemned. The Legion never concerned itself with artistic merit (nor, until recently, have its successors). A typical Legion description of a C film would be a straightforward description of the problem with a heartfelt plea: “An attempted seduction and an accomplished seduction. . . . Protest. . . . Protest. . . .” (Those ellipses are as they appeared in the original.)

Although the effectiveness of the Legion is a matter of debate, it was a high-visibility organization in the 1930s. In its first year, the Legion claimed two million members. A year later, seven million had taken the pledge. Within a year it had been re-christened, with National replacing Catholic, and it included among its supporters many non-Catholics.

Church bulletins often printed the Legion’s A-B-C lists, and parishioners were encouraged to take a pledge (after 1938, annually on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception):

I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures, and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films, and to unite with all who protest against them. I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pictures that are dangerous to my moral life. I pledge myself to remain away from them. . . .

The ratings were strict, if not always fair, and their effectiveness hard to judge, though Hollywood kept the Legion in mind as it produced new movies. Among the movies condemned early on was Queen Christina, the story of the Swedish monarch who abdicated in 1654. Starring Greta Garbo, the film jazzes up the queen’s story but excludes her real reason for surrendering the throne: to become a Catholic.

That omission may have miffed Legion members, but the movie was condemned because the queen appears to have an affair with a Spanish diplomat, because she kisses another woman, and because Garbo wore pants. But the equestrian queen wears riding breeches a lot, those kisses are sisterly, and, although—disguised as a man—she does sleep in the same bed with the unwitting diplomat, it’s hardly what you’d call a sex scene: not now, not then.

In the event, Queen Christina was among the most successful films of the year (as were at least three others condemned that year by the Legion).

The Gay Divorcee (1934), a Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers comedy, was condemned by the Legion for its glib portrayal of, yes, divorce. But the “light-hearted musical comedy” was still a box-office hit.

The Legion condemned W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (also 1934), the tale of a man (Leslie Howard) in an illicit sexual affair with a woman (Bette Davis). Legion protesters carried pickets outside a screening in Chicago, but five hundred moviegoers had to be turned away—as with Gay Divorcee, the downside of telling folks not to watch something.

Black Narcissus (1947), one of the twentieth century’s most visually stunning films, tells the story of nuns in northern India struggling with isolation and temptation. Joseph Breen, sometimes called the “Catholic mole” inside the Hays Office, approved Black Narcissus, but with a caveat: A prologue must explain that the sisters are Anglican, not Catholic. The Legion needed more, demanding that the directors cut ten scenes, including a flashback in which one of the nuns (played by Deborah Kerr) recalls her romantic life before discovering her vocation.

Miss Garbo again ran afoul of the Legion in Two-Faced Woman (1941), a salacious title for a stylish farce about a woman testing her husband’s love by pretending to be her twin sister. It was red meat for the Legion. New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman called it a “near occasion of sin” because it traduced matrimony, and the studio was successfully pressured to withdraw the film.

Filmmakers edited much of the dialogue and some scenes, but by the time the film was re-released, its early notoriety was spent, and it ended a commercial failure. Garbo, then thirty-six, said the critics—the Legion primus inter pares—“dug my grave,” and she never made another film.

The Legion would expand its ratings to make them more responsive to the range of film content and viewership, but its effectiveness diminished in the 1960s (the era’s various “liberation” movements saw to that), and it merged into the American bishops’ office dealing with movies. As of 2010, the ratings are issued by the Catholic News Service, an “editorially independent and a financially self-sustaining division” of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

CNS film reviews (and they are reviews, not just ratings) guide the reader accordingly: A-I (general patronage), A-II (adolescents), A-III (adults), A-IV (adults with caution concerning problematic content), L (limited adult audiences), and O (morally offensive).

Some of those films once given the dreaded C have been rehabilitated. Queen Christina is now an A-III, as are Of Human Bondage and Gay Divorcee, described as “dated musical fluff” and “a lighthearted musical comedy with no real substance beyond its charming songs and dances.” Black Narcissus, now an A-II for “sexual situations and innuendo,” is praised for its handling “with sensitivity” the community’s “religious mission.”

Among the very last films actually and effectively condemned by the Legion as sinful was Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), essentially the Legion’s last hurrah. In his homily at Sunday Mass in mid-December of that year, Cardinal Spellman admonished the faithful to avoid the film “under the pain of sin.” That was strong, but not as strong as the Legion’s statement, which specifically defined the sin as mortal.

The Legion condemned Baby Doll with a renewed vigor and successfully had it withdrawn from many American theaters, despite the fact that it had received a Hays Code seal of approval. Kazan thought that, despite its critical success (four Academy Award nominations and a Golden Globe for him), the film lost money because of Church pressure. The bishops’ board later gave the “meandering social satire” an L for its “stylized violence, implied marital infidelity, and leering sexual situations.”

With the Legion gone, so was any widely visible authority in the matter of cinematic immorality. The CNS ratings lack the voice of the Church. In Legion days, Catholics were ordered from the pulpit to stay away from C-rated films, but the last time that happened was probably fifty years ago. Neither the bishops’ office nor Catholic News Service has ever suggested that a moviegoer may sin by watching a movie rated L or O.

When clerics cease sermonizing about the moral content of movies, I fear the public impression is that Catholics face little moral danger from watching movies, even those rated O. It’s good to be treated as an adult, but are not films today more than ever inducements to sin?

Paul instructed us to think about “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report.”Efforts like the Legion’s to advise Catholics in the guardianship of the eyes may have been sometimes clumsy and frequently risible, but at least the faithful were reminded that watching sin might be a sin.

In his encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, issued in 1939, Pope Pius XI deplored the fact that “these most powerful means of publicity, which can be of great utility for instruction and education when directed by sound principles, are only too often used as an incentive to evil passions and greed for gain.” (Three years earlier he had issued an encyclical, Vigilanti Cura, praising the work of the Legion.)

St. Alphonsus Liguori put it more pointedly in The True Spouse of Jesus Christ. “The first dart that wounds and frequently robs chaste souls of life finds admission through the eyes,” he writes. “By them David, the beloved of God, fell. By them was Solomon, once the inspired of the Holy Ghost, drawn into the greatest abominations. Oh! how many are lost by indulging their sight!”

Such talk sounds a little prudish now, but something potentially salvific has been lost in religion’s accommodation to the standards of pop culture. The C has serially given way to the O and, via the internet, to the XXX. As St. Alphonsus said, “The eyes must be carefully guarded by all who expect not to be obliged to join in the lamentation of Jeremiah: ‘My eye hath wasted my soul.’”

Brad Miner, former literary editor of National Review, is a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute and senior editor of the website the Catholic Thing.

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