The American Catholic Church Censors the Movies

  • Author(s): William Doherty Ph.D
  • When: 2019-06
  • Where: Department of History and Social Sciences
  • Traces the rise of the movie industry from its raffish nickelodeon roots in the late nineteenth century to enormous popularity in the first half of the twentieth century. Self-censorship by the movie industry to satisfy its moralist critics having failed, Hollywood found it in its interests to use Catholics to censor those motion pictures the Church judged dangerous to souls. That effort was a double-barreled one: Faced with having to comply with expensive and diverse demands from city and state censorship boards to delete scenes, in 1930 the movie industry accepted an elaborate prescriptive film code, written by a Jesuit monsignor, describing what could and could not be shown and said. For the first four years enforcement was lacking, but by 1934, the Production Code Administration (PCA), led by an energetic Catholic layman and his staff, was empowered to scrutinize a film’s theme, script, language, costuming, etc., at every step of the process. Movie producers had to negotiate with the PCA to earn a Seal, evidence that the movies would not undermine the morals of its patrons.
    The second barrel was the Legion of Decency, in which a group of Catholic women in New York, members of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae, (IFCA), led by a priest, served as a second jury with its own processes; it identified films acceptable for all audiences from children to adult, with the morally objectionable for particular groups identified and those unsuitable for any audience condemned. A special feature of the Legion’s influence was the widespread practice of the laity’s yearly recitation of a pledge at Mass promising to avoid all condemned movies and the theaters which showed them, a promise which many laity believed, mistakenly, that to disobey constituted a mortal sin.
    The heyday of the effectiveness of the PCA and the Legion lasted from 1934 to the mid-1950s when movie producers and the movie audience began to resist. By 1949, Hollywood, facing an existential threat from television, had to provide what “the box” could not--blockbuster epics, technicolor, 3-Dimensional, drive-in theaters--all would be tried, but the quickest path to successfully compete was more boundary-breaking motion pictures, especially sex and crime. Television was only one of the industry’s problems. Inevitably, for good reasons and bad, what the public wanted affected the social mores and were reflected on the movie screen. Whatever the 1950s may have lacked, the American people were more sophisticated and confident than the Great Depression generation had been, and the movie audience for more realistic, cerebral, and artistic movie fare had grown.
    Two Catholic movie critics are featured: the convert, William H. Mooring, syndicated columnist for Tidings, the Los Angeles archdiocesan newspaper, and James W. Arnold, syndicated in the Indianapolis archdiocesan paper, Marquette University associate professor in journalism, and self-described “movie nut.” Mooring, the older man, was especially wary about the dangers of communism in the movies and in real life in postwar World War II America, while Arnold’s habit was to find reasons to praise the films of the 1960s and 1970’s he reviewed.
    To illustrate the issues involved and the changes over time in the PCA and Legion of Decency rulings, a number of films are given extended discussion, among them, “She Done Him Wrong,” 1933, “The Farmer’s Daughter,” 1947, “The Miracle,” 1950, “The Outlaw,” 1943, “The Streetcar Named Desire, 1951, “The French Line,” 1953, “The Moon is Blue,” 1953, “Martin Luther, 1953, “La Dolce Vita,” 1960, “The Pawnbroker,” 1965, “Bonnie and Clyde,” 1967, and “Midnight Cowboy,” 1968.

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