Yesterday's Morality Police Teach Lessons for Today Growing Number of Authors Are Weighing in on Discussion of Sex and Violence in Movies

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Early in 1946, a major battle erupted when some American cities banned "Scarlet Street," a Hollywood movie starring Edward G. Robinson as a mild-mannered clerk who becomes the unwitting target of a seductive woman and her gangster boyfriend.

Indignant producers, angry legislators, opinionated critics, and everyday moviegoers traded charges and countercharges over the film. But as Matthew Bernstein points out in a recent Cinema Journal article, the people most eager to cite its unsavory ingredients often overlooked the fact that its misguided characters are brought to nothing but misery.

Finally the movie's director, German-born filmmaker Fritz Lang, restored some perspective by asking a Pittsburgh reporter, "How could anyone possibly want to copy any of ze sings zese characters do?" Fifty years later, Lang's question still resonates. While some films clearly aim at nothing more lofty than exploitation and titillation, others set audiences debating whether sex, violence, and other illicit behaviors have a place on movie screens even in cautionary contexts that no thinking person could conceivably want to imitate. Amid the arguments are increasing calls for some kind of control or censorship, often couched in terms of pressure-group protest or economic boycotting. At times outraged citizens move from angry rhetoric to direct action, as when religious protesters set up picket lines outside "Priest" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" in recent years. These are just the latest developments in a history of debates going back to ancient times. In an essay for a Pacific Film Archive program on the subject, censorship expert Leonard Leff quotes Plato's call for "a censorship of the writers of fiction" that would, among other things, "desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized {stories} only." Given the continued immediacy of such concerns, it's not surprising to find a growing number of authors exploring the history of American movie censorship. The most recent books to arrive are "Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry," by historian Frank Walsh, and "Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies," by Gregory D. Black, an expert on mass communications. If both studies refer to Roman Catholicism in their titles, it's because the story of American screen censorship is largely the story of two institutions that began operating in the early 1930s: the Production Code Administration, forerunner of today's rating system, and the Legion of Decency, founded by Catholics worried about declining moral values in the new medium of talking pictures. There were clear differences between these organizations, in both function and philosophy. Supported by the Hollywood studios, the Code office saw its main job as staving off outside censorship by steering filmmakers away from offensive or controversial material. By contrast, the Legion was a pressure group devoted to promoting Catholic values through the moral and economic clout it wielded in American cities. "Where are such watchdogs now that we really need them? …