Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry

Article excerpt

Sin and Censorship:The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry. By Frank Walsh. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1996. Pp. xi, 394. $35.00.) If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had a category for the "best book" of the year, one of the chief contenders for the 1996 award would surely be this treatise by a professor of history in the University of Massachusetts. It accurately and yet candidly tells the story of how the Catholic Church became "the most successful pressure group in the history of the movies and why it was eventually forced to relinquish its power."

The saga of the Church's role in motion pictures began with a decision to launch a campaign during World War I against government-sponsored movies aimed at preventing the spread of venereal diseases among the military. Then, beginning in 1934, with the establishment of the Legion of Decency, the Church became a major and effective influence in determining both what Americans saw and did not see on the screen during Hollywood's "golden age."

In fourteen carefully documented chapters, the author outlines the work of the Legion as it evolved over the years. He explains how pressures were exerted to force Gypsy Rose Lee to change her screen name, to alter a dance sequence in Oklahoma, to eliminate infidelity in Two-Faced Woman, to block distribution of Birth of a Baby, and to compel Howard Hughes to make 147 cuts in The Outlaw. Between 1934 and 1980, the Legion and/or the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures classified no fewer than 16,521 films. No group then or since exerted a greater presence on the Hollywood scene.

The Walsh study traces not only the origins of the Church's involvement and success with motion pictures, but also its decline. Recognizing that the Legion was starting to lose touch with a new generation of better-educated Catholics in the post-Vatican Council II days, ecclesial leaders first liberalized the Legion's classification system and, in 1965, changed its name to the National Office for Motion Pictures. …