American -- Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies by Gregory D. Black

Article excerpt

Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. By Gregory D. Black

Cambridge Studies in the History of Mass Communications.

(New York: Cambridge University Press. 1994. Pp. x, 336. $27.95.)

In this history of Hollywood censorship, primarily of the 1920's and 1930's, Gregory Black argues that the movie studios, the Production Code Administration CA), and the Catholic Church colluded in a system that prevented the "direct and honest" treatment of serious social, political, economic, and moral issues on the movie screen. Black laments that, as he sees it, the Code and its enforcement required all movies to be "morality plays." In his analysis, however, he runs the risk of devising his own morality play in which the champions of honesty and freedom are stymied again and again by the agents of prudishness and mediocrity.

Black first chronicles (Chapters 1 and 2) the earliest struggles over motion picture content, those leading up to the establishment of official industry censorship. In order to quiet public protest, as well as to avoid federal anti-trust action or censorship, motion picture producers agreed to the self-regulation represented by the Hays Office. Black goes on (Chapters 3, 4, and 5) to detail the trials Hays faced in policing three different sorts of movie content: sex, especially the films of Cecil B. DeMille and Mae West; themes and plots drawn from modern literature, especially Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and Faulkner's Sanctuary; and gangster and prison films.

Black then describes (Chapter 6) how dissatisfaction with the results of Hays's supervision grew, especially among the Catholics influential in the composition and adoption of the original Motion Picture Production Code who in 1933-34 threatened the nationwide boycott implied in the organization of the Legion of Decency. This threat was defused by negotiations among the major players that resulted in the establishment of the PCA, headed by a Catholic layman, Joseph Breen. With the that of a boycott always available as leverage, Black argues, Breen was able for more than twenty years to insist that movies depict "Sex with a Dash of Moral Compensation" (Chapter 7) and that they avoid serious engagement with political and social issues (Chapter 8). …