Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Lost Legion of Decency

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Lost Legion of Decency

Article excerpt

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; ? 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. …

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