by Conrad Goeringer
at the Desert RAM, February 18, 2020
Thank you very much.
Along with all that has been said about Walt Wilkinson, I want to convey to you something that happened in the late 1970s, just at the time the Phoenix Chapter of American Atheists was getting start. Several of us from Tucson came up to a meeting Walt and Pat organized, and the guest speaker was a woman from a new state commission dedicated to carrying on the endless fight against smut and obscene materials. She began by passing around copies of glossy, full color adult magazines, and in the process promptly lost the attention of her audience. I recall one person who shall remain anonymous demanding to know where these magazines were being sold; another, a woman, happened to perhaps indiscreetly declare that she saw nothing unusual whatsoever in these pages which normal and healthy people did not do on a typical night.
It was a truly surreal moment.
Walt also mentioned that he was tracking a new movement known as the Moral Majority, founded by a televangelist named Jerry Falwell. He predicted that we would hear a great deal from Falwell’s group in the coming years -- and he was right. Political observers consider the Moral Majority to have been part of the beginning of the modern religious right movement. It was one of several groups that comprised the early effort to politically energize the nation’s millions of evangelical Christians, who really up until the decade of the 1970s considered political activism to be a dangerous and worldly entanglement.
The Moral Majority embarked on an several ambitious campaigns, including legal and legislative efforts to ban certain movies, books, music and other materials they found objectionable. Falwell and his group seemed to be morbidly concerned about the unclothed human form, various bodily activities and secretions, which is to say they were hung up on sex.
In the year 2000 election campaign, the cultural debate over sexuality -- and the political discussion involving the role of government and major civic institutions, including organized religion -- surfaced as pivotal issues. Related issues intruded as well. The discussion was not just about sexual explicitness, but other questions -- violence, the defiance of authority (especially by young people), gender issues having to do with the status of women (particularly unmarried women), and changes in the structure of the American family.
The campaign was also a high-water mark in the use of religious rhetoric, and efforts by candidates to identify with and woo religious voter blocks. Candidates cited religious faith as a credential for public office; and they made unprecedented efforts to campaign in houses of worship, and be seen with religious leaders. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore promised to expand the charitable choice provision of the 1996 welfare reform act which permitted religious groups to obtain public funding in order to administer social services programs.
The campaign was also characterized by calls to reduce what some said was an excess of violence and sexuality in the mass media. Ironically, it was a Democratic liberal Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who emerged as the key figure sounding this alarm. In the waning days of the campaign, both parties joined for a quick round of hearings on capitol hill where executives from the entertainment industry, including film producers and even video game marketers, were ordered to appear for a congressional grilling. I vividly recall a somewhat pudgy and flushed Bill Bennett, the Republican culture czar who along with Lieberman had founded a group called EMPOWER AMERICA. Both men were fixtures on the Sunday morning talk shows, and where Lieberman perhaps played the role of an avuncular religious sage, Bennett, often flushed with rage and hyperbolic descriptions of “filth” and “perversion” coursing through the culture, turned beet red and resembled more a furious Old Testament prophet of wrath.
What people seem to have forgotten is that all of this has happened before, over and over, throughout the American experience.
Although we longer have the communists to kick around any more, and Jews are out of style as the cultural bogeyman, we still find abundant candidates as the “threat d’jour.” The maladies of society -- real, imagined, often seriously exaggerated -- we are told are the result of excessive violence on television, kids playing frenetic video games, salacious images at the movie theater or in magazines, and a generally uncivil tone which mocks religion, teaches disrespect for authority, and undermines established institutions.
The furious charges leveled by Joseph Lieberman, Bill Bennett and others is really just the latest round in a debate which has been going on in American society for well over a century.
During the Victorian era, many religious and civic groups were inspired by the work Anthony Comstock, who was chiefly responsible for the passage by Congress in 1873 of a series of anti-obscenity statutes named after him, the Comstock Laws. Comstock was a veteran of the civil war, who became a shipping clerk in New York City and was abhorred by the urban underbelly of that metropolis during the height of the industrial revolution. In 1868 he began working with the Young Men’s Christian Association campaign against obscenity; and he organized the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which served as an organization model for similar groups throughout the country.
The Comstock laws relied heavily on the power of the federal government to control the U.S. mails; they made it illegal to import or mail any materials which dealt with contraception, nudity, sexuality, or obscenity. As a result, birth control became nearly unmentionable as a subject, even in major medical textbooks. Comstock wore two hats, as Secretary for the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and a special postal agent. By the time he died in 1915, he boasted that he had been responsible for the seizure and destruction of thousands of pounds of what he described as “lewd, obscene, lascivious, or filthy” materials -- everything from radical feminist tracts to suggestive post cards.
What became pejoratively known as “Comstockery” attracted the interest and support of various moral reform and religious movements, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The effort to suppress birth control information and erotic materials was embraced by groups identified with other causes, such as prohibition and fighting prostitution. And the crusade to suppress a perceived evil for one group expanded to other areas as well. In New York City, the fiery Rev. Newell Dwight Hillis proposed that a whipping post be set up as an antidote to the morally lax standards supposedly manifest in Broadway plays. Comstock’s anti-vice society swung into action, and focused on one play, “Sapho,” based on a French novel which starred the English stage actress Olga Nethersole. In one scene, Fanny -- Olga’s character -- was carried up a flight of stairs by a man she was not married to.
The play was already popular, but anticipating something that happens frequently today -- “Temptation Island” may be an example -- “Sapho” was pilloried by critics, and described as a “reeking compost of filth and folly” by newspapers as a strategy in winning the circulation wars. The New York Police Department stepped in, but an inspector declared that the play was not improper or immoral. He attended six productions as part of his research.
Nethersole was still arrested, though, for supposedly “violating public decency.” A jury deliberated 15 minutes before finding her innocent of the charges. Hillis and the Comstock group were outraged, and when Nethersole returned to the production, the crowds were larger than ever.
It took decades for the legal system to begin dismantling the Comstock laws and similar statutes. A 1942 issue of Esquire Magazine became the focus of a Supreme Court case which was decided 4 years later. The US Post Office had declared a drawing by Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas to be obscene, lewd and lascivious, and threatened to revoke the magazine’s second-class postal permit. It didn’t matter Esquire also featured writings from the great literary giants of the time, including Paul Gallico, Ernest Hemingway, Clarence Darrow and Langston Hughes. Plenty of bluenoses found the double-entendre humor and racy cartoons to be offensive; and the Post Office, citing the Comstock statute and an 1865 law which barred obscene material from the mails to prevent such fare from reaching soldiers fighting at the front, took action.
Just as there is always a group which supposedly must be protected from something -- women, children, soldiers at the front -- so too the introduction of any new technology seems to spur concerns about how it may be used and whose interests may be threatened. Last year at the National Convention, I spoke about the Columbine shootings and the outcry from many groups directed against everything from the internet to musical lyrics; and I compared this to the rise of the telegraph in the 19th century, when there was a debate over that technology. Just one example was the rampant fear that the telegraph made it easier for unmarried couples to arrange their assignations, and elope thus bypassing parental oversight.
No group, from Comstock’s pesky Society for the Suppression of Vice to the Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell ever exercised the domination of an industry and an area of American culture that the Roman Catholic Church did for nearly 30 years. The instrument of this control was an organization established by the Bishops of the church, known as the Legion of Decency. From its founding in 1933-34 through the 1960s, the Legion succeeding in essentially controlling what sorts of movies American theater-goers saw, what films and even plays would be produced, what scripts would be seriously considered. Slavishly, the Hollywood establishment submitted everything from plot summaries to dialogue lines, and even copies of pre-release productions, to Legion censors in hopes of obtaining their seal of approval. Often, the standards of the Legion which supposedly were meant to protect morality, decency, respect for religion and the prevailing morays of the society, were more stringent than those used by local censorship boards and state film commissions. As it turned out, this was both an intimidating asset for the bishops, and it eventually led to the disintegration of the Legion as a social force.
Catholic and Protestant groups had been concerned about the cinema from the earliest days of silent film. During the World War I era, the Catholic Church established a National War Council which worked closely with the U.S. military’s Commission on Training Camp Activities. One of the goals was to control the proliferation of so-called “social hygiene” films which were shown to recruits. Some of these dealt frankly with issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, and the church considered this as suggestive and immoral. During the Prohibition era, the commission became the National Catholic Welfare Council, which formed a special Motion Picture Committee to monitor the movie industry.
Silent films represented both a significant technological and cultural development. The subject matter was often controversial; films graphically dealt with themes such as marital abuse, prostitution, drugs, labor unrest, violence and official corruption. Film historian Kevin Brownlow described this early cinema as revealing “the corruption of city politics, the scandal of white slave rackets, the exploitation of immigrants.” The film screen was populated by an assortment of tempting and provocative characters, from gangsters, pimps and loan sharks to cut-out heroes, beautiful and sensual women, and social rebels. Filmography historian Kay Sloan adds that the silent cinema frequently “championed the cause of labor, lobbied against political ‘bosses’ and gave dignity to the struggle of the urban poor.” There were often forthright discussions about sexuality and gender roles. And the silent film was fantasy entertainment, a “virtual reality” of its time.
America had an ambivalent relationship with this new technology. On one hand, the public found it to be a novel, evocative and compelling medium. On the other, a odd alliance of social conservatives, elitists still holding on to the residue of the Victorian era, religious groups and even some progressive reformers, viewed the silent films with suspicion or hostility. This ideological intersection would anticipate by nearly a century what happened in 1999, when religious conservatives suddenly found common cause with liberal figures like Joseph Lieberman, Steve Allen, Tipper Gore and even Bill Clinton.
The traditionalists feared the cinematic expose of the underbelly of early 20th century capitalism, and other consequences of new trends on the cultural terrain. This included the rise of urbanism; a new influx of immigrants -- many of them from non-Anglo-Saxon nations; labor unrest and along with it “foreign” subversive ideologies like syndicalism, unionism, socialism and anarchism. The liberated sexuality of the silver screen was a threat to White Protestant probity, and a fixed, strictly defined gender code. For the White Anglo Saxon Protestant and religious traditionalists, it was only natural to call upon the police for remedy. Chicago enacted the first film censorship in 1907, when it declared that anyone wanting to show a film would first have to secure a permit from the Superintendent of Police. Perhaps there is a lesson for us today; it’s worth noting that this moral surveillance quickly spread to encourage other areas of government monitoring. With the film review boards also came a proliferation of so-called “Red Squads,” as police departments began keeping tabs on labor organizers, radicals and other social reformers. The police became the agency charged with supervising both the moral standards and political loyalties of the population.
Progressive reformers were also wary of the cinema. The movies were truly part of the birth pangs of popular culture. The Progressives had a formula for how society should be organized, and a cultural marketplace was not part of that vision. The reformers looked upon the tidal wave of immigrants more kindly perhaps than the captains of industry; they nevertheless considered many of these new comers to be tabula rasa, social clay which was to be carefully molded into some form reflecting their own values. Jane Addams, the maven of Progressive consciousness, denounced the movies as an instrument “making over the minds of our urban population.” The cinema, she insisted, was a “veritable house of dreams.”
Chicago’s ordinance became a model for others, and soon censorship boards -- often under the control of police departments -- were operating in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Ohio and elsewhere. Film historian Gregory Black notes:
“The common denominator was that all the censorship boards were committed to eliminating depictions of changing moral standards, limiting scenes of crime which they believed to be responsible for an increase in juvenile delinquency, and avoiding as much as possible any screen portrayal of civic strife, labor-management discord, or government corruption and injustice.”
Although attendance at movies blossomed, the industry felt under siege from complaining groups -- religious, civic and governmental. State and local censorship was a fact, but tougher federal action was inevitably proposed. In 1922, the industry created the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and put a Midwest conservative Republican named Will Hays in charge. It was up to Hays to head off any direct federal control by instituting a regime of so-called “self regulation.” Under this scheme, studios would submit a synopsis of every play, novel or story under consideration.
Hays wrestled, though, with the devilishly complex question of what should and should not be permitted. Within a six year period, more than 125 movie proposals were rejected. Complaints persisted, though, and Hays then created a special Studio Relations Department or SRD to tighten the existing vague standard. Jason Joy, former head of the American Red Cross, took over the SRD, and instituted a code known as the “Don’t and Be Carefulls.” The new standards prohibited many of the themes and depictions from the silent era including nudity, drug use, crime and prostitution.
Much of the anti-movie lobby was under the sway of Protestant groups including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Federal Motion Picture Council headed by New York preacher William Schaefe Chase. Another was the Motion Picture Research Council led by Rev. William Short. This group issued numerous position papers and studies which claimed to link cinema to juvenile crime and other problems. In 1926, Chase and Short led a delegation of more than 200 religious and civic leaders to Washington, DC to demand government censorship and regulation of the movie industry.
Just as today, much of the rhetoric was hard, demonizing and often based on questionable evidence. Canon Chase described movies as “a threat to world civilization,” and excoriated the “Hebrew” owners and producers of the industry. All of these groups also painted the movie industry as somehow “forcing” its wares on an unsuspecting and helpless public.
The growing hysteria over movies put more pressure on local and state censorship boards. In 1928, the New York State censorship commission excised over 4,000 scenes from films, and back in Chicago, police censors were busy cutting over 600 offending scenes. Still the crowds kept coming; one of the most popular films was criticized by bluenoses for supposedly glorifying gangsters, this was the hit “Little Caesar” which opened in January, 1931, and starred a tough-talking Edward G. Robinson. Another film was “Scarface” directed by Howard Hawkes, the first movie in which a gangster used a machine gun. The production offended Hays on nearly every count. Hawkes refused to alter the film, but director Howard Hughes gave in on certain points, like changing the title to “Scarface: The Shame of a Nation.” The original ending which showed the tough guy Tony Camonte groveling before the police and then getting shot is altered; instead, he is sentenced to hang by a judge who pronounces him “vicious” and “evil.” But a new genre is born, featuring rough, street wise hoods, fast and beautiful women, and plenty of action.
Protestants were not the only religious group concerned about the content and values supposedly being extolled in the cinema. In Chicago, a Jesuit priest named George Dinneen became popular for organizing demonstrations outside of theaters, and demanding that the police take action. Dinneen believed that the federal government had to step in, since too many films were still being approved by local and state boards.
Another Catholic was a staunch layman named Martin Quigley, who published a movie industry trade journal. Quigley claimed to represent independent theater owners, and at least publicly disagreed with the call for federal censorship -- but only because he feared that it would be ineffective. For Quigley, the Catholic Church, with its large congregations in major metropolitan areas which were also key movie markets, was the only organized group up to the task of controlling Hollywood. Like his Protestant counterparts and the Progressive reformers, Quigley was distrustful of popular culture, and feared the consequences of allowing people to make decisions in the entertainment marketplace. He also saw the Church’s involvement as not only protecting morals, but advancing the Catholic agenda. Quigley’s papers are now archived at Georgetown University, and in one interesting letter he admitted, “our ideas of morality in entertainment differ radically from those held by the vast majority of the public of this country.”
Dinneen put Quigley in touch with Chicago’s powerful Church prelate, Cardinal George W. Mundelein. He, too, was in favor of federal censorship, but he also agreed with Quigley that the church needed to get involve more intimately in the effort to rein in the entertainment industry.
Another player was a Catholic priest, Fr. Daniel Lord. After a series of discussions with Quigley, Mundelein and Dinneen, Lord began work on drafting a Code for Hollywood that was more rigorous and thoughtful than the “Don’ts and Be Carefulls,” and reflected the church’s position on cultural issues. Black notes, “What emerged was a fascinating combination of Catholic theology, conservative politics, and pop psychology -- an amalgam that would control the content of Hollywood film for three decades.”
The new code affected the more obvious features of movies -- it required, for instance, that married couples portrayed in movies sleep in separate beds, and it was said to have ruined the career of Mae West. There was a deeper textual significance, though. It shared with Protestant critics the message that the church, government and a heterosexual, married family unit were the foundations of a proper society. Movies should be morality plays, not a vehicle for social criticism or commentary.
Will Hays later wrote that when he was presented with the code, “My eyes nearly popped out when I read it. This was the very thing I had been looking for.” Soon, Hays, Quigley and the Bishops of the church were demanding that movie studios conform and adopt the Code. Some Hollywood moguls balked, and submitted a revised version. In January of 1930, the major executives caved in and the Code was adopted.
A number of factors led to that position. Hollywood had been so battered by criticism that when box office receipts began to fall as a result of the stock market crash, it seemed to make good sense to adopt the code. Church opposition to the loans which financed the films rolling out of Hollywood during the cash-strapped depression had to be avoided.
From the beginning there was distrust. Quigley described Will Hays as a “worm” who took credit for the Code, but would be lax in its enforcement. Church prayers were answered, though, when a Catholic layman named Joseph Breen took over responsibility for making sure that the Code was carried out.
Breen had been an active Irish Catholic and after serving in the federal Consular service, he was named Overseas Commissioner for the National Catholic Welfare Conference. He was also a notorious anti-Semite, and a strikebreaker who had served as the public relations director for the Peabody Coal Company. In 1934, he was named as director of the Production Code Administration. Church officials such as Cardinal Mundelein and Los Angeles Bishop John Cantwell considered Breen the “Catholic mole” inside the insidious Hollywood-sin city entertainment industry.
Breen and Cantwell wanted more, though, and embarked on an effort to further involve the church in the war against immoral movies. Cantwell told a fellow bishop that threats of boycotts by enraged Catholics would get the attention of “the Jews who control” the movies. He approached the heads of the leading studios, but later said that “promises made to us by the Jews will amount to very little..” Breen and Cantwell also dropped in on A.H. Giannini, president of the Bank of America and a leading lay Catholic, and warned him to beware of funding immoral movies.
Breen served notice on the Hollywood establishment, and summoned the biggest names in the industry for a dressing down. This included Jack Warner; Louis B. Mayer of MGM; Paramount’s Adolph Zukor; and officials from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Giannini warned the moguls that his bank would no longer fund movies which were opposed by the Catholic Church. By one account, Breen lashed out at the Jews, accusing them of disloyalty and what he described as “a conspiracy to debauch the youth of the land.” In a peculiar twist of racial politics, he also suggested that communist and radicals, while they were “100 % Jewish,” were “serving to build up an enormous case against the Jews in the eyes of the American people.”
Even with this, the princes of the Church, energized by Cantwell, Breen and Mundelein, were dubious that either federal action or censorship by a Hollywood office would be sufficient to their cause -- and they pressed ahead with plans for the Legion.
There were several reasons why the Catholic campaign was so effective, at least initially. Unlike the Protestants, the Roman Catholic Church was more centralized and better organized. Most of the 104 American diocese had local newspapers, especially in the heavy metropolitan markets where first run movies usually opened. Father Lord’s weekly column was carried in Catholic papers throughout the country; and the church’s weekly paper, “Our Sunday Visitor,” boasted a circulation of over 650,000. Hollywood kingpins, especially those of Jewish ancestry, also feared Father Coughlin, the radio priest based in Detroit whose program was carried across the nation. Coughlin denounced socialism and the New Deal, and the Jews. Would Hollywood become his next target?
There was also the disastrous “go along, get along” strategy which Hollywood and Will Hays relied on. When Hays thought he could appease the church by appointing Breen as head of the censorship office, it was like letting the fox into the hen house. The Church also managed to anticipate Hays’ thinking, and was always a step ahead. Quigley, Cantwell and Dinneen received constant updates from Breen. And the strategy was simple; the three men agreed that first Hays would be pressured to invoke self-censorship, and then Breen would apply more pressure to ensure that the Code was scrupulously followed.
Bishop John T. McNicholas of Cincinnati crafted a Legion of Decency pledge, and soon at masses throughout the country, Catholics were standing up and swearing allegiance to the code. They swore to avoid any film judged by the church to be “vile and unwholesome.” In just a few short weeks, Church leaders in Boston and Chicago reported more than a million signed pledges. Detroit brought in 600,000 and Cleveland, over half-a-million.
The Legion was soon condemning movies which managed to slip by even Breen and the Code office. In May 1934 Father Lord and Cardinal Mundelein attacked films like MGM’s “Riptide”, Paramount’s “The Trumpet Blows,” and the Fox production “George White’s Scandals.” In his book “The Movies Betray America,” Lord declared that the industry was “a gigantic travesty” which regularly drilled “crime and lust and passion and murder and horror and vice” into the minds of young boys and girls.
In Philadelphia, Cardinal Dennis Dougherty declared that ALL movies were a menace, and demanded that parishioners boycott all theaters. Boston Cardinal William O’Connell described Hollywood as “a riot of rotten, disgusting” entertainment.
The Legion mushroomed, and established local “vigilance” committees that monitored theaters. The committees not only sniffed out immoral films, but they also compiled lists of identified Roman Catholics who were trying to sneak in.
Joe Breen became obsessed, almost psychopathic about combating Hollywood and its Hebrews. His anti-Semitism grew more strident, and in letters to Quigley and others, he raved about the Jews, and cast himself as a pugnacious, fighting Irish Catholic who would -- one way or another -- bring morality to sin city. He told one correspondent that he was the only man “who could cram decent ethics down the throat of the Jews..”
As for ambiguity, interpretation and artistic creativity, Breen was adamant. He declared, “I am the code!”
To their credit, many in Hollywood DID defy Joe Breen, the Code and the Legion of Decency. As the Code was written and re-written, mostly by Breen demanding that pictures not only be free of immorality, but actively promote the Catholic view of virtue, resistance spread. Still, scripts were trashed or rewritten. Often, a shrewd writer or studio head like Hal Wallace could actually turn the table on Breen. When the code boss lambasted a script for the film Madame du Barry, saying that it was “filled with vulgarity, obscenity and blatant adultery,” Wallis said that anyone who thought that had to have a depraved mind.
So, for years, the battle lines looked something like this. Writers and studio heads, though agreeing to observe the Code, constantly sought ways around it. Often, arguments erupted over specific lines and scenes. Was this dress hem too high? A blouse line too low? Breen would respond, and often the church would boycott. Behind the scenes at the Legion, movers and shakers like Quigley and McNicholas and Mundelein would plot strategy, constantly looking for more effective ways to control their obstreperous counterparts in Hollywood. Within the Legion, though, there were numerous rifts. Some bishops resented Quigley and Breen trying to run the show; they agreed with their goals, but resented the perceived usurping of ecclesiastical authority.
More fundamentally nagging, though, was the question of what exactly was “immoral.” In Detroit, for instance, Catholics were ordered to shun “Murder at the Vanities” , and the smash comedy “The Thin Man” with William Powell and Myrna Loy. A few miles away in Chicago, though, Father Lord had assigned a B-classification, meaning “Neither approved nor forbidden but for adults only.”
There were even films that made it by Breen’s office, but were then condemned by the legion, or a local Bishop. Catholics could see “Cockeyed Cavaliers” in Chicago, but not in Pittsburgh. The Legion blacklisted a slew of popular films including “Catherine the Great,” “Queen Christiania,” and even Mae West’s “It Ain’t No Sin,” even though they had been cleared by Joe Breen.
The Legion campaign had some unexpected consequences. The Protestants were no longer in the vanguard, and especially in the deep south where nativism and anti-Catholic sentiments ran deep, resentment began to form. In Jacksonville, Florida, Protestant ministers called a public meeting where the Ku Klux Klan showed up, and denounced the “Pope of Rome” for interfering with American liberties. Some Protestants believed that the Legion was part of a wider Catholic plot to seize control of the U.S. One Klansman told the Jacksonville audience that they “had been hoodwinked into playing the Catholic game.”
Perhaps the toughest enemy faced by the Legion was human curiosity. It appears that millions of Catholics took the Legion pledge, but still voted with their dimes and quarters, often for the very movies that the church fathers, or Joe Breen, were ranting against. Even Will Hays knew this. He had dispatched one of his employees at the MPPDA, a man named Lupton Wilkinson, who traveled to 20 major urban markets to measure the impact of the legion campaign. It was a stark wake-up call. Catholics took the pledge on Sunday, but on Friday and Saturday night, they were often in the local theater or, later, the drive-in passion pit soaking up the Hollywood fantasy. Often, the Church’s opposition seemed to result in more publicity, and more box office revenues. When Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” opened in Chicago, for instance, Legion officials and priests were out front with picket signs -- but more than 500 people had to be turned away on opening night due to the sell out house. In Baltimore, the critic for the local paper told Wilkinson that because of the Catholic protests, “he had scarcely been able to get into a theater during the last three weeks.”
In retrospect, the Legion turned out to a mixtures of success and failures. Its activities DID result in a chilling climate which swept through Hollywood similar to what the McCarthy hearings did in the mid 1950s. Scripts and scenes were cut or altered to conform to the Catholic disposition. Breen and the Legion exercised an enormous influence, if not control over the content of an entire industry. But the church was fighting not only a recalcitrant Hollywood elite, but the tastes of the American people. Some accounts suggest that these tastes changed, and the Legion became obsolete, a dinosaur on the cultural landscape. My own sense is that from the beginning, people wanted to see many of the films which the Legion, as well as local or state censorship boards found objectionable. People voted in the marketplace; and just like today, a rating of X or a condemnation of a movie, program, book or other cultural fare, seems to bestow a quality of irresistible curiosity.
Several other factors contributed to the demise of the Legion as well. The law finally got around to protecting the First Amendment, rather than trying to circumvent it. In 1915, the Supreme Court handed down a ghastly decision in the case Mutual Film Corporation v. Ohio, and ruled that movies were a business enterprise not worthy of the same protections granted the press. This and other related court decisions often spoke of film as an immoral and unregulated medium that required the stern oversight of the State. Thirty-seven years later, on April 24, 2020, the court provided a different sort of decision in BURSTYN v. WILSON, and admitted that the earlier ruling in MUTUAL “was out of harmony with the views here set forth.” The justices ruled that the government “may not place a prior restraint on the showing of a motion picture film on the basis of a censor’s conclusion that it is ‘sacrilegious.’”
Joe Breen retired from the Production Code office in 1954, and to the bitter end continued to lambaste Hollywood and its Hebrews. Will Hays had retired in 1945. Father Daniel Lord died the following year, and Martin Quigley remained a cultural curmudgeon until his 1964 death. In the mid 1960s the Legion morphed into the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, but continued to loose influence. In 1965, it reviewed 269 films, and still managed to have changed made in 32 of them by producers seeking a more favorable rating. By now, nudity or partial nudity was become more common in films. Carol Baker’s frolic in The Carpetbaggers, and Kim Novak’s role in the remake Of Human Bondage were the most notable.
I can’t think of a more fitting way to close than reading the brief POSTSCRIPT to my article on the Legion which appeared in the winter issue of the American Atheist Magazine. It pretty much sums up my thinking after reading about the Legion of Decency, and covering the campaign leading up to the November, 2000 elections...
“I end this piece with a word of caution. While it is true that “never again” has a religious group (or a political one for that matter) so throttled the content of the cinematic medium, there is nothing that guarantees that in the future the First Amendment will protect movies, books, or new media like the Internet. What struck me profoundly while researching the Legion of Decency was how so many of the arguments cited half-a-century ago in favor of censorship of some form have simply been recycled and resurrected today. I think of William Bennett, Joseph Lieberman, C. Delores Tucker and others who have tried to establish themselves as cultural arbiters on matters ranging from film to musical lyrics. Ms. Tucker’s denunciations of various forms of rap music, for instance, echo the earlier fears about Blues and Jazz. Mr. Lieberman, a Democratic liberal of sorts, is in strange company with former Reagan administration official and self-appointed values guru William Bennett. Both men echo Joesph Breen when they denounce the entertainment industry for offering a steady diet of “filth” and vulgarity. The late Steve Allen, embraced by some as a skeptical humanist-agnostic of sorts, also succumbed to the totalitarian temptation of denouncing the film industry. It is worth noting that Allen soireed with his warm friend Cardinal John O’Connor; and while the two might not have agreed on many issues, they seemed in common cause to denounce popular culture and, specifically, the movies.
“Of course, not all films, lyrics, paintings, books, programs or other forms of expression are noble and uplifting for the human spirit. Not all reflect the best which is in us, nor should they necessarily endeavor to do so. Rap lyrics may convey a ‘real’ story that neither Mr. Bennett nor Ms. Tucker are aware of, or wish to acknowledge. Mr. Lieberman should realize that many of his pejorative descriptions of the entertainment industry -- and his demonization of it -- come dangerously close to depicting Hollywood and the rest of media as a cabal. Joseph Breen would have agreed -- it was, to him, a cultural Sanhedrin run by “filthy Jews.”
“So, instead of outrage over Mae West or a controversial political film like Salt of the Earth, religious and political groups fret about video games, prime-time television, books like the Harry Potter series, and, of course, the movies. Their names may be passing into obscurity, but the censorious probity of Martin Quigley, Joseph Breen, and Cardinal Spellman remain with us today. Fortunately, so do the protections of the First Amendment. The story of the Legion of Decency should serve as a reminder, especially when we turn on the evening news and contemplate the role played by religious rhetoric in the year 2000 election campaign. Before we listen to Joe Lieberman, perhaps we should carefully remember Joe Breen.”
© 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.