Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Catholic Creation of Hollywood's Golden Age, or How the Church Saved the Movies, Part One

Those with a general understanding of the motion picture industry and its history will already know that Catholics have been extremely influential as directors and actors. A variety of directors like Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo and North by Northwest), John Ford (Stagecoach and The Searchers), Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe), Leo McCarey (Duck Soup and The Bells of St. Mary's), Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull and The Departed), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather and The Conversation) represent the broad range of the Catholic experience in America, representing those Catholics of Irish, Italian, and English ancestry. Their films cover all the great genres of cinema, from horror and Western to romantic comedy and melodrama. Many commentators have explored the Catholic themes in these men's films, with Catholic understandings of family and community, struggle and redemption, and moral liberty and free will painted on celluloid.

Yet Catholic thought reached the American public beyond these men and their movies, especially during the time period known today as the “Golden Age of Hollywood," a period from roughly 1935 to 1960. The Catholic Church nurtured cinema as an art when it was only considered an industry by the American Government. The Catholic Church helped guide the creation of some of the greatest movies ever made, using subtlety instead of directness; symbols rather than graphic imagery. Lastly, the Catholic Church used the motion picture industry to help integrate Catholics into mainstream American society, going from the Papist "other" to the next-door neighbor. Sadly, apart from several (largely negative) works written over the past two decades, the Church's role nurturing the creation of motion picture industry has been largely forgotten. Over the next few weeks, I will make a series of posts exploring these points and related topics so one can gather a greater understanding and appreciation of the Catholic heritage of American film, why the Church's role should be viewed as a positive influence in the creation of this art form, and the power cinema had and continues to have on our society as a whole.

The Catholic Church has always known the power of art. As Pope Pius XI wrote, "The essential purpose of art... is to assist in the perfection of the moral personality, which is man, and for this reason it must itself be moral." Additionally, nos. 2500 and 2501 of the Catechism state, "The practice of goodness is accompanied by spontaneous joy and moral beauty... To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God's activity in which he has created. Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man."

Typically though, art has become almost an archaic term, especially in talking about movies. The term "art" instantly conjures up thoughts of museums, classrooms, and, in absence of a more appropriate term, Rastafarian relics of the 1960s. Instead, many people today consider film "entertainment," immediately creating a picture of escape and abandonment. This distinction in modern society leads to a lesser understanding of the power of film as an art form, a truth the Church has known since the advent of moving pictures. Even though the Catholic Church considers film as a form of art, the American government has not always been so enlightened.

(Directors, from top left clockwise, Alfred Hitchcock, Leo McCarey, Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola, John Ford, and Martin Scorsese)

Beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, local censorship boards sprouted up across America, especially in the mid-west, cutting and splicing scenes from the new "moving pictures" in order to protect public morals and decency on the assumption cinema was not covered by the free speech guarantees of the American Bill of Rights. These boards were typically branches of the local police department, made up of individuals with little to no training in art. There was no philosophical underpinning to the methods of these local boards, leading to differing standards in different communities. Moviegoers in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago could see three different versions of the same film, all of different lengths, depending upon how much the local censorship board objected to in the film. It was a very slow, ineffective, and confusing system.

The film industry fought back. Going all the way to the United States Supreme Court, motion picture producers stated their product was protected as a form of free speech. In this case, Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (1915), the Supreme Court disagreed. As the Court stated in its unanimous decision, "…the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit… not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution [and, thus, the United States Constitution], we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion."

This decision led to more state censorship boards being established and the threat of the Federal government censoring movies for public consumption. The film industry tried to deal with this new reality in creating the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), made up of the nation's largest studios. William Hays, a Presbyterian and Postmaster General under President Warren G. Harding, was placed in charge, with the hope that his contacts in the federal government would help relieve its threats of censorship. To help achieve this goal, several codes of self-regulation, the most famous of which was the "don'ts and be carefuls," a random list of what things were and what things were not allowed in the motion pictures, were agreed to by the major studios.

However, while they were agreed to, there was no enforcement mechanism in the studio system to make sure they were following these regulations. The situation only got more pressing with the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s. At this point, federal regulatory agencies were proposed to deal with immorality in film, similar to how the FDA regulates the quality of meat. The film industry had to do something, and that is when the Catholics were called in, leading to the salvation of the film industry.

In my next post, I will write of three influential Catholics who shaped the film industry in America for two decades: Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., Joseph I. Breen, and Martin J. Quigley and the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code.


Film is one of the three universal languages, the other two: mathematics and music.
Frank Capra

Part two is available here.


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