Tuesday, October 19, 2010

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

Part One is available here.

Part Three is available here.

There is no doubt that identities grow and are strengthened by oppression, and that is what occurred in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American Catholic communities. Out of these communities came men and women knowledgeable and proud in their faith, especially in the city of Chicago, home of 1,086,209 Catholics by 1936 (the largest diocese in America). Chicago, with the settlement of large numbers of Catholic immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, became known as the City of Catholics. This seat of Catholic strength in America made it an obvious choice to hold the 28th International Eucharistic Congress, from June 20 to 24, 1926, the first Eucharistic Congress in the United States. Fox Film Corporation (run at the time by Winifred “Winnie” Sheehan, an Irish Catholic) filmed this noteworthy event, producing an eight reel, ninety-six minute production entitled, “His Eminence George Cardinal Mundelein Archbishop of Chicago Presents the Pictorial Record of the XXVII International Eucharistic Congress Produced for him by Fox Film Corporation.” All copyright and profits of the production went to the Church. This connection of the Chicago Archdiocese with Hollywood, which began in 1926, to Catholics from the city becoming more familiar with the film industry. Catholic Chicagoans, including Martin J. Quigley, began to leave their mark upon cinema.

(Film of 28th International Eucharistic Congress, courtesy of Chicago History Museum)

Martin Quigley (1890-1964), a graduate of Niagara and Catholic Universities, was the publisher of "Moving Picture World" and "Exhibitor's Harold" (later combined as the the "Motion Picture Harold" in 1931). He was a man of two worlds: the film industry and the Catholic Church, especially the Archdiocese of Chicago. He believed that film and filmmakers should only provide “decent wholesome material.” Such entertainment should be family-friendly and reflect the virtues and values taught by the Catholic Church. These beliefs were recognized in his publications, some of the largest trade rags in the nation. He became familiar with William Hays and others in the industry through his publications and his work producing the film of the 28th International Eucharistic Congress. While Quigley supported morality being reflected in the film industry, he was also an opponent of state censorship to further this goal. By 1929, however, he clearly saw that the local censorship boards were too entrenched to be disbanded. There needed to be another system, not one relying on state censorship, to insure moral cinema.

At the same time, the film industry was having its own troubles. William Hays's "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" system was not working.

(Martin Quigley, Cecil B. DeMille, and Paramount president Barney Balaban, Courtesy of Georgetown University Library)

Senator Smith W. Brookhart of Iowa introduced a bill into Congress in March of 1928 to have the FTC regulate the motion picture industry. There was also a fear that the federal government would ban the practice of “block booking” by which production companies sold a slate of their upcoming attractions, sight unseen, to theaters.

Being involved with the motion picture industry, Martin Quigley knew of the fears of the industry in addition to business woes created by declining profits and film attendance resulting from the Great Depression. The time was ripe, Quigley felt, for him introduce a morals code for the motion picture industry, specifically a Catholic code. Quigley consulted with Father FitzGeorge Dineen, adviser to the Chicago censorship board, who recommended Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J. to help compose this proposed code.

Father Lord grew up with entertainment, and, from an early age, was impressed with movie houses. Throughout his time in the seminary, he followed the new medium, accompanying silent films by playing the piano in the theater with his fellow seminarians. One film left a profound impact upon him. In 1915, he viewed what one can consider the first blockbuster, "The Birth of a Nation" This vile and hate-filled film, based on the novel, The Clansman by Thomas Dixon and directed by D.W. Griffith, is the story of the rise of the first version of the Ku Klux Klan and left such an impact upon its viewers that a second version of the Ku Klux Klan became extremely active in the 1920s.

(Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., 1944, Courtesy of Georgetown University Library)

As Father Lord states in his autobiography, Played By Ear:

"The deep hatred that Dixon had written into 'The Clansman' had been blown high and hot in the film. Griffith, whether he meant to or not, made many persons hate Negros and dread any emancipation given them. And I knew I was in the presence of a medium so powerful that it might change our whole attitude towards life, civilization, and established customs.... No doubt about it, the horrible bigotry of the KKK which sprang at the throat of the Catholic Church and American liberties not a decade later rode to its brief and ugly triumphs largely on a road down which had dashed Griffith's clansman."

In the years that followed, Father Lord got involved in different activities, focusing upon the theater. He became a theologian and playwright, in addition to being a Professor of English and Drama at St. Louis University, However, that changed when he was called upon to be the Catholic adviser on Cecil B. DeMille's "The King of Kings" in 1926. Joined by Jewish and Protestant advisers (both of whom left a few days into filming), Father Lord gave DeMille suggestions to make this movie about the life of the Christ theologically sound. For example, DeMille originally felt that a love story needed to be added into the film to attract a larger audience, namely a love story between Mary Magdalene and Judas. This romantic relationship between the two would culminate in the betrayal of Christ by Judas.

Father Lord suggested that this was not an appropriate manner to relate the life of Christ, and one evening, while watching the dailies with Father Lord, DeMille stated “He is great, isn't He?” DeMille was not speaking of the actor portraying Christ, but of Christ Himself. DeMille cut over 1,500 feet of film from the Mary Magdalene scenes, and the love story aspect of the plot was dropped from the finished film save for a bit in the opening minutes, posted below. Father Lord's Hollywood adventure being over, he returned to teaching at St. Louis University, until he was contacted by Martin Quigley about the creation of a Catholic morals code for cinema.

(Trailer for King of Kings, 1927)

(First Part of King of Kings, 1927 in early color)

Together Quigley and Fathers Dinnen and Lord discussed the drafting of such a code. It was decided to not make it explicitly Catholic, but in a way “that the follower of any religion, or any man of decent feeling and conviction, would read it and instantly agree. It must make morally attractive, and the sense of responsibility of the movies to its public and unmistakable.” Hays, to whom Quigley proposed the idea, was receptive to this solution.

Hays and Quigley carried the idea to the member companies of the MPPDA which received the idea of a more effective morals code by which the industry could self-regulate the movies, and, thus, avoid state censorship with enthusiasm. However, this was not Quigley's only selling point. There was also a desire for the producers to appeal to the Catholic audience. While those who owned the production companies were mainly of Jewish decent and the majority of moviegoers were Protestant, there was a desire by the film industry to specifically appeal to Catholics for several reasons:
  1. They were the single largest single religious group in the United States;
  2. There was a clear hierarchy and institutional structure to the Church; and
  3. The strong loyalty the lay people had to the Church and its teachings.
Quigley and Lord began work on this code, with Lord making sure A.M.D.G. and B.V.M.H. were the first letters placed at the top of the page. As Lord later wrote:

"Here was a chance to tie the Ten Commandments in with the newest and most widespread form of entertainment. Here was an opportunity to read morality into mass recreation. Here was an industry that might be persuaded to avoid the police by a sane and honorable policy."

The Motion Picture Production Code drafted by Quigley and Father Lord began with three general principles:
  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
“Particular Applications,” which was composed of an update of the “Don'ts and Be Carefuls” more carefully arranged by subject, followed this first section. Father Lord added a section entitled “Reasons Supporting the Preamble of the Code,” based upon Scholasticism and Catholic thought, justifying the purpose of upholding the morality of art in general and film in particular. The differences between the limited appeal and reach of other arts compared to film were emphasized. General principles of morality followed with their bearing upon entertainment.

As stated by Joseph I. Breen, future head of the Production Code Administration:

"The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me to be an inspired document that fitted into the then current situation, having to do with motion picture entertainment, like a sharply cut picture puzzle. The code was essentially a moral treatise whose rules and regulations stemmed from the ancient moral law which has been accepted by mankind almost since the dawn of creation. These principles do not arise from timely or geographic considerations. Such principles do not become outmoded."

An additional issue must be addressed about the code. If one explores it, one sees some distinctly un-Catholic parts to it, namely the clause (Particular Applications, II, 6) against miscegenation (sexual relations between the races). This was inserted in the third draft of the code by William Hays himself. Lord and Quigley were very much against this addition. One person familiar with the situation described Quigley as “absolutely infuriated all the time that I knew him with the original Code where it said we could not treat a picture dealing with miscegenation. He thought it was outrageous and un-Christian.” However, Hays included it as a matter of economics. The racial reality of the American South in this period made it necessary to ban this subject matter, at least according to William Hays. Later, in 1942, Hays reconsidered this decision, and Mortimer Adler, Aristotelian and neo-Thomist philosopher, author, and one of the founders of the "Great Books" program (and subsequent Catholic convert), looked into the issue for him. Adler suggested that it be moved from a list of banned subjects to subjects that needed to be carefully dealt with by producers. This was done.

The code was approved by the industry on 31 March 1930, with Hays's name attached, making sure the public, which still looked upon the Catholic Church with distrust, did not know a Catholic priest and layman were the primary authors of this moral code for motion pictures. The Production Code, or what was commonly referred to as the Hays Code, went into effect. Lord and Quigley's role in its creation was not known until 1934.

The problem with this code was that there still was no enforcement mechanism. There was no system to approve scripts prior to filming. This led to the possibility of violations only being discovered after filming was completed, requiring costly reshoots. Second, if a decision regarding the immorality of a film was appealed from the Hays Office, it was appealed to a court made up of fellow producers, which would cost more for their fellow producers. The producers could say they would follow its regulations, but since it was unprofitable for them to do so, they would not. This time period, 1930 to 1934, is what is known by the misnomer, the “Pre-Code era of Hollywood. So-called “gangster” and “vamp” (or “fallen woman”) pictures were extremely popular, glorifying evil and sexual vice. They were also very profitable.

As the age of Republican dominance of the White House came to a close in 1933, the era of the New Deal began. It was not unexpected for a national film regulation board to be included among the alphabet soup of new federal agencies, especially since the industry was not doing the self-regulation it promised in 1930. Father Lord, Martin Quigley, who still had enormous influence through his “Motion Picture Harold,” and the greater Catholic community were also fed up with this lackadaisical enforcement system. Father Lord wrote, “Crime, lust, the triangle situation, seductions, remained the normal plot of the films.... The signatures solemnly affixed by the heads of the companies to the code seemed to bind no one.” Out of these circumstances emerged the Catholic Legion of Decency and the Production Code Administration, the subjects of the next installment of this series.


"In my long and pleasant life the films and Hollywood have been just an incident.... But you asked about it, and here is the record. Some time you may want to check it all in my complete files."

Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., from Played By Ear.


Black, Gregory D., Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies, (Cambridge University Press 1994).

Doherty, Thomas, Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration, (Columbia University Press 2007).

Lord, Daniel A., Played By Ear: The Autobiography of Daniel A. Lord, S.J., (Loyola University 1956).

Skinner, James, The Cross and the Cinema: The Legion of Decency and the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, 1933-1970, (Praeger Publishers 1993).

Walsh, Frank, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry, (Yale University Press 1996).

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