Following its success during World War I in preventing troops and the general public from viewing objectionable content, in 1919, the NCWC formed a specific committee to deal with the growing film industry: the Motion Picture Committee. While still focusing on hygiene films, it worked with film producers behind the scenes to fund pro-Catholic movies like the unsuccessful effort, “American Catholics in War and Reconstruction.” By 1923, led by Charles McMahon, it began issuing monthly lists of positive films in the NCWC Bulletin, believing that the best way to promote quality films was to educate the public about what were the quality films. At the same time emerged a similar program under the leadership of the Motion Picture Bureau of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae, directed by Rita McGoldrick, a graduate of Rosary College in Illinois. While the NCWC could only evaluate 400 films a year, the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae (IFCA), which was staffed by volunteers who graduated from Catholic high schools and colleges), could review up to 11,000. The volunteers would rate the films either “good,” “very good,” or “excellent.”
While there were attempts by some dioceses to create “black lists” for immoral films, the NCWC and the IFCA, which supported the efforts of William Hays, stated it was not necessary, especially following the establishment of the Catholic-written Motion Picture Code in 1930 (as discussed in the last part of this series). However, while the Motion Picture Code was in effect, it was ineffective, with some commentators stating that the films produced during this period were less moral than the ones produced even prior to the institution of the code. As Father Daniel Lord wrote, “Crime, lust, the triangle situation, seductions, remained the normal plot of films. I could see not the slightest improvement.” Even Protestants felt betrayed by Hays and the moral code for motion pictures. Pete Harrison, editor of Harrison's Reports, wrote, “Hays made promises to the church people that he would allow no dirt in pictures and failed to keep his promises—and failed miserably.”
This era, extending from 1930 to 1934, is commonly referred to as the “pre-code era.” This is a misnomer. The Motion Picture Code was in effect. However, it just was not enforced.
Two film genres were prevalent during this period: the “gangster” and the “vamp” pictures. Films like Little Caesar, Scarface: the Shame of a Nation, and Public Enemy represent the gangster films of this time. Movies like Blonde Woman, My Sin, Tarnished Lady, Hot Stuff, Baby Face, Hot Stuff, She Done Him Wrong, and I'm No Angel fell into the category of “vamp” or “fallen women” films. (the last two starring the always provocative Mae West). Even noted crime expert, Al Capone, lamented the immorality of films during this period, saying “[T]hey are making a lot of kids want to be tough guys, and they don't serve any useful purpose.”
Trailer for the "Pre-Code" picture "Baby Face" starring Barbara Stanwyck
Social scientists also looked into the effects of motion pictures upon children. A group called the “Payne Fund” conducted an investigation into the influence of film upon children, publishing a twelve volume work stating, scientifically (with graphs and such), how the movies were impacting the nation's youth. A summary of the study, called “Our Movie Made Children,” by Henry James Forman, published in 1933, stated that if the industry continued to be unregulated it “is extremely likely to create a haphazard, promiscuous, and undesirable national conscience.”
By 1932, individuals in the Catholic Church such as Father Lord and Martin Quigley were fed up with the non-enforcement of the Code. Father Lord began looking into films produced since the code went into effect and wrote a pamphlet called “The Motion Pictures Betray America.” In it, he wrote, “It is no longer a matter of single scenes being bad, of occasional 'hells' and 'damns,' or girls in scantly costumes,” but “a whole philosophy of evil... depicted with an explicitness that [has] excited the curriosity of children and the emulation of morons and criminals.” After this pamphlet's publication, Hays threatened Lord with a defamation suit, but it came to naught. Lord continued speaking up against the growing sinfulness of film, with this issue coming to a head when Father Lord spoke in front of five thousand young people in Buffalo. As he states in his autobiography:
“...I threw the outline for my speech away.... I reminded them what they were seeing when they went to the theater, and what effect it was bound to have upon adolescents like themselves.
Then I think my tone rose slightly for I was, without preparation, on the verge of a challenge:
'Nobody else seems to be willing to tackle this job,” I said. “How would you like to clean up the movies?'
There was a moment of surprised silence, then somebody cried out, 'Yes!' then the place thundered with applause, and then we worked out our plan.”
The plan was to create a black list of films to be published in Lord's own “The Queen's Work,” a paper that went out to nearly all the Catholic high schools and colleges in the nation in addition to thousands of other Catholic groups. The list would be published every month, with two or three of the worst offenders, demanding protests and boycotts.
“Stay away from the ones we list,' said Lord. “Write indigent letters of protest to the companies responsible. Make it so hot for the offenders that they'll stop in sheer self-defense.”
Martin Quigley did not approve of these new, more aggressive actions by Father Lord. He felt that the Catholics would have more success maintaining a close working relationship with Hollywood, continuing the white lists of approved motion pictures produced by the NCWC and the IFCA. However, some individuals, like Cardinal Mundelein and Bishop Bernard J. Sheil, saw that Lord's work was proving effective. They saw how successful Father Lord was with the nation's youth and decided a national group of Catholics from all age groups (and Protestants and Jews) organized to protect film morality would be even more effective. Thus, the Catholic (soon to be National) Legion of Decency was formed in Fall 1933. As spoken by Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, “Catholics are called by God, the Pope, the bishops, and the priests to a united front and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema, which has become a deadly menace to morals.”
The Legion, with the power of the Catholic press and network of organizations, soon became the most feared institution for film producers in America. Variety claimed that fully half of the nation's 20,000,000 Catholics enlisted in the Legion within a few months. Vowing to not attend immoral films (or even the movie houses in general) Hollywood lost a tremendous amount of revenue. As stated in Chicago's “New World,” “Worn out by promises, tricked by pledges, deceived by codes, and dismayed by filth, the Church has finally decided to take action in the one way left for it-- boycott.”
The Legion of Decency raises its sword against the tentacles of the Hollywood octopus in an editorial cartoon from the Chicago's New World, September 28, 1934.
Scientific studies and the Legion of Decency were not the only pressures upon the motion picture industry in 1933. There was also a new presidential administration in Washington, and one without ties to the former Republican cabinet member, William Hays. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was establishing an alphabet soup of new regulatory agencies to deal with the Great Depression. The administration proposed that the entertainment industry should be regulated by the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Film industry representatives began negotiating with the Roosevelt administration, but there seemed to be little hope to avoid the federal regulation the industry had feared for over a decade. The President apparently felt that the motion picture industry needed the “eagle eye” of federal regulation. There was talk of codifying into statute the Motion Picture Code, thus having the force of law behind what was formally an agreement between the studios. Hays and the motion picture industry, surrounded by the government, social scientists, and the Church, needed a solution. He decided to work with the Church, hoping that the other sides would be placated if the Catholics settled down.
Hays turned to one man, Joseph Ignatius Breen, to help him make amends with American Catholics. Joseph I. Breen was not only a Catholic, but he was also from Chicago with close ties to the diocese, In 1925, he was the publicity director for the 28th International Eucharistic Congress. There he worked closely with Quigley and Cardinal Mundelein (as his personal public relations man). In 1929, he attended the meeting with Quigley and Father Dinnen where the Motion Picture Code was first proposed. By 1931, he was working for the MPPDA as Mr. Hays's assistant and Hollywood's ambassador to the Catholic Church. Trusted by both the Catholic Church and by William Hays, he worked at placating both.
On the fifth of February, 1934, Hays appointed Breen to head the Studio Relations Committee, the committee which had the duty to make sure motion pictures conformed with the Code. Still Breen encountered the ineffectiveness of the existing enforcement program when two motion pictures he denied approval of were successful when appealed to an appeals board made up of Hollywood producers. However, as federal pressure kept up and boycotts led by the National Legion of Decency continued, the MPAA finally decided to take action.
Joseph I. Breen
On June 13, 1934, the Board of Directors of the MPAA met in New York and approved the creation of the Production Code Administration. All films would have to approved by this new administration, under the direction of Breen. All films would be required to obtain a “Certificate of Approval,” a kind of imprimatur for motion pictures. Any production company that did not go through the PCA would be fined $25,000.00 which was soon reorganized as the Production Code Administration. The new PCA would have no appeal board made up of fellow producers. A decision made by the PCA could only be appealed to the MPPDA Board of Directors (located in New York, not in Hollywood). In addition, instead of only reviewing films after production had wrapped, there would be review prior to commencement of production, with the PCA flagging anything in proposed scripts violating the code.
Hays gave Breen and Quigley direction to gain the approval of the Catholic bishops (who were to meet on the 21st of June) of this new system. Hays told them that “the Catholic authorities can have anything they want.” After reviewing the framework for this new administration and making sure Breen would be in charge of enforcement, the bishops issued a letter stating, in part, that they were victorious as “the producer's jury in Hollywood, a part of the original machinery for enforcement of the Production Code... has been abandoned and that additional local authority (Breen) has been assigned to the Code administration.” On July 11, 1934, the PCA and its authority over motion pictures were formally approved by the major production companies.
The Marx Brothers, in the Pre-Code "Horse Feathers" ask "Where's the seal?"Pope Pius XI even came out in favor of this system in the Encyclical, Vigilanti Cura . As he wrote:
Although in certain quarters it was predicted that the artistic values of the motion picture would be seriously impaired by the reform insisted upon by the "Legion of Decency," it appears that quite the contrary has happened and that the "Legion of Decency" has given no little impetus to the efforts to advance the cinema on the road to noble artistic significance by directing it towards the production of classic masterpieces as well as of original creations of uncommon worth.
The establishment of this system in 1934 ushered in the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. In the next segment of this series, I will look at specific case studies showing how this Catholic system in regulating the content of motion pictures helped create America's movie classics.
“The stage is set for a magnificent piece of worthwhile Catholic action and achievement.”
Joseph I. Breen
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).