Would it surprise you to know that the Catholic church had a strong impact on Hollywood and censorship? The Catholic Legion of Decency was founded by three powerful archbishops in 1933. Although established by Roman Catholic bishops, the Legion originally included Protestant and Jewish clerics. It was renamed in April 1934, substituting National for Catholic.
The Legion’s purpose was to identify and combat objectionable content in motion pictures from the viewpoint of the Catholic Church in the United States. For the first quarter-century or so of its existence, the Legion wielded great power in the American motion picture industry. The Legion offered ethical consultation to Hollywood and abstained from cooperating with government agencies in legal censorship. Its power came from its influence on the faithful and from its willingness to encourage boycotts when Hollywood ignored its ethical appeals.
Gritty realism was in vogue in all the arts in the 1920s and 1930s and filmmakers were no exception. There was nudity (in fleeting glimpses), violence (without gore), and anti-Catholic, racist and “un-American” content in many films. Most would-be censors believed realism, while necessary in art, didn’t justify lasciviousness. In particular, they didn’t want children exposed to material that might make the sins portrayed seem acceptable.
Although the Hays Code, created in 1930, identified a list of banned topics via its particular applications (aka “don’ts) and general principles (aka “be carefuls”) it was unable to stop filmmakers from skirting or ignoring its recommendations. With no real enforcement power, the MPPDA and its Hays Code—initially greeted with both hope and fear—became a laughingstock.
Unlike the Hays Code, which simply gave or withheld its “Approved by” seal, the Legion’s strategy was a simple A-B-C: movies rated A were morally unobjectionable; B films were morally objectionable in part; C stood for condemned. The Legion never took artistic merit into account. Eventually, the B and C ratings were combined into an O rating for “morally offensive” films.
The Legion’s ratings were strict, though not always fair, and it was hard to judge their effectiveness, but Hollywood kept the Legion in mind when producing new movies. They had little choice since the Legion was a highly visible organization in the 1930s. Church bulletins often printed the Legion’s A-B-C lists, and they encouraged their parishioners to take a pledge [this is the 1934 revised version]:
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. I pledge myself to remain away from them. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.
In 1938, the Legion requested that the pledge be administered to members each year on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8).
Condemnation by the Legion could affect the success of a film, because it meant some twenty million Catholics were theoretically forbidden from attending any screening of the film lest they commit a mortal sin. But the efforts to help parishioners avoid films with objectionable content backfired. The condemnation actually helped promote those films among Catholics who may have seen the listing as a suggestion only.
One of the movies condemned early on was Queen Christina (1933), starring Greta Garbo. The Legion condemned the movie because the queen appears to have an affair with a Spanish diplomat, she kisses another woman, and because Garbo wore pants. The reality of the film, though, was that the equestrian queen wore riding breeches a lot, the kisses were sisterly, and, although—disguised as a man—she did sleep in the same bed with the unwitting diplomat, it was hardly what one would call a sex scene, then or now.
Despite the condemnation of the Legion, Queen Christina was one of the most successful films of the year. In 1934, The Gay Divorcee, a light-hearted Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedy, was condemned by the Legion for its glib portrayal of divorce. The movie was still a box-office hit, as was Of Human Bondage (also 1934), the tale of a man in an illicit sexual affair with a woman.
By the 1960s, the Legion had become an exclusively Catholic concern. In 1966 it was renamed the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures. But the Legion’s effectiveness also diminished in the 1960s in the face of all the era’s various “liberation” movements. As of 2010, the ratings are issued by the Catholic News Service, an “editorially independent and a financially self-sustaining division” of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
One of the last films actually and effectively condemned by the Legion as mortally sinful was Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956). Despite the fact that the film had received a Hays Code seal of approval, the Legion of Decency condemned Baby Doll and successfully had it withdrawn from many American theaters. Although the film was critically successful (Kazan received a Golden Globe and the film received four Academy Awards nominations), the film lost money because of the Church pressure. The Bishops’ board later gave the film an L for its “stylized violence, implied marital infidelity and leering sexual situations.”
In 1980, the Legion released its last film reviews, condemning, among others, American Gigolo and Friday the 13th. The Church unofficially gave its opinions on movies after that but there was no threat for Catholics of committing a mortal sin simply for watching the wrong film. Still, the Legion left its mark on Hollywood and one has to wonder if classics like Some Like it Hot would be better or worse if the filmmakers hadn’t been worried about it being acceptable to the Catholic church.