Lessons from Catholic censorship during Hollywood’s Golden Age

Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014).

A scene from Frank Capra’s 1934 film “It Happened One Night,” starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. (Images: Wikipedia)

The role of Catholic censors in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s is both a success story of the power of unified Catholic activism and a cautionary tale of the reduction of culture to moralism.

On Sunday, April 25, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences held its 93rd Academy Awards. Closing in on its 100th birthday, striving for contemporary relevance, it succeeded only in showing its age. Whereas viewers were once wearied by the length of the ceremony itself, any thoughtful viewer who bothered to tune in might simply be wearied by the effort to recapture the magical hold that Oscar night once held on the imagination of the American public.

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, Hollywood was America’s storyteller. The unifying experiences of the Great Depression, World War II and postwar prosperity were understood in large part through the stories told in Hollywood films; in the words of the historian Robert Sklar, American culture of this period was “movie made.” It was also, in a significant way, Catholic made. Hollywood’s ability to speak both to and for America reflected its affirmation of a cultural consensus rooted in a moral consensus articulated and protected by the Catholic priests and laymen who helped to shape Hollywood’s in-house censor, the Production Code Administration (PCA), established in 1934. The role of Catholic censors in Hollywood’s Golden Age is both a success story of the power of unified Catholic activism and a cautionary tale of the reduction of culture to moralism.

Hollywood’s rise to the position of defender of American morals was by no means inevitable. Motion pictures were a new form of entertainment and the novelty itself suggested a potential threat to tradition. Thomas Edison may have claimed the patents for much of the early motion picture technology, but film as a medium of entertainment grew up far from the Anglo-Protestant cultural milieu of the “wizard of Menlo Park.” The culture of early movie-making took shape within the context of the immigrant city; as historian Neal Gabler has emphasized, the entrepreneurs who would go on to create Hollywood were overwhelmingly Jewish-American.

Catholics were ideally suited to mediate between these two worlds: Christian enough to relate to Protestants and ethnic enough to relate to Jews. When Al Smith, the Irish-Catholic former governor of New York State, ran for the presidency in 1928, Protestant enemies sought to question his personal morality by linking his religion and ethnicity to Hollywood: a spokesman for the Ku Klux Klan charged that Smith would “get the vote of the Jew-Jesuit movie gang who want sex films and Sunday shows to coin millions through the corruption of youth.” If the charges of corrupting youth were a bit extreme, the KKK was at least fairly accurate in their rendering of the ethno-religious profile of Hollywood.

Concerns about the detrimental moral influence of movies were present at the creation of the film industry. If early Hollywood turned Mary Pickford into “America’s Sweetheart,” it also offered Gloria Swanson as America’s femme fatale. Regardless of what happened on the screen, movie theaters at the very least provided an opportunity for unmarried men and women to spend hours alone in the dark. Despite Hollywood’s effort to cultivate a clean image, newspaper stories abounded of small-town girls moving to California to become movie stars, only to become fallen women; for those who did become stars, the casting couch was an open secret. A series of scandals in the early 1920s, including the implication of the popular comedian Fatty Arbuckle in the death of a young starlet at a wild Hollywood party, only exacerbated concerns about the negative impact of the movies on American morality.

Fearful of losing the family audience that they had so carefully cultivated, the Jewish studio heads hired the uber-Protestant Will Hayes—a former Postmaster General and Republican National Committee chairman—to function as a kind of morality czar. In 1922, the studio moguls appointed Hayes the head of a new trade organization, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), soon to be known simply as the Hayes Office. The MPPDA was to act as Hollywood’s internal censor guaranteeing that films would promote wholesome values. Completely out of his element, with no understanding of the film industry and no rapport with the industry professionals, Hayes was largely a failure as Hollywood’s in-house censor-in-chief.

Enter the Catholics. Though not as prominent as the Jews who ran the studios, Catholics made up a considerable proportion of the workers who staffed the movie industry, including those employed in the array of industry publications, ranging from trade journals to fan magazines.

Martin Quigley, editor of the influential trade publication, the Moving Picture World, was one such Catholic. Like many industrial professionals, Quigley feared that the failure of the Hayes Office might cause permanent damage to Hollywood’s ability to command a family market. Part of the problem lay in a lack of a uniform standard as to what counts as proper “family” morality. Too often, the Hayes Office generally assessed the moral content of films only after they were made in response to the objections of a bewildering variety of state censorship boards, each with different standards as to what made a film “safe” for viewing. Hollywood professionals realized the need for a common national standard and feared that the federal government might step in to provide it, imposing national regulations on the film industry. To save the family market and avoid federal control, Quigley decided that Hollywood needed a single, clear, uniform code that could guide the production of films to ensure that their moral content would be acceptable to all Americans.

Who in Hollywood could possibly possess such wisdom and insight into the moral life? Quigley turned to Father Daniel J. Lord, S.J., who had recently served as a religious advisor on Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent version of King of Kings. By 1930, Lord, with some assistance from Quigley, drafted the list of moral guidelines that would be known as the Production Code. The Hayes Office proved inept at the practical implementation of the Code. In 1934, Joseph Breen, a lay Catholic working within the Hayes Office, proposed the creation of a new department dedicated to enforcing the Code: the Production Code Administration (PCA), headed up by none other than Breen himself.

Along with these developments within the film industry, Catholic bishops sponsored the formation of a lay group, the Legion of Decency, dedicated to promoting and protecting, well, “decency” in films and American culture in general. Individual Catholics, and even non-Catholics, were encouraged to take a personal pledge not to view indecent films. The Legion worked closely with Breen to ensure that their even more rigorous vision of decency would guide his judgment in cases where films seemed to push the boundaries of Hollywood’s official Code. Academic historians, such as Gregory Black and Thomas Dougherty, have generally not been kind to censorship in general, nor to Breen and the Catholic Church in particular. To them, as for some critics at the time, the whole effort seemed like a Catholic conspiracy to control American culture.

To Catholics, film censorship was simply a particular instance of what the Church at the time referred to as “Catholic Action.” Rooted in St. Pius X’s motto, “to restore all things in Christ,” and promoted vigorously by Pius XI, Catholic Action envisioned a world transformed by lay Catholics working, as the saying went, “in the milieu,” of the full range of modern institutions and organizational life. Thus, workers who were Catholic would form Catholic labor organizations, Catholic students would form Catholic student organizations, etc.; or, alternatively, as in the case of the Legion of Decency/PCA, Catholics would work within non-Catholic institutions to restore them in Christ.

Lord, Quigley, Breen and the Legion of Decency were largely successful in imposing their moral code on Hollywood for the next twenty years. The Hollywood establishment understood that Breen had helped to save the industry’s reputation for providing family entertainment (and the box office revenues that flowed from this reputation): when Breen finally retired from the PCA in 1954, the Academy awarded him with an honorary Oscar for his efforts.

What, precisely, did those efforts accomplish? As an example of lay Catholic Action, did they help to bring Hollywood to Christ? The Production Code was, after all, a moral code supposedly applicable to people of all faiths or none. Much like pro-life Catholics today, the Legion of Decency claimed it was not imposing its particular faith on Hollywood, but rather defending a moral consensus accessible to all Americans. Code guidelines included statements such as: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it”; “Correct standards of life . . . shall be presented”; “Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed.” What exactly were these standards? Were such standards Catholic or “neutral?”

Rather than parsing the particularities of the code as written, I will try to answer these questions with a classic film from the time that seemed to push the boundaries of respectable morality: Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934).

The gold standard of the genre of “screwball comedy,” Capra’s film follows the road adventures of Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and Peter Warne (Clark Gable): she, a spoiled heiress on the run from her father’s efforts to prevent her marriage to a ne’er-do-well playboy; he, a reporter in search of a tabloid scandal story. The great moral dilemma and focus of the sexual tension in the film comes as the two, on the run and short of funds, must share a motel room. Though the room conveniently has two twin beds, they agree to separate the motel space with a blanket hung on a rope tied across the walls of the room—the famous “Walls of Jericho” separating the two unmarried adults and preserving the prohibition on pre-marital sex.

Though Columbia Studios released the film before the PCA began its strict enforcement of the Code, Capra made the film with the Code in mind. Morality aside, the Walls served as a great comic device and provided a concrete symbol for the sexual tension essential to good romantic comedy as far back as Shakespeare. The film concludes with the two awaiting the annulment of her hasty marriage to the playboy: when this arrives, Peter and Ellie marry and the Walls come tumbling down in a motel room much like the one they stayed in when they were on the run.

It Happened One Night is an entertaining film, an example of the best of what Hollywood produced in its golden age. Is it, however, an example of restoring all things in Christ? What exactly is the message of the film? With respect to marriage, the film affirms the prohibition on pre-marital sex. But is marriage simply a license to have sex? The film ends where it begins, on the road. Peter and Ellie consummate their love within the bare limits of law and morality, but they remain wanderers with no clear connection to anything beyond themselves and the narrow letter of the law. Though Ellie’s father approves of Peter, her choice of a lower-class reporter as a husband is as much a rejection of the expectations, even obligations, of her social milieu as her original elopement with the playboy. Ellie and Peter have their true love for each other, but not much more.

Lest this appear too harsh a judgment for a light comedy, allow me to compare it to a light comedy of a much earlier time, Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Long before Shakespeare had to be force fed to bored high school students, he was popular entertainment, the Hollywood cinema of the Elizabethan era. In As You Like It,the love story of Rosalind and Orlando begins with a social world thrown into turmoil by a power struggle within a noble family. Fleeing disorder, Rosalind and Orland find themselves in a magical place on the margins of mainstream society: the Forest of Arden, which opens up certain transgressive possibilities much like the open road of It Happened One Night.

Still, the two stories end in radically different ways. At the end of As You Like It, Rosalind and Orlando marry in the context of the restoration of the broader social/political order whose disruption had occasioned the flight to the forest. Only the melancholy, anti-social Jacques chooses to remain in the forest. The screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s arguable rise to the level of Shakespeare in terms of comic artistry, but always within a comparatively thin social world where romantic love triumphs as the highest good apart from nearly any external standard—save, of course, the prohibition on pre-marital sex.

Romantic love within the limits of pre-marital chastity reflects a vision of marriage far more secular and Victorian than Catholic. The conflation of the Victorian and the Catholic was the great blind spot of Catholic activists such as Daniel Lord and Joseph Breen. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, the absence of blatant affronts to Catholic morality obscured the absence of the broader social, religious and even political world in which Catholic morality made sense. In this way, Catholics contributed to the promotion of a kind of moral individualism that would ultimately lead many to question that last prohibition so faithfully affirmed in classic Hollywood cinema.

Catholic censorship taught America to look to commercial entertainment as a reliable guide to morality. Victorian probity was good for business in the 1930s and 1940s. When television provided this for free in the 1950s, Hollywood moved on. So too did America. And so too did many American Catholics.