How The Catholic Church Controlled Hollywood

By Kathy Benjamin | Think Pieces | June 12, 2012 |

With numbers like that, Hollywood had no choice. If they wanted to make the most money possible from their movies, they now had to answer to a religious body as well as a less stringent secular one. And answer to it they did. Many of our most classic movies were modified to avoid a C rating. Before the formation of the Legion, decisions to censor movies by the Hays office could be overruled by a jury of producers. Within months of the first Legion pledges, members of the Hays office met with the founders and agreed to abolish the jury, thereby making the Hays Code much more rigorous. But it still wasn't enough. Hays continued to let through scenes, lines, and themes that the Legion found extremely questionable. With their boycotts proving very effective in lowering ticket sales, movies were soon being made with the opinions of bishops in mind. Over the course of three decades, only 5 films made it into major theater chains that weren't give at least a B rating by the Legion. It took a full 20 years before any film with a C rating made a profit: 1953's The Moon is Blue.

In 1940, the Clark Gable/Joan Crawford vehicle Strange Cargo was cut in order to pass the Legion's exacting standards test. In 1947, Miracle on 34th Street barely scraped by with a B rating because of its sympathetic portrayal of a divorced woman. The Seven Year Itch had to change drastically from the stage version to pass muster; originally the main characters do have an adulterous sexual relationship, in the movie it is all in the man's head. Audrey Hepburn's Love in the Afternoon was forced to change its ending to make the bishops happy. And on Christmas Eve 1962, Gregory Peck found himself on the phone with Father Patrick J. Sullivan asking why To Kill A Mockingbird was unacceptable. Apparently the bishops felt the ending gave the impression that lying, even if for a good reason, was okay. The scene was summarily altered.

Half a dozen foreign films, produced in countries with little or no censorship, had to be severely edited before the Legion allowed them to be shown in America. This, however, would prove to be the beginning of the end for the censoring body. In 1952 the Supreme Court decided the case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson. It centered on the New York state ban of a short film by Roberto Rossellini that the Legion found particularly distasteful. The court found in favor of showing the film, and struck a serious blow to religious censorship. The Legion continued to have power (as evidenced by that Christmas Eve phone call a decade later) but it had started to lessen. In 1957 the Pope himself said Catholics should be more concerned with seeing good films than boycotting bad ones. By the 1960s, the liberal attitudes of America were even creeping into the membership of the Legion. Some condemned the priests who decided the ratings as too permissive, while others in the increasingly liberal Catholic population often felt the ratings were still too strict. As the cohesiveness of the church eroded, so did the effectiveness of the rating system and the pledge.


Finally, in 1980, the Legion released its last film reviews, condemning, among others, American Gigolo and Friday the 13th. While the Church unofficially gave its opinions on movies after that, there was no threat of committing a mortal sin for Catholics simply by seeing the wrong film. Still, the Legion had left its mark on Hollywood, and one has to wonder if classics like Some Like it Hot would be better or worse if those making the film hadn't been worried about being acceptable to clergymen.

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