In 1933, Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani gave a speech at a Catholic charities convention in New York City about how movies were ruining America’s children. He called for the “purification of cinema,” because the Hays Code, the secular system for controlling smut in movies, obviously wasn’t going far enough (plus the Code had been set up by a Presbyterian minister, so you know it had to be letting dirty stuff slip through.)
One member of the audience took him up on the challenge, and the next year the Archbishop of Cincinnati John T. McNicholas formed the Catholic Legion of Decency, later known as the National Legion of Decency. And just like that, the Catholic Church would control film making for much of the glory years of Hollywood. Until the 1960s, the vast majority of directors and producers were desperate to avoid a “C,” or condemned, rating from the Legion, because it would be a death knell for their movies.
Church leadership embraced this new form of censorship with open arms, and within a year virtually every diocese in America had addressed the destruction that the relatively new and increasingly popular medium of cinema would bring on decent people.The Bishop of Cleveland said from his pulpit, “Purify Hollywood or destroy Hollywood!” A priest in Buffalo said movies was really an evil acronym, “M - means menace, O- obscenity, V- vulgarity, I - immorality, E - exposure, S - sex.” Fifty thousand people attended a Legion of Decency rally calling for a “war” against Hollywood. Some priests and a Catholic magazine went so far as to say that watching any movie was an affront to God and that all films should be avoided, others simply said that watching certain immoral movies was a mortal sin, just like murder and adultery, requiring serious penance. If a Catholic saw one of these movies and was then hit and killed by a car on the way home, his soul would go to hell. It was vital that church-goers know what movies they shouldn’t watch.
The Legion came up with a three part rating system, with A being movies that were just fine, B movies had some objectionable content, and C movies were to be avoided at all costs. To make sure everyone knew what they were agreeing to, Catholics took an oral pledge during mass. The pledge stated, “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.” Some churches replaced the oral pledge with signing an official document. Within weeks of the first person taking this pledge over a million people had done so in Boston and Chicago, over half a million in Detroit and Cleveland, and hundreds of thousands in Providence, Los Angles and Seattle. Within months it was estimated that 7 million people had taken the pledge.
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.