For a newly minted adolescent in the pre-cable Dark Ages of 1980, this was an unconscionable attack on my God-given right to gawk at scantily clad British women. But it was non-negotiable. Because in our house, as in the homes of millions of other Catholics then and now, a priest’s opinion is like a decree from the Lord Himself.
And God, apparently, did not appreciate the subtle humor of The Benny Hill Show.
The Catholic Church’s generations-long influence over what Americans watched is front and center this month with Condemned, a 27-film series on Turner Classic Movies focusing on the Legion of Decency and its impact on the American film industry. Every Thursday night in March, TCM will screen films condemned or found objectionable by the Legion – an organization founded in 1933 by Archbishop John T. McNicholas of Cincinnati to “combat moral decline and protest salacious motion pictures.”
SPOILER ALERT! They failed (at least in the first part). But they succeeded in the “protest,” with more than 150 films falling on the wrong side of the organization’s moral compass over its 47-year history. Most of the offenders – roughly 105 – were released before enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code content guidelines began in 1934 or after it was replaced by the MPAA’s rating system in 1968. And all touch the hot buttons that remain controversial (for some) today: sex; blasphemy; nudity; abortion; divorce; homosexuality, etc.
To contemporary eyes, there’s not much moral decline on display in the 27 selections that earned the Legion’s scarlet letters: C (condemned); B (morally objectionable in part); or O (for offensive, which replaced B and C in the organization’s final days). But viewed through a historical prism, TCM’s brilliantly curated series tracks the censorship history of the American film industry from the early days of Talkies until the Reagan administration. And they do it in mostly chronological order, which gives the series the feel of a cinema studies seminar.
The instructor/host for this college course on your couch is Sister Rose Pacatte, a film critic who also happens to be a Catholic nun. Sixty-something Sister Rose is also the author or co-author of nine books and four blogs, as well as the founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies. (Keep that in mind the next time you tell somebody you’re “too busy.”) She’ll introduce and provide context for 18 of the 27 films in the series, hopefully explaining what the Legion could possibly find objectionable about the 1978 Robby Benson tear-jerker ICE CASTLES (which airs on March 24).
Condemned kicks off March 3 with a schedule that includes four seminal films from 1933: THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE, a lurid Southern Gothic melodrama with Miriam Hopkins as a party girl raped by a sadistic gangster; DESIGN FOR LIVING, Ernst Lubitsch’s love letter to polyamory, with Miriam Hopkins (again) as the object of Fredric March and Gary Cooper’s affections; BABY FACE, with Barbara Stanwyck as the “sweetheart of the nightshift” who sleeps her way to the top of New York society; and William Wellman’s WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, a gritty parable of Depression Era youth on the run.
Each of these films became infamous for portraying upended behavioral conventions during a period of social, political and economic upheaval. But ironically, though these envelope-pushing movies are beloved today by admirers of the free-wheeling Pre-Code Era, they also bear direct responsibility for its demise. While the studios were mostly ignoring the Code guidelines (written in 1930 by – wait for it – a Catholic priest), other entities were not. Regional censorship boards were unilaterally cutting films with frank content to ribbons, returning dozens of now-worthless prints to studios after local engagements. And groups like the Legion were engaging in grass roots advocacy, condemning movies from the pulpit and discouraging local theaters from screening them.
Finally, with calls for government regulation growing, the industry decided to get serious about self-monitoring. The Production Code Administration (PCA) was established in July of 1934 and every film released thereafter was required to carry a PCA seal of approval. While many classic film buffs mourn the loss of creative control that came with these strict ground rules, the Code made good sense from business standpoint, at least at first. And it won’t surprise anyone to learn that the studios’ Censor-in-Chief Joseph Breen was a devout Catholic.
The journey back to artistic freedom in Hollywood was a long one, often requiring advocacy that rivaled that of the Legion itself. After World War II, foreign films began filtering into the U.S., playing metropolitan areas without PCA approval and expanding boundaries. When Roberto Rossellini’s L’AMORE was deemed “sacrilegious” and banned in New York in 1950, independent distributor Joseph Burstyn battled back, taking his fight all the way to the Supreme Court. A year later, the Court ruled that movies were protected under the First Amendment, reversing a 1915 ruling. (L’AMORE airs on March 31.)
In the wake of this decision, iconoclastic filmmakers like Otto Preminger began to routinely challenge the Code. Preminger’s THE MOON IS BLUE (1953), a harmless sex farce with William Holden, David Niven and newcomer Maggie McNamara, was rejected by the PCA after Preminger and writer Hugh Herbert refused requested changes in the script. United Artists released the film anyway and the director and studio fought local censors who banned it, eventually taking their case to the Supreme Court. (THE MOON IS BLUE screens March 31.)
Elia Kazan’s BABY DOLL (1956) was condemned by the Legion but approved by the post-Breen PCA and released by Warner Bros. intact. While denouncements of the film by prominent members of the clergy – including Cardinal Spellman of the Archdiocese of New York – may have negatively impacted the box office, BABY DOLL still garnered a Best Actress nomination for Carroll Baker as the title character, a 19-year-old virgin bride who sleeps in a crib. (BABY DOLL screens March 31.)
By the time Michelangelo Antonioni’s experimental murder mystery BLOW-UP (1966) was released in the U.S. by MGM without PCA approval, it was clear that the Code had outlived its usefulness. It was briefly augmented with an SMA rating (“Suggested for Mature Audiences”) and then replaced entirely by the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system in 1968. (BLOW-UP airs March 17).
The Legion, now renamed the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, attempted to put the cinematic toothpaste back in the tube, increasing the number of condemned films from 3 in 1967 to 32 in 1970. The organization persevered for another decade, attempting to discourage business for films like THOSE LIPS THOSE EYES (1980) and THE COMPETITION (1980) before it was absorbed in the National Conference for Catholic Bishops. During its half century of operation, the Legion of Decency reviewed 16,251 films and dictated the moviegoing habits of all Americans, Catholic or otherwise. (THOSE LIPS THOSE EYES and THE COMPETITION screen May 24).
So what you should you watch in this series? Everything.
Failing that, make sure to catch the films that are not available legitimately on DVD in this country: THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933) on March 3 at 8 p.m.; Joseph Losey’s M (1951), the remake of the Fritz Lang classic, on March 10 at 8 p.m.; Lloyd Bacon’s THE FRENCH LINE (1954), a sexy RKO musical w/ Jane Russell that was originally released in 3-D, on March 10 at 9:45 p.m.; and Robert Rossellini’s L’AMORE (1948) on March 31 at 12:15 a.m.
If you can devote full nights to the series I recommend Week 1 on March 3 with its Pre-Code heavy line-up and Powell and Pressburger’s “blasphemous” BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) and Week 5 on March 31, which includes THE MOON IS BLUE, BABY DOLL, L’AMORE and other films released under “special circumstances.”
Sister Rose has also suggested a number of books to read, for those who are genuinely interested in pursing this like a college class. And why not? I took similar courses at NYU and I (my parents) paid thousands of dollars for them. This is free and you get to eat popcorn in class. How can you beat that?
And one more thing: Not long after I was forbidden from watching The Benny Hill Show, Fr. Tunney was reassigned and left our parish. I got my own TV soon thereafter, a 13-inch black-and-white. And I discovered that, while God may be watching, he can’t change the channel.