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Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies (Cambridge Studies in the History of Mass Communication) Hardcover – August 26, 1994

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Editorial Reviews


"Several books about that phase of movie censorship dealing with the Motion Picture Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency have been published recently. Hollywood Censored can be counted among the better ones because it is extensively researched and maintains a nice balance between the serious, the ironic and the amusing aspects. Also, it publishes a lot of previous buried material from the Legion archives." George Turner, American Cinematographer

"His mastery of the voluminious primary sources ensures a thorough description with no significant gaps." James M. Skinner, American Historical Review

Book Description

Based on an extensive survey of original studio records, censorship files, and the Catholic Legion of Decency archives, this analysis examines how hundreds of films were expurgated to promote a conservative political agenda during the 1930s.

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Product Details

  • Series: Cambridge Studies in the History of Mass Communication
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (August 26, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521452996
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521452991
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,477,356 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By M. Bromberg on March 4, 2005
Format: Paperback
The early motion picture industry didn't just entertain audiences, it enticed them into movie palaces with spectacle, sex, and (increasingly) lurid tales of sin and seduction. This combination proved so successful that, by the early 1930s, a conservative religious movement emerged with an aim to "clean up" Hollywood's excesses, led by the Catholic Church but supported by preachers, ministers, and spiritual spokesmen nationwide. The Catholic Church's League of Decency became the first cultural crusade against what was perceived as a threat to the national character. Wielding an authority of equal parts religion and politics, the League saw to it that movies were banned outright, content was snipped and clipped, and production scripts were combed over for hints of immorality. Classic novels were re-written for the screen to pass the scrutiny of the hastily-created, reactionary Hays Office. Is this a good thing? There was a backlash among Hollywood writers; Black's recounting of William Faulkner creating the story of "Sanctuary" in three weeks ("the most horrific tale" Faukner could imagine, Black writes, "a morbid tale of rape, murder, sexual impotence and perversion") certainly seems like an outright challenge to the Paramount studio writers and censors, and the rewritten, completed film ("The Story of Temple Drake") turns the story inside out for a relatively less-scandalous ending.

Over the course of years, the Legion of Decency and the Hays Office's Production Code (which functioned as a presumptive industry watchdog) ensured that onscreen crime would not pay and immorality would be punished.
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Soon after movies became popular around the early 1900s, there were persistent attempts from conservative groups and individuals to censor movie content. The first ordinance to regulate the content of movies was enacted in Chicago in 1907, where police officers were assigned to use their own personal discretion to decide which movies were acceptable for the public. Chicago's was the model for movie censorship for the next 50 years. Exploiting a variety of scandals involving famous movie individuals such as Roscoe Arbuckle, director William Desmond Taylor, Wallace Reid, and Mary Pickford, 100 movie censorship bills had been introduced in 37 states by the 1920s, and formal censorship was already established in some states, including Florida.
The movie moguls wanted to project a clean image for Hollywood, so, in 1922 in response to the rising tide of complaints about movie content, they organized as a special-interest group and created a trade association, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). As its public relations agent, the moguls hired the Harding administration's Postmaster General, Will Hays, a strait-laced, conservative Presbyterian to deal with public complaints. Hays was also the chairman of the Republican National Committee, and his law firm worked for Peabody Coal where Hays met Joseph I. Breen, Peabody's PR agent (although not mentioned in this book, Hays reportedly admired Breen's success in putting down a major coal miners' strike.) who would later become chief of the movie Production Code Administration in 1934.
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Format: Paperback
What enabled one viciously anti-semetic Catholic, Joe Breen, to control an entire industry? This delightful scholarly tome gives a partial answer: the industry wanted to have its product go to the largest possible audience, despite local and national boards of censors. By censoring themselves, they obtained a pugnacious Irish Catholic who could browbeat bishops, state legislators, and others. The only price was to meet this one person's private moral code: to make movies that would not offend 12 year old girls in convent schools. This history of the Production Code Authority, and how it was exercised is par excellence. What gave Breen his power was a confluence of Catholic bankers, vertical integration from studio through distributor to exhibitor, coupled with mandatory booking at the exhibition level. The weakness for the studios was Catholic threats of boycotts at the midwestern exhibitor level where the studios were weakest. This book should be coupled with the author's "Catholic Crusade Against the Movies" and the pictoral "Sin in Soft Focus." An interesting footnote is the KKK response to the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency. Does the revival of Catholic horror of blasphemy, in the so-called Catholic League of the 1990s pose a similar threat? Probably not, since the Fr. Lord's Legion of Decency was focused on Jewish studio heads, and the Catholic League objects to Catholic movie makers and Catholic television writers. The PCA did more than condemn the use of angora sweaters in the finished movies, it forbade any movie that was social in comment or controversial in its politics. Somehow it even managed to offend William Randolph Hearst, a honor usually reserved to Orson Wells and "Rosebud."
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