Catholic Influence on the Hays Code - The National Legion of Decency

While the new code for censorship in film was being created, Catholic theology and Catholic leaders played an important role
The Legion publicly listed film ratings declaring what was admissible for Catholics to watch.  Young students checked local listings for acceptable films to attend.
The Legion publicly listed film ratings declaring what was admissible for Catholics to watch. Young students checked local listings for acceptable films to attend.
in determining what was appropriate for film, and their outspoken requests helped to create and enforce a new code of censorship in Hollywood films. The Catholic Legion of Decency (the named was changed to The National Legion of Decency a few years after its formation) was formed in 1933 in order to resist objectionable content in Hollywood movies. Hollywood filmmakers were in general trying to avoid government censorship by attempting to institute rules of self-censorship, but it was a long process, and many films did not comply with the moral standards of many religious organizations, and these organizations were crying out for censorship in films, boycotting those they deemed "morally unacceptable".


Before the Legion

Prior to the formation of the Legion, there was much pressure on producers to use self-censorship in order to avoid outside government censorship. At first, the MPPDA - Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America - issued the "Formula", asking studios to be more careful about objectionable content, but this did little to curtail the material being put into films.

In 1927 the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" list came out, giving a vague list of objectionable content that studios should avoid. The studios believed that they had every right to make films with such material, they wanted to liberty to be creative and artistic in their films, and found it difficult to completely stay away from every topic addressed in the list. Filmmakers also knew that contemporary American audiences went to the movie theater for a show; sex and violence brought in more audiences. The popularity of Hollywood was based on this rebellious, artistic, and often disrespectful form of entertainment, and the audiences of the rebellious 1920's were very receptive to films that questioned traditional views, something that Catholic leaders were trying to resist. [1]

Early Formation

In the late 1920's, prior to the formation of the Legion, Catholic groups had been asking for censorship in Hollywood. The National Council of Catholic Men protested the sexual material in movies and the irreverent view they had of the institution of the family. The Catholic Daughters of America took protests a step further and actually condemned and boycotted all Hollywood movies altogether. Ave Maria asked all Catholics to boycott films deemed to contain inappropriate material. The belief grew that Hollywood was altogether corrupt and had no respect for anything but making money, and that filmmakers did nothing but show immorality in order to put on a cheap show. [2]

In 1930 a Catholic priest, Father Daniel Lord, S.J. , began writing a code that gave general guidelines for what was morally acceptable in films. His code banned glorifying criminal and gangster activity, adulterers, prostitutes, showing nudity, excessive violence, profanity, white slavery, illegal drugs, suggestive postures and overly-sensual kissing in films. The code also asked films to promote morality and wholesome social institutions, and defend the government and religious institutions. [3] This was the beginning of the Catholic Legion of Decency, and led to the code eventually agreed to and enforced by the Hays Office.

Lord's code was difficult to enforce at first, so in November 1933, Catholic Bishops appointed a committee to begin an outspoken campaign against immorality in movies. This led to the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1934. The religious affiliations of the Legion were directed within the membership of the Catholic Church, but also included Protestant and Jewish members. [4] Though the group was originally called the Catholic Legion of Decency, Catholic was soon replaced by National because of its more widespread membership.

MPPDA standards had to be met by Hollywood films, and the National Legion of Decency helped establish the criteria for censorship.
MPPDA standards had to be met by Hollywood films, and the National Legion of Decency helped establish the criteria for censorship.

Cooperation from the Hays Office

Will Hays - president of the MPPDA - supported Lord's code, and in 1930 it became the framework for the code adopted by the motion picture industry. However, Catholics were not content with the outcome and enforcement of the code, and this contributed to the growing membership of the Legion, millions signing pledges to boycott movies that were offensive. In an attempt to work with the religious organizations, Hays named a Catholic, Joseph I. Breen , director of his Production Code Administration. After 1934 no film could be viewed in any major U.S. theaters without a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration . The Legion viewed every film made in Hollywood and released its ratings publicly, forbidding Catholics to attend any film that was condemned. [5]

For years, the idea of "self-regulation" - an attempt by Hollywood filmmakers to censor their own films in order to keep government regulators from stepping in - had been the only reason for filmmakers to censor their films, but such loose censorship was not easily enforced. Because of these problems with enforcement, by 1934 a new set of rules were released with a $25,000 fine for lack of compliance. Begrudgingly, filmmakers made objectionable material in movies far more indirect, and the MPPDA eventually succeeded in blocking outside censorship of Hollywood films.[6]

"Don'ts and Be Carefuls"

What the Legion Wanted Banned From Films

An excerpt from the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" list:

Resolved, that those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:

1. Pointed profanity - by either title or lip - this includes the words "God", "Lord", "Jesus", "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell", "damn", "Gawd", and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled.
2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity - in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.
3. The illegal traffic in drugs.
4. Any inference of sex perversion.
5. White slavery.
Mae West in "She Done Him Wrong"
Mae West in "She Done Him Wrong"

6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races).
7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases.
8. Scenes of actual childbirth - in fact or in silhouette.
9. Children's sex organs.
10. Ridicule of the clergy.
11. Will offense to any nation, race, or creed. [7]

Mae West

The actress Mae West caused many problems for censorship committees, appearing in racy films such as She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933) . She personified the sexual revolution of the 1920's. She was controversial and sexually suggestive in the very way she spoke and acted in her films. She made fun of society and those people who wanted sex and sexual references taken out of Hollywood films. Her films are stereotypical of the material the Legion and the MPPDA was fighting to censor, and included such lines as "Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?" (Mae West, She Done Him Wrong) that were deemed unacceptable by the Legion's censors.

The Legion of Decency Pledge

During the era in which the Legion of Decency marched on Hollywood, Catholic priests were preaching that to go to an immoral movie was a serious sin. Catholics were faced with pressure to speak out against Hollywood films. Millions signed pledges to boycott movies deemed inappropriate or immoral by the Legion. [9]

The pledge was as follows:
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.

The Ratings System

The Legion issued ratings in order to attempt to give viewers an idea of the content of the films. It constructed a four-tier ratings system and began to review films, giving them one of the following four labels:

A1 - Unobjectionable for general patronage
A2 - Unobjectionable for adults
B - Objectionable in part
C - Condemned

This system allowed for the fact that not all films were appropriate for children, but also not condemned for viewing by adults. All Catholics were forbidden to see films in the "C" tier, as they were condemned as completely inappropriate and immoral.
[10] Between November 1939, and November 1943, two hundred and three pictures were placed on the "B" list, one hundred and fifty-seven of them made by one of the eight major studios in Hollywood. [11] During the same period, the Legion of Decency condemned six films, giving them the "C" rating.[12]

External Links


National Legion of Decency:

List of films condemned by the Legion of Decency:

List of "Don'ts and Be Careful's"


Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell (2010). Film History: An Introduction. Third Edition. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. ISBN 978-0-07-338613-3.

Facey, Paul W. The Legion of Decency: A Sociological Analysis of the Emergence and Development of a Social Pressure Group. 1974. New York: Arno Press. ISBN 0-405-04871-8.

Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. 1994. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-56592-8.

Black, Gregory D. The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies. 1997. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 0-521-59418-9.
  1. ^ Black Hollywood Censored 51.
  2. ^ Black Hollywood Censored 70-71.
  3. ^ Black Hollywood Censored p. 1-2.
  4. ^ Facey, 36-37.
  5. ^ Black Hollywood Censored 2.
  6. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, p. 198-199.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Black Hollywood Censored pp. 72-73.
  9. ^ Black Hollywood Censored166-167.
  10. ^ Black Catholic Crusade24-26.
  11. ^ Facey, pp. 94-95.
  12. ^ Facey, pp. 93.