National Legion of Decency

The National Legion of Decency, also known as The Catholic Legion of Decency,[1] was founded in 1933 as an organization dedicated to identifying and combating objectionable content in motion pictures from the point of view of the American Catholic Church.[2] After receiving a stamp of approval from the secular offices behind Hollywood’s Production Code, films during this time period were then submitted to the National Legion of Decency to be reviewed prior to their official duplication and distribution to the general public.[3] Condemnation by the Legion would shake a film’s core for success because it meant the population of Catholics, some twenty million strong at the time, were theoretically forbidden from attending any screening of the film under the notion of mortal sin.[3] The efforts to help parishioners avoid films with objectional content backfired when it was found that it helped promote those films in heavily Catholic neighborhoods among Catholics who may have seen the listing as a suggestion.[1] Although the Legion was often envisioned as a huge bureaucratic arm of the Catholic Church, it instead was little more than a loose confederation of local organizations with each diocese appointing a local Legion director, usually a parish priest, who was responsible for Legion activities in that diocese.[4]

History of Censorship in Early American Cinema

In 1915, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding censorship in motion pictures called Mutual Film Corporation V. Ohio Industrial Commission; the Supreme Court held that states could censor films before they were released.[5] In 1948, the Supreme Court reversed the Mutual decision in the United States V. Paramount Pictures case. This is the case that established the Supreme Court’s position on censoring films: that they are protected under the first amendment as part of freedom of the press.[6] Just four years later, in 1952, the Supreme Court heard the case Joseph Burstyn, Inc. V. Wilson, which is the first case where the holding was that movies were protected under the free speech section of the first amendment and the fourteenth amendment.[7] This case, also known as “The Miracle” case, was based on the New York state ban on the Italian film The Miracle because it was deemed sacrilegious by many Catholic groups, including the Legion of Decency.[8] The Court’s decision that a film could not be banned because it was sacrilegious was challenged a year later in the Gelling V. Texas case in which a city in Texas had banned a film before its release. The Court upheld its previous ruling in the Miracle case, explaining that the American people could decide for themselves what they should and should not see.[9] Later, in 1957, the Supreme Court gave the film industry even more freedom in Roth V. the United States. This case held that movies could not be banned because they were not suitable for children if the movie was made for general audiences.[10] The Supreme Court’s position on film censorship, established in 1948, has been consistently against state censorship of film.

Rating system

The Legion of Decency had strict set of rules and regulations that Hollywood had to adhere to in order to have their movies viewed by the public in good light. If there were suggestive scenes or dialogue it was frowned upon in the Catholic Church there would be speculation to the morality of the film and its makers. This was a time where Hollywood not only had to worry about its reception to movie goers, but also its reception to the church. This idea of censorship appealed to the people who thought that the overall good was more important than individual liberties.[11] The Catholic Church brought its authority to the movie going process in attempts to purify it for the greater good of the people who watch film. They harshly critiqued film and its morality. A priest from Buffalo, New York went so far as to give a sermon regarding the film industry by spelling out the word "movies" with new meanings attached, "M - means moral menace, O - obscenity, V - vulgarity, I - immorality, E - exposure, S - sex." [12]

Film was in a state of constant progression, with the introduction of sound in film, there was a deep worry for the church that this would bring more subjective material to audiences. "Sound unlocked a vast amount of dramatic material which for the first time could be effectively presented on the screen."[13] This code was meant to "amplify and add to those principles in the light of responsible opinion, so that all engaged in the making of sound pictures might have a commonly understandable and commonly acceptable guide in the maintenance of social and community values in pictures." [13] In 1930 there was a production code (also known as the Hays Code) written that all movie producers had to follow in order to avoid conflict.

The MPPDA created a section of general principles stated that mostly fell in the realm of moral standards, correct standards of life, and standards of human law not be violated whatsoever.[14] Movies were stated as to be for entertainment use, and were frowned upon when extending beyond that definition. After the general principles were stated there were subsections of more specific rules that covered topics of murder, sex, vulgar language, profanity in dialogue, what the actors wore, how they danced, how they practiced religion in film, even the titles that were used for the film.[14] Because the movies were seen as speaking to the morality of the viewer, the church believed that they needed to reflect that morality and not question it or lead them to sin.

The Legion distributed a list of ratings for films in order to provide "a moral estimate of current entertainment feature motion pictures". The Legion was often more conservative in its views on films than the Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code. Films were rated according to the following schema:

The A rating was subsequently divided:

In 1978, the B and C ratings were combined into a new O rating for "morally offensive" films.

The Legion of Decency blacklisted many films for morally offensive content. “The condemnation came in the form of a ‘C’ rating”.[15] Practicing Catholics were directed to refrain from viewing such films. More explicitly, they were directed to, “remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality” (Time Magazine).[16] Officially, the terminology for a Legion of Decency blacklisted film was a “C-rating” which stood for condemned. The general breakdown of their rating system goes as follows: “ A-I, general approval; A-II, approved for adults; B, unsatisfactory in part, neither recommended nor condemned; and C, condemned” (Walsh, 130).[17]


In 1933, Archbishop John T. McNicholas, OP, composed a membership pledge for the Legion, which read in part:

I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land. … Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.

The pledge was revised in 1934:

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.

In 1938, the league requested that the Pledge of the Legion of Decency be administered each year on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8).

See also


  1. 1 2 Lasalle, Mick (March 20, 2016). "Ask Mick Lasalle". San Francisco Chronicle.
  2. Gregory, Black (1998). The Catholic Crusade Against The Movies, 1940-1975. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 4.
  3. 1 2 Black, Gregory (1998). The Catholic Crusade Against The Movies, 1940-1975. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 5.
  4. Black, Gregory (1998). The Catholic Crusade Against The Movies, 1940-1975. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 27.
  5. Walter, Robert H.K. (1951). "Constitutional Law: Possible Impact of Television Rule on Motion Picture Censorship". California Law Review. 39 (3): 421.
  6. Secrest, Thales L. (1955). "Constitutional Law - Freedom of the Press - Does Censorship of Motion Pictures Violate Freedom of the Press.". North Dakota Law Review. 31 (1): 63.
  7. Harris, Albert W. (1954). "Movie Censorship and the Supreme Court: What Next?". California Law Review. 42 (1): 122.
  8. Secrest, Thales L. (1955). "Constitutional Law - Freedom of the Press - Does Censorship of Motion Pictures Violate Freedom of the Press.". North Dakota Law Review. 31 (1): 64.
  9. McCarroll, Tolbert H. (1955). "Constitutional Law - Freedom of Speech and Press - Censorship of Films.". Oregon Law Review. 34 (1): 253.
  10. Friedman, Jane M. (1973). ""The Motion Picture Rating System of 1968: A Constitutional Analysis of Self-regulation by the Film Industry"". Columbia Law Review. 73 (2): 207.
  11. Wittern-Keller, Laura (2008). Freedom of the Screen. University Press of Kentucky. p. 54. ISBN 9780813172644.
  12. Wittern-Keller, Laura (2008). Freedom of the Screen. University Press of Kentucky. p. 55. ISBN 9780813172644.
  13. 1 2 "The Motion Picture Production Code (as Published 31, March, 1930) - Appendix 1" (PDF). Arizona State University. Retrieved April 12, 2016.
  14. 1 2 Doherty, Thomas (2009). Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. Columbia University Press. p. 352–355. ISBN 9780231512848.
  15. "C Is For 'Condemned': A Nun Looks Back On 47 Years Of Unholy Filmmaking".
  16. "Religion: Legion of Decency".
  17. Walsh, Frank. Sin and Censorship. Yale University Press.

Further reading

External links

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