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Guarding movie morals

23 November 2012

Pat Ashworth considers church pressures on Tinseltown


Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants fought for freedom at the movies
William D. Romanowski
Oxford University Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use code CT517 )

THE Protestant influence on Hollywood might not have been as sensational as the Roman Catholic one, but it was every bit as significant, the American scholar, William Romanowski, argues in this labyrinthine history of attempts to regulate the film industry, from the silent era to the present day.

Unlike the Roman Catholics, Protestants supported free speech and favoured self-regulation, seeing legal censorship as undemocratic, un-American, and open to corruption. They believed in a reasonable measure of self-restraint to protect the public welfare, and were keen to emphasise a film's artistic merit and overall perspective rather than, as Romanowski puts it, "nit-picking at perceived immoral incidents".

It's a fascinating history, meticulously researched, and almost bewildering at times in the plethora of abbreviations attached to the multitude of boards and organisations set up over the decades. Some of the players are as colourful as the movies themselves, notably Will Hays, the eminent Presbyterian layman and powerful Republican leader, who Protestants, in the early days of cinema, hoped would be their front-man in the battle against commercialisation.

He was President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, but was caught up in financial scandals and associated with sleaze. When he started losing Protestant support, he turned to making alliances with Roman Catholics. The book reveals how their influence on Hollywood grew after the Wall Street crash. They set up the Legion of Decency in 1934, and, while the Protestants could only ask their flocks out of conscience to stay away from bad films, Catholics could organise national boycotts that put the fear of God into the studios.

It was as much a battle about whether the Catholics or the Protestants were the custodians of American morality, and that is one of the most absorbing aspects of the book. With Catholics ascendant in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, the studios put out a steady stream of films such as The Song of Berna-dette, which extolled priests and the RC Church, and came under fire for making Protestants figures of fun.

The post-war emphasis on civil liberties brought growing opposition to censorship and boycotts, and, by the 1960s, the book records, many top producers and directors, and religious and civic organisations were converging on the idea of an industry-wide rating system. And then there was the rise of the Evangelicals, who saw film and television as tools to re-evangelise the nation, and whose "Passion pound" in later decades was not lost on the industry.

A great deal of this history is academic. The story comes alive through the machinations of the studios, and the controversies that surrounded landmark films: the first blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, was artistically lauded but condemned for its racism; The Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum as an itinerant preacher who killed in cold blood (no RC priest would have been treated so offensively, critics argued); The Miracle, condemned as blasphemous; Elmer Gantry and The Sins of Rachel Cade, condemned as morally objectionable; The Last Temptation of Christ, which provoked the evangelist, Jerry Falwell, to call for "an all-out effort to cripple Hollywood, and make it regret ever releasing this piece of garbage".

Romanowski concludes that in holding out not for censorship but for an age-classification system (it came in 1965), Protestants helped to secure a freedom for the film industry that was bound to bring about a diminishing church influence. He expresses the hope that recovering an important piece of missing film history will help people gain a broader perspective, and I think he succeeds in that for the general audience.

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