Even from the earliest days of filmmaking, people were worried about the possible effects of violence and immorality present in movies. Even early silent films such as The Birth of a Nation and Greed came under fire for their content. City censorship boards, many of them led by Protestant organizations, sprung up around North America. Catholic newspapers and magazines condemned the licentiousness of the movies and the danger of the movie theatres.
The Catholic position on movies gained power during World War I, with protests against movies on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. From there they moved to protesting Margaret Sanger's newsreels on birth control.
The power of Catholic and Protestant organizations led to the establishment of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in 1922. This association sought to eliminate the need for censorship boards by having movie studios police themselves. The appointment of Will H. Hays as head of the association led to it being called the Hays Office and it’s rules being known as the Hays Code. By making movies more socially responsible, Hays was able to sway the opinion of the public away from censorship. Still, he was not able to placate those who felt that movies represented a moral and political threat to society.
Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical entitled Vigilanti Cura that outlined the new importance of motion pictures and the dangers they presented.
These theatres, being like the school of life itself, have a greater influence in inciting men to virtue or vice than abstract reasoning. They must therefore be made to serve the purpose of disseminating the right principles of the Christian conscience, and must divest themselves of everything that could corrupt and impair good morals.
All men know how much harm is done by bad films; they sing the praises of lust and desire, and at the same time provide occasions of sin; they seduce the young from the right path; they present life in a false light; they obscure and weaken the wise counsels of attaining perfection; they destroy pure love, the sanctity of matrimony and the intimate needs of family life. They seek moreover to inculcate prejudiced and false opinions among individuals, classes of society and the different nations and peoples.
In 1932 the Catholic Legion of Decency was formed because the Church decided that movie content still ran counter to Catholic doctrine. Between nine and eleven million Catholics signed the following pledge:
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. .. Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality. I promise further to secure as many members as possible for the Legion of Decency. I make this protest in a spirit of self-respect, and with the conviction that the American public does not demand filthy pictures, but clean entertainment and educational features.
The Legion initially had three different film ratings. “A” (morally unobjectionable for general patronage), “B” (morally objectionable in part) or “C” (condemned). During the late 1950s, movies that dealt with more mature themes began being released. While these films usually contained enough violence or nudity to earn a C rating, some of them dealt with it in a fashion that was not in conflict with the teachings of the Church. This was especially spurned on with the release of the film La Dolce Vita. As a result of this, the Legion expanded their ratings in 1962 by adding the A-2, A-3, and A-4 ratings to be used for films with objectionable content that still maintained some values.
The influence of the Legion was immense, movie producers and exhibitors lived in fear of a boycott. Not only would Catholics boycott an individual film, but also the entire theatre chain that was showing the film. The boycott was usually started by the Legion issuing a movie a “C” rating, which made it a mortal sin for a Catholic to even see the movie.
With the death of the Production Code and the creation of the MPAA ratings system in 1968, the power of the Legion began to fade. The openness of the 1960s combined with a new rating system that that didn’t damn its audience to hell spelled doom for the Legion. In 1971 the Legion was disbanded, but its rating system still lives on for many Catholics. The New World, a Catholic newspaper, still uses the system, although it has replaced the “C” rating with an “O” that stands for “morally objectionable.” I like to read their reviews whenever I’m looking for a good laugh.