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  • Hollywood and the Culture Wars
  • Francis G. Couvares (bio)
Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. By Gregory D. Black. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 336 pages. $27.99 (cloth). $xx.xx (paper).
“When I’m Bad, I’m Better”: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. By Marybeth Hamilton. New York: Harper Collins, 1993. 307 pages. $25.00 (cloth). $xx.xx (paper).
Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry. By Frank Walsh. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. 394 pages. $35.00 (cloth).

No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

Correct standards of life shall be presented on the screen, subject only to necessary dramatic contrasts.

Law, natural or human, should not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

—“Principles Underlying the [Production] Code,” 1930

The language of the Production Code, with its prim certainties and yawning chasms of imprecision, can easily be made to seem the product of distant times and benighted people. It is a common virtue of the three books reviewed here that they make the censors comprehensible and [End Page 192] even familiar. If they humanize the censors and make sense of their concerns, however, the authors leave no doubt that the mischief they made deserves no nostalgia—and certainly no imitation.

Besides being politically enlightening, these three books demonstrate that the story of movie censorship has arrived at the center of the practice of social and cultural history in our day. They also remind us that history, indeed, narrative history, remains an indispensable road to knowledge about the world we inherit and live in. Though indisputably about Hollywood, each book resists a Hollywood-centered approach to the study of censorship. The battle over Birth of a Nation, or She Done Him Wrong, or The Pawnbroker, is not represented as a morality tale of “prudes” versus “progressives” (Hamilton, 196) battling over one medium in one historical moment. It is rather part of an ongoing kulturcampf that precedes the invention of movies, engages a range of other media, and intersects with a series of economic, social, and political dynamics that shape the values and behaviors of millions. It is part of a continuous, albeit enormously varied, effort by different groups and institutions to claim authority over public discourse in a democratic, multiethnic, and capitalist society, especially in moments when family and gender relations undergo significant strain. 1

Yet, contrary to the view that formal systems of censorship were merely part of a series of “normal” regulations by which every society defines the limits of “free speech,” that “market censorship” imposes similar, perhaps more stringent, controls over discourse, these authors insist that formal censorship mattered in distinctive ways. 2 They show that, however crass, opportunistic, or supine the Hollywood moviemakers were, the imposition of governmental and pressure group censorship resulted in a decisive attenuation of the reach of the American cinema, a broadening of taboos against subversive or liberating discourses, and a narrowing of the range of imaginative possibilities available to American citizens.

Both Black and Walsh offer empirical, narrative historical accounts of the relationship between Hollywood and the Catholic Church. At the center of both books is the story of the rise of the Legion of Decency. The Catholic Church, having attained by the mid-1920s a position of considerable moral authority in the big industrial cities, began to mobilize its institutional resources to fight what the hierarchy saw as an epic struggle against anti-Catholic prejudice and, even more grandly, worldwide infidelity. By 1930 it had overtaken the largely Protestant movement to regulate movies and made it its own. But the differences between Protestant and Catholic approaches to “the movie problem” were sharp and worth noting. [End Page 193]

In mainstream Protestant circles, as well as among secularized Protestant reformers, the appeal of national censorship legislation was strong. Using the language of progressivism, these critics of Hollywood saw the “filth” turned out by the studios as little different from the tainted meat and impure drugs produced by other...

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