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National Legion of Decency
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Films and TV
The National Legion of Decency, originally known as the Catholic Legion of Decency, was an American organization with a long tradition of campaigning for movies to be more boring and less reflective of actual life. In its heyday from the 1930s to 1960s it promoted the Motion Picture Production Code which enforced morality on filmmakers; it published ratings of new movies, and got millions of decent people to swear to oppose immoral films.
The Catholic Legion of Decency was formed in the early 1930s at the instigation of American members of the Roman Catholic church, including Archbishop John T. McNicholas, to make Hollywood movies more moral. In 1930, Hollywood formally adopted the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code), which set out a lot of rules to eliminate immoral elements in films and promote morality, restricting or banning entirely the depiction of many things from nudity and profanity to miscegenation, venereal disease, smuggling, prostitution, drug abuse, sympathetic portrayals of criminals, and even a man and a woman sharing a bed. However, in the early 1930s the rules were not enforced, which is why the Legion of Decency was formed to oppose "vile and unwholesome moving pictures": in 1934 the code became mandatory and strict censorship was imposed on Hollywood movies. At a time when only a small proportion of Americans were Catholic, "to a large degree their entertainment was being dictated by Catholic precepts", according to writer Will McKinley.
A year after its foundation it had 2 million members, soon rising to 7 million, and it changed its name to the National Legion of Decency and gained an increasing number of non-Catholic members. Members would be expected to recite a pledge to "condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land". Film ratings would be posted in Catholic churches, and priests would warn congregations what films to avoid.
The Legion published ratings for motion pictures, assigning each film one of three ratings:
- A: Morally unobjectionable (with some films recommended for adults only, or for adolescents and adults)
- B: Morally objectionable in part
- C: Condemned by the Legion of Decency.
The list of films condemned by the Legion includes many classics as well as long-forgotten pictures. More notable entries included:
- Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII (condemned in 1933)
- Marcel Carné's Le Jour Se Lève (1939)
- Rosselini's Germany, Year Zero (1949)
- The 1950 re-release of Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel
- Early Brigitte Bardot film And God Created Woman (1955)
- Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1955)
- Fellini's 8½ (1963)
- Mel Brooks' The Producers (1968)
- Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976)
But not all were of artistic merit: the likes of Slaves in Bondage (1937) were intended as exploitation films that would doubtless wear their condemnation with pride, and Reefer Madness has few defenders as anything other than an unintentional source of hilarity.
Many films were re-edited following condemnation and received lighter ratings as a result. These included classic British nun drama Black Narcissus (1947), Howard Hughes's sexy western The Outlaw starring Jane Russell's bosoms (1943), and Rififi (1955). It was never entirely able to go against the taste of audiences though; even in its early years, Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers comedy The Gay Divorcee gained a C rating for its theme of divorce but was still a massive popular hit.
For decades it continued to classify films and report on the depravity it found. Foreign films were a particular issue: in 1964, 13 of the 16 films on the condemned list came from overseas, including Ingmar Bergman's The Silence and Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water. Following a 1959 court decision, nudity became more acceptable on American screens, but most such films were from abroad; likewise British and European films were able to explore topics such as homosexuality, non-monogamous sex, and youthful rebellion in a way that Hollywood largely shied away from. The American films that attracted its ire generally came from small independent producers, often exploitation films or art movies, while the majors satisfying its demands.
However, through the 1950s and 1960s the Legion was gradually losing its power and influence: studios were increasingly disregarding old moral strictures, ignoring the Hays code, and pushing the boundaries of what could be shown and said on screen. This process began in 1952 when the US Supreme Court ruled that films were entitled to First Amendment protections as free speech, and in 1953, the prestigious Hollywood filmmaker Otto Preminger was able to disregard the Hays Code when he made The Moon Is Blue. This was an outlier but very gradually, under the influence of European films and the rebellious spirit of the 1960s, swearing and nudity become a part of mainstream cinema, and the Legion was powerless to stop this. By the end of the 1960s the Hays Code was effectively abandoned and mainstream movies were free to promote immorality, sex, and violence; the Legion had lost.
It declined significantly in membership and in importance from the 1960s, ceasing to become a separate organisation; its ratings were still published but no longer with the full force of the church. In 2010 it became part of the Catholic News Service, which still publishes film reviews and ratings, although some films such as The Gay Divorcee have been reappraised and are no longer considered a grave threat to America's morals. The CNS's rating system is still very similar:
- A-I - general
- A-II - adolescents and above
- A-III - adults only
- L - "limited adult audience": "films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling"
- O - "morally offensive": "This classification is applied, most importantly, to films that deny the existence of God, ridicule religious faith or are otherwise sacrilegious (note the familiar conflating of morality with religion). Movies that directly contradict scriptural values and church teaching on such matters as euthanasia, abortion, suicide, adultery, homosexual activity or vigilante killing and revenge also fall into this category. So, too, do films that feature excessive violence, gratuitous or exploitative sexuality or, for no artistically valid reason, non-stop vulgarity."
Recent winners of the O badge include The First Purge, Happytime Murders, and Deadpool 2. Watch at your own risk.
- See the Wikipedia article on National Legion of Decency.
- See the Wikipedia article on Motion Picture Production Code.
- Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934, Thomas Doherty, 1999, reprinted in New York Times
- C Is For 'Condemned': A Nun Looks Back On 47 Years Of Unholy Filmmaking, NPR, 3 Mar 2016
- "Censoring the Silver Screen": a History of the Legion of Decency, Sister Rose Movies, Patheos, Feb 29, 2016
- Lost Legion of Decency, Brad Miner, May 2013
- Cool nun wants you to watch movies the Catholic Church condemned, New York Post, 2 March 2016
- See the Wikipedia article on List of films condemned by the Legion of Decency.
- 20 Films Banned by the Legion of Decency That Are Worth Your Time, Taste of Cinema, 2016
- National Legion of Decency Asks More Family Films of Hollywood, New York Times, 4 December 1964
- CNS Classifications, Catholic News Service, accessed 3 Sept 2018