The Legion of Decency - Beneath the All-Seeing Eye - Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires - Tim Wu (2010)

Part II. Beneath the All-Seeing Eye

Chapter 8. The Legion of Decency

In 1915, a young Jesuit priest and professor of drama named Daniel Lord published an essay, denouncing George Bernard Shaw. “The bubbles he throws before the eyes may sparkle,” wrote the Chicago-born Lord of the internationally acclaimed playwright and critic, “but they are as worthless as the trinkets for which the Indians bartered priceless territory.” His work, declared Lord, is “devoid of that first of all necessary qualities, truth.”1

So began another career of the Reverend Daniel Lord, as crusader against “filth” in the public sphere, a cause to which he would devote much of his life. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Lord would advance a memorable and distinctive vision of what the media, the old and the new, were for. Like John Reith at the BBC, Lord believed that the aim of any cultural product should be an improving one: to inform and to educate as well as to entertain. But Lord’s specific version of improvement was much more austere. He considered it the very point of human communication to reinforce the received truth, never to challenge it.

Among his cultural interventions, Lord would edit the Catholic magazine The Queen’s Work (the title referring to the Virgin Mary), for which he also wrote widely circulated essays opining on such controversial subjects as abortion, divorce, and anti-Semitism (he condemned all of these). As a Catholic essayist, Lord was just one in a long line. But his lasting contribution to American culture was distinctive. It was he who wrote and would later help to enforce the famous (or by some lights infamous) Production Code that specified what was acceptable in Hollywood film from 1934 until the 1960s. At the height of their powers, he and his allies gained effective control over film in the United States, practicing without any formal or official authority a censorship to rival that of any authoritarian regime.


In the late 1920s, Lord was one of a small group of Catholic activists who envisioned a new type of activism directed at the burgeoning film industry. His comrades included Martin Quigley, the publisher of a Chicago-based film industry trade journal, and William Hays, a charismatic president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, who would be in effect the industry’s face in this campaign against the industry. Hays would appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1926 as the “Polychromatic Pollyanna,” the personification of the Production Code that Lord had written but that was often referred to as the “Hays Code.”2

Another member was Joseph Breen, who apart from Lord would prove the most important figure in the private censorship of Hollywood. Breen, who originally worked for Hays in public relations, was described by his biographer, Thomas Doherty, as “Victorian Irish,” characterized “neither by leprechaun charm nor whisky-soaked gloom, but by a sober vigilance over the self and a brisk readiness to perform the same service for others, solicited or not.” That Breen did not hold Hollywood or its moguls in high esteem, at least initially, is clear. In private letters from 1932, he complains that “these Jews seem to think of nothing but money making and sexual indulgence.” As for the industry’s lower orders: “People whose daily morals would not be tolerated in the toilet of a pest house hold the good jobs out here and wax fat on it.” If Lord was the legislative branch of the Production Code, Breen was its executive, the enforcer. It was he, for example, who would try, though unsuccessfully, to change Rhett Butler’s famous line at the end of Gone with the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” (Breen’s suggestion: “Frankly, I don’t care”).3

Convinced that Hollywood was corrupting Americans, these three men, each of them connected to Hollywood in one way or another, all of them Catholics, were passionately determined that something be done. What’s most interesting about the Lord-Quigley-Breen approach is their view that more effective censorship of the industry could be achieved directly, with the support of the church, than by government regulation. Decrying what they called the “janitor” model, they deemed it unsatisfactory to try to clean up a mess already made; far better to stop vulgar films from being produced in the first place. And far better to accomplish this by private intimidation than by public policy.

The Catholic enforcers subscribed to a principle that legal scholars would come to call “prior restraint”-the regulation of films before production. Quigley had personally insisted on this strategy based on his experiences in 1920s Chicago, where despite the Church’s lobbying, the board of censors would permit an offensive film to be made and released. Quigley knew that even in a town run by Catholics, the industry, flush with cash, could always bribe politicians or the police to get its films through.

Indeed, the Catholic enforcers were astute to realize that in a democracy, official censorship could never be as effective as private. Officials, if they could be prevailed upon to act at all, would act after the fact, and then it would be up to law enforcement, an inherently imperfect enterprise, to make the rules stick. The three men reasoned that if they wanted their Christian values—which were, after all, the values of America traditionally—Co be upheld, they would have to find a way of restraining the film industry themselves. More directly, Breen would declare himself the one man “who could cram decent ethics down the throats of the Jews.”* 4


Hollywood films in the early 1930s are still among the edgier in the history of American mass entertainment, and thanks to the introduction of sound, their departure from what had come before seemed even starker at the time. The sensibility was embodied by Mae West, a Zukor star, in her films She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel. In both, West plays a mature, liberated sexpot—essentially the same character as Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones, but with a Brooklyn accent. It is in those films that West speaks her most remembered lines, such as “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” and “When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better.”

Here is how Mick LaSalle, a film critic and authority on pre-Code Hollywood, describes the films of the early 1930s:

They celebrate independence and initiative, whether the protagonist is honest or crooked. They prefer the individual to the collective and are deeply cynical about all organized power, such as the government, the police, the church, big business and the legal system. Anything that gets in the way of freedom, including sexual freedom, they tend to be against. In the same way, anybody who tells somebody what to do is usually the villain.5

These might sound like traditionally American values, too, but not to the likes of Father Daniel Lord. After the second of Mae West’s films was released, he wrote an angry letter to the trade association threatening a “day of reckoning.”6 When Paramount announced a third Mae West vehicle, in 1934, that day came.

“I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures.… I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”7

So reads the membership pledge of the body that became a crucial part of the Catholic Church’s offensive against the film industry in the wake of I’m No Angel. Catholic parishioners across the United States were invited to join the Legion of Decency; Protestants and Jews were welcome, too. It wasn’t the first mass morality movement in the United States, but it was perhaps the best subscribed: at its height, in 1934, the Legion claimed 11 million members.

The Catholic boycott, or at least the threat of one, was the Legion’s most lethal weapon against Hollywood. The aim was to eliminate attendance at films judged immoral, but at Breen’s urging, some Catholic authorities urged a boycott of all motion pictures. The intensified version of the strategy, Breen believed, would assure the intimidation of not only the studio executives but lower-level employees, such as a district manager of Warner Bros. whom he described as the “kike Jew of the very lowest type.”8

The Legion of Decency’s project was no less fascinating for being so venomous: a Catholic movement designed to discipline Jewish producers on behalf of a Protestant majority. But perhaps most impressive is just how effective it was. Some of this may be put down to good timing. At the same moment, also under pressure from the Church, the incoming Roosevelt administration threatened to get involved, and compounding Hollywood’s headaches, that very year, a series of academic studies suggested that films were dangerous to children.9

Facing boycotts and possible federal action, late in 1934 the industry cartel agreed to abide by the Production Code drafted by Daniel Lord. (Hollywood had actually acceded to the Code earlier but had tried initially to ignore it.) Breen would be head of a new “Production Code Administration” with personal authority to review all treatments and scripts. He would also oversee the issuance of the Production Code Seal of Approval. A theater in the trade association showing a film that lacked the Seal was committing a violation of the Code, one of many punishable by a $25,000 fine.10


Adolph Zukor had no censorial instincts per se. He built the Hollywood studio system, but to make bigger, better films, and to guarantee a good return on his investors’ dollar. His foremost concern was that his films sold, and in pursuit of that goal he was no prude. In fact, Paramount’s scandalous movies were the main inspiration for the Catholic backlash.

But even though motivated chiefly by dollars and cents, Zukor had created, however incidentally, an industrial structure very amenable to speech control. In fact, had Zukor and his cohorts at Warner Bros., Universal, and Fox not wiped out the independent producers, distributors, and theaters, the rule of the Production Code would not even have been possible. One can hardly imagine Lord, Quigley, and Breen gaining anything like the leverage they managed over Hollywood if industry power were still dispersed among thousands of producers, distributors, and theater owners. As it happened, the transformation in Hollywood content was so abrupt as to be shocking, and it demonstrates a substantial vulnerability of highly centralized systems: while designed for stability’s sake, they are in fact susceptible to extremely drastic disruption.

What did the Code require? Today we remember it most vividly for the rule that put married couples in twin beds, but there was much more to it. The Code was not just a litany of “thou shalt nots,” but rather a body of received ideas articulated by Lord as to what film should be. It was a Manichaean notion of the right and the wrong, the good and the evil. Film should, in all cases, reaffirm these distinctions, never complicate them.

The Code did not ban treatment of controversial subjects. For example, corruption might figure in a perfectly acceptable plot, but it had to appear in suitably limited form that would not corrupt the general morals. An individual judge or policeman could be dishonest, but not the whole judicial system. A man might be unfaithful to his wife, but the institution of marriage itself could not be presented as a sham or otherwise assailed. In Lord’s terms, the ideal film was one wherein “virtue was virtue and vice was vice, and nobody in the audience had the slightest doubt when to applaud and when to hiss.”11

The basic conception was captured in the Code’s three principles:

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, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.12

Gregory Black, a historian, described the artistic toll imposed by these seemingly simple requirements: “If the movie industry was to satisfy the reformers it had to give up—not simply clean up—films that dealt with social and moral issues,” for the Code insisted that “films must uphold, not question or challenge, the basic values of society.” They should be “twentieth century morality plays that illustrated proper behavior to the masses.” But the Code was not limited to these main directives, in the face of which one might find interpretive latitude; included was a much longer list of painfully specific applications.

On the topic of dance in films, the Production Code set standards that might have satisfied the Taliban:


1. Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.

2. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.

And in case it might be unclear what else might constitute “obscenity”:


Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden.

The effect on film of the new self-enforced system was immediate and stark. As Mick LaSalle writes, “the difference between pre-Codes and films made during the Code is so dramatic that, once one becomes familiar with pre-Codes, it becomes possible to tell, sometimes within five minutes, whether a 1934 film was released early or late in the year.” Even Betty Boop, the squeaky-voiced animated flapper, was converted into a “maiden aunt” with lower hemlines.13


The story of Daniel Lord and the Legion of Decency goes to a central contention of this book: in the United States, it is industrial structure that determines the limits of free speech.

This may sound odd to some. The expression “free speech” may more immediately call to mind the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or equivalent codifications in other countries: a right whose exercise is granted by law and seemingly not at the mercy of other human institutions, particularly commercial ones. But the story of the Code makes quite clear that the reality is very much otherwise. For the First Amendment guarantees, among other things, only that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the Freedom of Speech.” Even if the judiciary had been jammed full of civil libertarians and card-carrying members of the ACLU, it wouldn’t have made the least difference. The Lord-Breen system of censorship had nothing to do with the First Amendment or the courts, for it had nothing to do with any law subject to judicial review. The Legion of Decency was an entity wholly independent of government, its power over an industry deriving from that industry’s own self-imposed structure. The Constitution may protect us from government’s limiting our freedom of speech, but it has nothing to say about anything we might do to limit one another’s. There is nothing in the Constitution that stops Church A from compelling Mr. B to pipe down.

A central metaphor in the national discourse about free speech was introduced in the 1920s by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, when he wrote that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out,” referred to commonly as the concept of a “marketplace of ideas.” It captures the idea of a figurative market, where anyone with a tongue to speak and ears to hear might freely peddle and receive opinions, creeds, and various other forms of self-expression. The hope is that in such a domain, the truth will win out.14

But what if the figurative “marketplace of ideas” is lodged in the actual and less lofty markets for products of communication and culture, and these markets are closed, or so costly to enter as to admit only a few? If making yourself heard cannot be practically accomplished in an actual public square but rather depends upon some medium, and upon that medium is built an industry restricting access to it, there is no free market for speech. Seen this way, the Hays Code was a barrier to trade in the marketplace of ideas. And even without them, the higher the costs of entry, the fewer will be the ideas that can vie for attention.

The trick is that a concentrated industry need not be censorial by nature in order for its structure to produce a chilling effect on the freedom of expression. The individual actors may very well have such a predilection, but they are not the real problem. The problem is that a “speech industry”—as we might term any information industry—once centralized, becomes an easy target for external independent actors with strong reasons of their own for limiting speech. And these reasons may have nothing to do with the industry per se. The Catholic Church of the 1930s obviously wasn’t a film studio and had no aspirations in the film business. But having its own motivations for preventing certain forms of expression it deemed objectionable, it found the means to do so in the very design of America’s foremost industry of cultural and expressive production. It was the combination of the Church and the Hollywood studio system that produced one of the most dramatic regimes of censorship in American history.


By the mid-1930s it had become clear that the possibility of making any given film in America depended on the discretion of one man, to the point that in 1936 Liberty magazine could credibly opine that Joseph Breen “probably has more influence in standardizing world thinking than Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin.” Yet the film industry, the Catholic Church, and the White House all embraced the system, proclaiming a new day for American cinema. Eleanor Roosevelt lauded the new code in a national radio address: “I am extremely happy,” she said, that “the film industry has appointed a censor within its own ranks.”15

Not that the Code was foolproof. From 1934 onward, there were times when Joseph Breen accepted a film, only for it to be condemned as unwatchable by local chapters of Legions of Decency in other parts of the country.16 And as Breen spent more time in Hollywood, his sensibility mellowed into something more forgiving. But there can be no doubt about the effect of the Code regime on the nature of American filmmaking. “The pre-Code era didn’t fade,” writes LaSalle. “It was ended in full bloom and with the finality of an axe coming down.”17

It is true that Zukor and his colleagues at other studios would in these years oversee many of Hollywood’s finest and most beloved productions, including Philadelphia Story and It’s a Wonderful Life (though admittedly the cult of the latter was not contemporary, arising decades later in a cultural climate desperate for moral assurances). But in exchange, they accepted a regime that demanded—indeed, defined—the so-called Hollywood ending and its abiding respect for authority. Serious challenges, explicit or implicit, to such institutions as marriage, government, the courts, or the Church are virtually nonexistent in the films of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. In other words, there was no place for the expression of remotely subversive views or anything that questioned the status quo. Social critique may have existed in the culture, but it was not promulgated through the culture’s mightiest megaphone.

If Congress today wanted to pass a law with the same effect as the Code, it would be struck down in an instant. Yet the Production Code, perhaps the strictest abridgement of speech in U.S. history, worked for two reasons. The right—by reason of patent, not constitutionality—even to make a film in the first place was in the hands of but a dozen men. And those dozen, by reason of commercial imperatives, made themselves subject to the veto of one man, Joseph Breen. We cannot claim to understand the life of free speech in America without understanding how that happened.

* Despite such rhetoric, Breen’s biographer insists that by the 1940s Breen was a committed and vocal opponent of anti-Semitism.