The Fourth Wave

by Chris A. Blair, Ph.D.

Thomas Doherty states in his book, Pre-Code Hollywood: “The currents that flowed together in 1933–34 have identifiable names—the National Legion of Decency, the Motion Picture Research Council, and the New Deal—but what they represented was part of a stronger centrifugal force” (1999, p. 320). These three forces managed to generate public consensus concerning the direction Hollywood should pursue. Doherty (1999) states, “Where pre-Code Hollywood vented the disorientation and despair of America in the nadir of the Great Depression, Hollywood after 1934 reflected the restoration of cultural equilibrium under FDR” (p. 320).

In 1933, the Catholic Church formed the National Legion of Decency as a response to the preceding years of non-compliance to the Production Code written by Lord and Quigley. The code was viewed by the industry as merely an advisory document, and with no means of enforcement it went unheeded from 1930 to 1934. In October 1933, Monsignor Cicognani, in an address to the Catholic Charities Convention in New York, proclaimed:

What a massacre of innocence of youth is taking place hour by hour! How shall the crimes that have their direct source in immoral motion pictures be measured? Catholics are called by God, the Pope, the Bishops, and the priests to a united and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema, which has become a deadly menace to morals. (Jowett, 1976, p. 248)

In an editorial in America magazine on October 28, 1933, Father Wilfred Parsons added, “It is perfectly clear that letters and other written protests to Will Hays or anybody else will do little good. . . . Since they have made it perfectly clear that they have no intention whatever of heeding these protests, something else will have to be thought up” (Jowett, 1976, p. 248). Martin Quigley, one of the authors of the Production Code, wrote that the code would not have any effect unless “sufficient pressure and support of public opinion to encourage or compel the industry at large to conform with the letter and spirit of the regulations” (Randall, 1968, p. 186). The Legion of Decency was able to generate the level of pressure Quigley mentioned, by not only enlisting the support of Catholics across the nation but by generating the support of numerous Protestant and Jewish groups. In Catholic churches nationwide parishioners were encouraged to pledge to avoid objectionable movies as determined by the Legion of Decency. Going a step further, in June of 1934, Denis Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia called for all good Catholics to avoid motion pictures altogether, claiming that a “vicious and insidious attack is being made on the very foundation of our Christian civilization” (Doherty, 1999, p. 321).

Protestant churches would rally behind the Catholic Legion of Decency, despite attempts from the Hays Office to line up support from their previous allies. The Protestants, feeling that the MPPDA and the Hays Office had taken advantage of them, rejected the overtures and joined forces with the Legion of Decency. Doherty (1999) summarizes the unity between the Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, stating:

As Protestant clergy urged their congregations “to unite with Catholics in their campaign to raise the moral standards of pictures,” the Central Conference of American Rabbis called for cooperation “with other religious and civic bodies in bringing home to the picture producers their responsibility for taking immediate steps to elevate the standards of pictures.” (p. 322)

Boycott the MoviesThough those not wishing to see the Catholic view of morality imposed on all areas of society opposed the crusade by the Legion of Decency, the majority response was of support for their crusade. In addition to Protestant and Jewish churches, other civic organizations joined in support of the Legion of Decency. The National Education Association, the Knights of Columbus, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith, the Elks, the Masons, and the Odd Fellows all joined in support of the Legion’s pledge to boycott of objectionable movies (Jowett, 1976). The Legion succeeded in collecting over 3 million pledges in 1934 (Jowett, et al., 1996).

The Legion of Decency represented only one source of pressure for the motion picture industry, however. In 1933, the Motion Picture Research Council (MPRC), funded by the Payne Fund, began releasing the findings of their extensive, six-year research on the effects of motion pictures on children. The MPRC released seven volumes of their findings in 1933 and an eighth volume in 1935. The volumes included works entitled, Motion Pictures and Youth, Getting Ideas from the Movies, Motion Pictures and the Social Attitudes of Children, The Emotion Responses of Children to the Motion Picture Situation, Movies and Conduct, and Movies, Delinquency, and Crime. Additionally, the work of the MPRC was summarized in the popular book, Our Movie-Made Children by Henry James Forman (Jowett, et al., 1996).

The Payne Fund Studies, as they have become to be known, were lauded and criticized at their release. They have been both praised as the beginning of media studies in America and condemned as unscientific indictments of the motion picture industry (see Jowett, et al., 1996). One of the MPRC’s primary researchers criticized some of the research, claiming that the MPRC was not completely unbiased in its approach. W. W. Charters stated that he had been told that the MPRC “had been formed by . . . persons who were disturbed by the practices and policies of the motion-picture industry and were apprehensive about the harmfulness of the influence exerted by the movies upon the American public and particular upon the children and youth of the nation” (Jarvis, 1991, p. 129).

Our Movie Made ChildrenTheir influence in the crusade for significant regulation of the motion picture industry, however, is undisputed. While the scholarly volumes released by the MPRC would sell slowly in 1933, the summary volume, Our Movie-Made Children, was an instant success. Additionally, Forman wrote three articles for McCall’s magazine providing sensational stories and summaries of the studies that had been diluted in the editorial process for his book (Jowett, et al., 1996). These articles will be discussed in detail in the following chapter. According to an internal history of the Payne Fund, the MPRC studies were as influential on the formation of the Production Code and the Breen Office as any other factor:

The publication of the Payne Fund Studies of the influence of motion pictures on children and youth has had effects which were perhaps no less amazing to the Fund than to the motion picture industry. While it was expected that the findings would result in action by many organizations interested in the social effects of motion pictures, no such movement as that which swept the country had been foreseen. As stated by the New York Times, criticism of motion pictures, once carried on by isolated groups, became a national barrage from church, civic, and educational organizations. The Motion Picture Research Council initiated the organized campaign, but within a few months was overshadowed by the Legion of Decency, which enlisted millions of persons in a nation-wide movement threatening the general boycott of films. (Jowett, et al., 1996, p. 93–94)

While both the Payne Fund Studies and the Legion of Decency crusade were powerful forces in the formation of stringent self-regulatory measures by the motion picture industry, it can easily be argued that the most powerful contributing factor was the threat of government censorship, specifically federal censorship of the motion picture industry.

National Recovery ActThe closest the federal government came to the regulation of the motion picture industry came in 1933, when the National Recovery Act imposed a series of “codes of fair competition” on numerous industries including the motion picture industry (Jowett, 1976). The Supreme Court would eventually declare this part of Roosevelt’s New Deal unconstitutional in 1935, but its legacy would frighten the motion picture industry into imposing its own self-regulatory code in an effort to avoid any additional federal measures. The NRA Motion Picture Code covered all areas of the motion picture industry, from film content to ticket prices and the hourly wages of employees. Though the moral codes on film content were not as strict as the Production Code, the studio heads were afraid to offend the federal censors and risk receiving fines or having their film banned (Doherty, 1999). The NRA Motion Picture Code delegated most of the questions of content to the MPPDA, though it set up a number of industry “courts” across the nation to hear complaints over movie content, with the final decision resting with the Code Authority. For fear of further intrusion by the federal government, Will Hays approached Roosevelt with his plans for a stricter, more involved self-regulatory scheme, to which Roosevelt agreed not to pursue plans of instituting a federal regulator as long as the self-regulatory plan was working as well “as any other plan could work” (Jowett, 1976, p. 246).

On July 12, 1934, soon after the release of the MPRC findings, six months after the NRA Motion Picture Code was introduced, and just a few months after the Legion of Decency’s boycott pledge began, the MPPDA established the Production Code Administration (PCA), headed by former Studio Relations Committee chairman and staunch Catholic, Joseph I. Breen. The PCA was given enforcement powers over motion picture producers. No film could be distributed by MPDDA members unless it first received the PCA’s seal of approval. In addition, the MPPDA approved a $25,000 fine for noncompliance, the first such penalty in the history of the motion picture industry. In another move to ensure compliance to the Production Code, the MPPDA eliminated the Producers Appeal Board, which had given the studio heads the ability to overrule any of the Studio Relations Committee’s decisions. In essence, the PCA replaced the Producers Appeal Board in the hierarchy, and if a studio wanted to challenge a PCA decision, it would have to appeal to the full board of the MPPDA in New York.

Summary

The PCA under the authority of Breen ruled the motion picture industry for several decades, determining what was and what was not appropriate to show on America’s movie screens. This final stage of self-regulation continued in this form until the MPAA dropped the Production Code in favor of the current ratings system in 1968. Through the history of motion picture content regulation one can see the formation of the cycle of self-regulation that was repeated several times throughout the century, sometimes more precisely and other times with even more complications. The first stage began almost as soon as the first film was projected, but culminated into the events of 1907 to 1909, ending in the formation of the National Board of Censorship. This National Board of Review became the first half-hearted attempt at pacifying the critics—the second stage—followed by the formation of the MPPDA in 1921. But scandals and controversial films caused tension between the MPPDA and the people it sought to pacify, which would eventually force the movie industry to enter the final stage, creating a significant and enforceable regulatory code and an agency to enforce that code.

The arguments for movie censorship developed during the first three decades of the twentieth century, from arguments against the influence of the motion picture in general to one specifically focused on the negative influences of the content of movies on children. Historians note the Progressive movement to protect traditional Protestant values from the vast influx of non-Protestant immigrants as the motivation behind film censorship (Cripps, 1997; Jowett, 1976; Randall, 1968; Sklar, 1975). But a brief examination of the arguments during the early history of motion pictures shows that arguments for the protection of children against the negative influences of the movies appear as early as the mid-teens and are continually refined throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The addition of social science research to support the claims of the effect of movies on children, though not conclusively, significantly strengthened the arguments for censorship or regulation to protect children.

The history of the film industry in this area is complicated and marked by a number of failed attempts to strike a balance between self-regulation and government censorship. However, it provided a template for later media to follow when trying to strike a similar balance, making later instances less complicated and easier to follow. The arguments used against the motion picture industry would also provide a template for later reformers to follow. The combination of scientific research and examples of an increase in juvenile delinquency would prove to be a powerful message again in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the case against crime and horror comic books, in the 1970s and 1980s against radio and popular music, in the 1980s and 1990s against broadcast and cable television programming, and is currently with videogames and the Internet.

References:

Cripps, T. (1997). Hollywood’s high noon: Moviemaking & society before television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Doherty, T. P. (1999). Pre-code Hollywood. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jarvis, A. R., Jr. (1991). The Payne Fund reports: A discussion of their content, public reaction, and affect on the motion picture industry. Journal of Popular Culture, 25(2), 127–140.

Jowett, G. S. (1976). Film: The democratic art. Boston: Little and Brown.

Jowett, G. S., Jarvie, I. C., & Fuller, K. H. (1996). Children and the movies: Media influence and the Payne Fund controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Randall, R. S. (1968). Censorship of the movies: The social and political control of a mass medium. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Sklar, R. (1975). Movie made America: A cultural history of American movies. New York: Vintage Books.

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