A look back at the Legion of Decency

By Mark Pattison and Julie Asher

WASHINGTON (CNS) — It’s summertime and the movies are plentiful.

As everyone knows the summer movie season is a big one for Hollywood, and when it comes to a close, it is followed closely by a few select September and October film festivals where moviemakers usually debut their fall releases – and their hopes the movies will be Oscar contenders. Catholic News Service reviewers keep up with the best of them.

(Photo by Lori Bucci, Flickr/via LA Tourism)

All this talk of movies and reviews brings to mind something CNS/USCCB archivist Katherine Nuss recently unearthed from an archival box – the pledge Catholics used to take called the Legion of Decency.

The Legion of Decency assumed the U.S. Catholic Church’s mantle in keeping objectionable material — well, most objectionable material, anyway — out of Hollywood films.

Here’s an excerpt from a 1936 Legion pamphlet:

The Legion of Decency is concerned not so much about the materials selected for a story as about the moral treatment of those materials. … The Legion of Decency, in short, does not object to human problems being dramatized on the screen; it does not deny that sin and crime may at times be necessary ingredients of a plot; but the Legion is deeply concerned with what elicits the sympathy of the audience and influences its judgment. The audience must not be led to accept false principles and to condone wrong-doing. When moral evil is portrayed in a film, it should never be pictured as good, admirable, or justifiable. And, conversely, moral good should never be proposed as evil, foolish or despicable.

It was the Legion of Decency that came up with the classification system — modified in the ensuing decades — still in use by CNS to assess the moral suitability of films. Because it’s been around for 80 years, there are thousands upon thousands of movies that use Roman numerals in the classification — I, II, III — rather than the far more commonplace 1, 2, 3.

It was a big, big deal in 1939 for Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) to say onscreen to Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” That remark might very well have earned the film a “B” rating from the Legion. For the uninitiated, “B” meant “morally objectionable in part for all.” It was later switched to A-IV (those Roman numerals again!) and then to the current “L” classification.

Henry Herx, who was director of the U.S. bishops’ old Office for Film & Broadcasting to the end of the 20th century, worked for the Legion of Decency in its last years, when “Banned in Boston!” helped engender the “forbidden fruit” effect of audiences wanting to see movies that others, like the Legion, plainly did not want them to see.

Here’s the Pledge all were asked to sign:

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Pattison is media editor and Asher is national editor at Catholic News Service.


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