Code Concepts #11. Priests, Sacraments, and the Fathers of the Code for Catholic Liturgy Week

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Today is Thursday, so it is time for another Code Concepts article. Every Thursday in July, I am writing an article in this series instead of the usual Breening Thursday article. That is because July is #CleanMovieMonth2020, during which we are exclusively watching and reviewing American Breen (1934-1954) films. Thus, we are using these articles to examine and explain some of the key elements which influenced the Code’s enforcement during the Breen Era.

This week, I’m writing about religion’s position in Code films, particularly Catholicism and other Christian denominations. This is my first entry in Catholic Liturgy Week, which is being hosted July 19-25 by Megan Chappie of The Pen and the Cross and Samantha of Bookshire. Although PEPS is not a religious organization, I wanted to participate in this event because Megan Chappie is one of my dearest blogging friends. Also, Catholicism played a very important part in the writing, enforcement, and maintenance of the Motion Picture Production Code. Thus, this article is about priests, sacraments, and fathers of the Code.

The Sign of the Cross (1932 film) - Wikipedia

Just the title of this “religious” exploitative pre-Code film was sacrilegious.

In the text of the original Code, an entire section was dedicated to religion.

VIII. Religion
1. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.

2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.

3. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled.

This section is a very important part of the Code. Films had a reputation of being irreligious, blasphemous material which manipulated faith for its own purposes. Thus, the Code’s authors were sure to include a section about religion in their thorough document. Respect for religion was very important to the Code’s authors, who were both men of faith. Thus, they pin-pointed the matter into the above three sections.

Later, in Reasons Underlying the Particular Applications, more explanation is given regarding ministers:

VIII. Religion
The reason why ministers of religion may not be comic characters or villains is simply because the attitude taken toward them may easily become the attitude taken toward religion in general. Religion is lowered in the minds of the audience because of the lowering of the audience’s respect for a minister.

These points are very important, since their violation is responsible for all the blasphemous, profane, and sacrilegious content which Hollywood has created since the weakening and death of the Code. Let’s consider these vital points individually.

The Red Danube (1949) with Walter Pidgeon and Ethel Barrymore ...

Although Walter Pidgeon’s character in The Red Danube (1949) initially ridicules Italians’ Catholic faith, the movie depicts Christianity very reverently, including a noble nun played by Ethel Barrymore.

1. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.

Note the word any in this rule. People often think of the Code as only glorifying Christianity, particularly Catholicism. However, this clause of the Code forbids the ridicule of any established religion, including all Christian sects, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and every other organized religion. A film which depicts a religion does not have to promote it, nor do all the characters in the story have to agree with and believe in it. However, the picture itself must not ridicule, mock, or belittle someone’s faith, even if the picture-makers themselves do not personally agree with it. Many of the most inspiring Catholic pictures from the Code Era were made by Jewish filmmakers, who respectfully showed characters of the Christian faith even though it was not their own. Similarly, Christian filmmakers had to be respectful when making films with Judaist characters. Although few classic films depicted more foreign religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, they would have to be treated with similar respect if ever included in movies.

Sister Act (1992)

Why do people think nuns are so funny? (Sister Act, 1992)

2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.

Although not explicitly mentioned, nuns are included in this. This rule was deemed important enough to warrant further explanation in a later section of the Code. The explanation given for it is that ministers must not be comical or villainous “simply because the attitude taken toward them may easily become the attitude taken toward religion in general. Religion is lowered in the minds of the audience because of the lowering of the audience’s respect for a minister.” This is so true. Atheists and other irreligious people are likely to perceive harsh, hypocritical, and sinister clergy as the rule for all ministers, not the exception. True, there are evil people in the clergy as in every other walk of life. However, if given unlimited freedom in this regard, filmmakers will undoubtedly abuse that privilege by presenting far more evil and comical clergymen than serious, faithful ministers. Thus, they malign entire religions, making men and women of the cloth look foolish, goofy, sinister, or hateful.

40 Acres Studio Backlot - Image Gallery and Virtual Tour - Part 2

A respectful church scene in The Miracle of the Bells (1948).

3. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled.

This rule is just an expansion of the first rule, which states that religions must not be ridiculed. There is no easier way to ridicule a religion than by disrespectfully and inaccurately depicting its sacred ceremonies. The words any definite religion are important to note. Mythical religions, vague heathen rituals, and ancient forms of worship are not subject to the same Code protection as faiths which are still being practiced in the modern world. After all, the main purpose of this rule is to avoid offending people by disrespecting their religions. If a form of worship is no longer being practiced, its less careful depiction will not bother people.

Graphic from "The Bride Came C.O.D." starring James Cagney

The comical wedding attempted between Bette Davis and Jack Carson, which is foiled by James Cagney, is tactfully performed in a hotel rather than a church in The Bride Came COD (1941).

An extension of this rule is that sacred locations of definite religions, such as churches, should be carefully and respectfully depicted. The most important rule in this respect was that comedy of any kind must not take place in a church. Thus, many marriages in Code films take place in secular settings before a justice of the peace instead of in a church with a minister. Although the Code said that “[t]he sanctity of the institution of marriage… shall be upheld,” it did not forbid some humor regarding weddings. Romantic comedies often involved complications regarding matrimony, what with last-minute changes in bride or bridegroom, late arrivals, and other complications on the way to the alter (figurative altar, that is, since a real altar would be in a church). Such comedy becomes blasphemous when set within the hallowed walls of a church of any denomination.

The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1928 film) - Wikipedia

A still from the 1928 version of The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, starring Richard Barthelmess and Molly O’Day.

The British were even more sensitive about the depiction of religion in films. While the American Code simply required that religion be depicted respectfully, British censors considered the motion picture screen itself a profane setting for religious ceremonies and other sacred themes. Jack Vizzard wrote about this matter in his 1970 memoirs of his years at the PCA, See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor:

The British attitude toward the movie house was one of aloof toleration, because the theater was regarded as a worldly place, a place of frivolity, and, therefore, as a slightly profane setting. Much the same attitude had been exhibited (historically) toward the legitimate stage and later extended to the novel, which had to be read under the sheets by giddy girls, because the form was “easy” and, therefore, not acceptable in serious society. So far did this attitude extend in relationship to the movie house, that the British censor once flatly refused to allow a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in a picture titled The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come. The objection was based on the impropriety of the setting for such hallowed words. He later tried to attack the American film industry for importing a wave of “paganism” into England. Joe Breen demanded of him how it could be otherwise, when the man would not allow any quotations from the New Testament to act as a leaven in films.

Greta Garbo "Flesh and the Devil" 1926 Photo by Bert Longworth - a ...

The actions of Greta Garbo’s character during communion in Flesh and the Devil (1926) must have bothered the British.

I have also heard that the showing of actual religious ceremonies and sacraments, such as mass and communion, was disliked by British censors. While American filmmakers, guided by the PCA, took their neighbors across the pond into consideration on many matters, they rarely let their aversion to seeing religion on the screen keep them from doing what they wanted to do. Such scenes or elements could always be trimmed by British censors. Different nations’ sensibilities are very interesting to note. What was a compensating moral value to American moral guardians was a profane and highly -censorable point to British moral guardians.

Code movies were not required to include religious or Christian themes. However, they were discouraged if not forbidden from making films whose moral tone specifically contradicted Judeo-Christian morality. After all, it is on this morality that the laws and civilization of modern Western society, particularly the United States, are based. This point is mentioned in the section of the Code which discusses law.

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

By natural law is understood the law which is written in the hearts of all mankind, the greater underlying principles of right and justice dictated by conscience.

By human law is understood the law written by civilized nations.

While the violation and ridicule of human law was not an issue in every story, the PCA measured every story by natural law, which is essentially conscience. Where does man get his conscience for what is right and what is wrong? To the fathers of the Code, he gets it from God and the moral upbringing which he is taught in his youth. This sense of right and wrong is obvious in every Code film.

Censoring the Silver Screen” a History of the Legion of Decency ...

Martin J. Quigley

Who were the fathers of the Code? There are three men whom I identify with this honor, Martin J. Quigley, Father Daniel A. Lord, and Joseph I. Breen. Martin J. Quigley, a Catholic layman

Thread by @Urylle, Jesuit priest-Father Daniel A. Lord SJ, drafted ...

Father Daniel A. Lord

who founded a film trade paper publishing empire, formulated the idea for the Code, co-authored the document, and helped guide the Legion of Decency to importance. Father Daniel A. Lord, a very cultured and intelligent Jesuit priest from Missouri, co-authored the Code with

Stars and Letters: Joseph Breen and The Production Code

Joseph I. Breen

Mr. Quigley, being a writer himself. Joseph I. Breen, a Catholic newspaperman and publicist, formulated the idea for the Legion of Decency and adopted the Code as his project, helping to set up its proper enforcement in Hollywood. For twenty years, he enforced the Code properly, something neither his predecessors at the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) nor his successor at the PCA, Geoffrey Shurlock, could do.

These men’s goal was not to force Catholicism on all moviegoers. Mr. Breen stated that his goal for the movies was to make them clean so that decent people can sit in the theater without blushing. The PCA’s more formal mission statement was to make films which were “reasonably acceptable to reasonable people.” The opening of the Code itself states:

If motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind.

Thus, one could say that the Code’s authors basic goal for the document was to make motion pictures which would improve mankind. Although it seems impossible that frivolous entertainment like movies can actually improve mankind, the thousands of wonderfully uplifting and morally inspiring films made during the American Breen Era proved that it could be done. They not only inspired individual change; they revolutionized and purified society as a whole. Ah, how sorely we need this purifying effect today!

Angels in the Outfield

A Protestant minister, Jewish rabbi, and Catholic priest find they have a lot in common regarding a belief in angels and a love for baseball at a court case in Angels in the Outfield (1951).

One of my favorite things about religion in Code films is the ecumenical spirit which is shown. There are several films in which Catholics, Protestants, and Jews are shown joining forces as fellow believers in God. The common beliefs should unite right-thinking people from all these religions in the joint cause of decency. After all, all modern laws are founded on the Ten Commandments, a sacred document in which all three religions believe. Rather than aggravating differences, Code films which show people of different religions getting along together harmoniously, such as Angels in the Outfield (1951) and The Miracle of the Bells (1948), help people to show the Christian, or just plain decent human, virtue of loving others.

The Code is full of wisdom about how motion pictures can either help or hurt a nation’s moral progress:

Mankind has always recognized the importance of entertainment and its value in rebuilding the bodies and souls of human beings.

But it has always recognized that entertainment can be a character either HELPFUL or HARMFUL to the human race, and in consequence has clearly distinguished between:

a. Entertainment which tends to improve the race, or at least to re-create and rebuild human beings exhausted with the realities of life; and

b. Entertainment which tends to degrade human beings, or to lower their standards of life and living.

Hence the MORAL IMPORTANCE of entertainment is something which has been universally recognized. It enters intimately into the lives of men and women and affects them closely; it occupies their minds and affections during leisure hours; and ultimately touches the whole of their lives. A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work.

So correct entertainment raises the whole standard of a nation.

Wrong entertainment lowers the whole living conditions and moral ideals of a race.

Religion was an important aspect in the life of the three fathers of the Code. However, they didn’t make pictures propaganda for their personal religious beliefs or any other faith. They gave filmmakers their own free will regarding film topics. Under the Breen PCA’s wise guidance, movies subtly imported correct morality, based in Christian principles, to audiences, even if completely secular in theme. Even if a minister is never shown, no prayers are uttered, a single verse of Scripture is never shown, and nary a cross appears on the screen, a high standard of morals, Judeo-Christian in origin, must be presented by every film. Imagine what could happen to modern society if it was suddenly entertained exclusively by films regarding which, “throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right.”

From double beds to sleeping pills, every Code rule had a reason.

Happy #CleanMovieMonth2020!


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One thought on “Code Concepts #11. Priests, Sacraments, and the Fathers of the Code for Catholic Liturgy Week

  1. This is positively fantastic. It made me want to read the Motion Picture Production Code; much of what it says about the purpose of entertainment is so incredibly beautiful and feels so RIGHT. It reminds me in many ways of Pope St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, which I had to read in high school and found both challenging and encouraging.

    The difference between British sensibilities and American ones is indeed fascinating! I must confess, even the American aversion to comedy in church strikes me as a little funny; in the words of G. K. Chesterton, “the test of a good religion is whether you can joke about it.” Incredibly funny things sometimes happen in church, all the funnier because holiness = joy. But I can see why the Code shied away from comedic scenes in sacred spaces, because I suppose it would be hard to write hard-and-fast rules distinguishing mirth from mockery.

    I think this is my favorite yet of your many fantastic articles! Thank you so very much for writing it!

    Liked by 2 people

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