The Code Before 'Da Vinci'

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By Thomas Doherty
Saturday, May 20, 2006

Confronted with "The Da Vinci Code," the motion picture version of Dan Brown's best-selling update on the ripe tropes of 19th-century Know-Nothingism (the Vatican as conspiracy central, the priesthood as perverse hit men), a previous generation of American Catholics would have raised holy hell -- flooding the streets with pickets and boycotting not just the film or the studio but all films, in an impassioned nationwide campaign to bring Hollywood to its knees. Yet this weekend, as the much-hyped example of sacerdotal noir finally premieres, Catholics will be queuing up alongside Protestants, Jews and secular humanists. The religion that once put the fear of God into Hollywood now has less influence over motion picture content than People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

As noted above, it was not always so. For decades American Catholics exerted the moral equivalent of final cut over Hollywood cinema. Galvanized by the church hierarchy, they managed not just to control but to convert the motion picture industry.

The Catholic campaign to co-opt Hollywood began in earnest in 1930. Responding to the shocking talk in films of the early sound era, two media-savvy Catholics -- the motion picture trade publisher Martin J. Quigley and the Jesuit priest Daniel A. Lord -- collaborated on what was to become the founding document of Hollywood censorship, the Production Code. A deeply Catholic text, the Code was no mere list of Thou-Shalt-Nots but a homily that sought to yoke Catholic doctrine to Hollywood formula: The guilty are punished, the virtuous are rewarded, the authority of church and state is legitimate, and the bonds of matrimony are sacred.

To mollify the Catholics, the studio moguls agreed to abide by the Code, but the gentleman's agreement was promptly violated -- most brazenly by Mae West, whose hit 1933 twin pack, "She Done Him Wrong" and "I'm No Angel," cashed in unrepentantly on the wages of sin.

In 1934 Catholics formed an organization to beat back the tide. Its official name was the National Legion of Decency. (Morally upright Protestants and Jews might enlist as well.) The Legion quickly became the most feared of all the private protest groups bedeviling Hollywood. Its most effective tactical device was the Legion pledge, a prayerlike pact signed and recited in unison at Sunday Masses, Knights of Columbus meetings and parochial school assemblies. "I condemn absolutely those debauching motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land," affirmed the pledger. "Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality."

With box offices hemorrhaging in the Catholic strongholds in big cities, Will H. Hays, Presbyterian Church elder and president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), turned to a Victorian Irishman named Joseph I. Breen to negotiate surrender terms with the Catholics. Hays told Breen that "the Catholic authorities can have anything they want."

What the Catholics wanted, and got, was a censorship regime that ceded dominion of Hollywood cinema to Catholic theology for the next 30 years. On July 15, 1934, Breen set up shop at the Production Code Administration, an in-house arm of the studio system that vetted film scripts for Code violations prior to production. Thus, before the cameras ever rolled, the fix would be in. The visible mark of quality control would be a quite literal Production Code Seal of Approval, an oval logo encircling the MPPDA initials, printed on the credits of every Code-worthy film.

Between the Legion of Decency on the outside and the Breen Office on the inside, Roman Catholics made certain that Hollywood defended the faith. Of course, sin could not be exiled from the screen, but the transgression always had to be offset by what Breen called "morally compensating value" -- usually in the form of a just and certain punishment, or a voice of morality reminding audiences that crime does not pay.

In 1954 Breen turned over the reins of the Production Code Administration to his longtime colleague Geoffrey Shurlock, a mild-mannered Episcopalian. Shurlock found himself fighting a hopeless rear-guard action against the post-World War II revolution in morals and manners before finally forfeiting the game. In 1967 an Italian Catholic named Jack Valenti replaced the Production Code Administration with the present ratings system.

By then, a Catholic condemnation of a Hollywood film was no longer the commercial kiss of death. Even the Legion of Decency, which in 1965 had changed its name to the less judgmental-sounding National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, began to grade Hollywood on the curve.

When the Catholic hierarchy lost the power to energize millions of parishioners for some real Catholic action, when American Catholics responded to calls to boycott Hollywood blockbusters with approximately the same obedient deference they accorded the Vatican's advice on birth control, then Catholic dominion over Hollywood lapsed. And today the only Code that Hollywood adheres to is the kind authored by Dan Brown.

The writer is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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