Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies

William D. Romanowski
Published by Oxford University Press in 2012

Reviewed by Crystal Downing, English and Film Studies, Messiah College

Several years ago I began a book review with these words: “Movies can elicit profound, sometimes dismaying, reflections about the reciprocal influence between religion and society, faith and culture, belief and behavior. Rarely, however, do filmgoers consider the influence of religion on the production of film itself.”1 Having recently read Reforming Hollywood, I would amend my earlier statement by adding this comment: People who seriously want to understand the role of Christianity in the history of American film production need to read William Romanowski’s detailed analysis of How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies. Unearthing daunting new data through arduous archival research, Romanowski effectively challenges anyone who assumes that Protestant responses to Hollywood have been primarily censorial.

Providing a step-by-step chronicle of Protestant activism in relation to cinema, Romanowski successfully undermines prejudices about Christian prudery. Whereas some people attribute attacks on the film industry in the early years of Hollywood to up-tight Christian fundamentalists, Romanowski judiciously distinguishes between two kinds of responses to vulgarity in film: the pietist and the structural. Seeking to uplift culture by sustaining the virtue of citizens, pietists questioned anything that might destabilize individual morality. For example, one “relentless crusader against the movies” at the turn of the century, the Rev. Wilbur F. Crafts, also attacked “Sunday baseball, close dancing, and automobile rides” (22). Far more charitable were Christians committed to structural change, encouraging the transformation of institutions for the public good. They considered not just what movies displayed, but how movies were displayed, protesting not simply unethical activities onscreen but an unethical system of film distribution. Known as “block booking,” the studio system “forced distributors to contract for a company’s yearly output in advance of production,” such that exhibitors had to lease a studio’s second-rate movies if they wanted access to the same studio’s star-studded productions (41-42). The system itself, then, forced theater owners to display distasteful fare. The entire structure needed changing.

While protesting block booking, structurally-oriented Christians advocated the development of organizations by which the film industry might regulate itself. These Christians therefore took a stand against censorship while challenging the film industry’s primary focus on profit margins. As Romanowski puts it at the end of his introductory chapter, these “Protestants characteristically sought a measure of harmony between individual liberty, artistic freedom, and the common good in their efforts to establish a fitting role for the cinema” (12). Parallel with the Social Gospel movement, this group reflects the “Modernist” side of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy that developed alongside the movie industry. However, rather than foreground this connection, Romanowski narrows his definition of “Protestant” to members of denominations that became part of the Federal (later National) Council of the Churches of Christ in America: “I use the term Protestant throughout to refer to these ‘mainline’ denominations” (8). It is their story, he argues, that has been overlooked in film history.

The story therefore begins in 1908, the year that 30 Protestant denominations co-founded the Federal Council. Significantly, 1908 is also the year that Christian pietists began to protest nickelodeons and secular progressivists began to study the effects of nickelodeons on culture (14, 16, 17). Though Romanowski does not comment on this convergence, he provides a century of data—from 1908 to 2009—tracing the development of numerous organizations seeking to guide studios toward artistic integrity. And, though I sometimes grew weary of reading excruciatingly detailed accounts about Protestant politicking—committee meeting by committee meeting, proposal by proposal, leader by leader, argument by argument, East Coast concern over West Coast efforts—I nevertheless recognized the importance of what Romanowski has done for film historians.

The last chapter of Reforming Hollywood, “The Curious Case of Evangelicals,” was difficult to read for another reason: it was too close to home. Romanowski offers disturbing commentary about the censorial activities of the “Religious Right” and the “Moral Majority” in the 1970s and ‘80s, always using the term “evangelical” in order to protect his definition of “Protestant.” He therefore distinguishes between Protestant and evangelical responses to Hollywood with statements like the following: “Evangelicals embraced profit making as their modus operandi for movie reform with much more intensity than any of their [Protestant] predecessors: their appeal ultimately was to the corporate bottom line, not social responsibility” (203). In other words, while Protestant directives for Hollywood tended to emphasize “honest and compassionate portrayals of the human situation that enhanced understanding of culture and society” (165), evangelicals endorsed “consumer-based censorship” through boycotts. In fact, the diction Romanowski uses in this last chapter struck me as more acerbic than anywhere else in the book, as in the following:

Evangelical leaders, however, recycled—and amped up—the premise that movie producers would reap a financial bonanza by catering to a vast majority of God-fearing Americans…. This market-based strategy harbors an inherent contradiction—one that always seems to escape its adherents. (204; italics added)

Perhaps I am overly sensitive to Romanowski’s seeming disdain for evangelicals due to my own vexed relationship with an evangelical background. Furthermore, to his credit, Romanowski makes clear that evangelicals were not the first Christians to use financial gain as a stick or a carrot for studio heads. As is well known, Catholic prelates formed a Legion of Decency in 1934 that campaigned against “salacious and immoral pictures” (96). Romanowski’s chapter about the Legion (chapter 6) was therefore especially fascinating, for it drew attention to a fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism: the Roman Church’s emphasis on hierarchical authority versus the Protestant emphasis on individual responsibility. While the latter encouraged people to make their own informed choices about film attendance, Catholic priests told parishioners from the pulpit to boycott certain movies and support others. Hence, even though the Protestant focus on individual freedom for critical evaluation elicits admiration, it was the Catholic proscriptions and prescriptions that worked. As Romanowski notes, “a movie of special interest was highly promoted by Catholic churches and invariably resulted in a box-office success, while movies expected to draw Protestants had disappointing returns” (112). And though he never quite puts it in such bald terms, Romanowski shows that studio heads often manipulated Protestant idealists while submitting to demands made by the Legion of Decency—all due to the bottom line.

This does not mean that Protestants had no influence on Hollywood. Romanowski makes clear that monitoring groups sponsored by the Federal Council of Churches influenced the production codes. Anyone interested in the complex and convoluted development of and changes to these codes and their replacement by the rating system we have today (G, PG, PG-13, and so on) will find Reforming Hollywood extremely helpful.

To this end, Romanowski did for me what Stanley Kowalski did for his wife Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire: he overturned false impressions. While Stella was confronted with the history of her sister, Blanche DuBois, I was confronted with the history of Will H. Hays (1879-1954), who was not all that he has been made out to be. Like other film scholars, I assumed Hays functioned as the primary representative of Protestant concerns in Hollywood, his infamous “Hays Code” (1930-45) censoring activities both on and off the screen for years. The truth, of course, like the truth about Blanche DuBois, is much more complicated. Whereas Blanche literally got into bed with her high school students, Hays figuratively got into bed with studio heads, who hired him in 1922 to help them avoid federal regulation of the film industry. Rather than censorship, his goal, like most structural Protestants, was to guide film producers toward self-regulation through willing implementation of a production code. However, “Hay’s lofty Christian rhetoric” was not as powerful as his $100,000 salary, it would seem, for his commitment to “improving the movies” tended to serve the financial interests of studios more than the ethical interests of Protestants (47, 46). Far more admirable, Romanowski convinces us, are the scores of concerned Protestants who petitioned Hollywood studio heads while maintaining a commitment to free enterprise (rather than block booking), artistic integrity, and the right of individuals to make informed choices about movie attendance. Romanowski successfully proves that accusations of Protestant censorship, including those derogating Hays, have been a smokescreen.

Significantly, the first time we see Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s consummate 1951 film, she walks through a cloud of steam, clearly symbolizing the smokescreen she generates about her past. And as I read Reforming Hollywood, I wanted to know who generated the smokescreen that hid, until now, the multifaceted Protestant response to Hollywood. I was provided with an answer in chapter 11, when Romanowski introduced Jack Valenti, who became third president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Romanowski quotes Valenti saying, “I junked immediately in 1966 the foolish constructions of the Hays Code” because “it was just palpably censorship and I wanted to be no part of it” (172). In contrast, Valenti encouraged industry leaders to “make an honest effort at self-restraint.” Ironically, as Romanowki notes, Valenti’s goal “echoed the sentiment of his predecessor, Will Hays.” Hays has been demonized; and while implicated “in financial scandals” (74)—like Blanche DuBois’s sexual scandals—his disgrace exceeds his crimes.

I could, of course, be jumping to conclusions about Valenti’s responsibility for current attitudes about Hays, but that is the benefit of a book like Reforming Hollywood. Filled with dizzying details, seemingly about every meeting and proposal and participant seeking to reform Hollywood, this study gives background information from which scholars might reap crops of new conclusions. In other words, the book serves as an impetus for more research. As I plowed my way through Romanowski’s fertile, if dry, informational soil, I repeatedly noticed seeds for more study: the role of women as progressive moral guides; the complicated relationship between Christian reformers and Jewish studio heads; the way new technologies (sound, television, VCRs, digitalization) affected the ratings game; assessment of films that changed Hollywood: Elmer Gantry (1960), The Pawnbroker (1965), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Carnal Knowledge (1971)—to name only a few that Romanowski briefly discusses. Reforming Hollywood, then, is not for casual cinephiles; this is book for serious film scholars who desire to know every detail concerning the prejudices about, promises within, and perils pertaining to Protestant proprietorship over film. In other words, the proper place for Reforming Hollywood is not on bedside tables but in libraries of academic institutions with programs in film. And in those settings it will function as an extremely valuable resource.

Footnotes

  1. “Silent Divas,” with Reid Perkins-Buzo, a review of Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema by Angela Dalle Vacche, Books and Culture (Nov/Dec 2009): 19-20.

Crystal Downing

Messiah College
Crystal Downing is Professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College.