The Catholic Legion of Decency was formed in 1934 to combat what it perceived to be immorality in the Hollywood film industry. Although there was already a secular set of guidelines for what could and could not be shown on film known as the Hays Code, this was not enough to assure the Catholic bishops that their flock wasn’t being exposed to morally objectionable content. Using a mixture of dogma-based peer pressure (parishioners took oral pledges during mass not to see a “bad” movie or even patronize a theater that had ever shown such a film) and an appeal to the authority of the hierarchy, the Legion ensured that no movie could be made that offended its sensibilities. Then as now, the Catholic church was the largest religious organization in the United States, meaning that the removal of Catholic audiences from a movie was a guarentee that said movie would bomb. Consequently, the Catholic church effectively controlled Hollywood until the 1970s, when most American Catholics decided that they were capable of making their own decisions about what they should and shouldn’t watch.
Not unsurprisingly, it’s not uncommon for conservotrad Catholics to bemoan the loss of the Legion of Decency and the power the church once had to set the parameters of what the media could and could not show:
Much of what the Legion found “morally objectionable” is the usually litany of complaints from religious conservatives: sex, violence, divorce, disrespect to authority, irreligion, and miscegenation (i.e., race mixing). Miscegenation? Is that really on par with blowing someone’s head off or full frontal nudity? The Legion certainly thought so, and fought tooth and nail to prevent it from showing up in the movies.
Here is a thread on the “Catholic Answers Forum” trying to explain away the Legions aversion to interracial unions:
As usual, the posters focus on the sex aspect, noting correctly that explicit sex between anyone, regardless of race, was condemned by the legion. However, the participants on this thread (who are presumably white) don’t understand the full implications of the “no miscegenation” rule. It didn’t just mean that you couldn’t show an interracial married couple or two people of different races dating, but that you couldn’t show light-skinned black people at all, because their very existence alluded to race-mixing and caused existential angst in white audiences, especially in the South (I’ve always thought it was odd that the idea of seeing a light-skinned black person on the screen would send a Southern white person to the proverbial fainting couch, since they would have seen black people of all hues in their daily life, but there is no logic to Jim Crow). During those rare instances when such a person was called for, Hollywood simply used a white stand-in. For example, the role of the “mulatta” Julie LaVerne in the 1951 big budget musical Show Boat was played by a white actress, Ava Gardner, rather than a light-skinned black actress. Similarly, the role of Peola, another light-skinned black woman, in the 1959 version of Imitation of Life was also played by a white actress. The fact that there are no “mulattos” in Gone With the Wind quite frankly strains credibility, but it’s not like that film was based in reality to begin with.
The kinds of black performers who worked a lot during the era of Legion-controlled Hollywood were dark-skinned actors and actresses who could play “darkie servant roles.” Yet even they were affected by the “no miscegenation” rule, as many productions (including Gone With the Wind) would force them to wear a sort of “blackface” make-up in an effort to make them look even darker than they actually were. Ironically, many of the most famous “darkie servant” actors, including Hattie McDaniels, Louis Beavers, and Stepin Fetchit, were not actually from the South, so the studios would employ white tutors to teach them how they thought rural blacks from the South spoke.
While the Legion opposed the depiction of crude ethnic humor in the movies, this didn’t extend to racist portrays of blacks. In fact, the various Hollywood censorship groups, including the Legion, were offended by any cinematic production that imply that blacks and whites had a shared heritage, whether biological or civic, and any movie that tried to tackle race issues in a realistic manner was deemed “propaganda.” Although the Legion and the Hays code demanded that white priests and ministers were treated reverently in classic Hollywood, the same courtesy was not extended to their black counterparts, who were routinely portrayed as ignorant country bumpkins.
To be fair, the “no miscegenation” rule was more pandering to Southern sensibilities than to the Legion, but it’s another example of the Catholic church accepting blindly accepting the status quo, rather than changing it for the better; when push came to shove, American whites in general held negative views towards blacks and the differences between Northern and Southern attitudes were merely a matter of degree. The Legion may have thought that banning miscegenation from the screen was protecting the morals of America, but in practice, it made it all but impossible for talented light-skinned blacks like Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and even Harry Belefonte to a certain extent to have mainstream careers.
I will end this post with a great video of Lena Horne singing “Stormy Weather” from the 1943 movie of the same name:
Keep in mind if you choose to watch is that this is the kind of “morally objectionable” content that the Legion, fought to keep out of the theaters. Thank you Legion of Decency, for having the courage to fight against the terrible moral menace of talented but somewhat racially ambiguous actresses.