Code Blue

Brandeis University American studies professor Thomas Doherty has a timely op-ed article in the Washington Post drawing connections between the release of The Da Vinci Code and the old Hays Code that imposed constraints on the content of Hollywod films. Doherty opens by noting that past generations of American Catholics would have greeted a film with Da Vinci’s anti-Vatican conspiracy theories with massive protests designed to “bring Hollywood to its knees.” I happened to notice a few picketers at the Gallery Place Theater in Chinatown (I was in the neighborhood while waiting for a movie at E Street), but the small scattering of protesters drew little attention from the bored pedestrians rushing past them on the way in to the movie megalplex or one of the neighboring bars or restaurants.

As Doherty points out, however, the Catholic Church–or at least a few powerful members of the church–once maintained tremendous control over the content of Hollywood films. The Hays Code was authored by publisher Martin J. Quigley and the Jesuit priest Daniel A. Lord in an attempt to “clean up” Hollywood films:

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.

I’m inclined to ask what changed. Doherty suggests that “the post-World War II revolution in morals and manners” is a major factor, and he’s no doubt right about that. But with the ascendence of the evangelical movement and the emphasis on morality there, I think that’s hardly the only factor. To some extent, I think this relative indifference can be attributed to the fact that Hollywood films no longer hold the cultural centrality they had in the past. I don’t have time to write about this issue in as much detail as I would like (I’m flying out to Fayetteville to look for an apartment tomorrow), but I’ll be curious to see how Da Vinci performs at the box office and to see how the film fits within the ongoing discussions of religion and popular culture.


  1. McChris Said,

    May 20, 2006 @ 1:30 pm

    I have the sense that the Catholic leadership in the US largely stayed away from trying to influence government policy in the first part of the 20th century in order to avoid anti-immigrant sentiment. (Radio priest Charles Coughlin was a maverick in the church, and I doubt the anti-Catholic forces would have taken issue with his red-baiting.) Most Catholics would have been Irish, Poles, Italians, and too much legislative strongarming could have resulted in blowback from nativist groups. (Think of the paranoia about papal rule when Kennedy was elected.) However, they could exert influence over the cultural sphere through boycotts, rather than a legislative agenda.

    In contrast, the religious right of today clearly has a governmental agenda that has seen a degree of success. Since they’re largely Protestants and assimilated whites, they don’t have to worry about aggravating ethnic tensions.

    Finally, we all know that exhibition has changed substantially since the 1930s. With multiplexes and no block-booking, audiences have much more choice over what they can watch at the theater today. While I’m sure there are plenty of religious rightists that would want to regulate the content of all movies, you can pick and choose family-friendly movies. For example, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops still publishes reviews of movies rating them from A-I for all audiences to O for “obscene.”

  2. Emily Hegarty Said,

    May 20, 2006 @ 2:20 pm

    Peter Boyer wrote an interesting article about The DaVinci Code in this week’s New Yorker. It talks about Sony’s attempts to manage the controversy for maximum publicity, and how The DaVinci Code PR relates to that of other “religious controversy” films like The Passion and The Last Temptation of Christ.

  3. J. M. Deutch Said,

    May 20, 2006 @ 3:55 pm

    I’d always heard that the industry cleaned up its own act in the 50s. The problem wasn’t so much the sexuality but what began to substitute for lacivious content. By making the dialogue a fast banter with cutting insults, noire films were causing average Americans to fire insults to and fro in their normal conversations. So by eliminating the visual and situational sexual content, Hollywood substituted that entertainment with harsh dialogue that people naturally emulated. Somebody decided it was better to show some sex and violence than to have Americans speaking to each other like they do in noire films.

    Interesting that the columnist speaks about the Legion of Decency’s commitment to films that portrayed church and government as legitimate, but is silent on whether the government was complicit in the plot to program Americans through entertainment content.

  4. Chuck Said,

    May 21, 2006 @ 12:24 am

    Chris, I think the changes in exhibition are a major factor, making aboycott almost impossible to sustain. And it’s pretty clear–as Emily points out via the New Yorker article–that Sony has very carefully planned the marketing of the film.

    J. M., the 1950s had their share of moral panics (I’m thinking of the Kefauver hearings on juvenille delinquency). But here Doherty seems less interested in government regulations of cinema and more interested in the “Catholic” character of the Hays Code, something he discussed in Pre-Code Hollywood, which is a great book. I’m not sure what you mean by “progam[ming] Americans,” but I tend to shy away from manipulation models. There are certainly cases where the government and Hollywod have collaborated to represent the military or other institutions positively, but I see ideology as far more fluid than straight manipulation.

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