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Fact, Fantasy, and Films (with some reference to music).

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Recent news-reports have included ones about heat and fire. Climatic heat is regularly in the news because of the regular flow of information about ‘global warming’ (do you get ‘hot under the collar’ about that?). Increased atmospheric temperatures are said to cause, among other things, fires (although the fires may result also from accident or arson). So-called “wild-fires” have been presented as increasingly-frequent events, and predicted to continue as such. Fear of fire is justified (although seemingly-nobody shows fear or even awareness of the fire of Hell). Also justified is desire to take care of the Earth instead of plundering it. Action to avert fire is common sense, even though ultimately unsuccessful: St. Peter said, presumably under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, that all which now exists has “been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men,” when “the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the Earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.”[1]

Meanwhile, fire does have its uses, especially for usefully-destructive purposes. Except, perhaps, for small-scale ones such as those to burn garden-rubbish, probably destructive fires need legal permission. Perhaps the public would, in the unlikely event of their being asked about it, disagree in answering a question of what should be destroyed by fire. My answer would suggest things such as the world’s stock of pornography, and/or of contraceptive devices, and/or rainbow flags, although it would of course be a token gesture (even though an extremely large one), because eventually everything would be replaced, much of it by means of claims on insurance policies.

Such a ridiculously-fanciful idea has, however, been a reality recently in a small part of the world. News-reports[2] have said that at the end of July, the Taliban Government of Afghanistan made a bonfire of musical instruments and related sound-equipment. A photograph of the incident showed that the bonfire was not very large, but enough to make the point. Apparently the Taliban have a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (something which, if functioning according to the correct understanding of virtue and vice, would be highly desirable here). The chief of the Ministry’s department in the province where the confiscated items were burned was quoted as having explained that “Promoting music causes moral corruption and playing it will cause the youth to go astray.” Comment similar to that has been heard, very occasionally, in Western countries, although probably not widely-publicised.

The anti-music policy was implemented during the Taliban’s previous period of governing Afghanistan, and included cassette-tapes, but there is an exception for Islamic music.[3]

Any menace from music to morality is at least equalled, and probably exceeded, by that of the film-industry. That would provide plenty of work for correctly-based and organised “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.” It is now fantasy, but it did exist in the film-industry.

“Christianity once wielded such power as an arbiter of good taste that it effectively determined what could and couldn’t make it onto the big screen.”[4] The ‘power-house’ of the film-industry was America, but in the early part of the 1900s fewer people were going to cinemas, so film-studio bosses tried to entice them back by loosening restraints on depiction of sex and violence. Although mild by comparison with today’s ‘standards,’ at that time it was daring and – to many – shocking, particularly because of the danger to the morals of young people (some regard is paid to that even in today’s ‘easy-going’ atmosphere), so in response to complaints the studio-bosses agreed that a code of ethics should be produced. It was written by a Jesuit priest and a Catholic layman who was the publisher of a magazine about the films-world. The code of ethics was known as the Production Code, and it appeared in 1930.

A wish to calm public anxiety can be regarded as merely a means to revive cinema-attendances. That may not be the most meritorious motive, but it is at least legitimate; any business wants more customers – as true today as then. Also true is that generally people would prefer to control themselves rather than to be controlled by others, unreliable though self-control can be (which is why control by others is often essential). The studio-bosses wanted to avoid nation-wide regulation by law, and the ably-promoted and -defended Production Code proved successful in that avoidance.

It might not have succeeded for long, because its rules were not obeyed by the studios and there was no system for enforcement. At this juncture there is a development which should be noted and pondered by people today. Disgust and strong objection to what was available in cinemas led lay Catholics and their hierarchy to form a Legion of Decency, a nation-wide campaign encouraging people to promise (by formal pledge, and on ‘pain of sin’) not to attend immoral films. Promoted at Mass and through various associations, the pledge was made by millions of Catholics. Even more importantly, cinema-attendances went down, to the alarm (of course) of the studios.

Enforcement of the Production Code began. The studio-bosses formed a group called The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and appointed as its chief a gentleman named Will Hays. He was a Presbyterian ‘elder’ and well-connected in political and financial circles. His job was to promote and defend the film-industry, including compliance with the Code, which (he said) stated the considerations which good taste and community-value made necessary. His fiefdom was known as the Production Code Administration, and informally as ‘the Hays office’.

In 1934 the informal title changed to ‘the Breen office,’ because enforcement of the Code passed from Will Hays to Joseph Breen, an Irish-American who had been involved with the League of Decency, and from 1934 until 1954 he maintained a policy of strong enforcement. Financial help with the cost of making a film was refused unless the film conformed to the Code. Will Hays had said that the public wanted wholesome entertainment and that the film-industry undertook to provide that. Joseph Breen ensured that it did, and every film which passed the test was given a seal of approval confirming compliance; the approval was shown on the screen, among the title ‘credits’.

Examples of rules intended to maintain good standards included a requirement that murder had to be presented in a way that would not inspire imitation, and a warning that dances which emphasised indecent movements would be regarded as obscene. Inclusion of seduction or rape was allowed only when essential for the plot, and was never to be more than suggested (and therefore never shown explicitly).

Other complete prohibitions applied to:

           dancing costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance;

           bare midriffs;

           dances suggesting sexual actions or indecent passion;

           excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures;

           sex-perversion or any inference of it;

           complete nudity; and

           titles which are salacious, indecent, obscene, profane, or vulgar.

From when such rules became enforced 1934 the previously-falling attendances at film-shows began to rise. So the League of Decency campaign succeeded, the film-companies were making money again, and everyone was happy.

That lasted until the 1950s. In 1954, Joseph Breen’s time as head of the Production Code Administration ended. At around the same time, challenges to the Code were appearing. They included television and foreign-made films. So whereas in the 1920s and early ’30s it was an unfavourable economic situation which affected the American film-industry adversely, in the 1950s it was the arrival of wider opportunities. People accepted those opportunities, and once again the American film-producers responded by trying to make concessions in order to retain, or maintain, their share of ‘the market’. They believed that the only way to do that was to show people what they had not been showing them previously (and certainly not between 1934 and 1954), and what was more attractive than what was available from television or foreign films. It was rather similar to a recording by the Mamas and Papas entitled “Words of Love,” released in the 1960s, which advised that “worn-out” methods would not win a girl’s heart any more, and that it was necessary to “send her somewhere where she’s never been before.” That is what television and foreign films were doing for increasing numbers of Americans.

Changes to the Production Code were made. Some film-makers began to ignore the Code and released films without the official seal of approval. Scenes which would never have been allowed became more and more available, and whereas in the 1930s people had flocked to cinemas to watch something wholesome, in the 1960s and thereafter they were willing – or eager – to accept something very different. Technology had widened the availability of choice, many among the public had fallen into the trap, the opposition had been ‘out-manoeuvred’ and ‘out-argued,’ and the world had changed. It has not changed back again, as is very evident.

Measuring the extent of dissatisfaction with what has happened is not easy. Public expressions of it in traditionally-‘mainstream’ mass-media seem infrequent, perhaps because few of them are made, but perhaps no less because those who control the dissemination of comment judge the dissatisfaction as unworthy of ‘space’. It seems more common to hear condemnation of censorship than recommendation of it.

A distant cousin of mine was the State Film Censor in Ireland from 1956 until his sudden death in 1964 (Liam O’Hora; previously manager of the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin; barrister; Mayo-man). I hope that his policy was like that of the Production Code which was at that time regrettably disintegrating in America, and that had he lived for longer he would have disrupted any attempt to reproduce that process.

Bad weather as this is being written has been named, according to a forecaster, “Storm Anthony, because of the risk of disruption.” I cannot understand the alleged connection between my name and disruption. I wish, however, that the multi-form overthrow of Catholic-compliant policies had been not only disrupted but completely defeated. I wish that a Production Code type of attitude prevailed in all spheres, everywhere, today. For that to happen in my lifetime, a miracle would be needed; meanwhile, and as advised by another Mamas and Papas recording (from 1969), I make my own kind of ‘music,’ ‘sing’ my own special ‘song,’ even if nobody else ‘sings along’.

[1] 2 Pet. 3:7 & 10.

[2] E.g. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-07-31/taliban-burns-musical-instruments/102667550  

[3] https://operawire.com/taliban-bans-music-in-afghanistan/

[4] Tim Stanley, “The Catholic Herald,” 6th June 2014, p.9.

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