Posts with the tag: USCCB Office of Film and Broadcasting

The Archivist’s Nook: On Movies and all that Jazz – The Talkies and their Catholic Critics

An early Technicolor film, The King of Jazz (1930) is a film that the IFCA film reviewers were fascinated with due to its production elements around sound and color, as well as its direction. Courtesty: Wikimedia Commons.

The magic of the motion picture leaves one a little breathless sometimes. And to those of us who see feature, short, travelogue, newsreel in the studio there is a tremendous sense of awe at that which motion picture accomplished for our entertainment. Of course, there are pictures we do not like…

Rita McGoldrick, Feb. 2, 1933

Fans of our blog are probably familiar with the story of Catholic film critics through the work of the Legion of Decency/Office of Film and Broadcasting records. But that organization was not the only Catholic critic show in town in the 1930s. Alongside the Legion, there operated the Motion Picture and Broadcasting Committee of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae (IFCA). Operating from the end of the Silent Film era through the early Talkies period, IFCA produced monthly radio and printed reports that filmgoers around the nation could tune in and subscribe to. The majority of these reports were written and performed by the Committee’s chair, Rite McGoldrick. These reports reveal the underlying moral and educational mission of IFCA, as well as the presence of cinephiles among its leadership.

Founded in November 1914, IFCA promoted the activities of Catholic teachers, religious sisters, and the alumnae networks of American Catholic colleges and universities. As part of its educational mission, IFCA focused on promoting charitable examples and combating examples of bigotry in media and in the classroom. They established eight departments, including education, literature, social service, motion pictures, bureau of sisters scholarships, religious activities committee, and the De Paul Missions Committee. 

IFCA Seal, ca. 1930s.

Formed in 1927, the Motion Picture Bureau (later Committee) rated films, denoting which were suitable for schools and general audiences with ratings as either ‘good,’ ‘very good,’ or ‘excellent.’ As stated in the March 1928 Quarterly Bulletin of IFCA, the guiding questions it asked of each film were: “What are suitable motion pictures for children?” and “How are we going to get the proper motion pictures to them?”

But their work goes beyond simply rating films. The Legion of Decency, another Catholic film review organization, would form later in the 1930s with the intent of reviewing and influencing the work of the film industry. In the process, the Legion would review almost any film and intervene in film production to modify films it deemed improper. The IFCA Committee, on the other hand, took a different approach. As stated in their November 29, 1929 broadcast:

To forbid people to attend the movies would be to shut out of their lives a very interesting form of entertainment which they might receive from legitimate movies. The happy plan of reviewing and classifying the movies and the talkies has been evolved by the Motion Picture Bureau of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae. Each month this body publishes a list of plays to which Catholics may go without offending God….

First page of the August 1930 Endorsed Motion Pictures newsletter from the Committee.

Their monthly newsletter of recommended films, supplemented by a monthly radio address given during the early 1930s by Committee chair Rita McGoldrick, only discussed films that the Committee deemed appropriately moral and educational. (Unlike the Legion, they would not even think of discussing horror films!) And while their focus was on education, this did not mean that the reviewers limited their enthusiasm for newsreels or documentaries. They would express excitement over murder mysteries – The detective story lovers – and there are millions of us! – are going to have a fine time (McGoldrick, May 22, 1931). McGoldrick also would comment positively on genres ranging from jazz musicals and Rin Tin Tin movies to “Dogville Comedies” (or barkies). Educational and moral value could be seen by the reviewers to be contained in virtually any film type… so long as it wasn’t gangster movies!

But the Committee’s records do go beyond simple film reviews. Reading through them may remind a modern reader of their favorite film podcast or social media personality. In addition to discussing their recommended films, IFCA Committee members would excitedly report—in an almost casual, conversational tone—on the trends in the film industry, make predictions about how the industry may develop, share news of their favorite stars signing up for projects, and generally nerd out over the latest technological and production achievements seen on the silver screen.

Legendary director, Cecil B. DeMille, in a letter exclaiming the educational and family-friendly value of a particular film. The studio, UFA-Films, forwarded this letter to the IFCA Committee, with a note detailing the educational value of their productions. Quite a letter of recommendation!

Some times [sic] we wonder if you, our Radio audience, are interested in some of these technical details that go into the production of the finished picture that we accept so casually as an evening’s entertainment? To those of us who are reviewing all of the pictures and who are in intimate contact with the producing agencies, the science, vision, genius that go into productions of these greater pictures is a never-ending wonder. Rita McGoldrick, Feb. 28, 1930

They commented on advances in sound technology and the experimentation of studios in bringing it to theaters. They also reported in 1930 on the promise of full-color features, as they broke down the technical processes behind Technicolor. And they made predictions about how sound and color—as well distribution—may impact the industry over the 1930s.

The radio broadcasts, which began in 1928 continued until at least 1933. However, the monthly newsletters denoting “endorsed motion pictures” continued until 1940. At that stage, much of the work that the Motion Picture Commission had been performing became increasingly covered by the film reviewers and censors with the Legion of Decency. 

The records of the Motion Picture Committee are available in the IFCA records onsite, but have also been digitized. The files include correspondence and monthly reports from the Committee.  You may see the digital collection here.

The Archivist’s Nook: The Great Depression Revisited

The novel coronavirus pandemic has left record numbers of Americans jobless—inviting comparisons between now and the Great Depression almost one hundred years ago. The Archives at the Catholic University of America (CatholicU) is well positioned to offer a historical perspective on current events. Two particular collecting strengths from the Depression era, relating to Catholic views on government and entertainment, crisscross the economics and culture of the period—and resonate in our own day.

Monsignor John A. Ryan earned the nickname “Right Reverend New Dealer” for his support of FDR, but not in the way you might expect. In fact, it was New Deal detractor Charles Coughlin who first coined the epithet—intending it to be an insult.

Following the stock market crash of October 1929, the United States plummeted into an economic depression from which it would not fully recover until the onset of World War II. In 1933, unemployment peaked at 24.9% and Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the office of the president. In 1935, he signed the Social Security Act—introducing among other things the unemployment insurance program from which some 40 million Americans are currently seeking relief in the wake of “the unprecedented wave of layoffs” triggered by the pandemic. On the morning of Friday, June 19, 2020, The New York Times reported that, for the thirteenth week in a row, more than one million unemployment claims were filed.

Striking his best American Gothic pose, Monsignor John O’Grady (right) was raised by farmers in Ireland and served farmers and others as a priest in the Diocese of Omaha, Nebraska. Read more about his role in the Making of Modern Catholic Charity.

The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives holds the papers of several Catholic supporters of FDR’s New Deal programs, including Patrick Henry Callahan, Francis Joseph Haas, John O’Grady, and John A. Ryan—who was nicknamed “Right Reverend New Dealer.” The digital exhibit Catholics and Social Security recounts the active role that Catholic Charities played in shaping New Deal legislation and the Social Security Act in particular. Importantly, though, the CatholicU Archives also document the activities of Catholic detractors of the New Deal—most notably Charles Coughlin. The Social Justice Collection consists of the weekly publication of the National Union for Social Justice (N.U.S.J.), which served as Coughlin’s political vehicle. Another digital exhibit, Catholics and Politics: Charles Coughlin, John Ryan, and the 1936 Presidential Campaign, details the conflicting views of the two Catholic priests on FDR’s (first) reelection campaign.

Meanwhile, against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in U. S. history dawned the Golden Age of Hollywood. The fact that moviegoing actually spiked during the Depression has been cited amidst other financial meltdowns: during the Great Recession of 2008, for instance. The phenomenon is commonly rationalized in one of two ways: escapism or catharsis. No doubt entertainment has served similar ends during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has found a new mode of delivery—skipping theaters altogether. After a long spring of streaming from the safety of the sofa, will the appetite for the big screen return?

Back in 1933, as the popularity of moviegoing grew, the church hierarchy’s concerns—mostly about the portrayal of sexuality and crime (especially the glorification of gangsters)—also grew. In response, the church founded the Legion of Decency. The Legion was ultimately subsumed into the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Communications Department/Office of Film and Broadcasting (OFB), for which the CatholicU Archives serves as the official repository. The OFB records include about 150 boxes of film reviews and ratings for movies released from the 1930s onward.

One such movie has recently come back under scrutiny: Gone with the Wind (1939). The highest-grossing movie of all time, the star-studded epic set in the American South has routinely been criticized for perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Blacks. Heeding calls for racial justice incited by the murder of George Floyd, the subscription streaming service HBO Max temporarily took down the controversial classic in June 2020.

Production still from Gone with the Wind (1939). In 1940, Hattie McDaniel (right) became the first African American to win an Oscar for her performance as “Mammy”—a common stereotype of enslaved Black women responsible for rearing their enslaver’s white children. From the Press Information folder created by the Publicity Department of New Line Cinema Corporation (Collection 10, Box 51, Folder 56).

Gone with the Wind happens to be historically important to the Legion of Decency. When it was re-released in 1967 (having been reformatted from the standard 35mm into the wider 70mm film stock), it became the first movie for which the Legion (then known as the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, or NCOMP) changed its rating “without any alterations in the motion picture” [1]. For this, the President and CEO of MGM was “particularly grateful”; he welcomed the new A-II rating (morally unobjectionable for adults and adolescents) and jumped to the conclusion that “the cloud around this classic has been removed” [2].

Upon its release in 1939, Gone with the Wind had been rated B (morally objectionable in part, for all). The Legion’s objections: “The low moral character, principles[,] and behavior of the main figures as depicted in the film; suggestive implications; [and] the attractive portrayal of the immoral character of a supporting role in the story [which is to say, the prostitute]” [3]. Referring to the original objections—including “the famous use of the word “Damn” by Mr. Gable”—one Catholic reviewer wrote, “By the standards of 1967, these elements are rather harmless” [4].  But other elements not originally objected to had since (at the height of the Civil Rights Movement) become top-of-mind, as they have again today [5]:

One moral factor however which must be considered which did not seem quite so obvious years ago is the attitude of the film toward the South, slavery, and the negro. […] The slaves are presented as being content with their lot. […]

This is a ridiculous and immoral attitude, and not fair—we are shown the plantations but not the slave quarters. […] In view of this I recommend the Office reclassify the film AIII, for Adults, and that some observation be made on our attitude toward the treatment of the Negro in the film.

For more about Catholics and the Great Depression, please see the newly-launched research guide: Special Collections — Great Depression Resources.

 

Notes

[1] “NCOMP Upgrades Rating of ‘Gone With The Wind’,” Times Review, LaCrosse, Wis., September 15, 1967. OFB Reviews, Collection 10, Box 51, Folder 55.

[2] Letter from Robert H. O’Brien to Father Patrick J. Sullivan, September 1, 1967. OFB Reviews, Collection 10, Box 51, Folder 55.

[3] Letter from Mrs. Eva Houlihan, Secretary to Right Reverend Monsignor Thomas Little of the Legion of Decency, to Reverend Hilary Ottensmeyer, O.S.B., November 13, 1964. OFB Reviews, Collection 10, Box 51, Folder 55.

[4] and [5] “Gone with the Wind: Screened-Friday, May 5, 1967,” Rev. Louis I. Newman. OFB Reviews, Collection 10, Box 51, Folder 55.

The Archivist’s Nook: A Priest, a Werewolf, and a Bunny Walk into a Theater…

Yes, someone gave this movie the green light. And the world is a better place for it.
Yes, someone gave this movie the green light. And the world is a better place for it.

“A certain leeway with probability has to be allowed to science fiction but making monsters out of rabbits is a little too much,” wrote one reviewer to his colleagues in the USCCB Office of Film and Broadcasting (OFB) regarding the 1972 giant-bunnies-run-amok film, Night of the Lepus.

The OFB – known until 1966 as the Legion of Decency – has all the makings of a Hollywood story. Big names, tales of morality, and the rise and fall of an organization. (Feel free to credit me in your script treatment.) As demonstrated in an earlier post, the OFB records contain correspondence between the organization and studios, directors, and Church hierarchy. However, if we are to fully envision the drama that is the OFB story, we need to further round out its primary characters, the reviewers themselves. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: A Priest, a Werewolf, and a Bunny Walk into a Theater…”