Tag: film

Legion of Decency

legion of decencyLegion of Decency” may conjure an image of a small band of pickle-faced people fussily objecting to the modern world, but that would be a mistake. As a subset of the Holy Name Society, the Legion was an army of Catholic men from parishes across the country, working earnestly to “promote, by word and deed, what is morally and artistically good in entertainment,” while protecting their families from harmful examples.

Concern about negative influence was justified, when the organization was founded in 1933. Government Prohibition of alcohol had paradoxically promoted and glamourized crime. With poverty in the Great Depression, came suspicion and persecution of immigrants, nonwhites, and non-protestants, particularly Catholics (who were largely immigrants). At the same time, the growing entertainment industry realized that “sex sells” and sold a lot of it. Issues of sex, violence, and intolerance in films became serious enough that Cardinal Dougherty forbade Philadelphia Catholics from attending any movies for several years starting in 1934 — a successful protest which drew attention to the surprising size of the Catholic population. Magazines and books had similar issues.

The Legion of Decency developed age-appropriateness ratings for movies, condemned movies that refused to meet standards, and pressured producers to clean up plot points in films that are now considered classics (Marilyn Monroe’s famous fly-up skirt was accepted in The Seven-Year Itch, which “deals humorously with a man’s temptations,” but an adulterous affair was removed)

Locally, the Legion picketed condemned movies and discouraged obscene literature. A 1942 SFDS Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that “…an intensive campaign has been carried on in this parish to remove from stores and newsstands, all magazines that are offensive to the Code of the National Organization for Decent Literature. Our Committee, composed of men from various sections of the Parish, have done splendid work and their efforts have met with great success…

Why was this a men’s project? Part of the pledge, published in the 1942 parish bulletin, was: “I promise to guide those under my care and influence them in their choice of pictures that are morally and culturally inspiring.” Consider that in those early days, men generally chose the movies for dates and family viewing. At the same time, objectionable magazines and books were largely targeted for a male audience – which often controlled the family finances.

The Legion of Decency merged into the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures in 1965, but may have paved the way for today’s many consumer-organized boycotts of goods and services based on political or philosophical ideas.



A Trip to the Movies

belmont theatre
Belmont Theatre, Philadelphia PA in 1920 (Creative Commons)

The 1928 Saint Francis de Sales Parish Monthly Bulletin offers a description of a long-ago outing, supposedly written by one “Bad Boy Brady… in the Third Grade at SFDS School:”

Our sister told us this morning in school to write…about something we did during the Easter holidays…I thought of the treat that… Joe Forte gave us on Easter Monday…Joe…lives in our parish (4839 Larchwood) and has charge of a lot of movies in West Philadelphia. He has a big green car and wears a soft hat….So one day (Father Canney) met Joe Forte in Mr. Rody’s barber shop (1213 S. 50th Street) where they get their haircut, and asked him to give the school a treat…”

We all met at the school…and marched over to the Belmont Theatre on Fifty-second and Market Street. There were over eight hundred of us…Me and Joe Rody and Cornelius McLaughlin walked over together, and talked about marbles and baseball players. Joe said he wants to be an outfielder like Al Simmons, but Cornelius said he wants to help his father on the Ice Cream truck. I thought I would like to be a cop… A couple of cops who knew Father Canney kept the green lights on so that we could all pass across Chestnut and Walnut Streets without any break in the line. A…man named Frank Yates was in charge of the Belmont Theatre and he certainly gave us a great treat…”

Imagine friendly local police, in dark uniforms with shiny buttons, officiously stopping horse carts, delivery trucks, and Model T Fords for the neighbourhood children. The long parade filed past James Beers’ Drugstore at 47th and Baltimore, and Nace Hopple’s Radio Repair shop at 47th and Cedar; then up Cedar and along Fiftieth Street, “the head of their line of march turning into Market Street as the end approached to Pine Street” (that’s ten blocks!). The Belmont Theatre, which opened in 1914, seated 1,000 people. A trendy Philadelphia-born fast-food eatery – the Horn & Hardart Automat — was next door, and doubtless, some little faces covetously eyed its interesting prepared foods behind little clear coin-operated windows.

Movie treats for parish children ended in 1934 when Cardinal Dougherty issued a pastoral letter, prohibiting Catholics from attending the movies due to cinematic violence and bad language. Boycotts worked: within a few years, the industry cleaned up its offerings and the Catholic audience trickled back – but by then, Father Canney was gone.

dougherty movie boycott
Philadelphia Inquirer June 9, 1934




What does our church have in common with silent films?

“High-Tech” is not an adjective that immediately comes to mind to describe our church, but it was when it was built in 1911.

Electricity was a hot topic at that time: a history of PECO notes that “Of Philadelphia’s 850 churches, five hundred were customers of Philadelphia Electric in 1912.” The new technology was promoted as an enhancement to sacred spaces: a typical article in a 1913 issue of The Lighting Journal observed that “it is the aim of the engineer to bring out the sublimity of the altar and cause the emotion of the worshipper to feel those lofty conceptions and reverence for this holy place...”

Our church was built for electricity. A 1922 interior photo shows rows of light bulbs lining the arches on the side walls, on the columns,  around windows, and above the doors and confessionals. The sockets are embedded in the terracotta tiles. Original lighting also included electric sconces below the round windows on the side walls, and two electroliers, or round metal stands of electric candles, in the sanctuary.

So who designed the original lighting system?

A recently-discovered ad for Edward L. Simons, Mechanical and Electrical Engineer and Contractor, operating out of Lansdowne, PA, references his work for our parish — along with St. Philomena of Lansdowne, Immaculate Conception and Visitation in Philadelphia, and others — but we don’t know if he worked on our original chapel/school (today’s auditorium) or the church.

We do know that church work provided a natural career progression for Simons, who is better-remembered today as a pioneer in dramatic set lighting for movies at Sigmund Lubin’s Lubinville (20th and Indiana)  and Betzwood (near Valley Forge) silent film studios around 1911. Initially, films were made outdoors using hand-cranked cameras on location around Philadelphia and on the studio rooftop downtown. When Lubin wanted to continue filming in bad weather, Simons re-created the sun indoors for him at Betzwood with a massive  rig of “112  four-foot mercury vapor tubes and 20 aristo arc lights.”  It was noted that  “the heat produced by the 144,000 candle-power lights bordered on the lethal,” and “on occasion those who remained close to the lights for too long suffered blisters on their eyeballs.”

The lights in our church, calibrated for quiet meditation, have never been quite so bright – even in the brief neon period in 1969 — something for which we didn’t know we needed  to be thankful!


Parish Night at the Byrd

C007 sfds 1933a



In 1933, for just one year in the middle of the Great Depression, De Sales Night at the Bellevue-Stratford was cancelled, and  Parish Night at the Byrd Theatre, at 47th and Baltimore, was substituted.

The “Somewhat different social evening than hithero enjoyed…in our parish events” included an organ recital on the theatre’s Gottfriedson organ, followed by Screen Entertainment: a short travel picture, followed by a humorous picture, and then, mysteriously,  “A somewhat different type of moving picture entertainment from that usually enjoyed in the average photo-playhouse.” A full-length feature film of truly amazing character. After Intermission, came a special greeting song, written by Father Canney and arranged by organist and choir master Albert Dooner; followed by other more traditional and religious organ, instrumental, and choral pieces; a solo dance; and  a short topical play called “The Photograph.”

          The event was wildly successful. The Parish Monthly Bulletin reported that: “The features of unusual entertainment…entirely captivated the interest and cooperation of our people. Although the evening was a blustery, teemingly rainful one, providing conditions such as old mariners would characterize as “dirty weather,” yet we taxed the capacity of a theatre which had never previously been filled. When the “De Sales Parish Night” began, we had hundreds standing and the S.R.O. (Standing Room Only) sign displayed at the box office. The Parish Bulletin also reported that The Parish Auditorium, where a promenade was held was filled to capacity.” In all, the event raised $3,112, which was almost $200 more than De Sales Night the previous year.

          De Sales Night returned to the Bellevue the following year.

          Things were never quite so bright again for the Byrd. The Byrd Theatre opened in 1928 with a capacity of 1,800 seats, but, according to the Glazer directory, had “trouble getting product” from the beginning, and, despite an acknowledgement from Admiral Byrd (the famous polar explorer), displayed in the lobby, it never was successful. In 1970, the property was sold to the Philadelphia department of Public Property, to be used as a parking lot (as it is still today); by that time, the theatre had already been closed for twelve years.